You know your Akha hill tribe trek is authentic when your guide is struck down by black magic! Welcome to Phongsali in far northern Laos, where even experienced guides are terrified by ghosts and spirits.
Getting off the beaten track in Laos is much tougher than on my last visit in 2000. Back then, the whole country was off the banana pancake trail! Undeterred, Laura looked for the phrases ‘terrible road’ and ‘difficult to get to’ in the Laos Travelfish guide and all signs pointed to Phongsali (Phongsaly) in the north. The area is linked to the rest of Laos via a rickety local bus on a winding mountain road. There are no backpacker hotels or restaurants. But there are two organizations, the local tourist office and Amazing Laos, that offer moderately adventurous hikes to some of the most authentic hill tribe villages in Southeast Asia. Seemed like a place for us.
Things to do in Phongsali Town
Book a trek and get the hell out! Phongsali has the reputation of having the worst climate in Laos. It is cold and misty most days. This combined with the recent polar vortex induced cold snap made for a chilly, miserable stay. We hiked up the small hill to a stupa behind the town for pleasant sunset views. We also wandered around the old town, which has some delightful Yunnanese style houses and shops.
The day before the trek, we joined practically every other tourist in town (6 of us!) in a quick trip to Ban Komaen, a famous tea growing village. The plantations are thought to be the oldest tea trees in the world. The instigator of the trip was a Japanese tea enthusiast, who centers his travels on visiting tea plantations. Thanks to him, the trip was absolutely fascinating. He was a fount of tea-based information and wisdom. The tea is internationally prized and most of the good stuff is bought up by large tea companies. However, the locals save up a few leaves to sell locally. We were invited into a local home and the woman of the house brewed us up a pot of the local leaf. It was very tasty indeed, and unusually for tea, it had quite a kick.
Akha women, young and old.
The Akha are a hill tribe that are distributed across mountainous regions of Northern Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, and Yunnan in Southwest China. They originated in China, where their homeland was either Yunnan or Tibet, and moved south over the last 150 years. There are many Akha villages in the hills around Phongsali. The Akha have a complex culture but in its simplest terms, they practice ancestor worship and animism. In Laos, we visited villages that were exclusively animist, but in Kyaing Tong in Myanmar, we visited a number of Akha villages that had partially adopted Buddhism and/or Christianity.
The Akha are best known in tourist circles for their beautiful and elaborate dress. The women grow and weave cotton, dye it with indigo, and embroider the fabric with colorful designs. The most distinctive item of clothing is the elaborate headdress. Typically, married women wear the traditional garments and head dress. The headdresses are all unique and are typically adorned with silver and coins. The more grandiose the headwear, the wealthier the family.
Left: A baby’s hat has charms to protect the child from spirits. Right: a married woman works on embroidery.
Booking your trek
Like many areas of Laos, the Phongsali tour operators have exclusive rights to certain treks and hill tribe villages. This helps reduce the impact on the villages and ensures each company has a viable business. The local tour office specializes in treks south of the town and Amazing Laos has a range of treks north of the town. We opted for a three day trek with Amazing Laos followed by a one day trip with the tourist office. The treks with Amazing Laos are marginally more expensive but their office is more reliably open and responsive. The tourist office is only open a few hours per day and inexplicably closes on weekends. Both agencies can arrange trips from one day up to several days in the hills.
Trek #1 Three days in Akha Noukouy territory
Women in the Akha villages.
We were joined on this trip by Richard, an affable Aussie guy from Melbourne, and Tiziana and Vera, a couple of young Swiss women on their first trip to Asia. We had good luck of the draw this time and really hit it off with our fellow trekkers. Our guide was a ‘cool’ guy from Vientiane called Pet, and he was accompanied by a trainee guide from Phongsali, Nome, who was learning the route. The guides speak decent English, know the trails, the villagers, and some of the local customs but they are definitely not cultural anthropologists. They also act as translators in the village so that you can have some verbal interaction.
What to bring
The guide advised us to bring some notebooks and pens for the kids in the villages. Most of the villages have basic schools and teachers, but there are no shops that sell school supplies. A kid without a book and a pen cannot attend school. Supplies were available in Phongsali market and Hatsa. We loaded up on supplies, but you have to be strategic about handing them out since there are lots of kids out there. In one village, the school had 70 students. We grabbed a few packets of cookies and some oranges to snack on. Sturdy footwear, flashlight, usual hiking clothes, toilet paper, sleeping bag liner, and flip flops (for river crossings) are the main essentials.
On the trail
It took a few hours for us to get to the trailhead, since we had to take a bus from Phongsali to Hatsa, then a bus around the dam, and finally, a small boat up the Nam Ou River. We set out around 7am and arrived at the trailhead after 11am. The dam is damn ugly and one of a series of seven built by the Chinese government on the Nam Ou. The electricity apparently goes to China and no Lao people work on the construction sites. The dams are recent constructions and are having an effect on villages upstream. As the water rises behind the dams, villages have to move up the hill to avoid being flooded. One of the villages on the trek, Ban Watai, had already moved so we scrapped that from the schedule. The village was a Lao Seng village, which meant that we would only visit Akha Noukouy villages on the whole trip.
I was a little concerned that the ugly ass dam would be a blight on our trip. However, thirty minutes upstream, the dam faded into the distance, and suddenly it felt like we were somewhere truly remote. The river cut through a gnarly swath of steep hills and thick jungle. The boat dropped us off on a small landing cut into the riverbank. For the next hour or two, we headed up the steep slope. We were met part way up by a couple of Akha women, heading down the hill to gather firewood. They were an astonishingly colorful pair, dressed in traditional clothing, head dresses, and jewelry. It was like stepping into the pages of a 1930’s National Geographic magazine. The guide taught us a few pleasantries in Akha, and having amused the locals with the mangling of their language, we moved on to the village. Our first stop was Ban Paicho.
Do’s and Dont’s in Akha Villages
Pet taught us the basic do’s and don’ts of visiting an Akha house, and posters around Phongsali illustrated them. All the Akha villagers in the region are animists, so there is a strong belief in the spirit world. Most of the do’s and don’ts are centered on not rousing troublesome spirits.
- Don’t whistle in the house, since this calls troublesome spirits to the house.
- Don’t put water from outside the house, or place Lao Lao whisky, on the dining table. These acts invite spirits of deceased relatives into the house, who are likely then to cause mayhem.
- Don’t touch the gates to the village, since they are festooned with charms that, you’ve guessed it, stop spirits entering the village.
- Do drink at least two glasses of the local firewater when it is offered by the headman of the village.
- Don’t put sticky rice on the table. Instead, this is kept in rattan baskets on the floor, which, annoyingly, attracts the attention of the household dogs. Better than attracting meddlesome ghosts I suppose!
- Don’t photograph Akha women without first asking permission. Many of the women love posing for photos, but some definitely do not.
If you break one of the rules, you may have to pay for a shaman to put things right, and for a pig sacrifice. Probably best to err on the side of caution.
Trekking supports the villages
The host villages usually provide food for their guests, but the guide also carried some food since occasionally a village runs short of supplies. The 36 eggs in Pet’s backpack were tasty when he scrambled a few with lunch on the first day, but seemed like less of a good idea when the rest broke in his backpack later that day! Host villages are paid for all the services they supply: food, beds, and booze. Each headman keeps a record of services rendered, and once a quarter the trek company pays them. A fantastic system, and one that brings much needed extra income to the villages. Pet told us that the funds are often used to send villagers to doctors in town when the village shaman has exhausted traditional ways and means.
Akha villages, houses and sleeping arrangements
We visited the villages of Ban Paicho and Ban Naporxang on day one. We lunched at the former and stayed over at the latter. On day two, we took lunch at Ban Peryenxang and stayed at Ban Chakhampa. A winding series of trails connects the villages. Some of the trails are for for motorbikes and trucks. Some are narrow slippery trails through the jungle that surrounds the villages.
The villages are extremely photogenic. The villages have a couple of notable structures. The small huts on stilts aren’t houses but rice barns, where harvested rice is stored. The spirit gate and the spirit swing have religious significance. Do not pass through a spirit gate if it is across the path on the way in. It is likely that an Akha festival or ceremony is taking place and you need to be invited in. The spirit swings are used once a year in a special ceremony to bless the rice fields. Do not swing on them… unless you know how to fight off the spirits.
The houses are made of wood and have thatched or metal roofs and dirt floors. Several families typically live under one roof. Trekkers always stay in the village chief’s house. Akha houses are typically lacking in mod cons but they all have a booming sound system. If you like woozy psychedelic Laos pop music played at ear splitting volume through distorting speakers then you will be in heaven. Laura was definitely in hell. The interior is very dark. Some houses have solar panels so there is a little electricity in the evening. There are no windows and no chimneys so the houses get very smoky. The kitchen is usually at one end of the house. The stove burns all day, and basic supplies such as dried pork, corn, and root villages are stored above the kitchen. The houses are atmospheric rather than beautiful. There are no flourishes that might be considered decorative or beautifying. The presence of cats ensures that rats and mice are not a problem. Empty Beer Lao bottles are used to create a solid base around the house.
Akha men and women sleep separately. Bedrooms are on raised platforms and are separated from the common areas by curtains. Don’t expect much privacy. The dogs and cats sleep under the beds. Guests (men and women) are treated as honorary men so they all sleep together in the men’s room. The men of the house vacate their beds for the night to accommodate trekkers. The beds are not separate and it can be a tight squeeze to fit everybody in. On the first night we were packed in like sardines. The beds consist of a thin mattress and a blanket or two. It is very uncomfortable and not particularly clean or hygienic. Despite the cold temperatures outside, the houses are very warm since the stove blazes all day. When a chill blows in, Akha drop a few logs on the dirt floor anywhere in the house and build a fire.
You shit and piss in the woods away from houses, streams, and spirit gates and swings. Don’t be surprised if a pig starts nuzzling your ass. They are partial to the odd human poop or two! There are no showers.
Food and drink
The food supplied by the villagers is tasty, nutritious, and filling, if not too varied. Typically, you get fed pumpkin, cassava, sticky rice, chicken, pork, and plenty of local greens. A highlight was the fresh chili sauce that accompanied every meal. Each house made it a little differently, but it usually consisted of pounded chilies mixed with some combination of garlic, herbs, and soy sauce. Boiled water and strong green tea are readily available so you won’t go thirsty. Food is eaten communally, and typically, the guests sit with the men of the house. Akha women and children usually eat together in the kitchen. There are regular toasts and throwing down of shots of lao-lao, the rice or corn whisky that’s locally distilled everywhere in Laos.
“Opium poppies, the Akha future”
“This is a wealthy village,” our guide said. The proximity to huge fields of purple opium poppies may or may not have something to do with that. To my mind, there is an obvious correlation! Stay the night at villages near poppy fields. The accommodation and food will be better.
Akha have often grown opium as a cash crop. Despite government efforts to eradicate the crops, this practice still exists. There is a move to encourage villagers to grow coffee. The return on the crop is very good and the villagers get less hassle from the man. We found one cafe and coffee roaster in Luang Prabang that has built a very successful business, and enriched a number of hill communities, by creating an opium to coffee program. The coffee is damn fine and is available in the States. Check out Saffron Coffee online.
Dogs, pigs, cats, chickens, buffalo and leeches
Pigs, dogs, and chickens run amok in and around the house. The dogs are always a pain in the ass. They aggressively bark and snarl at you when you first approach a village and/or house. After a sniff or two, they calm down a bit and go about the business of sniffing and cocking a leg at everything. The dogs always pester at meal times, which is a pain since the tables are typically low level and the rice is placed on the floor. You will be woken up by cockerels. And, contrary to belief they do not start cock a doodle doing at dawn. Oh, no… they kick off around 3.30am and keep going all day.
Pigs eat poop… and everything else. They are gross but keep the villages fairly clean.
Cats miaow! And, humans like to mimick them, even the Akha as we found out one night when we had turned into bed. A cat miaowed. I miaowed back. Then, Laura miaowed. And, a chorus of kids and grandmas miaowed back from the other side of the curtain. Then, Richard miaowed and an Akha kid miaowed back. This continued for twenty minutes or so. The miaows reached fever pitch level until everyone, Akha, trekkers, guides, and cats were in absolute hysterics. Very silly… but, so much fun!
Buffalos look cool! Akha people use them for ploughing and kids like to ride on them. They are huge and have right of way on trails!
It is safe to say that villagers, particularly the kids, are fairly mean towards the animals. Dogs, pigs, and cats are routinely whacked hard with bamboo canes when they get in the way. The kids often pick up chickens by the legs and toss them in the air.
Leeches are not cool. They are found on all the trails especially near the rivers. They do not cause any long lasting harm but they look gross. They inject an anticoagulant into your blood so when you remove them it can get messy! They love wriggling around the groin. You have been warned!
Come armed with exercise books and pens. Kids will love you… except those on the back row who will hate you. If you have a book and a pen you go to school. If you don’t, you stay away. We visited a number of schools in the villages, and gave them books and pens. They say ‘thank you’, but don’t expect a smile. Akha kids don’t do smiles…unless you…
Give them balloons
Yes, balloons. Those rubbery things kids have abandoned at home. But, as an Akha kid will demonstrate, balloons are way more fun and far more entertaining than a bucketful of iPhone apps. Colorful air filled rubbery things kept them well entertained for hours, days even. Even better if you have a goofy Englishman who points at balloons and yells ‘baaalllllooooooooon’ at you. After ten minutes of being at our rest stop on the first night I had 30 kids running around dementedly batting balloons yelling ‘baaaaaallllooooooon’. Hilarious and curiously invigorating.
You will never be cooler than an Akha woman… especially a really old woman that smokes a pipe…
The above photo speaks for itself, but here’s the back story. This charismatic lady came up to us, picked up our cameras and peered into the viewfinders, and worked it for the camera while puffing on a pipe. Not even Kate Moss could exude this much cool. As you can see from the photo below. I somewhat disrespectfully dubbed her ‘Gandalf’s grandmother’ but you have to admit I had a point. When she had enough, she toddled off through the ever present crowd of kids.
Back to the schools
It is a hard life being a teacher here. So, give them some love. They are most likely to be city kids serving their unpaid training years. And, they are typically not paid. The only advantage to being in the village is that your training years are two instead of three. We invited our teachers to join us for dinner and paid the headman for their food. We also gave them some books and pens since they are unlikely to be supplied with any by the Lao government or the village.
You will be asked for it in every village. Unless you are a trained medic, resist handing over pills since you have no idea who will be using them or in what doses. Your trek fees help pay for villager trips to the doctor in Phongsali, so you can relax in that thought.
Ignore the do’s and don’ts at your peril.
As the trek progressed, our guide, Pet, developed increasing levels of stomach cramps and diarrhea. As this evolved, he got ever more superstitious. On the last night of the trek, he tried two forms of medicine: Imodium and Lao Lao. He also consulted the local shaman, who was sadly out of the local remedy. On our last morning, he was agitated and on occasion he doubled over in pain. He wanted to get going fast but we insisted we eat breakfast first. Pet mentioned that in the night he had to run outside on several occasions to shit and that he took the chief with him since he was ‘afraid of ghosts’. ‘Whatever’, thought the foreigners! Obviously, he didn’t have our sympathies since we knew he had been up all night drinking.
We set out after breakfast. Pet took the lead and headed out at speed. Every ten minutes or so, Pet doubled over in pain and as the morning progressed collapsed to the ground. He kept holding his side and complaining of excessive pain. We were obviously worried for our man for his health and our safety since he was the only one who knew the trail. His eyes began to roll and as we hit forks in the road it became increasingly more difficult for us to trust his judgement. He was becoming delirious. We decided that the best course of action was to continue towards the boat that was to pick us up and take us back to Phongsaly, where Pet could go to hospital. But we were becoming increasingly worried since at some point we had to cross a meandering small river at several different spots. In a space of thirty minutes or so, we decided he had ‘the shits’, appendicitis, peritonitis, kidney stones, amoebic dysentery, bacillary dysentery, or severe dehydration. At one point he declared that he had passed blood from his ass. Oh, jeez! Not good!
We let him flounder around around on the ground every ten minutes or so. We carried his bag and then eventually him. At one point, we decided we had no choice but to carry him on a bamboo stretcher. He was utterly limp. He also started mumbling about having had a curse put on him in the last village, since he had chatted to a girl disrespectfully. Or, maybe he put a bottle of whiskey on the dining table. He became ever more animated about being attacked by a spirit. Now, our eyes started rolling. In sheer disbelief!
He collapsed once more to the floor and insisted we cool him down with water. He asked his friend to go off into the woods and perform a ceremony. Richard was becoming fairly annoyed at this but I suggested we give them a few minutes to figure out a local solution to a local problem. Nome poured water all over his friend and massaged his back, stomach, and arms. Pet was writhing as if possessed. Nome then collected a few stones from the ground, muttered something, put the stones in Pet’s pocket, placed a Buddha amulet round his neck, heated up a blade with a lighter, and pressed the hot knife on Pet’s belly. There was a collective wince… none of us were expecting this. Pet cried out, then went silent. Nome then asked us if we had any tea from the last village. We all handed over our water bottles since we had taken tea for hydration on the trail. Nome poured the tea on the ground. WTF! Now we had no goddamn drinking water. Apparently, someone in the village had put black magic in the tea and Pet was insistent we get rid of it to protect us from harm.
A few minutes later, our man popped up like a jack in the box and marched off as if nothing had happened. He barely spoke a word to us again. Odd boy!
When you travel you definitely come across plenty of examples of what we would call ‘superstition’ at home. This is not the first time I have encountered phenomenon where the local explanation counters my usual rational beliefs but it is certainly the first time I have seen someone completely struck down by evil spirits. Despite the overwhelming desire to do so, it is often counter-productive to get on your rationalist high horse and I am glad we all took this in our stride without displaying too many signs of extreme skepticism. We didn’t comment further on the boat and bus ride back to Phongsali, but obviously hoped he recovered soon. The five of us met up for an end of trek celebration at the Yeehua cafe and tried to make sense of what we had witnessed over a few beers. Each and everyone of us pitched in with the usual rationalist explanations. I decided not to mention that on the first night in the villages, I accidentally whistled in the house and absentmindedly placed a bottle of water on the host’s table.
Trek #2 A day with Phixoy Akha women south of Phongsali
The Phixoy Akha villages are less remote than the Noukouy villages and as such they exhibit more progressive tendencies such as husbands and wives sleeping together. There were more vehicles and TVs around, and the men often went to work in Phongsali. The women still wore their traditional gear, but there was a slow drift towards adopting non-traditional clothes. The villagers still practiced agriculture and animal husbandry, and dogs still run riot around the houses. We joined this trek since it promised a morning of picking herbs and root vegetables with local women, before heading back to the village to cook it up. We were joined by one of the elder women in the village and her delightful youngest daughter. They pick the food fresh every day and this involved an hour round trip to the family lot. The local women picked herbs and veg at lightning speed, but we were painfully slow since we were never really sure if we were picking the right stuff. After an hour or so, we had two huge bag filled full of unknown greenery and gnarly roots.
To be honest, we didn’t do too much around the kitchen, since we have no experience cooking over a wood fire. The villagers were fairly non-plussed though and were happy to cook and chat away while posing for the occasional photo. The women added some pickles to the three or four veg dishes, tossed in a basket of sticky rice and some fiery chili sauce, and opened up a bottle of very smooth homemade rice wine. It was heavenly… and very earthy!
Left: Sorting greens for lunch. Right: our hostess admires Paul’s height.
After lunch, an woman came bursting through the kitchen doors, threw herself down by the stove, and started crying and wailing. Obviously, we thought the worst… a death in the family or the like. But no! Apparently, this is the traditional entrance for women who have not seen their relatives in a long time. Our guide paid up and we quietly snuck off to allow the members of the family to reacquaint with each other.
We hiked an hour or so back to the car, stopping off only to visit a lao-lao producer in one of the villages. It was a proper moonshine operation. They made the hooch out of corn and we drank it warm straight from the still. It was delicious and pepped us up for the last mile or so of the hike.
Getting to and from Phongsali
Udomxai, or Oudomsay, is the main transit town for Phongsali and Northern Laos. We stayed at the pleasant Lithavixay Hotel for less than ten bucks a night. Our favorite place to eat was the family run Kanya Restaurant. The fried tofu and chili, fried greens, and sticky rice were delicious and filling.
The bus station for all routes north is right in the center of town. They don’t sell advance tickets so turn up an hour early to secure your seat. The bus ticket costs 75000 kip ($9.50). The bus to Phongsali leaves at 8am and the journey took around 9 hours. The bus was absolutely packed with locals, rice bags, and cement. Thankfully, the locals barfed and spat less than their Myanmar cousins! The bus stops every couple of hours or so at villages on the way so there is plenty of opportunity to relieve the bladder and grab some snacks. We could tell that we weren’t in Kansas anymore when we got to a roadside restaurant a few hours in and saw Akha women wearing gaudy outfits.
The return bus leaves Phongsali every day at 8am from the station a couple of kilometers south of the town center. The cost is the same and there are a couple of tuk tuks on hand to run you to the station. The trip south is a couple of hours shorter than the trip uphill.
The road has been recently upgraded so it is no longer the horror story depicted in online reports.
There used to be a boat that ran south from Hatsa (20 km from Phongsali) all the way down to Muang Khua, with connections to the traveler’s hub of Nong Khiaw. However, there are now seven dams on the Nam Ou River, which means that the journey is a mixture of boat and bus. It is more expensive and seems more trouble than it is worth.
Hotels and Food in Phongsali
Phongsali wins no prizes for its food and bed scene! We stayed at marginally the best place in town, the Sensaly Guesthouse. The room cost 70000 kip for a night and, surprisingly, the WiFi was among the best we have experienced in Laos. On our first night there, we were invited by the family to celebrate Laos National Labor Day. The party was in full swing, and the guests were in an uproarious mood. We were plied with food and booze, and peppered with questions about home. A couple of the women were insistent we ate some of the bamboo soup. ‘It makes it strong’, they insisted. ‘Makes what strong?’, I inquired. They exchanged comments in Lao and all the women collapsed into a fit of giggles. ‘Oh, come on…what gets stronger?’ I pressed. Unexpectedly, one of the women yelled, ‘Pussy!’ Cue mass hilarity all around. We made several attempts to sneak away but we were usually press ganged into drinking more. Good job we decided to delay the trek another day!
We ate three meals a day at the family-run Yeehua restaurant on the main drag. The food was OK and it had the advantage of having the only English menu in town. Service was fairly haphazard and it took quite some effort to get what you wanted. The waitress spoke a little English and we spoke no Lao. Ordering was a case of pointing at the English translations on the menu. Placing an order for two entrees, rice, and drinks all at once was a challenge. At home, restaurants are all about the upsell. “Would you like anything else with that, sir? Can I get you another round of drinks? Care to see the dessert menu?”
Lao restaurant owners are evidently unmotivated by money or sales if their staff’s reluctance to take any orders at all is indicative of anything! We would order the first item (“I’d like the fried mixed vegetables and…”) and the girl would nod and shuffle away. I called her back, added the next item, and off she would toddle again. This was moderately baffling. Food would often arrive at the wrong table or not at all. One request for coffee was met with “Finished” and a finger pointed at the empty coffee pot. ‘Well, could you brew a fresh pot?’ Confused look. ‘OK. Forget it. Tea will be fine’. Ten minutes later a fresh coffee arrived. !???!
The Yeehua is a good spot to meet up with the other travelers in town. Probably makes it the ideal place to round up others to join your trek too. A constant at these out of the way places is that we have usually met the most interesting and friendliest travelers of the entire trip. There is always a great sense of camaraderie in these places, which is no doubt a result of meeting like minded people.
We grabbed snacks for trekking and bus journeys at the small central market: rice bean cakes, oranges, and sweet sticky rice all hit the spot. The central market also featured a few grisly options for locals who evidently eat rat, dog, and squirrel.
Is it worth it?
Absolutely! It is a pretty authentic experience to say the least. It will also remain that way unless hordes of travelers start heading up here. A fairly unlikely prospect, even if the ride up is more comfortable than before. Local agencies seem very sensitive to the situation, and aim to have a low impact on the villages too. However, things change fast even in remote areas. This is not yet Thailand, where apparently hill tribes earned so much from the tourist trade that they now live in Bangkok. I once heard that they now only travel up north and don the traditional gear for the tourists in season! Akha men in Laos have ditched the traditional clothes for Levis and Obey t-shirts. Akha women may well follow suit. Their choice, of course, but it means a less diverse and interesting world.