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Trekking the Nam Ou in Laos

In the misty blue hills by the river Ou are the villages and farms of the Hmong and Kmau

How is it that in the high season you can take a trek through the Laos countryside and not see another tourist? This end of the Mekong is beautiful: misty blue hills, unlogged forests, rice paddies and small, friendly villages. But Luang Prabang pretty much attracts only two types of travellers: the older well-healed tourists and the tightwad backpackers. Neither are all that interested in a trek beyond the bars and cafes of the city limits. So there are just the three of us on this trip, me, Swiss backpacker Vanessa and our Hmong guide, VeLee.

Day 1

Our journey starts with a bumpy ride in a minibus to a drop off point at a village 45km north of Luang Prabang. With a population of around 50,000, Luang Prabang, once the country's capital, is the biggest town in the province. 85% of Lao are rural dwellers so in all directions beyond the city limits are small villages consisting of simple wooden houses pitched along orange dirt roads that are heavily rutted from when summer rains turn them to mud.

It doesn't take long to put the town vibe behind us. There are no roads now as we follow walking tracks through farmland and forest. Vanessa tells me that her trek in Cambodia was accompanied by the sound of logging as the forest disappears to Vietnam and China. Yet here there is only the sound of birds, cowbells and the trickling stream we are constantly crossing.

We travel slowly, its not arduous in any way, just unhurried, a pace that seems to slip in gently into the rhythm of life here. After lunch VeLee decides we will lie down in a "kip house" for a snooze. The kip house is a wide bamboo platform with a grass roof and its only purpose out here in the middle of no where seems to be to allow people to break their gentle hike with a well earned rest. It's the hottest part of the day, he says, with not much shade for the leg of the hike so he's reluctant to continue. In minutes he's snoring.

Although we've passed isolated farms it's not until almost 4 hrs walking (well, 3hrs strolling 1hr sleeping) that we come to our first village. 25 families, about 200 people, live here. Children call out our arrival and that brings half a dozen women to the tree in the 'main square' where they lay out woven bracelets in a quickly assembled 'market'. After we buy a few the stall disappears as quickly as it appeared. The women go back to work, the kids loiter and play a sort of hide and seek with us and we take a wander through the village with VeLee explaining village life and customs to us.

Cows, pigs and chickens roam the swept dirt paths around the houses. Young girls sit in groups outside their houses thrashing green grass and rolling it with their feet. The plant fibre, a type of hemp, is used to make clothes. Further along, on the edge of the village, a group of men are constructing a house. A few years ago these villagers decided to make the move from the more "crowded" village up the hill and they are still building, all pitching in to help each other.

The next village, where we will spend the night, is larger: 45 families. The local school is the first building we come across. It's an open-sided bamboo shack on a hill just outside the village. As with most homes we've passed on our trek, the houses here are made of wood and bamboo with a thatch roof. Many of the homes have added solar power panels and satellite dishes bringing them electricity and TV but they still cook on wood-fuelled stoves and there's no running water.

The village has a mix of Hmong and Khmu people. Traditionally, ethnic groups were separated geographically. The Hmong, who were late settlers to Laos, took up the more arid mountain areas while the Khmu lived on the slopes and the Lao in the lowlands. This dictated the type of agriculture they were involved in and retained ethnic distinction. However, the social structure has been changing due to changes in ecology, agriculture, infrastructure and as access to city facilities becomes more important. Few people wear traditional costume and there is little concern with inter-tribal marriage so it's difficult for outsiders like us to tell one ethnicity from another.

The people are friendly; smiling and greeting us with a cheery "sabadee" as they get on with their daily chores. The occasional foreign tourist dropping in is a welcome splash of cash to their pockets but not something they chase with trinkets. Children want to play with us and some parents are dragged out to take a look at the strangers but mostly we're free to wander around the village and get a taste of everyday life.

In the centre of the village is a water spout. So, just like the locals, dressed in sarong, Vanessa and I wash themselves under it while people fill water containers and a gaggle of children hang over the fence watching. The water is cold, it's awkward to wash half clothed and I wonder why they just don't finish off this gappy fence to give everyone some privacy. But these open-sided, spout showers in the centre of the village are a common sight in Laos. They are a 'modern convenience' that relieve women from having to collect water from long distances and they reduce mosquito borne diseases through safer water storage management.

There are several little houses set aside for visitors, a simple set up of with bedding in the 'house' and a table and chair on a little porch. Our meals are brought to us by one of the houses nearby and we eat with VeLee who happily answers our questions and tells us more about the people living here.

I try out the Laotian way of bathing

Kids make their own entertainment, we notice. Boys set aside their billy cart to try to start a father's motorbike. Girls clap hands and hop around in a circle with their legs knotted together. A puppy gets a lot of attention. Young boys play a game where they try to knock rubber bands off a piece of wood with a thong. Others race each other downhill pushing a wheel on a stick. Most boys have the Y-frame of a slingshot in their back pocket. When a little girl wants to take photos with my DSLR I hand it over to the junior photo pro.

Day 2

In the morning we set off in the mist. I'm not sure if Lao are 'morning people' or there is just more activity on this route than the one through the forest we took yesterday but several people and a couple of vehicles pass us on the small road that skirts the farmland.

As subsistence farmers they must raise all the animals and plants they need for food, construction and clothing. Rice is a staple of their diet and VeLee points out the two different kinds of rice grown: 'wet rice', grown in the traditional rice paddies and 'mountain rice' grown on the side of the unterraced hills and not requiring so much water.

"I've never seen a cow eat bamboo!" Vanessa points out. "Really? What do Swiss cows eat if they don't eat bamboo?" VeLee asks perplexed. "Grass," comes the reply, "Swiss cows eat grass."

There's not a lot of grass here. Thistle, weed, rice straw, scrub...but no meadows of lush grass. The cows are well fed but not Swiss dairy fat. They are used for meat not milk. In the meantime, the cattle roam free. Farms aren't fenced. Though there is a concept of land ownership, it's managed by the village rather than individuals.

A subsistence lifestyle doesn't mean no access to city foods conveniences. The larger villages have small kiosks that sell snacks and sim cards. However, this hasn't stopped the slow migratory creep of villagers to the city, or at least to farms in reach of them. VeLee's family moved away from the hills a long time ago and now live just outside of Luang Prabang. He's a university educated teacher, working as a guide for a few years to improve his English. Then, he says, he'll be in a better position to get a secure government job with a pension at the end. He tells us that he enjoys taking tourists on these treks to visit the mountain villages of his ethnic heritage. He likes spending time in the villages and countryside and with the people here but, he confides, he doesn't have any interest in permanently living away from town.

After reaching the roadside we're picked up in a truck with four others. We plan to kayak down the Nam Ou river back to Luang Prabang. The river is shallow with regular small rapids and peppered with fishermen. The scenery from the river is stunning, the wide flat waters run serenely past a backdrop of blue forested hills and we can get a clear sense of the landscape we've been hiking in fort two days.

20 km upstream from Luang Prabang, where the mouth of the Ou river meets the Mekong, is Pak Ou, the site of the Buddha Caves. During the 60s and 70s, as their farms and monasteries were subjected to daily bombing runs by the United States (see my story "Coping with UXOs"), the villagers moved into the caves found all over these limestone hills. Pak Ou however is reserved as the refuge of Buddha statues.

It's irreverent and considered bad luck to throw away a statue of Buddha. So for hundreds of years unwanted and damaged statues have been left in these caves on the face of a vertical cliff. The caves host around 4,000 statues of various sizes and condition. Despite the damage on some of the Buddhas, the caves are a shrine where locals come to worship, particularly during the Lao New Year in April.

At 4,300km the Mekong is 12th longest river in the world. With its source in China, the river travels south through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam before pouring into the sea. Aside from being a source of food, livelihood and transport for the local populations, the river forms a convenient border between landlocked Laos and its Burmese, Thai and Khmer neighbours. Over the past couple of months travelling in South East Asia, I've spent a lot of time on the Mekong but I don't think I've seen it as quiet as here. I'm surprised more people aren't out here, but I'm glad to have this little corner of the Mekong to myself as well.



WHERE: This trip to Nam Ou, like a lot of treks, started from Luang Prabang

HOW: There are a number of tour operators in Luang Prabang that will arrange overnight / multi night treks and there are a variety of destinations to chose from. Many involve biking or paddling as well as the hiking so it's a great mix for the more adventurous. You will need a guide as there are still plenty of UXOs in the area and the guide will help make you feel welcome in the villages. Loas is a beautiful country - get out there!

SOLO TRAVELLERS: Minimum numbers apply but don't despair if you don't have a travel buddy or can't rustle up someone at your hostel. Put your name down at a couple of tour operators when you arrive at Luang Prabang and be prepared to be flexible about the trip you take. Someone is bound to call you back with an offer. Yes, I know I've done this before in other cities too and never got a call back but I got a couple of calls the same day here so had my pick of trips.




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