Southeast Asia 2023 – Laos: Luang Prabang Trek

After several days of peaceful relaxation in the beautiful city of Luang Prabang, it was time to head out on another trek. I found an experienced local guide to take me as a solo traveler off the beaten track to nearby ethnic villages by visiting Luang Prabang‘s ethnology museum. Staff members at the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre referred me to Mr. Khankeo Indavong, nicknamed AK, a spirited young independent tour operator who pulled together an itinerary to meet my request and introduced me to Gone, a Lowland Lao, and the perfect guide.

We visited villages of Lao Loum (Lowland Lao), Khmu, and Hmong tribes by various modes of transport: hiking, riverboat, and 4×4 jeep. The Hmong village, Phouluang Tai, at the summit of the aptly named “Big Mountain,” is particularly fascinating. It is inaccessible by vehicles (even motorbikes!) since part of the road was washed away a few years ago. The authorities insist that its residents move to the “new” village down the mountain, with tempting offers of water, electricity, roads, a school, and a clinic. I learned that it’s not an easy choice for everyone, so even families are now split between the old and new village sites.

At 6:00 am, it’s a dry and comfortable 75°F (24°C), but the forecast is ominous. I had to be prepared for another wet trip…

Our journey started with a short drive up the Eastern shore of the Mekong River, where we waited for a friendly farmer to give us a lift to the other side.

Relatively few bridges and ferry crossings ensure that the Western shore is far more rural than Luang Prabang proper.

We soon came to Ban Huaypong, with a mixed village of Lao Loum (Lowland Lao) and Khmu peoples.

The morning sunshine helps dry corn and riverweed (with tomato, garlic, and sesame seeds).

Most of the early trail was level through rice and corn fields before we began the climb up to the still unseen peak, whose name translates to “Big Mountain.” Gone cut a banana leaf to prepare lunch for us in a field shelter – we were going to need fuel for the afternoon’s work!

The overgrown “trails” were blazed by foraging cattle and buffalo and are infrequently used by people. The distance wasn’t particularly far, but the heat, humidity, sporadic rain, slippery footing, and steep grade made for a slow and exhausting climb, rewarded by magnificent views of distant peaks that we watched slowly fall below us. I have never carried so much water with me, but am glad Gone insisted on the 6 liters that I finished before we were done.

As we approached the Hmong village of Phouluang Tai, we met a farmer carrying her day’s harvest and four students returning home from their school down in the “new” village, about an hour’s walk away.

Their initial surprise and shyness washed away pretty quickly, and they ran ahead to let their friends know that a “strange white man” was coming.

We arrived in time to see the sunset, introduce ourselves to the headman, and clean up and fetch water in the village spring (back down the hill about 300 meters). Gone had not been to Phouluang Tai for 4 years (before the Covid pandemic), so there was a lot of catching up to do.

The headman explained how the government authorities, led mostly by majority Lowland Lao people, decline to help repair the washed-out roads to this “old” village and want everyone to move down the mountain to a new location where it is easier and less expensive to provide public services: water, electricity, roads, a school, and a clinic. On the surface, this sounds reasonable, but there are deeper reasons why this isn’t an easy choice for many of the residents, and they are tied to the history and culture of this minority tribe.

The Hmong people are traditionally a high mountain tribe. They grow their rice in dirt on hillsides – not in paddies. They hunt and gather – they don’t fish. During the Indochina wars, the Hmong were allied with the French and American forces based largely on their physical strength in tough conditions and their fiercely independent nature. During the “Secret War” in Laos that I described in an earlier post, when “more than two millions tons of bombs were dropped on Laos between 1964 and 1973,” these hillside villagers were forced to abandon villages such as Phouluang Tai and move into caves within the mountains for safety. They returned to these traditional locations after the war, which are adjacent to where their ancestors were buried in highly significant funeral ceremonies.

Hmong people have a culture built on animistic beliefs and a strong faith that after death the soul reincarnates as one of many forms such as humans, plants, rocks and ghosts. Death is often considered the most important time for practicing rituals in the Hmong community because without practicing the necessary rituals the soul will roam for eternity. Hmong culture has been around for thousands of years and some of the rituals have slightly changed due to immigration and urbanization.

Wikipedia, Hmong funeral

Another reason why some residents feel they can’t move is that much of a Hmong‘s wealth is tied up in their small stock, the pigs and goats they raise. While the “new” village has room for a school and clinic, it doesn’t have room for their animals. One sad consequence of this situation is that our host for the night lives in her old family home while her husband and son move back and forth between the two locations, and her grandchildren stay only in the new village. She was very reluctant to talk much about her life, but years in the caves and now being split from her family gave me a sense of profound sadness.

The day of exertion and a filling meal helped me sleep well. I awoke to a quiet walk through the village as the clouds came and went.

How does one cope with a lack of electricity and running water? Solar panels and rainwater catchment barrels.

Before heading out to school, my young student-friends brought some of their siblings for me to meet.

I felt grateful for the chance to spend this short time with the people of Phouluang Tai. Their lives aren’t easy, but their spirit is strong. More rain was forecast for the day, so we reluctantly packed up to start our day’s hike down the steep south side of “Big Mountain,” through clouds and rice fields, back to the Mekong.

This hive was home to the largest bees I have ever seen. Each must have been more than an inch (2.5 cm) long! I haven’t been able to identify its species, but I don’t think it’s the world’s largest.

Back to the Mekong River, Gone and I had lunch while floating down and across the river to hike through more rice fields and Lowland Lao villages.

After a night in the Lowland Lao village of Ban Paksy, we watched the early morning almsgiving to monks and novitiates before heading out.

Before we left the village, I was reminded of the old adage, “You never want to see how the sausage is made,” when we met this neighbor…

The finale of our trek was hiking to the top of the stunning Kuang Si Waterfalls and swimming in its refreshing pools before the crowds arrived.

Thank you, AK! And thank you, Gone! It was a fantastic trip!

Luang Prabang Trek Stats
Distance: 22.0km / 13.7mi
Elev Gain: 1,117m / 3,665ft
Time: 10.6 hours
Steps: 50,048

Guide: Mr. Gone
Tour Operator: Mr. Khankeo Indavong (AK)
Mobile/WhatsApp:+856 20 23453966
Mobile: +856 20 55299969

Author: Chris

Until 2019, I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Namibia focused on Community Economic Development. Before that, I was a high-tech executive, small business owner, consultant and business broker.

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