Muang Khua circuit
Location: Northern hills of Laos
Date of trek: January, 2011
Duration: 2 days, 1 night
STORY AND PHOTOS BY HOLLY CAVE
They spotted us before we saw them, their eyes trained for the whispers of the forest. When my gaze finally picked them out, they were statues, frozen against the trees at the bend in the path. The shared expression on their faces made me stop, too. I couldn’t decipher it at first. Kheo, my guide, beckoned me on.
I turned and looked behind me, half-expecting to see the rippling shadow of a tiger. But only the thin bamboo rails of the spirit gate, decorated with chicken feathers, lay behind. The four Akha girls, their hair bound up with orange wool, firewood baskets in hand and faces pale in apprehension were staring at me. Kheo swallowed a giggle.
“They think maybe you are a ghost.”
I’d decided to travel up through Laos and cross over into Vietnam at the northernmost border. It meant taking a five-hour boat ride from the sleepy backpacker village of Nong Khiaw upriver to Muang Khua. Although a long slog sat on a hard wooden bench, this was a journey that began to reveal the side of the country I’d come to see – whole families returning from week-long trips to town to buy provisions; village children playing naked in the waters; World Health Organization trucks distributing sacks of rice. We spotted beautiful birds and counted fish in the clear waters.
On arriving in Muang Khua, I noticed a simple poster, advertising treks out into the remote hills. Within hours, the temptation of this new experience saw me counting out my last coins in three currencies to my guide, Kheo. There’s no ATM in town and I was struggling to make up the total, so I threw in hair clips and an Indian ankle bracelet to please his little girl, and luckily it was enough.
Wandering the unmarked path
The part of me that retches in drop toilets and gets scared walking alone in strange cities after dark was pleased when the song thaew that picked me up from my guest house the following morning had two other tourists on board. Crouched upon rice sacks, we travelled 36 kilometres out of town before our ride stopped abruptly at the side of the road. Kheo pointed to an opening in the trees I would never have spotted, and we started to climb.
The first few hours were knee-creakingly hard; I thrust myself up very steep slopes until we passed through the eerie shroud of the mist and were standing in sunshine. We admired the most numerous and most varied assortment of spiders’ webs I had ever seen, hanging like miniature silken tree-houses in the grasses along our path.
We stopped for a lunch of dried riverweed sprinkled with sesame seeds, spicy beef laap, boiled eggs, deliciously sticky rice and peppery noodles wrapped in banana leaves.Later that day, we picked our way through a rubber plantation to the Akha village.
Within seconds of our arrival, we were completely surrounded by (it seemed) most of the village and its animals: Half-dressed children; women holding babies to their bare breasts; men holding sticks and knives. They did nothing but stare at us, almost as if they had no idea whether to regard us as people or not. As it turned out, this gathering wasn’t for our benefit – the rice truck had just passed through, dropping off the month’s supplies.
Kheo told us, then, matter-of-factly, that only fourteen other tourists had been to this village in the past year or two. Suddenly it all felt uncomfortably, incredibly remote – an honoured window into a completely different way of life.
Connecting with the Akha
It was hard but I managed to forge some bonds as the sun sank and the evening wore on, striking gold by playing with the boys on their three-wheeled carts. I was presented with earrings and bracelets made by the women, and one of my companions became a local hero at their keepy-uppy football game, resulting in much delight and laughter from the crowd. Despite their virtual detachment from the outside world, watching someone fall over, it seems, is part of the universal language of comedy.
We ate dinner in the homestay that night by candlelight, rounded off with a couple of shots of Lao Lao from a bottle filled with huge hornets. Shots of this moonshine must always be consumed in even numbers, apparently, so we stopped at two rather than letting our bellies suffer the burn of four. Kheo told us that twins are considered unlucky by the Akha and that they would once have been killed at birth. Now, one is given away to another village.
The next morning, after a breakfast of noodle soup, bananas and coffee, we washed at the well to the amusement of the village children, bolder now, brave enough to giggle and point. Setting off again, we walked along the path the villagers took to reach their mountain rice paddies.
I was awestruck by the view. Its remoteness, the sense of true wilderness took me by surprise as I gazed over the tops of mountains poking like islands out of a sea of mist.On the steep downhill stretch, a group of middle-aged Akha women heading out on a fishing trip caught up with us, laughing as we slipped and slid down the hillside in our fancy trekking shoes. Nipping down gracefully in their bare feet like forest elves, they offered to help by carrying our bags.
A road leads from Muang Khua to the northernmost border crossing with Vietnam and the city of Dien Bien Phu. Coaches, taxis and mini-buses cross the border in both directions departing very early each morning. The road is unpaved some of the way and takes between 4 and 5 hours. River boats are the best way to get here from the south (Muang Ngoi, Nong Khiaw and Luang Prabang): long but beautiful journeys.
Once in Muang Khua, make your way to the Phou Iu Travel office at the top of town to book your trek.
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