I've had the greatest pleasure to welcome you to Phongsaly, Laos. The Northernmost state that borders both China and Vietnam. Now, this whole experience has a little bit of a story leading into an incredible experience so bear with me. I have known Phil Hendry since I started traveling in December 2010. We met on the boat from the North Island to the South of New Zealand. We had also met briefly twice in Australia after that. Needless to say, he is a great friend of mine. So, we had plans to meet in Chiang Mai, Thailand at the beginning of February, however, I had sent him a message when I got to Luang Prabang telling him that I still had two weeks left on my Visa and that I wasn't leaving Laos yet due to the EPIC time I had in the country thus far. (More on Laos in another post I promise). Anyways, he agreed to meet me out there with a girl he had met in Chiang Mai from Australia, Tahlia, in a few days time. During that time I had considered going north in the country on a trekking tour. What enticed me is all of the shops promoting eco-tourism trekking packages. One place in particular caught my eye, called Phongsaly. Maybe it was because it was so far away, or maybe someone had mentioned it to me in passing, but regardless I wanted to go! Now, Phil was on a bit of a budget (who isn't really?) and the tours got up to about $255 USD for 5 days, so I figured that if it's a local bus and we figured it out ourselves it could be much cheaper!
Haha, so I pitched the idea to Tahlia and Phil and they loved it! Everyone does a trek to the minority villages in Chiang Mai, this would be something really different and personalized. The next day we departed at 6pm for our 17 hour local bus ride up north. To my surprise Phil introduced me to this lovely English boy named Jack. He's like "Kailey, Jack, Jack, Kailey. Do you think he could catch the bus up with us?" Apparently Tahlia and Phil had told Jack the night before and he was completely down with the idea. Now, that is my kind of person always up for a random adventure and see where it takes you! Plus, in my experience, local Laos busses are very easy to hitch a ride on. They don't care how many people they take by the end of it. And that couldn't be more true as the end result. By the time the bus had left Vientiene and traveled to Luang Prabang there must have been about 60 passengers on the seats, another 5 in the aisle already, not to mention piles of rice and coconuts everywhere, and chickens in the boot to boot! As we snuggled in the aisle I was wondering if I dragged 3 unsuspecting people to the most horrible journey of their lives. I have to give it up to them though because they were troopers on the bus as the high-pitched Laos music came on blaring from the speakers. All. Night. Long. I'm not gonna lie, I took 2 Valiums and they did nothing! At one point I must have dozed for half an hour and when I woke up again, there were another 6 or 8 new people in the aisle! It got so packed that I was climbing out the window and back in just to use the bathroom!!
By the time we got there it was mid afternoon and we were starving. Instead of going to eat right away we checked out the prices at the one and only travel centre in the village. They were pretty astronomical and everyone was a little bummed. We decided to go eat then when we heard lots of music and decided to walk past this Laos party. Well, didn't they just about drag us off the street to come party with them. There was a cute girl singing Kareoke and then all of a sudden we each had beers in our hands and were damanded to drink them. Well, okay! Pretty soon the ladies had cooked us about 5 fresh dishes, and the men had cut us some fresh sugarcane, and we were learning the locals dance and everything! No one spoke any english, but it was such pleasant company nonetheless. We found out they were celebrating the Chinese New Year- which lasts for a month and makes everyday seem like a holiday. I spotted the first westerner across the street and I had to go ask him if he had done any of the treks. He gave me some useful info that the tourism office offered better prices and more selection on their treks. The office happened to be right next to the party, but they were closed. No worries for the Laos people! They simply called them and asked one of the guys to come and see us right away! As a Thank-you, we performed a little Beatles Kareoke for them. I think they loved it!
We decided to do a 2 day trip to the Ahka villages that were close in the area. The Ahka people are known for their handicrafts and for being former opium growing villages. They are a very large tribe and diversify all over northern Thailand and Laos. The trek ended up costing us $25 USD per day which includes guides, food, and accommodation . So on top of the $16 USD paid for the local bus there and double it for back, we really ended up only paying $100 or so for the whole trip! We saved over $150 USD from doing it on our own.
The next morning we met our guide, Souli, at the tuk-tuk stand nice and early. Then we had a short 24km local bus ride through the morning mist of the mountains to our destination in Boun Neua. After a quick photo op, we started our trek. At first the terrain was all trees with a dirt track that we followed over some small streams. We then started to climb a little on this track and ended up seeing a King Cobra! Cool! At this point I spotted this huge cut down tree stump about 10 meters off the ground and decided to go and sit on it during our little break. I literally couldn't figure out where we were going to trek to, there didn't seem to be any path! I soon figured out that we were so far off the beaten track, that there wasn't even a track to follow!!
We were hand over hand, knees and feet on the ground, dragging ourselves up a steep 45' angle and I was taking the lead behind our monkey-like guide who was so far away he might as well have not existed! So, there I am, gripping for dear life with one hand on a banana plant, one hand on the dirt, and feet precariously slipping, slipping. CRASH! I fell anywhere from 2-3 meters down with the whole banana tree hitting me in the head. My friends thght they were going to have to carry me out on a bamboo stretcher, but I got up and was basically fine. Well okay, my shoulder dislocated, but that happens fairly often and I can pop it back into place! The feeling of accomplishment of getting to the top of that hill will last me the rest of my days alone. And all before 12pm! All I can say is that they don't call it 'hill' tribe treks for nothing!
Our first encounter with the Ahka tribe was mixed. The dogs were going wild barking at us, the kids were alternately 'Sabaidee'-ing us nd running away, and there wasn't a single adult in sight. We were taking to the chief's home to leave our stuff. All the kids gathered around us and we bent down to show them photos of themselves. They LOVED it! They probably have never seen themselves on film before and squealed with delight at the digital. How I wish I wish I had an old-skool Polaroid camera!! We all sat down to lunch together and ate fresh veggies, eggs, soup, and sticky rice while enjoying Lao-Lao whisky made from the fermentation of sticky rice every 3 minutes. I had to use the toilet after a while and he motioned out towards the back of the house. So I just squatted and peed on the ground. And these little piglets came up and started drinking my PEE! EWWWW but funny. I have to say the highlight of the meal was when the chief gave his baby daughter the cigarette to play with!
I completely thought we were done for the day, but oh no! We had to climb yet more hills (right after all that Lao-Lao) and trek for another 3 hours before arriving at our final destination for the evening. We ended up at another Ahka village and I spent the remaining daylight hours teaching the kids to play hockey with sticks and oranges. They were so funny, copying exactly what I said "GOAL" and "SAFE". Pretty soon I was telling about 30 of them to say "KAILEY IS THE QUEEN" and "JACK SMELLS FUNNY". It was hilarious and so sweet. We had a lovely meal with the chief including more Lao-Lao! Yay! We decided after dinner to give our presents to the children. We brought up toothbrushes and toothpaste and taught them how to brush their teeth! I bet they were so excited... On a side note, we had this game we played where as they didn't speak English and we didn't speak Laos, so we created voice-over dialogue. When the kids ran away with the 'presents', 2 ladies came up and said something in Laos. Phil goes "Why did these crazy foreigners give white stuff to the kids? Now it's all over the dogs!". Haha and on it went from Phil all night and the next day after that! I decided to bust out this crazy lamb hat I've carried around with me since New Zealand and see if any of the kids would wear it. No chance, they were all afraid and so I put it on the chief's head! Well he was just admiring himself so much in the mirror that I decided to give it to him as a gift. I also saw the Laos ladies admiring the stitching. Wouldn't it be so great to open a National Geographic in a few years and seeing all the Ahka peoples wearing lamb hats?
The roosters sound like they all have smoker's cough at 6:30am the next morning. I think we were all awake, but pretty lazy and sore from the day before to get up that early. I pulled my blanket over my head to try and catch a few more hours' sleep. When we eventually woke up at 9am or so, breakfast was ready for us, as well as a mini-trek to the river to catch our own lunch. Now, when I mean catch, I mean we sat down and played with the rocks, because it was next to impossible to move over those rocks and catch anything. Even the chief and our guide had some problems and didn't catch much. So we had fresh veggies, sticky rice, more Lao Lao! and hot dogs?? for lunch. Yum!
What really blew my socks off was when we were about to leave the chief of the village said "I'm sorry I didn't have more to offer you". (Translated by our guide). It was so overwhelmingly humble that that one moment will stay with me for a long time. When I get back home and get envious of the more material things in life I will remember that this man who lived so simply, had so much to offer. I wish I could've expressed that to him he offered more than I ever dreamt possible from this trip. It was the single most enriching experience I have ever had in life and the absolute epitome of my traveling thus far! The perfect combination of people, nature, circumstance, and luck came together for us all.