Nothing should have surprised me. After all this was Southeast Asia, and we were in a remote corner of Northern Laos, an eleven hour bus ride away from Oudomxay, where our small plane touched down the previous day. On the itinerary our hotel sounded charming, but instead it was godawful. There was no hot water for a shower and the mattress felt like I was sleeping on golf balls. It was a one-eye-open kind of night since falling asleep was impossible with scratching sounds and unusual noises coming from somewhere above. Having discovered some nasty looking evidence before shutting off the light, I figured it was either bats or rats who had taken up residence in our room.
For the first mile of the trek, we walked on an easy flat path that crossed a large sugar cane field. An hour later the terrain changed and we were climbing a steep trail in a jungle of thick forest brush. Our two Akha guides were short in stature, but carried their lithe bodies with a sense of pride. The one who spoke English the best explained that we were the first American travelers to do this trip and only the third international group because it was a relatively new joint venture between a German NGO and the local government. The program, called the Akha Experience, was established as a way to promote tourism and boost the local economy which, in the past, had depended primarily on the opium trade.
Lunch was prepared and arranged exquisitely on shiny green banana leaves that served as a tablecloth. If there was a tribal edition of Gourmet magazine, this artistic presentation could be on the cover. There was grilled fish, chunks of sticky rice, wilted greens that looked like fiddlehead ferns, shelled peanuts, and some shavings of saffron-colored spices. We were really hungry due to a meager breakfast at the lodge and a long hike to the falls. I was eager to try everything except the spices which looked dangerously hot. I balanced myself on a rock next to the stream and started eating with my fingers. The sticky rice tasted fine. I mean how could anyone screw up rice. Then I took one bite of the fish. YOWSA! There was no meat on this fish at all, only razor sharp bones that I didn't want to swallow, so I discretely spit my mouthful into the stream and hoped no one saw me. Then I wondered about the greens. Were they cooked? Would they make me sick? So after four hours of hiking my lunch consisted of peanuts and rice -- plenty of carbs and a little protein, I figured. No problem.
After lunch Seersut packed the leftover food in a bamboo woven basket which she wore on her back and balanced from a yoke that sat firmly on her shoulders. She and her fellow villagers set a quick pace up and out of the canyon on a steep slope with no switchbacks. The ten of us struggled to keep up.
Our guides took up the rear and we could hear them giggling behind us. "What's so funny?" someone asked. "For women with fat legs, you are pretty strong." We all enjoyed their sense of humor but told them our legs were muscular and not fat.
Further on we came upon a group of men using axes and machetes to clear cut the forest so they could plant rubber trees and rice paddies to sell to the Chinese. Water buffalos hauled large tree limbs down the steep mountainside on wooden toboggans. The smaller brush was piled high and torched. This was my first close up and personal encounter with slash and burn. I can understand the power of money and the financial desperation of the people, but I couldn't understand how anyone would want to cut down this beautiful forest.
In preparation for our first village stay, our guide told us about some of the tribal taboos we must respect. The Akha are animists, more philosophically than religiously and believe that the soul of spirits reside in all things. The villagers recognize the clear separation between the world of spirits and the world of humans. While the evil spirits cause disease, accidents, and bad luck, the benevolent spirits bring abundant harvests, healthy sons and good fortunes.
All of us were warned about taking pictures of the sacred village gate which is forbidden because it serves as the boundary between the human and spirit worlds. We were also told not to take photos of babies because the Akha people believe this will take the baby's soul away, so we were surprised when several women asked us to take photos of themselves holding their babies. What unsettled me though was hearing that twin babies are killed at birth because they are considered "ghost children" who bring bad luck to the family and ultimately the village. This is a catastrophe for the Akha parents who believe they are being punished for doing something bad. We were traveling in another world.
After a few more hours of strenuous hiking, we finally reached Ban Lao Kao, a village of perhaps 50 families. Our rustic cabin was situated at the edge of the village and looked similar to the other thatched roof huts, except ours was larger and of newer construction. The Germans built it the previous year to accommodate trekkers like our small group. There was one large room with ten single thin mattresses lined up on one side, each with its own pillow and two heavy blankets. No sheets. On the other side of the room there was a small fire pit where dinner would be cooked that evening. At the far end there was an enclosed bathroom with a real toilet seat and a shower with solar heated water. Outside there was a water filtering system which enabled us to safely brush our teeth and fill our drinking bottles, The Germans had thought of practically everything we needed except a way to ventilate the smoke from the indoor fire pit where our guide told us they would be cooking an "American dinner."
Even though our village stroll took place around sunset, there was considerable activity underway. Women with their betel nut stained lips and red teeth smiled at us as we watched them spin cotton on simple spindles and weave cloth on old-fashioned looms.
Children with distended bellies played in a muddy water hole. Pigs and their piglets scampered and grunted while turkeys and chickens scurried and pecked at random piles of garbage and trash. There were no roads, no stores, no gas stations, no lawns, just dirt and litter. Their homes were simple huts built on stilts and livestock lived below.
The adults didn't show much interest in us initially, but the children with their wide eyes stared at the two six-foot men in our group who, by comparison, looked like giants. I wanted to hug these precious little kids, maybe wash their faces or clean their runny noses. They appeared so innocent knowing very little of life beyond their tiny village, but they looked as happy as any of the kids I see at home, maybe even more so because they have so few expectations. Eventually other villagers gathered around us as our paparazzi-like presence became more of an event. They delighted us with giggles when they saw their faces on the screens of our digital cameras. The photo ops were endless.
There were a lot of children living in Ban Lao Kao, a family's hedge against the high rate of mortality. Babies were wrapped in cotton swaddling and carried at their mother's breast or on their backs. We didn't sense any modesty from the nursing mothers and learned that once a woman has had a child, she is permitted to expose her breasts in public whether she is nursing or not.
Our guide pointed to two smaller thatched-roof huts down by the stream where a group of teenagers splashed and teased each other while playing in the water. "We call these love houses," he said. Boys and girls come here to practice sex before marriage and not always with the one they will marry." Polygamy, we learned, is quite common within the Akha tribe.
The home-made Akha brew was more to my liking, although I coughed and grimaced when the rice alcohol concoction went down the back of my throat. It was hot and tasted raw. A second glass was much easier to swallow and for a little while I forgot about those screaming chickens.
The Akha trek will always be on my list of top ten travel experiences as there was so much to absorb and the experience was very intense. It wasn't just about hiking in a pristine forest or enjoying an exotic lunch in a remote waterfall setting. It was about spending time among indigenous people whose lives are 360 degrees different from my life yet their lives still have meaning. While the contrasts between us are pronounced, at the same time we experience the same thoughts, desires, and emotions they do. We are the same species and are able to connect on some basic human level. These are some of the reasons why travel has changed the way I think about the world and why I try and not make judgments nor take anything for granted.