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  • Writer's pictureKristin

Laos | Hilltribe Overnight Trek Tour

Updated: Apr 9, 2021

Sunday morning was the start of a couple of the greatest days on our trip! We started a 2 day trek/kayaking trip that we booked through White Elephant. Originally, there was going to be four of us on the trek, but the other couple wasn't feeling well so it was just the two of us and our guide, Mee. Some of the other tour companies charged you more if you had less people in the group, but White Elephant just charged one flat price regardless of the number of people -- so we got a private tour for the same price of a bigger group tour.

Meet Our Guide Mee

Our guide, Mee, was a 23-year-old student whom grew up in Luang Prabang. He was one of seven children, and later told us the government said that people should limit the number of children to seven so that they can adequately take care of them. He was studying English at the public university in Luang Prabang, but because of the need to pay for school he was working full-time and then taking classes in the evenings. His first year of school cost about $150 USD and the second and third years were between $200-250 USD. It may seem like a bargain to us, but of course, in Laos they don't make as much money as we do in North America.

Mee was a great guide and spoke English really well so that we had a flowing conversation for most of the two day trip. He liked to joke around too, which made things entertaining as well. He did a great job of explaining each of the hill tribes that we visited as well as some of the Lao traditions and ways of doing things. Because he is at the age where many people are starting to get married, he told us that about 80% Lao women base their decision on whom they want to marry on how much potential income the man can earn. Since he is getting a college education it sounds like he is doing well, as he actually has three different girls around the area who want to marry him. So in order to make the best decision he is going out with all three, even though he is pretty certain which girl he wants to marry -- he called himself a 'playboy.' ;-)

Starting Off on Our Trek

Our trek started out north of Luang Prabang and we walked along dirt paths and jumped over small little water streams for about 1.5 hours before we stopped for lunch.

For lunch Mee had brought along little box lunches of rice and then small plastic bags of fried vegetables and green curry. We had our picnic in one of the little field shanties that the farmers use for their lunch breaks.

Then we continued for another 30 minutes. Along the way we saw several of the areas being cleared out. Mee said that the people clear out the brush and then set it on fire in order to clear the land to plant rice [Slash & Burn technique]. Each rice season they have to clear new land for their fields so that the soil is fertile.

Hmong Village

We arrived at the Hmong village, which are people who settled here after coming from Yunnan, China. The village consisted of about 35 families and probably as many families of cattle as well. Their houses were basically wooden boards with no windows with a couple of doors. Two of the doors are used only on special occasions, one for the spirits to enter the house and another for wedding entrances and funeral exits. The floor of the house is all dirt and they have a small corner for the pots and fire to cook; and then the rest of the area is wooden platforms they use for the entire family to sleep on. However, the mother and father get their own private bedroom in a Hmong house.

The Hmong people practice animism, which is the belief in spirits in things like mountains, lakes, animals, ancestors, etc. So they are very superstitious and put sharp objects at the top of their door to prevent any bad spirits from entering the house. When someone is sick, they will have the individual in the village who can talk to the spirits come to listen to the upset spirts so the family can satisfy any of them before taking the sick person to a hospital or giving them medicine. They also have very large families, with about 9 or 10 children. Mee said it could be possible for the man to have more than one wife, but that it doesn't happen very often. Everything there was so basic and even the simplest things entertained the children. We saw a few of the older children using a make-shift sled with wheels on it to slide down the dirt hill near the village.

Khmer Village & Overnight

We continued a steep climb to the Khmer village on the other side of the mountain. We were climbing the mountain in the middle of the day with little shade, so it was pretty exhausting in the heat. However, we finally arrived at the village around 3 p.m. The Khmer village had about 54 families living in it; this group of people originally came from Cambodia. Just like the Hmongs, the Khmer people have their own language and like to live in the higher in the mountains instead of the lowlands.

About Our Host Family & Their House

The family we were staying with had 5 children with the oldest being about 13 years old and the youngest being somewhere around 1 year old. They had two sections to their house with one area for the kitchen and cooking, and a separate area for sleeping (sleeping was basically the only thing that the room was used for). The floors were again only dirt floors. They had no modern conveniences including no electricity and to go to the bathroom you had to walk to the outhouse, which was about 25 yards from the house. The only modern thing in the village, was that some individuals had cellphones; which in order to get a signal they had to climb to the top of the village hill. However, we loved every minute of it and we don't think it could get any more authentic than this!! At some of the other hill tribe places we had been in Thailand and Vietnam the people tried to sell you items, but here nobody tried to sell us anything.

Bath Time

While Mee prepared dinner, we walked down to the natural spring that the village used for its water source. We arrived at the time many of the women and children were down there taking their baths. Except for the children, all the adults basically took showers with their clothes on. So we joined in by rinsing off our faces, arms, legs and feet with the bucket of water and the bar of soap we had brought along.

Evening in the Khmer Village

Our main entertainment for the evening was watching the various village events take place. We had puppies fighting and rolling with each other, roosters chasing hens, baby pigs chasing their mother for more dinner, little kids being enchanted with a large empty box and the village people just conversing with one another. One of the most interesting things in the Khmer and Hmong village was that many of the young children (under about 2 years old) didn't wear any pants or underwear. I guess they figure that is easier than cleaning up wet pants or shorts as the child is getting potty-trained.

Shortly before sunset, the couple whose house we were staying at arrived with a trailer full of goods pulled by their tiny tractor motor. Earlier in the day they drove 40 minutes down to the nearest village and then 60 minutes back in order to restock the supplies for the shop that they have for the village people. The arrival of the goods brought quite the excitement to the village, as this trip to the bigger village only happens about twice a month. They brought back several types of fish and the women came over to pick them out to take home and prepare for their families. Later in the evening, they cut open the watermelon and sold slices to those who wanted some. Mee told us that it is not very often they get fish and most of the time their main source of meat is whatever they can catch from the surrounding forest areas, like rattlesnake, rabbit, rat, etc. Only for special occasions might they butcher a pig or chicken. If they can't catch anything, their main food source is sticky rice with chili powder. It made us feel a bit guilty when Mee brought us out this extravagant meal of grilled lemongrass fish, fried vegetables, sticky rice and vegetable soup.

It was really good though and made us feel a little better when he said he shares the leftovers with the family. In order for us to visit and stay at these villages we also have to pay 5000 Kip per person (included in our total package cost). Mee said that his company, White Elephant also has helped each of the villages set up a school building and brings clothes for the villagers as well.

After dinner, it started to get pretty dark, so we brought out our flashlight and they lit a candle for us at the table. Mee brought out some Lao Lao Whiskey for us to try, which is about 35 percent alcohol. I tried a sip of it and confirmed that it tasted as horrible as the BiuJui in China! We played with a few of the village children, including some boys who were rubbing rocks together to try to create sparks. Soon after we started sharing our names with each other, and I'm sure that I probably sounded real odd to them trying to speak Lao.

Around 7 p.m., one of the families started up their generator, as inside the house they had the village television and CD player. They put on several Karaoke videos and many of the women and children went inside to watch and listen, while most of the men remained outside. Mee said that the families contribute money to fund this TV for the village and there are maybe only one or two houses with satellite dishes. When it was time to go to sleep, we slept in the same place with the rest of the family -- with us sleeping on one side and them on the other. Some of the older children went to sleep at their grandparent's house when they had visitors. Our bed was a foam pad with a couple of pillows and a thick blanket, but it did its purpose.

Morning in the Village

We didn't need our alarm clocks to wake up in the morning, as the roosters were the natural alarm clock and most of the people were already going about their business when we awoke at 6:30. We had the breakfast Mee had prepared for us and played a quick game of kick ball before departing from the village. We had lots of good-byes from the children as we left. We walked mostly downhill for 1 1/2 hours before getting to the village where we departed the previous day.

Kayaking the Nam Khan River

The truck met us there and took us for a 15 minute drive up the Nam Khan River to start out our kayaking portion of the trip. The kayaking was great and there were even a few white rapids for us to tackle on the kayak. We mastered the first few with no problems, but on the 4th our kayak hit a rock and was overturned. We were able turn our kayak over and re-board, but in the process we lost a pair of sunglasses and a T-shirt in the river.

Mee said that one of his girlfriends lived in one of the riverside villages and since we had some extra time we stopped there for him to visit her. She lived in one of the Lao Lowland villages; which also has its own language, but most people know how to speak Lao. It was the Women's Day holiday, so people did not have to work or go to school. Many of the people were celebrating, including Mee's girlfriend and her friends, by drinking some Lao whiskey and eating some food. They had a small keyboard and microphone, so they were doing some karaoke as well. One of the Lao guys tried to get us to drink some of the whiskey, but we were able to get away with only drinking a bottle of Pepsi. However, it was fun to see the locals celebrating. Later on our ride back to town we saw many similar celebrations.

We floated a bit further on the kayaks and stopped for lunch on the side of the river for some boxed rice and mixed vegetables. From our view you could see many people panning for gold. Mee said that sometimes if they are lucky they can get about 200,000 Kip per day from panning. Even the children were involved in the process and they had some men with masks and air hoses (which were powered by a generator on the shore) go under and look for gold. There was probably a 1 to 2 km stretch where various families were panning for gold.

We finished the rest of our kayak ride without any problems and then came back to Luang Prabang. We really liked our time in Laos, especially on the trek. We had never been on something so authentic and 'rough' before. The Lao people are so friendly, especially the children. On both the kayak ride and the ride back in the truck, children would see us and yell out "Sabadee" (hello in Lao) and wave profusely until we were no longer in their sight.

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