Hidden Asia: Homestay with the Hmong Hilltribe, LaosPosted in Where to Travel to Now
Part Two of our Laos Special sees Seb King, our intrepid editor witness the aftermath of a snake attack and capsizing boats in rocky rapids.
I threw my drenched backpack over my shoulders and set off for the transport boat.
On the return leg we didn’t require the power of the off-board motor, the flow of the Nam Cam was a strong enough force to push us along. The driver skilfully negotiated our route across the river, avoiding eddies and rocks with the twist of a tiller.
“So where to now?”
“We hike to Hmong tribe for dinner,” replied Sommai, our guide.
The thought of dinner made my stomach rumble despite eating only a few hours ago. I was repulsed by the thought of rambling anywhere in my soggy trainers but came to conclusion that my naivety would have to yield some sacrifices.
Being careful not to lose our balance and tip the boat over we were somewhat relieved to be back on land. Luscious foliage enveloped us from every angle and 150 feet above us the canopy soaked up the bulk of the sun’s rays. Sommai swung his machete frantically. Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.
Vines and creepers collapsed in a heap and settled on the ripe litter layer before us.
Above: The Laotian Rainforest
I felt the time was right to ask the one question that had bothered me the whole time I’d been traipsing round these muddy pathways surrounded by strange noises and alien plants.
Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.
“So what would you say the most dangerous animal that lives out here is then Sommai?”
He ceased his foray on the creepers. “The King Cobra. They live here. Very deadly.”
There was pause. From every direction the cicadas wined like buzz saws. Leaves the size of craniums crashed to the ground and caused me to flinch.
My Skinny Friend broke the silence. “Ah heck...Nothing much to worry about then.”
Sommai grinned and continued to carve his way through the wall of green. Thwack. Thwack. Thwack
We followed our machete wielding guide across countless streams and ditches for two hours. Every step was conscientious, fresh in the knowledge that nature really was wild and not limited to zoos and theme parks. By the time we’d reached the Hmong tribe, dusk was starting to fall.
Above: The Hmong Hilltribe
Apart from a few stray toddlers that scampered away into the bushes, the town was deserted.
“Where is everyone?” I asked Sommai.
“Women are working in rice fields. Men hunting for meat.”
Cracked dirt paths mazed past wicker huts. Satellite dishes pointed to the sky and were assembled on tripods outside the arid earth of every dwelling. We stopped at one of the larger abodes and Sommai shepherded us inside.
He pointed at a log that had been sculpted into a bench. “You wait here. We meet tribe leader and eat.” Sommai strode out the void in the wall and into the dusty streets.
We were alone. The roof of the hut had been thatched from banana leaves and the walls held together by interweaved bamboo reeds. The dirt on the floor had hardened to form an uneven surface and the table we sat before was wonkier than a rocking chair.
It was eerily quiet. A breeze ruffled through the gaps in the walls and sent a fine layer of dust spiralling about our feet. Outside the rasp of rubber against parched earth grew louder until Sommai approached the open void of the hut.
He took a seat next to me on the bench. “You miss me, no?” he said, smiling.
I nodded vaguely. “So when does everyone get back?”
“People start to come back now. Oven is on. Food on way. No worry!”
I couldn’t help but laugh a little. Perhaps Sommai thought that all Westerners cared about was their next meal? Either way, I couldn’t deny the fact that I was hungry so maybe he had a point.
Above: Houses Of The Hmong Tribe
Outside in the street a strange chafing noise grew louder until we identified its source. A woman, in soiled rags wore a bloodstained bandage round her left leg. In her hand she used a thick piece of bamboo to help her walk. She limped toward the hut, hauling her injured leg behind her with a look of dread on her face.
Sommai leapt from his position on the bench. He put her left arm over his shoulder and helped her into the hut. They spoke in foreign tongues and I found it impossible to distinguish whether they were arguing or being compassionate.
In a matter of seconds he was surrounded by male members of the Hmong tribe. Sommai handed the woman over to the men who forced her to walk the rest of the way to her bed at the rear of the hut on her own. It was painful to watch.
“Now we eat. Follow me,” said Sommai.
Both my Skinny Friend and I were gobsmacked. “What happened to her?” I stammered.
“She was bitten by snake, while working in rice field.”
“Is she going to be ok?”
Sommai shrugged his shoulders. We left for dinner, the harsh reality of life in the rainforest jarring against my western sensibilities.
The food consisted of noodles, meat and chilli. Everyone ate with brutal conviction. However, before the chopsticks we’d been given went anywhere near our mouths we were sure to clean them meticulously with antibacterial tissues.
Above: Snakes Hide In The Waters Of The Paddy Fields
I enjoyed a few smokes after the meal but was shocked when small children no older than seven or eight fought over the stubbed-out butts I’d clumsily dropped on the floor. Lighters in hand, the children stuck the mangled stub of the cigarette between their lips, lit them and took heavy drags as they bowled past us pretending to be adults.
Above: Re-discovering Our Sodden Clothes Outside Our Cabins
That night we slept in wicker cabins that had been decorated with flowers. In the morning we awoke to a bowl of sticky rice and crawled back into our sodden clothes from yesterday.
Sat at the table my Skinny Friend asked, “How do the people here have satellites outside their homes?”
Sommai rolled his rice into a little ball and popped it into his mouth. “The government give satellites and TV to Hmong tribe for free.” My Skinny Friend looked cynical, his forehead rippled with a frown.
I figured the government had to have some form of ulterior motive for giving a hilltribe televisions other than ensuring the populous could watch the Laotian version of Countdown or Loose Women.
After breakfast we said our goodbyes to the tribesmen and expressed our thanks for allowing us shelter in their town. Within five minutes we were back in the rainforest, hiking.
The clouds overhead looked ominous. Sommai led the way through steep meandering pathways. My legs felt as if they had morphed into concrete blocks overnight and I struggled to keep pace with the others, especially since my trainers were designed to tread urban streets; not the greasy trails of the rainforest.
“Where are we going Sommai?” asked my Skinny Partner.
“We walk a little longer ‘till we reach kayaks. You be home in time for lunch.”
Above: Angry Clouds Gather As We Descend
The sky grew dark. The clouds burst and unleashed their load. By the time we’d reached the muddy banks of the Nam Cam its waters had swollen level with its levees. Lightening crashed in big cobalt forks across the horizon and the flow of the river was fierce.
Sommai pointed at the two Kayaks fastened to the scrub that lined the river. He had to shout over the rush of the storm. “Now we go. Nice weather, eh? You take one together. I go on my own.”
I looked at my Skinny Partner for encouragement. We nodded in unison, tired, worn but fresh with adrenalin for whatever this excursion might decide to throw at us.
Sommai untied the kayaks.
“So how far do we have to kayak?” I asked.
“Oh, just 13 kilometres. No far.”
“Holy crap!” I muttered in the full Knowledge that my last attempt at canoeing, over ten years ago, ended in me being dubbed as ‘The Fish’. On that very same day, I’d also managed to get myself wedged underneath Southend’s pier and had to be rescued by lifeguards; these memories did very little to inspire any confidence of negotiating tropical rapids in flood season.
However, we had a plan and the theory behind it was simple. Being more ruggedly built than my fellow crew member I took the back space of the kayak and sought to provide the power while my Skinny Friend steered at the front. It wasn’t long before we were navigating rapids, rocks, and eddies. All around us rain dented the surface of the Nam Cam with huge blobs that made the whole river dimpled like a golf ball.
Sommai diminished to a dot in the distance. Hauling ourselves along with paddles became increasingly testing and for some reason the end of the kayak (including my backside) kept sinking a good inch or two into the warm clayey waters.
Above: The Nam Cam River
My Skinny Friend barked out the orders. “More Left...more left...left. Left”
Upon realisation that we were on course to hit a cluster of rocks and a few trees I paddled with fury.
My Skinny Friend became hysterical. “More Left Seb...are you deaf? LEFT!”
I wanted to demonstrate my tenacity at paddling so I went at it with added flair. My biceps burnt like hell and my breath grew baited. I wasn’t about to let the team down. My Skinny Partner swivelled to face me.
The muscles in his face contorted and the whites of his eyes bulged against a backdrop of clay. “THE OTHER LEFT YOU MORON!”
By the time I’d reverted to the opposite direction it was too late. The plastic chassis of the kayak reverberated madly as it smashed against the rocks. The force of the collision bounced us back into the flow of the river. Thank god plastic was flexible.
“Ye-” There was no time to answer. The front of the kayak struck the foot of a mangrove tree head on. The underside of the kayak scraped against grit as the river tried its best to drag our kayak along its ebullient path regardless of whether we remained inside the thing or not.
My Skinny Friend jiggled around frenetically, arms gesticulating everywhere. “Bloody things! Get ‘em off! Get ‘em off! Get ‘em off!”
Crouched in the back of our plastic vessel I crooked my neck for a better view of the palaver.
“You’re rocking the kayak you nutter, what’s wrong with you?” I said.
My Skinny Friend turned to face me. Before I knew it, a cockroach the size of a fist smacked me in the space between my eyes. Its hard shell made a hollow ‘thump’ as it ricocheted off my forehead and tumbled into the murky water below.
“I’ve got a crotch full of cockroaches and ants and... the ants bite! Ah! Bloody things get ‘em off! Get ‘em off!” Considering the intimate location of his infestation I thought better of getting physically involved in brushing the bugs from his shorts. He’d just have to sort himself out and man-up.
However, I did managed to push the kayak off the gravel we’d run aground on in order to stop any more insects from hitching a ride downstream via my Skinny Friend’s crotch. It took an anxious period of floating backwards before it finally dawned on us the kayak was sinking.
Above: Our Beds At The Hmong Tribe Were Primitive But Effective.
Alluvium flitted about our stomachs as we heard the sibilance of the rapids approach, our backs turned to the flow of the river. We tried to right ourselves but the flow of the Nam Cam was resilient and the sudden change of balance in fighting the flow tipped the kayak precariously to one side. Paddling was pointless.
“Right my old cheese. It looks like we’re in the crap. Whatever you do keep both paddles on the kayak. We’re going to capsize.”
As an experienced sailor I took my Skinny Friend’s assertion in high regard.
“Have you got rid of those insects yet?” I asked.
“Yeah. I think I drowned the buggers.”
“Good for you.”
Water plummeted over our heads and forced us to buckle out of the kayak. I couldn’t see anything beneath my feet. My first concern was to avoid any rocks as I tumbled around in the Nam Cam as if I were a fragment of silt.
I broke the surface of the water. A little further downstream My Skinny Friend clung to the side of the kayak with one arm. I was unscathed.
This is crocodile territory
whispered a voice from somewhere in the back of my mind. Crocodile territory; just think about that for minute while you flap around like a kipper in an oil slick.
“Give me a hand you pleb!” shouted my Skinny Partner.
I swam with the current. The Thames Estuary boasted better visibility. God knows what prowled about beneath my feet, or lingered a few yards away. Crocodile Territory
, said a familiar voice. Just you wait...
Together we laboured to flick the convex of the kayak back to the underside so we could once again mount it.
“Tell me you’ve still got your paddle?” said my Skinny Friend breathlessly.
Our gear suddenly seemed pretty insignificant. I watched my flip flops and our water bottles zip past us, slaves to the beige rush of the Nam Cam. To join the Mekong and bob across the border into Vietnam would be their next destination and to launch an impromptu pursuit behind them would be suicidal without a passport.
It took nearly half an hour for us both to board the kayak without throwing the other off the side or completely capsizing the thing all together. To the neutral observer it must have made for hilarious viewing. Fortunately for us, the only witness to these events was the thriving wildlife. The cicadas continued their estranged choruses and the rain drove itself into every orifice that wasn’t, by way of a miracle, already wet.
The sight of Sommai waiting by the bank of the river stirred a dormant pool of energy inside me. We steered soberly, careful to paddle in unison to avoid knocking the boat off balance.
Once we’d gathered enough momentum it was only a matter of time before the nose of the vessel ground against the river’s grassy banks. We threw ourselves onto firm ground. Sommai yanked the body of the kayak until it sat beside his own.
“You kayak very slow. What is wrong with you?” enquired Sommai.
“It’s the boat! It’s sinking!” snapped my Skinny Partner.
“Sinking you say? It does feel a bit heavy. Let me see.”
Sommai trudged up and down the grass that lined our red kayak.
He caressed the facial hair on his chin. “Hmm...Blue tack has disappeared from plug. Kayak been filling up with water.”
“Blue tack? You put blue tack in the plug of a-” I was cut short.
“Leave it mate.” My Skinny Friend started. “I don’t think health and safety rules are quite the same over here as they are back in the UK. Let’s get on with it, eh?”
I nodded. He had a point.
“Help me drain water,” said Sommai.
It took the power of all three of us to upturn the kayak in order to empty it. Taupe water spilled from the plug for over twenty minutes.
“It nearly full. You lucky,” Sommai pointed out.
“No shi-” Again, my Skinny Friend cut me off.
“Thanks a lot Sommai. What can we put in the plug in place of blue tack?” He said cooley.
“Oh great,” I moaned.
Sommai produced a roll of silver duck tape and wrapped a sturdy wedge of the stuff over the void of the plug in question.
“That should hold,” he said triumphantly.
“I bloody well-”
My Skinny Friend threw the palm of his hand up in protest.
“Enough,” he mouthed.
“Thank you Sommai.”
And so we plopped back into our makeshift vessel and floated down the Nam Cam hoping that duck tape would prove to be more water-resistant than blue tack, singing lyrics from The Smiths at the top of our voices. It just seemed like the right thing to do.
Top Tip: If you get a chance to ride an elephant through the jungle be sure to wear trousers, as the flies that feed off the elephant will bite your legs.
Above: An Elephant Ride Through Jungle.
From the town of Luang Prabang it’s possible to book an adventure trek for two days and one night for $12 (US). This includes food, local accommodation and activities such kayaking, hiking, mountain biking and elephant riding. It’s hard to miss the place from which we booked our trek, it’s located in the town centre (near the monastery) and has a huge plastic elephant outside its doors. Failing that, look out for an eco tour operator called Tiger Trails.