After the not-so-pleasant ending to the day tour the previous day with its unremarkable experiences, I was hoping the 2-day trip with a home stay in a Yao village would be better. The lady we talked to at Phonetip seemed knowledgeable about the whole thing and was quite pleasant.
I had been in Laos for a couple of days already and was itching for a real Lao experience, whatever that meant to me. Perhaps, being a Christmas Day, this trip would be more memorable.
We deposited our large packs at Phonetip, filled our bottles from the dispenser at the restaurant at Manichen and did last-minute toilet chores.
The tuk-tuk arrived promptly and at 8:30am we departed for the 40k ride to the trail head along the road to Muang Sing. The scenery was beautiful as the asphalt road wound through the mountainside though much of it was of rubber plantations. Villages lined the road while locals weighed down with baskets of produce, slowly walked along the side.
I’ve been holding on my piss ever since we left Luang Namtha town and just when I was about ready to knock on the glass window separating us from the driver, the tuk-tuk stopped. Our driver pointed to a man hurrying up from the road. We got our bags and met our guide, Som, a H’mong.
The first hundred meters of the trail was quite steep. I had not hiked for a long time and I could feel its effect. Finally, the trail leveled off and we took a break at rest point with benches to catch our breath. Som said that we were done with the steepest part of the climb. Great. There was one more steep ascent from the waterfall but not as steep as the one we had just hiked.
The trail was very quiet as there wasn’t anyone else. We were in old growth forest and the scenery wasn’t unlike anything I had seen before in my hikes back home but it felt good to be under a canopy of trees and hearing bird calls. At times, Som would stop and listen trying to figure out if there was an animal or if he could spot the chirping bird. Near the trail head, he had paused to look at some tracks he identified as coming from a wild pig. We saw a few colorful birds and a squirrel. Som also pointed-out some indelible mushrooms growing on the side of the trail. We smelled the broken-off branch of a plant that had the scent of Tiger Balm.
We arrived at the waterfall after about an hour and a half of hiking. A steep and slippery wooden staircase descended to a small viewpoint. Being dry season, there wasn’t much water.
It was only 11 am so we decided to continue up the steep trail to the hill and have lunch there instead.
It took us 40 minutes to finally reach the clearing where two teenagers with slingshots were hanging around. A third one appeared from the trail behind them and they were soon gone after engaging in a brief conversation with Som. They were off to hunt and gather some fragrant flowers in bloom this time of the year. These were to be given to girls they fancied.
Som spread-out some banana leaves and unpacked our lunch of grilled tilapia, steamed vegetables, eggplant jeow, sticky rice, hard-boiled eggs, and bananas. Compared to the previous day’s lunch, this one was delicious and tasty, especially the jeow. Or perhaps all that hiking made everything seemed delicious.
After lunch, Som told us stories about the Green H’mong and how they used to eat people. Really interesting.
We continued the hike. The trail was mostly level which was good as we were quite full. We passed a few spots where cooking fires had been made. There were scattered blue-grey feathers and some leftover rice. Apparently, birds are a cheap and available source of protein.
Som had been explaining how hunting with guns are not allowed in Laos when we ran into a couple of men in camouflage jackets. The sight of them was a bit disconcerting as I feared they were soldiers, not that there was anything to fear. Of course, I was just being my paranoid self. After all I come from a country with an insurgency problem being fought out in the jungles. They were friendly and talked with Som. One of them had a big saw for cutting trees. There was freshly-cut timber lying on the side of the trail to be used for building houses.
When we were a few meters pass them, Som asked if I saw the guns they hid on the tall grass when they saw us coming. I didn’t but Oleg did. We then heard the sound of a gun. Som stopped, made some noise, then went off trail and talked to some men somewhere-only-God-knows in the forest. Of course, Oleg and I didn’t dare look who was talking to as it might not be a welcome move, knowing that hunting with guns was illegal.
Back at the trail, we heard another gun shot.
We emerged from the forest to an exposed trail bounded by agricultural lands. It seemed we were nearing habitation as about a hundred meters down, motorbike tracks were visible. A few meters later, we came upon two motorbikes on the side of the trail.
Music came wafting from somewhere. A good sign that the village was quite near. A couple of teenagers with really long guns came ambling up the trail on motorbikes.
The final stretch of the trail was dusty and exposed to the sun. It wasn’t really fun anymore as there wasn’t any view. I walked ahead of Som and Oleg. The music became more distinct and as I turned round a corner, a few meters down, I saw some houses. After two and a half hours since lunch at the top of the hill, we had arrived at the village.
Oleg wanted to check-out the party from where the music was coming from but as we headed down the path, some guy on a motorbike told Som it was a party for some government officials who were there to open a newly-built road. That meant it was off-limits to us.
Turning to some houses behind us, I saw a Yao women decked in traditional dress doing some embroidery. She beckoned to me and I told Som and Oleg I wanted to go to her.
This was my first Yao encounter.