Northern Laos – Luang NamthaBack to Story

Luang Namtha - a base for visiting hill tribes and lush rice fields

One of the most magical areas to experience the hill tribes and minority groups in Asia is the north of Laos. Some perseverance is required to reach the more remote villages but it is well worth the experience. On this trip I have joined a group run by Mark Stennett from Drift Photography and we are joined by photographer Paul Wager.

Our first destination is Luang Namtha where we will base ourselves for a couple of days and visit the local hill tribes. While to government lists 49 minority groups in Laos I believe the popular understanding is that there are nine in Luang Namtha.

Ban Namdee – a Lanten Village

Our local guide informs us that there is a coming of age ceremony being performed in the local village of Ban Namdee. This village is home to the small minority group known as the Lanten who came to Laos 100 years ago from China.

Making paper known as saa paper from mulberry bark is one of their specialties that continues today. As we enter the village we descend a steep hill to cross a small stream. On our left we can see the children in the village swimming and playing in the deeper water. Like so many children they are laughing and trying to out jump and splash each other from a strategic large rock in the middle of the stream. It is the dry season so the stream is modest but you can easily see how the rains would cause this stream to become a raging river and isolate the village.

On the bank of the river one of the local woman is hard at work making the saa paper. She is very shy and understandably finds the cameras confronting. Nothings stops her focus on the paper though. She is spreading layers of a thick paste made from the mulberry bark onto a rack to dry in the sun. Like all the women in the village, she is wearing the very distinctive traditional dress. They make a fabric which is a very deep navy blue and trimmed with white tassels. Many of the ladies also have a bright pink sash tied around their waist making the outfit very striking. From their knees down they wear a white stocking which at first glance almost looks like bandages. Later on our walk around we see the area where they weave and make their own cotton.

Walking through the village you can see that many of the huts are raised from the ground. The structures are typically built from wood with thatch grassing for a roof. There is one building made from bricks and this is where we are headed to a spiritual ceremony performed for the coming of age for a young man. Like many of the minority groups, this tribe is Animist, which is a belief in the spirits. The ceremony is obviously a male domain as all the village men are gathered for the event. Both the older men who perform the rituals and the young male participants wear vibrant clothes in red and a royal blue. Many wear scarves wrapped around their heads.

The young men are sitting on lower, small stools while the elders place layers of paper on their heads. These elders then walk in circles around the younger men while chanting. Trimming the paper comes next and this seems to be light on the floor. Like many western celebrations some of the men seem oblivious to the ceremony and more intent on drinking lao lao the potent rice wine. In a sign of true hospitality we are invited to have a drink of this potent alcohol.

So it was with glows in our faces in many ways that we stumbled from this amazing experience. We stepped outside blinking in the bright sun to see the women still hard at work outside. As we cross the river we can see where the cotton is produced and some more women are busy in the process of drying and dying their fabrics.

Ban Namyang – an Akha village

Our next village experience took us high into the mountains on a road that could loosen a filling in your tooth. We rattle our way to this hilltop village to experience another unique tribe. The talk of this village is that last week electricity came to the village and you can both see and hear the effect of this modern convenience. Firstly one of the first things purchased was a $US60 television from the Chinese markets. A villager proudly announced it came with the satellite dish that you can see perched outside his hut.

It is, however, not the TV you can hear but music blasting from one of the huts. Listening to music seems to be an important part of their lives as does the mobile phone that can now be charged with the new electricity. No mention was made of any refrigeration or cooking benefits but maybe that is because we were talking to the men in the village.

The village seems to be awash with children. Families in the villages are large and infant/child mortality unfortunately a way of life. The children seem to have access to school until secondary school when many in the villages return to work. The rice fields that supply the village food are pointed our miles away across the hilltops and it seems like a days work just to get there.

Luang Namtha

The town of Luang Namtha wasn’t any sort of tourist attraction in its own right. It is obviously a base for trekking into some of the nearby mountains and every second shop seems to offer day trips. A very encouraging thing to see is that the tourist operators are working very closely with villagers to ensure that visitors are providing a positive impact where possible. Work such as weaving and small shops are encouraged to provide some cash instead of giving children sweets or begging.

Early one morning we make our way out to the village markets to see the the locals coming to buy their daily produce. The markets in the communities also act as a social meeting point. As the light was unfavourable for photography we soon took to the streets. It was here we met many of locals and got to see the young monks walking the street performing their alms. As Buddhist monks they receive their food from those in the village. It is a duty performed with seriousness on both sides and you can see villagers kneeling to give their offering. It is a riot of colour as the saffron robes contrast with the dirt road and surrounding trees.

Luang Ban Namtha, Minority Villages and Rice Fields

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