Northern Laos – Muang Sing and North of Luang NamthaBack to Story

Northern Laos - hill tribes & spectacular mountains

Having spent a couple of days in villages and rice fields around Luang Namtha we head north on a road trip that will take us close to the Chinese border. It is not far out of town on our journey before we reach our first village to visit. There are many minority groups living in villages in the North of Laos that will make your trip to this area special.

Muang Sing

This is the first of the H’mong villages we visited and one which became a firm favourite with many in the group. This was largely because of the warmth and friendliness of the people. The H’mong people are believed to be the aboriginal inhabitants of China. It is believed due to conflicts with the State they moved further south and eventually into in 1800 fled to Laos and Vietnam. As late settlers they typically built their villages in the rugged parts of the hills and mountains and many of the villages are still there today.

The H’mong history in modern Laos has been very controversial in nature. During the cold war and the height of the fear of communism the H’mong sided with the American CIA firstly as a source of intelligence and later as soldiers. At this time Laos was heavily bombed and many lives were lost. When the CIA left Laos many H’mong people were incarcerated for years and suffered persecution that they still experience the tail of to this day. As a result of this turbulent history many H’mong people have settled in America and many of the villagers in Northern Laos today receive support from their families in America.

Blissfully unaware at this stage, though, we enter what turns out to be a charming and friendly village. As we walk into the village there is an immediate shared curiosity between our groups. The village has also received electricity and one of the first houses we see consists mainly of one large room which has a giant television – an odd site amongst a village with huts with dirt floors.

Like many of the local villages there are lots of children and babies around. The boys are busy playing marbles and the girls elastics. Proving again the universal nature of children at play. They are soon entertained by members of our group with iphones and the novelty of new faces. Woman are busy on the outskirts of the village preparing the grasses that will be made into brooms and exported mostly to China.

Similar to some of the other villages in the area this one is not a destination in its own right. The edge of town borders on the rice fields that would be beautiful in another season. I am told September is a good time to see the rice fields. There is an interesting local market where you can see both the local people and also have an insight into what they buy and, therefore, eat.

Meat is largely used as a flavouring in the food and the main meats are pork and chicken. Local fish is caught from the rivers and used in cooking as well. Lemongrass, coriander, chillies and ginger are the main ingredients used to flavour the dishes with mint also playing an important role. In the villages where food is scarce dog is eaten as is any bird or small rodent that can be caught. In some cases we saw the tell tale signs of children with swollen stomachs and lightened hair from malnutrition so it is no wonder they will grill anything.

Buddhism is also an important part of life in Northern Laos. Many of the villagers intergrate Buddhism with Animism, which is a belief in spirits. The local temple in Muang Sing is well worth the visit as it is very colourful. Many of the village people send their boys to the temples to be educated and on the day we visited we saw many young boys around the temple.

Black Tai Minority (Thai Dam)

One of the villages we visited belonged to the minority group known as the Black Tai. Traditionally this group came from North Vietnam where they moved to get away from the communist regime. This village specialised in weaving silk and nearly every house had a loom under or beside the house. Like many of the minority groups they are  animists who believe in the spirits of forests, cities, villages, houses and their ancestors. Each house or hut usually has photographs of ancestors on the walls which are prayed to. Similar to many of the groups modernisation has changed village life a little and traditional dress is no longer worn on a daily basis.

Yao village

Another spot to visit is the Yao village. Unfortunately only the older women who seem to be intent on selling their handicrafts still wear the impressive traditional clothes. The skirts were very colourful but what you notice is the striking deep red neck trim that resembles a boa from a distance. You can see the effect of tourism and modernisation of the village. The traditional life is rapidly changing. Many of the Yao people have also moved away as they were seen as American sympathisers. Many now live in North Thailand and the United States.

Travel photographs from Northern Laos - Ban Namtha, Muang Sing and surrounding minority villages

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