Saturday, 2 July 2011

Luang Namtha trip

 A few weeks ago I went to one of the northern provinces (Luang Namtha) for a work trip.  The provincial meeting (about developing plans for maternal and child health and nutrition) started on Monday but I managed to fly up there the weekend before with a friend from work. We decided to go trekking and spent 2 days hiking around a beautiful area of protected forest and stayed in a Lahu village.

Laos is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in South East Asia with 149 officially recognised ethnic groups within 47 main ethnicities.  The Lahu ethnic group have a very small presence in Laos (around 10,000) and belong to the Tibeto-Burman sub-group (I think....) - of course, Wiki will tell you more here:   :)  

The village was on the top of a mountain, about 3 hours hike uphill to the nearest road - no running water, no latrines, no electricity (although we did see some solar powered lamps) and the people there do not speak Lao.  The kids had never been to school and receiving health care, injections etc. is problematic as the villagers have to find out from another village a few hours walk away when the health visitor is in that village, and bring their children at that time for their jabs.  

A lot of  UNICEF's work in Laos focuses on trying to improve equitable access for more vulnerable communities, particularly more minority ethnic groups (like the Lahu), so it was really interesting to get to visit a village like this in a non-official capacity.  Sometimes the "real picture" can be distorted somewhat if the visit is planned and accompanied by the district authorities... :)  So far in my travels around the country I've been able to meet people from a variety of ethnic groups, but this was the first time I got to stay in such a remote village with so little in the way of services - most places I had been to before at least had a shared water tap or even a basic 1 or 2 grade primary school.

The trek itself was great fun. After arriving in the village late afternoon (after a couple of hours hiking) we walked down to the nearest water source (about 15 mins downhill) to try to get rid of some of the sweat from the hike (impossible). Despite our efforts at maintaining our modesty, the village children thought the sight of us washing ourselves was absolutely hilarious.  My pitiful Lao was also useless as they speak another language! Walking back up to the village again rendered us sweaty once more, so we just resigned ourselves to the smell.  Our two guides cooked the evening meal (which included potatoes! - I felt like a little piece of Ireland was right here in Laos) and a couple of rounds of cards was followed by enjoying an amazing sunset before succumbing to a disrupted night's sleep - cockerels don't just crow at sunrise... The next day we packed up and continued on our way - this time about 5 hours hike along a different path down to the road.

The most hilarious moment of the weekend has to be visiting one of the tiny local houses and seeing this toothless old grandmother happily smoking away on a homemade bong - of course my first thought was opium (it is grown in the mountainous regions), but one of our party gamely offered to sample it and assured us it was only tobacco.  Anyway, the old granny was having a great time with it!

UNICEF is about to open a field office up in Luang Namtha, so I may have the opportunity to visit once again!
dinnertime for the pigs - yum

dinnertime for us - double yum


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