To experience something “truly authentic”. Surely that’s one of the main reasons why we travel? To completely understand a local culture that’s different to our own and experience their way of life. To immerse yourself in how others live, whilst also benefiting the host community and leaving a positive impact.
That’s my favourite thing about travel anyway.
I’m lucky enough to say that this trip to an Akha Tribe Village in the remote corner of Northern Laos was honestly the most memorable experience of my travels so far.
We arranged this trip back in 2014 through Tiger Trails Laos and as soon as I saw a photo of the village and read about the activities involved I knew it would be such a fantastic experience. The “Akha Village Experience Project” is a co-operation project with the goal of generating alternative income for former Opium-growing communities through sustainable volunteer-tourism.
The experience took us deep into the mountains of the region of Phongsali, the northernmost, poorest and most remote region of Laos. We later found out that only a few groups had previously taken the trip, even this conversation didn’t prepare me for how amazing the experience was going to be. I just really did not know what to expect.
So Shaun and I met our guide Puk in Luang Prabang for the start of the journey and for the duration of the entire first day we were squished onto a local bus which took us to a small town halfway in between Luang Prabang and our destination in Phongsali province. Puk explained that the journey was going to take 2 days in total, we would then have to hike up a mountain from the roadside to get to the village.
We checked into a local hotel for the first night and went out for a meal of ‘real Laos food’ as Puk called it, before getting a good night sleep ready for the long bus journey the next day.
As far as bus journeys go, how exciting can they be? Well to me this was one of my favourite in Asia. We squeezed onto the bus first thing in the morning, next to people dressed in traditional tribal clothing. My feet were propped up on a bag of rice. The whole bus was jammed full. Knowing what Laos roads can be like, I took 2 travel sickness tablets in preparation. The roads were often little dirt track roads, winding up higher into the mountains, the views were incredible and the roads had very steep drops and LOTS of bends. So many people were throwing up around us. The bus would often stop for a bit where there would be a few squat toilets, a few stalls selling all variety’s of insects, and tribal ladies wandered past the windows with their baskets selling fruits and other things I had never seen before. We were all covered in dust, all our clothes and our faces and hair from the open bus windows and every time the bus went around a corner the dust would fly in through the windows and cover us again.
I don’t know how many hours later, we eventually made it to our stop. Filthy and sweaty and starving from the lack of food; myself, Shaun and Puk were the only ones to hop off the bus. It was a very small village in the mountains on the roadside, and as we untied our walking boots from our packs and put them on people emerged from their homes, and then everyone around was staring at us. We tried waving at the children, smiling, but just received blank expressionless stares.
Puk later explained to us that the children in the village we are going to may be a little frightened of us too, some may have never seen a white person before, and apparently an old story up here is that white people are ghosts. But anyway we got on our hiking boots, packed up all our remaining water, and we started the climb up. Behind the villagers houses there was a little path that led into the trees, and this is where the trek began.
The first part of the walk was humid, surrounded by vegetation as we walked up through the jungle, there were many insects flying and crawling around so it didn’t take me long to throw on some long trousers over my shorts.
Okay so I don’t think I realised how unfit I was. 40 degrees up a steep incline and 1 minute in and I felt like I could barely breath. Each step I took felt painful, my pack weighing me down, and Puk seemed to find it so easy he was walking at a ridiculous speed, concious that we wouldn’t make the village before it was dark.
An hour in, I was so happy to hear it was time for our lunch break. The 3 of us found a spot to sit on, I was definitely glad to have my long trousers on at this point as it was impossible to sit anywhere that didn’t involve ants. Puk opened up a box of cold rice with egg, we quickly ate it and then again we were off.
At just 3 hours in.. I felt that my heart was going to stop! How could I be so unprepared for this. I was now rather dizzy too and there was a vertical drop below me. Thankfully Puk insisted I needed to stop for a rest, Shaun then took the majority of the water in his pack, and Puk took my backpack (yay)
4 hours in…. My entire top is drenched with sweat. I have never sweated this much, I can even ring it out. So gross. Shaun and I had also now drank half the water supply for the whole 4 days.
I kept asking Puk if we were nearly there, and he kept saying it’s ‘just around the next corner’. It wasn’t, and amusingly for him and Shaun, he kept lying to me for about another hour! Eventually though, we started to see signs that humanity was near. The bamboo plants, many had been chopped. And on the mountain opposite us, Puk pointed out to us people hunting.
We eventually made it. We were led down a little steep hill to the village and down to the chiefs house, where we would be staying. It was an honour to stay with the chief, we met him and his wife, his parents, and his 2 children. A small boy and a baby girl.
The ladies in the village wore beautiful Akha clothing. Only the men could speak a bit of Laos, so they were the only ones we could communicate with through Puk. The family had the biggest house in the village, with 2 floors. We were shown our room upstairs where we would sleep on some mats on the floor.
They boiled us some water and put in some leaves – ‘tea, for you’ said Puk ‘ Ah, cop chai’ I said. We were so red in the face and sweaty it was quite embarrassing, so definitely time for a shower!
Puk gave us a bucket and a cup for washing and Shaun and I took the walk down to the tap. There was a queue for the 1 tap to share with 76 families , there was also a growing audience of people gathering to watch us, as well as wasps, and a water buffalo to share the washing area with.
I had no idea how to wash here, how much flesh was acceptable to show, and it was difficult with the majority of the village staring at us blankly. While we waited in the queue I watched how the other women washed so I could try and copy, by the looks of it the women wore a sarong while washing. When it was my go I tried to copy with my travel towel wrapped around me, I didn’t want to get it too wet as it was the only towel I had with me, so I tried to wash with difficulty as I flashed my bikini way too many times, which only gathered more stares. For Shaun it was acceptable for him to wash in just his pants, but once he had finished an elderly lady started frantically pointing at his t-shirt suggesting he must put it back on again now!
Back at the hut we are told by Puk it’s time to go meet the school teachers now. The school was the other side of the village looking over the mountain edge, the teachers lived in a little hut, nothing like the chiefs house. We all sat around a little table, and they give us beer Laos! It got passed around the table again and again and again, each time a cup of it had to be downed in one! The food wasn’t quite so fun, there was raw squirrel .. Squirrel soup… larp, more egg, egg with chilli in, more rice, bamboo sticks and wild flowers.
Back at the chiefs house, his wife had prepared a big dinner for us all. So it was already time for another adventurous meal. The women and children sat around one table and us and the men sat around another table. This second dinner consisted of egg stew, bamboo stew, sticky rice, boiled chicken bones and wild pig… and lots of home-made rice whiskey! My eyes stung so much from the smoke of the stove inside the hut. The food wasn’t fantastic, but for someone who didn’t even eat egg before this trip, it was a great experience for me to try a bit of everything.
The rest of our time in the village was spent teaching English in the school or helping out vegetable picking. We had bought balloons with us for the children, as well as pens and pencils and paper. When we blew up the balloons at the school, the children then seemed to warm to us and didn’t seem too scared. The school children really wanted to learn, and really quickly picked up the English Alphabet. Later that evening as we walked past the tap, I noticed one of the children sat under it. His balloon had burst, but he still wouldn’t let it go. He was even playing with the broken piece of balloon in the shower.
Vegetable picking was slightly harder work than teaching, being out in the sun in the heat on the mountain edge. The views were incredible, but I couldn’t imagine having to do that every day of my life.
On our last night a chicken was chosen to be slaughtered, it’s neck was slit inside the house, the blood then drained into a bowl and the blood was served straight onto the table, then the whole chicken was boiled and served, and everyone dug into it all, including the brain, beak, eyes, feet, claws, bones and brain, dipped into the blood of course. For us however, we were given a big bowl of the chicken breast. The chief called the spirits for our lucky leaving ceremony.
When the ladies weren’t cooking, collecting food or firewood, looking after the children or cleaning they seemed to spend a bit of time sowing. And on our last night a spiritual ritual was performed and we were given a bracelet, which Shaun still wears to this day!
The next day it was time to leave, and time for the trek back down again (it was much easier going down, just as sweaty though) followed by a 3 hour wait in the village for our bus. We sat outside a little shop by the road while we waited, and crowds gathered as we sat there. People would stop on their moped for a look at us, as the children would point and shout ‘Falang! (meaning foreigner). Other children would come over and sit and stare for hours, not responding, not to waves or anything.
We were so hot and sweaty after the trek that the owner of the shop really nicely allowed us into their hut toilet and we used a bucket of water to wash. We eventually, after over 3 hours of waiting, got on a bus to the town. Shaun sat on a bag of rice in the isle, I sat squished on the back row, a toddler next to me wearing just a large filthy tshirt clutched a little bag of sick and every few minutes would throw up in it and then turn to look after her mother, who was dressed in Akha tribe clothing, she was extremely sick and had her head in her legs crying.
We arrived at the next town then got a 9 hour bus ride the back to Luang prabang , with no seat, because the only seats left were ‘reserved for the spirits’ so again we sat on the floor, the very hard floor. I had ran out of travel sickness tablets so I sat on the steps near the front door and watched the road and the steep drops. Shaun sat on a plastic chair in the isle for a while then decided it would be better to just sit on the floor as the bus rocked so much, his iPod and phone had died so he sat there swaying with each bend listening to the Laos music played on the bus all the way. It was an unconformable journey, but a great time to reflect on the amazing experience we had just had.
We were happy when we arrived back to Luang Prabang. Puk booked us into a lovely hotel that night which his sister owned. It was no surprise when we woke up with food poisoning the next morning. But that’s all just part of the fun.
Have you experienced something like this before? What was it like? Are you considering trying something like this and would like further advice? Share your thoughts/ comments in the comments below!
We booked this trip through Tiger Trail Laos: laos-adventures.com. This is not a sponsored post, just my genuine opinions of how amazing the experience was.