Sunday 7 February 2010

Leaving Laos via Si Phan Don

The most famous tourist spot in the south of Laos might be Si Phan Don, Lao for 4,000 Islands, where the Mekong runs through the land like strands of hair. Mark Elliot says that, in the rainy season, there are only 2,000 islands, but the scale of the Mekong means you need Google Maps to see more than four at once. Don Det and Don Khon provide the hub and offer plenty of bungalows, restaurants and tour operators. There are no towering karsts around here so it’s great for easy cycling, which is the best way to cruise the rice fields and cross the bridge from Don Det to Don Khon to find the old steam engine and the waterfalls (even the ‘small waterfall’ is huge). Even though there are no mountains, the mud and rocky paths meant that everyone without a mountain bike spent as much time fixing the chain as they did in the saddle. We didn’t see the elusive Irrawaddy dolphins, although there is a label for them on Google Maps so they must be there. There’s a big gap between destinations in the centre and the south of Lao and I’m not sure that it’s worth making a special trip down for Si Phan Don, but it’s a great place to relax for anyone coming to or from Cambodia.

You could bum around Laos for a month, as we did, and almost completely forget that this is the most bombed country in the world, and that during the Vietnam War, more bombs were dropped on it than were dropped during the entire course of the Second World War. Mark Elliot suggests that, today, the Lao government is even more oppressive than that of Burma in the respect that, even though it’s severely weakened, an opposition party does at least exist. But unless you make the effort to dig deeper, it’s easy just to kick back in another waterfall, admire the beauty around you and relax. Even the street sellers, of which there aren’t many, are more of a laugh than a hassle. Because English is not often spoken, the focus of communication usually being a menu written in both English and Laos, personal views are hard to come by, so it’s easier to get a sense of Laos’ past and present from the guidebooks than it is from being there. Cambodia is a completely different story...

In the tube in Vang Vieng - with photos

When I’d been tubing in Vang Vieng ten years ago, it was a very relaxed affair involving nothing more than bobbing down the river in a big tyre inner tube for an afternoon and getting out at the end and having a beer. My first clue that things might have escalated somewhat was back in Africa when I’d seen a girl wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with “In the tube in Vang Vieng”. Crikey, I thought, they didn’t have T-shirts for it in my day. The full extent of the change was revealed during dinner on our first night in Vang Vieng as we watched an army of tourists wander up the road, barefoot and barely wearing bikinis and swimming shorts, carrying tubes on their shoulders. “Excuse me,” one of them asked us, “where am I?” It was like watching the walking wounded of a glamour-modelling apocalypse. It would take us a few days to psyche ourselves up for this particular lark.

Vang Vieng isn’t all about tubing, it’s also about karsts, rice fields, caves and… well, you’re probably beginning to get the idea. It might sound samey, but it’s hard to get sick of. There’s plenty of walking and the caves here are big enough to pose a genuine threat of getting lost in. Wandering around with Andreas and Heike in a very real pitch black playing Who’s Got The Best Torch, we suddenly stopped to wonder if we’d just imagined a cry for help and then heard it again. We called back. The boys told Heike and I to wait while they went off to get the girl and kill the baddies and returned to tell us that a couple behind us had dropped their torch down a hole. This seemed to prove my earlier point to Andreas that paying for the guide would take the fear of death out of the caving experience. He thought it proved his point that that was the exciting bit.

The night before the day we went tubing, we had a very late night and weren’t in the best of moods for the day’s planned activity. Having decided to go with some friends we’d made, we got caught up in the strange group phenomenon of waiting around for no-one really knows what. To kill time, I made the mistake of asking Martin, the town’s resident tee-totalling, holistic spiritual healer who spent his time telling visitors to Vang Vieng not to drink and organising a system of active democracy in Sweden, what he thought of tubing. “Be careful on the swings, you can come off at the wrong time and break your legs. The slide is dangerous; you can knock your head and lose consciousness in the water. You can break your bones or drown.” There was an uneasy silence as we took this information in. Finally, someone said, “OK, let’s go!” and we left.

Our tuk-tuk took us a few kilometres up the road to the tubing start point; a bar called Mud Bar heaving with scantily clad girls and boys bouncing away to love songs such as Smack My Bitch Up, while others flew thirty of forty feet into the air from a huge swing, landing in the river with a massive splash. I watched carefully for any signs of bones breaking, heads smashing and general drowning, but they all seemed to be quite safe and having a nice time. Still, I wasn’t taking any chances and put my life jacket on, not caring at all that I was the only one wearing one. I wouldn’t be taking it off all day. On one side of the bar people were playing mud volleyball and on the other was a mud slide ending in a mud pool. Everyone was covered in mud. I began to see how the bar got its name. “Oh God,” we muttered to ourselves feeling very old.

Somehow, I got adopted by a girl called Laura who must have noticed my expression and decided to ease me in to the whole thing. “Don’t stand too near the mud volleyball,” she advised, “because someone will throw you in,” and carried on with all kinds of tubing wisdom and words of reassurance. Meanwhile, Alex had decided to have a go on the swing. It seemed to take ages for his turn. Eventually, he had a hold of the swing and I saw his blue shorts dip low then very high and then drop rather elegantly into the water with a generous splash. When he came back, he was entirely intact and it was clear he wasn’t feeling old anymore. “This is fun!” he said.

When we got into our tubes to head to the next bar, I inexplicably managed to drift upstream and ended up stuck next to a tree. “Typical,” I said to myself while everyone else successfully negotiated their way downstream. Eventually, I manoeuvred myself into the drift of the river and bobbed along to the next bar just like a normal person. The thumps of the music died away and there was just the gentle lapping of the water against the tube and the sound of the birds and it all became very peaceful and relaxing. As the next bar approached, an army of Lao guys wielding smaller inner tubes were playing their own game of hoop-the-tuber. I missed the first one, of course, but another was soon flung in my direction and they hauled me in. This was the Slide Bar, aptly named not only for the giant slide pointing at the river, but the manner of getting to the bar which required digging your toes in to the mud to avoid landing at the bottom of the slope on your bum.

“Are you doing the slide?” Laura asked me.
“Don’t be ridiculous, look at it!” It was about 150 feet long and I’ve never pressured myself into being any kind of daredevil.
“Oh, come on, you’ll be fine!”
“Yes, you should do it,” Mandy chimed in. “It’s a great laugh”. Only the other day, Mandy had told me that she’d come off it funny and landed on her stomach.
“No, I’m not doing it.” I was adamant.
“Why don’t you just join the queue, get to the front and see how you feel?” suggested Laura. That seemed reasonable.
“Fine. But if I don’t like it, I’m not doing it.”
“And you won’t think less of me.”
“Of course not. If you’re at all uncomfortable, then that’s it.”
“Alright then.”
On the way up the slippery slope, we bumped into a friend of Laura’s coming the other way who, weirdly, was from Ealing.
“I might do the slide! Are you doing it?”
“No way, someone died doing that thing!” he replied. Laura gave him a very stern look as he walked off.
“Don’t listen to him, ” she said leading me away, “anyway, that was three months ago.” It was her worst display of reassurance all day.

I asked every single person anywhere near me in the queue if I should do it and they all said yes. I should perhaps have been asking people who weren’t in the queue. It was encouraging that everyone ahead of me did it without breaking anything. And then it was our go. “Tell you what,” Laura said, “I’ll go first, get to the side and watch out for you. If you have any kind of trouble, I’ll jump right in and get you. I’m a very strong swimmer.” She was very good, this Laura. Off she went, happy as Larry, and it was my turn to sit at the top of the slide. I couldn’t decide if it didn’t look as bad from there or if it looked much, much worse. I could see Alex and Mandy waving and giving me thumbs up. Then Laura was at the bottom of the slide waving and shouting up that I was going to love it. And then the guy running it told me to lie back, lift my head up at the dip and GO! So, I did. Everything flashed by; I lifted my head at the dip and landed in the water fully conscious and unbroken. An inner tube thrower nearly hooped me, reeled me in and Laura, Mandy and Alex were waiting for me with lots of hugs and congratulations for being so darn brave and looking death full in the face and laughing. It felt very fast to me but, apparently, I slid so slowly that I could have run it quicker and plopped about three feet into the water. At least I didn’t stop completely at the dip and have to climb the ledge and jump off like the girl after me.

We stopped once more, where the guy behind the bar was playing old rave classics, inexplicably stopping them in the middle. Mandy and I tried to play pool but had to give up when another girl started dancing suggestively on the table. More dancers climbed on, threatening to send it crashing through the floor (with Mandy and I shaking our heads at such abuse of a pool table). It was beginning to get dark so we left the party before the party left us and drifted back to town on our tubes where everything was quiet and a shade of blue, feeling happy and rather proud of ourselves. We’d had a brilliant day, we’d partied with the kids and there was still time for a nice cup of tea and an early night.

IMPORTANT NOTE: We heard that someone did die tubing while we were there. We heard that they were not a strong swimmer, lost their tube and drowned. I’d advise anyone going tubing not to get wasted (we didn't, Mum) and take plenty of care and, if remotely necessary, a life jacket. Accidents can and do happen, especially when you’re drunk, but as long as you’re careful, you should have a brilliant time.

The stunning bus journey from Louang Prabang to Vang Vieng:

The quiet side of Vang Vieng:

Down the Nam Ou River to Louang Prabang - with photos

If there’s one place everyone will tell you to visit in Laos it’s Louang Prabang, getting there on a slow boat along the Mekong. But our guidebook had a less commonly touted suggestion for river journeys: rather than take the Mekong across the country, to travel down it on the Nam Ou River. Mark Elliot gave it a rare two stars and we had come to like this guy so we decided to do what he told us. This meant taking a bus across the country, returning first to Luang Namtha then heading east to Oudomxai where we’d stop for a night before continuing on to Muang Kwa, our first stop on the Nam Ou.

The bus journey, particularly on the way to Oudomxai, was breathtaking. The route headed straight for the tops of the hills where it stayed, winding its way along the ridges, sharing the views equally between those sat on the right of the bus and those on the left. Small villages lined themselves precariously along the edge of the road, the front of the houses perched on the roadside and the backs supported by stilts between ten and thirty feet long. The karst scenery became increasingly dramatic until it resembled the peaks made by whipping cream when it’s reached the consistency at which you should whip no more. When the road finally began to descend to the valley, I sat back in my seat, exhausted from switching sides on the bus with my camera, hoping the scenery would calm down a bit so that I could too. Once we’d arrived in Oudomxai, Laos proved again that there’s nothing wrong at all with staying at the very first guesthouse you see, in this case directly opposite the bus station. $2 dollars for a double room included wood panelling, air conditioning, a private bathroom and a satellite TV with a schedule that meant the wrestling started the minute we got back from dinner.

It took five or six hours to reach Muang Kwa from Oudomxai and this time we knew where we wanted to stay because Mark Elliot had told us. That was seven years ago, mind you, so there was no telling if it was still there. But it was. We took a tuk-tuk from the bus station to the town centre, organised very prettily between the main road and the riverbank, of which, apparently, our guesthouse had a charming view, if only we could find it. The town is laced with a network of stone paths and steps and people we asked told us to keep following the path to the river, past the stadium. Once we’d figured out that by ‘stadium’ they meant an old and unkempt badminton court, it was easy to find. It was a dishevelled looking building offering small rooms with a bathroom shoehorned into the corner and a grand view of the river from the restaurant, the staff of which, it turned out, weren’t remotely interested in serving anyone and only did so after repeated coaxing. Even then, they missed out some orders in silent protest. But somehow, looking down at the river and the butterflies fluttering over it in pairs, it didn’t seem worth getting annoyed about.

The next day, we headed down to the port to find out about getting a boat, looking forward to cruising gently along the river between the karsts. But only tourists like to mooch along, everyone else has stuff to do and prefers to take a speedboat so it was either wait for some fellow moochers, charter the entire boat for ourselves or don a crash helmet. When the speedboat captain promised to go slow, we decided to go with him. He didn’t of course and Mark Elliot’s rare two stars zipped by in a little over an hour and a half, with my helmet’s visor crashing over my vision with an alarming bang every time there was a bump, of which there were many, and all of a sudden we were in Muang Ngoi where we walked straight into the first bungalow establishment we saw.

It was about lunchtime by this point so we went to the closest restaurant to our bungalows where we got chatting to a farang couple.
“How are you liking Muang Kwa?” we asked.
“Yeah, it’s nice. Very pretty,” the girl half said. “But not much to do. Another cave, another waterfall,” she continued with a languid wave of her arm. “Always another cave, another waterfall,” she sighed, as if that were a bad thing. “In two weeks, you’ve done Laos.”
“Is there much walking around here?” asked Alex.
“No,” they both replied flatly, spreading Laughing Cow cheese onto their baguettes. Fortunately, our orders arrived before the conversation sapped completely my enthusiasm for Laos and life in general.

It turned out that, far from there being no walking to do, there was masses and masses of walking to do. A trail at the opposite side of the town to the river and parallel to it goes past the school at the end and to a wooded path that leads to the cave with glimpses of rice fields on either side. At the cave, there was the usual 37p charge to play in it, from which a spring of almost icy cold water bubbles up from the ground before making it’s way down to the Nam Ou River. The fee also covers the walk beyond the cave to a hill tribe village which takes you through terraced rice fields surrounded on all sides by karsts towering high above. We’d been told, or perhaps we’d just assumed, that the village was an hour and a half away. But it wasn’t. We came across some walkers coming the other way, dressed to the nines in walking gear. “Have you found the village?” asked Alex as I flicked a leach off his foot, but they hadn’t and had given up. We decided to give it another half hour and came across a sign pointing towards the village. We followed it and, before long, there it was. As if by magic, the very first building we saw displayed a big sign giving prices for food and beer. We had just finished our first when the walkers we’d passed arrived having refused, apparently, to be out-walked by a couple in flip-flops. We all decided to leave the 3-hour trek for the next village along for another day.

It was easy for a few days to drift by in Muang Ngoi watching the boats, as well as the occasional herd of buffalo, chug their way down the river and enjoying all the walking that wasn’t to be done. Then we headed on down the river. This time we managed to get a slow boat, packed to the rafters with tourists so busy in conversation I wanted to stand up and shout, “Oh my God, look! There’s Laos!” feeling like we were the only ones to notice. The next stop was Nang Kio, arranged on either side of an enormous bridge crossing the river. After crossing the bridge, the first bungalows we saw were called Sunset Bungalows, just along from Sunrise Bungalows, which oddly shared the same view. It’s another charming little town, in a similar setting to the previous stops, with the obligatory cave and waterfall (the cave being conveniently on the way to the waterfall). Another few days passed blissfully by and we found we were running out of time and had to forgo the rest of the river route and take a bus on to Louang Parabang.

Although the Nam Ou is an undoubtedly touristy route, it’s a very low-key kind of tourism and the fact that there really are only caves and waterfalls to see is a large part of the charm. The best way to do it is to be in no rush at all so you can wait for the slow boats to fill up. And remember to take plenty of cash – there are no ATMs whatsoever along the route.

Louang Prabang was everything it was cracked up to be and is another example of tourism at its finest. It is also where I finally got sick of reading the phrase ‘saffron robed monks’ and I’d like to point out that some of them are probably ochre. I did try to get up at dawn to photograph the monks taking alms but found that the guesthouse was oblivious to this suggestion in every tourist's guidebook and had the place locked up. The morning of our departure, we bumped into a German couple we’d met along the Nam Ou with whom we’d exchanged information about volunteering opportunities.
“Where are you off to next?” they asked.
“Vang Vieng!” we replied.
“Really?" They arched an eyebrow. "Oh... Well, good luck!” We could tell they were distinctly disappointed in us.

Nam Ou boat journey:

Muang Ngoi:

Nang Kio:

The trek – day three

Little did we know when we tended to our mosquito bites and scratches the next morning that we’d be starring in our own episode of Peak Practice. Our first aid kit, the smallest we could find, could have had blue and red flashing lights for the attention it attracted. Alex dealt with the first, a tiny little boy with a mean looking cut on his toe who watched with mild curiosity and without flinching as Alex dressed his wound. Next, a lady showed me an enormous bruise on her leg onto which I massaged a healthy dose of tiger balm-like ointment that we’d picked up in Krabi, so strong it coated your throat if you smelt it. When I looked up, a queue had formed. One tub of ointment and nearly all the contents of our first aid kit later and it was time to make our way again. The whole village waved us off.

Whoever designed our walk decided to let us take it a bit easier on our last day. There was some obligatory up and down stuff, but mostly the narrow path teetered almost horizontally along the side of the hills, our feet occasionally slipping off the side to keep our concentration up. We’d been able to see rain clouds throughout the trek, usually below us, but now Sao thought they might be scheming against us. “I think we should take a short cut,” he said giving the clouds a sideways glance. The shortcut took us off the path and through a rice paddy that covered an entire stretch of hill with a view for miles of the surrounding hills covered in a patchwork of fields, disappearing behind us in a grey fog of the approaching rain. We walked with the extra excitement of being chased.

Finally, we arrived at another Akha hill tribe where the swing celebration marking the end of the weeding of the rice was in full… swing. Built with three large branches lashed together at the top, the swing seat hung down some twenty feet. Villagers took it in turns and were pushed by others to reach full momentum in what would have been for me a terrifying oscillation, but these guys weren’t nearly as wussy as I am and yelled with excitement. We’d have watched all evening, but our truck was waiting to take us back to Muang Sing. It was a fitting and very lucky end to the trek.

It was the best trek I’ve ever done. The scenery was beautiful, the food was outstanding and we were treated like guest of honours at the hill tribe village. It was the kind of hill tribe trek that any potential hill tribe trekker would want. Though if the route becomes more popular and the hill tribe becomes more regularly visited, it’s hard to see that it could remain as special an experience as it was for us and, hopefully, for them. Which, ultimately I guess, is the nature of hill tribe trekking in particular and tourism in general.

When we arrived back in Muang Sing, it didn't go unnoticed. The girls in the small bamboo shop were waiting for us. They hadn't forgotten my promise to see them wan jan (Monday). "You remember!" they said as they saw me. "Of course I remember," I replied. "How could I forget?" They laughed and looked me up and down before suggesting, "You go take shower first?"

The trek – day two with photos

Even though we were tired and a bit squiffy from the Lao Lao, sleep that night required grim determination. A needing-the-toilet dream had woken me in the night and I lay in the dark deciding if it was urgent enough to negotiate around my roommates, find my shoes and the torch, avoid the ashy remains of the fire, the buffalo dung, not to mention the buffalo, without slipping in the mud or waking anyone up. Hell no, I decided, so by the time I woke up the next morning, I’d needed the toilet for hours. When I headed off to my toilet spot over the brow of the hill, stiff and bleary-eyed, I saw that we were above a thick, creamy layer of cloud. “Now we’re in heaven,” Sao had been saying every time we’d seen clouds below us. I was going to the toilet in heaven (just a number one).

When I returned to the hut, I was heartened to see that Sao wasn’t any more rested than Alex and I, though TZ seemed to have slept like a baby. Sao showed me his rucksack, which, as promised, had fallen apart. A shoulder strap had come away completely from the rest of the bag and hung limply in his hand. My Leatherman is great for taking fabrics apart, but not so good at mending them. “What will you do?” I asked. “Maybe they have string at the village,” he replied casually. I wanted to offer to help, but I think I saw him work out that anything he gave me to carry would end up broken, spilled, or covered in mud.

After another enormous meal for breakfast, we were on our way again. I’d found the first day hard going because it had involved, as you’d expect, a lot of walking up hills and, although I like walking, I’d rather walk down a hill than up it. But, as the song goes, what goes up must come down. After a brief upwards march, we meandered along a ridge with beautiful views of hills scattered with clouds and, far off in the distance, Sao pointed out the first glimpse of our second home for the night, our hill tribe village, far away on the opposite side of a valley which, even to my mind, was too far for a bridge. Eventually, our path began the descent down one half of the massive V that was our route. With a bigger bag, higher centre of gravity and further to fall, it was Alex’s turn to find things hard and we swapped places in the line, Sao bouncing along behind us using his own arms as bag straps.

TZ, who had seemed so quiet, suddenly burst into song, a beautiful, haunting Akha melody I wish I could describe better. This encouraged Sao, behind us, to start singing Lao pop songs that weren’t half as atmospheric so we tried to keep up with TZ. We didn’t notice for a long time that Sao had stopped singing. When we finally did and turned round, we couldn’t see him. We waited for a few minutes. TZ marched off into the distance and, after a while, he'd also disappeared and still no sign of Sao. “He’s probably just picking mushrooms,” I said. Some more minutes ticked by. “Well, he must have found the mother lode,” Alex replied, glancing back up the hill. “What if he’s fallen in a ditch? Or hurt himself?” Finally, he decided to head back up the hill to look for him, at which point he suddenly reappeared. “There you are!” we called, “We were worried about you.” “Sorry!” he shouted back happily, brandishing a big bag full of mushrooms. “Something for dinner!” I bloody knew it – the forest is just a big Tesco to Sao. He was bloody shopping.

Perhaps two hours later, we were at the bottom of the hill, walking through lush paddies that made a level puddle of bright green at the bottom of the valley. Alex was exhausted from the pain in his knees walking downhill and I was dreading the effort required to get back up the other side. These hills looked better from further away. After crossing the bottom of the valley, we came to a river which we heard before we saw. ‘Come in,’ it babbled, and I would have if I hadn’t worried about being the only woman in the company of Lao men whose culture was a modest one. So, I remained on the bank taking pictures of a cloud of butterflies fluttering around Alex’s shoe while the boys splashed about enjoying the highlight, apparently, of the day. What goes up must come down and, in Laos, must go back up again and the path back up began at the other side of the bamboo bridge crossing the river. It was the longest hour of the day.
When we finally arrived, the sun was about to disappear behind the hill we’d just come from and the village glowed a dusky pink from its last effort for the day. The hills stretched for miles but the only visible signs of human life were in this village. Sao led us on a tour, pointing out the sacred sites honouring the village’s ancestors and the swing, about 20 feet high, swung on for four days once a year by the whole village in a big celebration of the end of the year’s work to weed the rice. We waved at faces watching us from the windows of each hut (bamboo structures of varying size, mostly on stilts) and they waved or smiled back. There were homely sounds of cooking and washing, children laughing as they darted about here and there, chickens clucking and pigs snuffling about followed everywhere by tiny piglets.

We were introduced to one of the village’s teachers who held classes in two buildings used as classrooms that we’d passed as we entered the village. He had a guitar so it wasn’t long before he and Alex could give up faltering efforts to communicate and speak instead with the international language of music as a crowd gathered to watch. How great it is to play the guitar, what an easy way to make friends and enjoy people’s company. What a shame the guitar hadn’t been in tune. Alex began twiddling the knobs and twanging the strings to coax them into the right note when suddenly there was a snap and an “uh oh” and Alex looked down at a piece of guitar that had come away in his hand. He went a bit pale. “Oh god, I’m so sorry.” They replied “No problem,” but the look on their faces wasn’t quite as casual as we’d have liked. We’d just walked a full day to get here and hadn’t seen any guitar shops on the way. We decided to play with the kids. In a game of peek-a-boo, Alex chased a little one who started screaming and ran in tears into her house. So, after having broken the village’s only instrument and made the children cry, we decided to go indoors.

TZ was already making dinner using the mushrooms Sao had picked. He was chatting with the village chief and a few other village members. Eager to make up for our somewhat disastrous encounters outside, we gave the chief our gifts for the village; a collection of children’s education books that we’d bought in one of the guesthouses in Luang Namtha. He called out to one of his kids who immediately started poring over it as if it were a Nintendo DS. Then the other villagers had a look and soon all six books were being passed round with more and more people peering over each other’s shoulders to get a peek. When the light finally faded, the torches came out and everyone in the village, it seemed, was looking at one of the six books, their faces lit up by the reflection of the torch on the pages. It was, without doubt, the best reception to a gift we’ve ever had.

Sao, TZ, Alex and I ate with the chief, another delicious meal better than anything we’d been served in a restaurant, while everyone waited for us before beginning their own meal. After we’d finished, we hit the Lao Lao which I sipped because as soon as I’d finished my glass, it was filled again. Sao was clearly beginning to get a bit drunk. We were all in a good mood and got to chatting, although conversations with the Akha village proved a little tricky. “So, when was the last time a farang visited the village?” Alex asked Sao. Sao started talking to TZ with a translation that seemed much longer than the English version. Then TZ started talking rapidly to the villagers sat with us. The chief replied, speaking just as rapidly, for a long time. Whatever the chief said, everyone found very funny. TZ replied and that provoked even more laughter. Then TZ started talking to Sao and they started laughing. Eventually, Sao turned to us. “2006,” he said.

By the time everyone had finished eating and moved on to Lao Lao, we were all sat in a big circle and a conversation in the strict sense was no longer necessary. Our attempts to learn Akha phrases caused more than enough amusement and there was much cheering and clinking of glasses. And then the chief asked if we’d like a massage. After two solid days of hard walking, we very much wanted a massage. Three village girls were called and within minutes, they stood at the door. They must have been about 13 or 14 years old. There was some discussion among the chief and some other villagers, which they relayed to TZ, and then Sao. “The girls would like some Lao Lao,” he told us, “as payment for the massage”. This seemed unlikely and, sure enough, as we agreed, some more bottles were brought out and the girls didn’t drink any.

Our massage took place in the corner of the room, in full view of everyone sat around (which is also where we’d sleep that night). We lay down and the girls distributed themselves, one for me and two for Alex. In my limited experience, massages usually involve people padding almost silently around you, talking in whispers, playing some dreadful plinky-plinky music involving a harp and a triangle to relax you and me trying not to fall asleep in fear of farting or making accidental sex noises. From the minute they laid hands on me, it was clear that these girls could wrestle a bull. But they didn’t have a bull; they were making do with us. She started on my legs and worked her way up with short, violent downward thrusts that I thought, when she got to my knees, would break them. When she reached my waist and back doing the same brutal shoves, as if she were giving me heart resuscitation, the air was pushed out of me at such velocity it was all I could do to not let loose the same agonised wail Alex had made a couple of years ago in the French Alps when I’d skied straight into him. I knew Alex was going through the same thing because he was making the gasping sounds as me (he didn’t seem quite as pleased anymore to have two girls working on him). This the girls found very funny and as she turned her technique to a similar one that involved a simultaneous scrunching of my flesh with her fingers, she made little impressions of my winded noise. “Ugh,” I’d whimper. “Ugh!” she’d mimic, giggling like a lunatic.

While the girls pummelled their way all over us, the rest of the group had started singing more beautiful Akha songs. The chief took up a stunning melody that you could imagine drifting over the hills, silent but for the birds and this song, sung with such passion and feeling it could have made me cry. It didn’t make me cry because the girls massaging us also found this incredibly funny. “Here we go,” they giggled, “he’s pissed again”. When the chief reached what would otherwise have been a moving crescendo, they completely cracked up. So, of course, I started giggling too, as did Alex, though our laughs were somewhat congested as we were still having the air winded out of us. We sounded like we were being murdered, which, of course, only added to the general hilarity. Ideally, I suppose, we’d have been sat around the chief in awed silence, carried away by the songs. Instead, we destroyed the atmosphere completely in our subjection to the most violent and hilarious massage ever. After which we actually felt rather good.

The trek – day one

We met our guide, Sao, the next morning, a young guy with a slight build of mainly muscle, a broad smile and a firm handshake. After leaving the things we wouldn’t need for the trek in the office, we went to pick up our Akha guide (whose name I’ve forgotten, though I never really had a firm grasp of it, being an esoteric connection between Ts and Zs) at a hill tribe village far more conveniently located by the side of the road than the one we’d be staying at. He was, it seemed at first, a man of few words. The idea was that Sao could speak English and Lao, while TZ could speak Lao and Akha so we’d all be able to communicate, even if it was a bit convoluted. Sao and TZ loaded up the car with an impressive amount of mysterious banana leaf parcels, fruit and vegetables, then we drove all of 50 metres from TZ’s village to the bottom of a trail that lead straight up a steep hill and disappeared into the trees. Oh, crap, I thought, looking up. No easing our way into it, then.

We walked single file in the blazing sun, TZ up front followed by Alex, and then me, with Sao bringing up the rear. Between us, Alex and I were carrying our changes of clothes and my photo stuff while TZ carried half of everything else we’d need (food, water, sleeping bags etc) and Sao carried the other half in a rucksack that looked like it would fall apart any minute. After ten minutes, I still hadn’t reached the shade of the trees and was already exhausted. Sao tapped me on the shoulder to show me a sheaf of rice he’d picked from the paddy field beside us. “It’s almost ready for harvest,” he said. “Really?” I managed between deep breaths, brushing away the sweat stinging my eyes with what I hoped was cheerful nonchalance. “Yes, soon they will harvest everything,” he replied taking a grain and handing the rest to me. Unsure of what to do with it, I put it in my pocket, thinking of other questions about rice while I got my breath back.

Fortunately, Sao and TZ have clearly had a lot of experience with comparativelu unfit trekkers and stopped regularly for water breaks and, in TZ’s case, a cigarette during which Sao would chat amiably with half an eye out for some fat mushroom he could pick and put in a little plastic bag he carried in his pocket. After perhaps two hours of walking, through forest by this time, our ascent levelled off and, judging it a good spot for a rest, Sao asked if we were ready for lunch. We certainly were. “Okay then! We stop for lunch!” he said with now characteristic joviality, clearing spaces for us to sit down. TZ hacked down some bamboo stems with his huge knife and sat cross-legged cutting it into sections, then narrow strips which he tapered at one end, finally smoothing out rough edges until he ended up with four pairs of chopsticks. Sao was busy pulling out banana leaf parcels and opening them to reveal four portions of sticky rice, an omelette, a spicy aubergine dish and a beef curry around which he arranged a handful of fresh, bright red chillies and a dessert of lychees, apples and oranges. They finished what they were doing at the same time and arranged themselves at opposite corners and Sao beamed up at us, “Sit, lunch is ready!”

Perhaps it was because we’d been walking hard, or because food always tastes better outdoors or because we were so hungry, or perhaps because it really was the best food I’d eaten on the whole trip. Afterwards, we sat with that feeling of contentment and satisfaction after a good meal watching sociable flies settle on us (some tiny iridescent blue and green with spindly legs, others coloured with honey and amber, and a few big, fat, black ones, but always with that same arrowhead shape) while Sao told us how to calm the burning feeling of burning your finger. “You touch your ear, this bit,” he said, pulling at his earlobe. “What you call it, this bit?”
“We call it the earlobe.”
“Lobe, earlobe.”
“Er, yes, okay.” The R/L thing is everywhere, it seems. In Malawi, Becky, the manager of Mango Drift on Likoma Island had told us that she’d only been able to get rice from the market by asking for lice. Once, I tried to say ‘hero’ in an Italian accent (can’t do the accent) and actually the letters can be made to sound almost the same.
“And you know what to do if you get chilli in your eye?” he continued. We didn’t. “Put foot in cold water.”
“Really?” we both said, doubtful.
“True! Not quickly, five minutes maybe, but then crying stop. Okay, we go? First,” he gave us a chilli each, “for strong. Tzo-zo. Tzo-zo!” he shouted with a fist raised in the air. We munched our chillies.
“Tzo-zo!” we replied, fists in the air. While we put our bags back on, Sao refolded the banana leaves and left them with the chopsticks on the side of the path in a neat, 100% biodegradable and environmentally friendly pile on the ground and off we went.

The path wasn’t as steep after lunch, and then it went down a bit, then up for quite a long time. I felt like I’d got into a stride by now, which was probably the chilli. After a while and towards what turned out to be the top of a hill, the trees and bamboo gave way to open sky and views of all the hills around. Sao pointed out Muang Sing, way below us and completely covered by a big, grey cloud. “They’re wet in Muang Sing!” he said cheerfully. We carried on walking and the trail became harder to follow, hidden by encroaching plant growth, the muddy path pocked with rain-filled holes. My clothes were drenched in sweat and my bum and knees covered in mud from my various collisions with the ground. TZ hacked away with his huge knife to clear the path, gouging chunks out of trees along the way as markers for anyone else going the same way. Finally, we reached a point where we could see our campsite for the night; a hut surrounded by buffalo, perched on the top of a hill slightly smaller then the others. It looked so near but, cocking his head as he calculated, Sao estimated it to be two hours away. He was about right.

The hut was where members of a nearby hill tribe took turns, two at a time, to watch over the buffalo. I was expecting that we would sleep in tents but camping, in this case, meant sleeping in the little hut, all of us sharing the bamboo platform that served as a bed built at one side of the hut. At the opposite end, next to the door, Sao and TZ stoked a fire and began to prepare the evening meal (the things to do for our guides still not finished) and chatted with our new companions while Alex and I changed out of our sweat-drenched clothes, hanging them up above the fire, into new sets that I pretended weren’t slightly damp. With seven hours of walking and sweating behind us, we went outside to take in the view (and look for potential toilet locations, the best of which was over the brow of the hill simply because no-one would be able to see my naked bottom from the hut), listening to the soft clang of the buffalo’s bells and the sound of laughter wafting over from the hut. It was getting dark and grey and the hut glowed a cosy orange from the fire.

For some reason, I’d lost my appetite and could only pick at my enormous serving of dinner, but when Sao emptied a little bag of red sauce with white bits onto a bit of banana leaf and encouraged us to try it, it returned. “It’s tofu,” he told us. I didn’t believe him. I hate tofu, with its tasteless, chewy, chickeny pretensions, the way it squeaks against my teeth and its smug, self-righteous claims about being ‘good for you’. But this stuff was both creamy and crumbly, breaking up a little into the rich, spicy, garlicky sauce, and actually tasted great, something, to my unrefined palette, like feta. Finally, a form of tofu I could get on board with. I was still dipping into it when the time came to finish the meal with swigs of Lao Lao, a potent rice whisky so good they named it twice, which left me with a warm, dreamy feeling that I hoped would help with the night’s sleep ahead. As we lay on our bed, the six of us side bide side, trying to align our spines between the bamboo stems, listening to the wind flapping the tarpaulin lining the sides of the hut, Alex whispered, “I’m never going to be able to sleep like this”. And he didn’t.