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Venturing beyond the golden stupas of Luang Prabang and sidestepping the tourist stops of Vang Vieng and Vientiane, a jungle trek through the villages of Northern Laos Province leads to an encounter with the Khmu people.
If tropical rainforests are at the heart of Luang Namtha province, then the animist tribes and their traditions are what keep it beating. Though it’s been inhabited for 6,000 years, this ancient land remains a little-discovered corner of Laos. It’s also home to Nam Ha National Protected Area, a rugged and mountainous terrain that’s densely blanketed in virgin forest, lush vegetation and squawking wildlife. The Tha River is the jungle’s lifeblood; its fruitful waters home to a myriad of creatures which feed the Khmu, allowing them to raise their people in the wild.
Phonxay village market marks the start of my time in Northern Laos. Rattan cages rattle with poultry, and bustling bodies weave in and out of fruit and vegetable mounds. The sound of locally caught tilapia fish thrashing around in the boot of our van signals the beginning of a 30-minute drive to Nam Ha National Protected Area. Once there, we tread carefully through a humid rice field while the sticky heat of the day prickles at my forehead. Tom, our trekking guide, is unyielding – in fact, he looks nonchalant as he leads us towards the forest edge. I cast my mind to home and prepare to be amazed by a land of unparalleled beauty.
Hiking into the depths of a bamboo forest, we clamber under low-hanging vegetation and fallen logs while witnessing its hidden inhabitants. Rustling among tropical flora and fauna, crested finchbill warble and monkeys leap between the woody vines. As we descend along a trail, I watch as a battalion of giant red ants march near my feet. Tom starts a wood fire and, with his machete, cuts several banana leaves to lay on the forest floor. Heady and intoxicating, the smell of barbecued fish mingles with the sunlight as lunch is served.
Rolling Laotian sticky rice between my fingers, I crunch on freshly cut bamboo shoots, raw rattan and palm hearts. Leafy vegetables are served with jeow bong chili paste and spicy aubergine, followed by floral pears to cleanse the palette. I’m stuffed, and the ridge trail ahead of us offers up a challenge as we walk a route carved out by tribespeople centuries ago. We tumble into a small clearing, sunlight burning a hole through the sky, and cross the rice fields until we reach the spirit gate that marks Nalan Neua village.
Five hours into the wilderness and we’re face-to-face with the elders of a Khmu tribe. Placing our hands together in a nop gesture, we greet one another with a friendly “sabai dee”. Out of respect, we avoid the women swathed in cloth as they wash in the river. Instead, our eyes dart to the men who wade with fishing nets, the net-covered bucket of croaking frogs and the gleeful children splashing around in the water.
In the dusty village, traditional houses are raised on timber stilts with bamboo walls and thatched roofs. My eyes meet a woman in indigo-dyed clothing as she squats beside a wood fire. Plumes of smoke billow as she enjoys a moment of stillness among the chaos. Between a game of barefoot kickabout with the local children and bathing in the ebbing sunshine, a purple haze falls on the valley and we trundle to the hillside to watch the sunset before dinner.
Piglets and chicks run circles around our ankles as we sit down for a candlelit meal. Pounded rice is soaked in water then steamed over the fire as we gobble up young rattan shoots (a type of palm), shaved banana flowers, spicy papaya salad and barbecued frogs. Eyes wide with joy, our host makes her delight clear as we relish every last morsel. My mind drifts away from chit-chat, tuning instead to the rhythmic call of a million frogs: “Drink, drink, drink.”
Bellies full and bodies tired from the day’s hike, we sit around the fire and hear stories of Khmu traditions and beliefs. Jungle-distilled rice whisky, or “lao-lao”, are shot nine times. It’s impolite to refuse, so I gulp the fiery liquor and turn to the friend on my left who repeats the ritual. Beneath an inky blanket littered with stars, I chew on a bristly stick of sun-dried buffalo skin and feel myself melt into the ground with the weight of the whisky as Tom translates the local shaman’s stories of supernatural worship.
The nearby town and its rumbling main road seem a distant memory as we climb under mosquito nets and rest our heads on the ground. My thoughts quickly slip away to the gentle hum and click of insects surrounding me and I think to myself, how calm it is. When the blackness above is so spirited and vast, I wonder if the universe’s heart is also beating.
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