October 07, 2009

Living among the hill tribes of Laos

By Lesley Downer

We arrive by turbo prop from Bangkok, juddering slowly across a corrugated expanse of jungle-encrusted hills with mist floating in the hollows. As we touch down at Luang Prabang’s sleepy airport I remember my father talking about how he had to hold the door of the aircraft shut when he flew across Laos almost 50 years earlier.

In the 1960s my father was one of two people in the world – other than the native people themselves – who spoke the languages of the Yao and Hmong hill tribes. He lived in their villages in Vietnam and later in Laos for months at a time and came home with stories of sleeping snuggled up against the horse in winter to keep warm, trekking in the mountains, keeping an eye out for tigers, and hiding under a table in Saigon with his Vietnamese mistress, Madame Ving. He brought us back bamboo pan pipes and beautiful Yao embroidered fabrics.

I hoped to go to Laos with him but he died before I could, so this is quite a special journey for me. Will it still be possible to get a glimpse of the magical places he knew? Might I even be able to track down Madame Ving?

These days one can’t just walk into the jungle, as my father did. Laos was heavily bombed in the Vietnam war and there are still huge areas covered in unexploded ordnance. I begin my journey in the old royal city of Luang Prabang, which was one of his bases.

The city is full of evocative smells, floating up from smoky wood fires and spicy food simmering in blackened pots, and from incense smoke rising in front of tiny shrines. On one side the Nam Khan river swirls between steep banks carpeted in palm trees and bamboo; on the other the Mekong rolls, flat and still and brown. Mountains rise misty above terraced paddy fields. Roosters crow and dogs skulk.

At dawn I hear the boom of drums and the murmur of chanting as monks in orange robes parade through the streets receiving offerings, their food for the day. All Lao boys become monks, for a week, a month or a year or two. The ethereal swooping roofs and gold-encrusted prows of the wats – temple-monasteries where they live – rise behind the whitewashed walls that line the streets.

The main street has been taken over by tourism. It bustles with restaurants, travel agencies and money exchanges. It’s only when we set off for Vientiane that I begin to glimpse the hill tribe life my father knew.

We drive through a ravishing landscape of mountain ranges covered in dense forest. Villages are built along the ridges, beside the road. We get out and walk, following dusty little paths that lead around the houses. The Khamu people live in houses with woven bamboo walls and thatched roofs built on sturdy wooden stilts, with a cool space under the house where they store firewood, keep animals or sling a hammock. Next to them are spacious Hmong houses with heavy overhanging thatched roofs forming a very large porch in front of the main door, surrounded by palm and papaya trees. Beautiful though they are, it would be tough to stay in one. I remember trekking in Thailand some years ago and spending a night in a Yao village. I was full of admiration for my father who lived happily with no mod cons for months at a time.

Everyone is busy. Women hull rice, pounding it in huge mortars. Hunters squat on the ground making traps, farmers set off for plantations where they grow bananas, papaya and pineapple. In one village men are thatching, laying great swathes of woven grass. Children rush out of a school to greet us, grinning cheekily or hanging their heads bashfully.

Goats crowd the edges of the road, sway-backed black piglets dig their snouts in the dust. Seepone, our guide, a Luang Prabang man who was a monk for seven years, points out a big pig in a small cage, being kept for the next time the villagers have a celebration. Cows stroll, nonchalantly blocking the road, and chickens scurry back and forth, trying to avoid our wheels. One fails and disappears in a flurry of feathers.

Around mid-afternoon we reach the town of Phou Khoun, where three roads meet. It’s a bustling wild west sort of place. Hill tribes gather here with goods for sale – clusters of bananas, trays of sweet potatoes, bundles of yellow flowers. A round-faced, haughty Hmong woman with a leather jacket over her embroidered lungi takes her baby from her back and starts breastfeeding. A rooster tied up in a wicker basket struggles to escape.

The mountains transmute into sheer limestone karsts that jut into the sky like giant teeth, pushing up out of hills covered in a tangle of impenetrable jungle. Our road winds through this wild landscape to Vang Vieng, a place of breathtaking beauty where we stay, surrounded by karsts like massive megaliths.

Strangely enough, the closer we get to the capital, the worse the road becomes. We hurtle past a couple of cement factories and see a traffic light – the first since our journey began. We’re still a long way from the modern world but the timeless serenity of Luang Prabang is already a distant memory.

Vientiane is a somnolent place with holes in the pavement big enough to disappear into. The Mekong seems to have dried up here and we sit looking out over mudflats as the sun sinks, huge, smoky and red. My father used to live here in a lodging house run by Madame Ving. But now I’m here I realise the chance of finding her, of her even being still alive, is close to zero.

It makes me realise a lot has changed since my father was here. I don’t know whether he would even have recognised it. But at least now I can understand why it seduced him.

Lesley Downer’s most recent book is the ‘The Last Concubine’ (Corgi)

Source: FT.com

Supported by Active Travel Laos

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