Verfasst von: rbontour | März 2, 2011

A Life In Isolation… And The Opium-Party!

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Photos Laos

In northern Laos we were able to feel what the “real Laos” is like. Most of the country’s ethnic groups and tribal people are scattered throughout the region.

When we arrived in Phongsali, we quickly signed up for a 3-day hill-tribe-trek with very friendly (and fit!) people from France and Switzerland. Together we enjoyed such a fantastic landscape and spectacular views. But damn, this hike was a hard one… trekking 6 to 8 hrs. steeply up- and downhill every day made our muscles quite sore!

Akha – Living Space & Animism
Every evening before sunset we arrived in “Akha” villages, where we would spend the night. Akha tribes are still found in northern Thailand, Myanmar, China and Laos. Unfortunately, the ethnic group has faced hard human rights issues in recent years. Their villages are located on mountain ridges, which are valuable for the governments‘ (and foreign investors’) timber production. Well, now you can easily add things up… many settlements were/are forced to re-locate and tensions remain up to this day.

The Akha religion is best described as animism – the belief that everything in nature has a soul. Akha also have faith in good and bad spirits. And most importantly: all spirits have to be kept contented lest they intrude with the life of the tribe and bring plagues, sicknesses, death and evil upon them.

Living in Isolation & Poverty
When we got to the villages, we couldn’t believe how secluded these people live. No road access at all, no nearby river to wash or shower, no electricity, not even simple toilet “huts”… nothing (you just use the surrounding bushes for your business). We instantly noticed that children outnumber adults by far. The people and the set-up of their “living space” were unlike anything we have ever experienced before. The poorest of the poor. Pigs and chicken run around everywhere – even in the houses. People also don’t live in wooden stilt houses like the Palaung (the tribe we visited in Burma), but in simplest bamboo huts with no furniture and not even wooden floors. The floor is a mixture of soil and dried cow dung as this “yummy and tasty blend” is supposed to work as a thermal insulator and mosquito repellant. As we slept there, we still felt the cold winds sneaking through every corner… So once more, we noticed that many villagers suffered from a cold, a flu or heavy coughs. It was so heartbreaking to see that all babies and younger children had their noses encrusted with snot and soot.

First Contact With “Intruders”
Once we approached the village, herds of dressed and half-dressed children came running towards us. Their clothes looked ragged, beyond old, the colors of their shirts faded and covered with dirt. Some kids didn’t wear pants. Their skin and especially their hands and feet were as dirty as one can possibly imagine. Water and soap are rare luxuries for a place that is located atop of a mountain ridge… far away from civilization.

Hill tribe customs seemed to be ever present – most women and several kids are still dressed in traditional Akha costumes. However, we learned that only the “richest” villagers can afford to wear them. For us, their appearance looked incredible and out of the ordinary as they use old coins and other metal ornaments to decorate their black costumes and headdresses.

Our appearance must have fascinated the people in the same way. At first, the kids stopped a secure distance away from us. They looked shy and even a bit frightened as if we were intruders. Sure, we must have looked awkward to them: clean, pure and probably “untouchable”. And no wonder they were shy. Our guide explained that we were the second foreigners in a year to visit these villages…

After a while though, the crowd loosened up, the youngsters started to play around and we could hear their cheerful laughter. Probably they were joking about our odd faces, our “rich look” and all the bright-colored clothes.

Gifts For The Kids (… and Another Lesson For Us)
We took some little gifts for the children (air balloons and colored pens), but also packed some basic medicines for the village chief family, who would host us for the night. Once we handed out the gifts, the children’s’ fascination, their smiles and sudden excitement stroke us out of place…no matter how filthy or disadvantaged the little boys and girls around us appeared!

Still, looking back and digesting this experience, we realize that we’ve made a mistake. Certainly, it was great to see the kids happy with our gifts, but we underestimated how many children there were. In the beginning, there were 10, but out of a sudden we were surrounded by 50 or something children. Everyone waited for another gift. Of course, we didn’t have a present for everyone. So next time, we will be a bit more cautious – we would give school materials (pens, etc.) to the village teachers or to the chief (as we do it with the medicines). In this case, people with authority can distribute the items, there will be no “chaotic present hunt” and the kids won’t start to EXPECT gifts whenever foreigners come to visit their tribe.

The Chilled-Out Big Boss, Lao-Lao Whiskey & Opium
In each village we were hosted by the village chief and his family. The chief (= the big boss) is elected by the people – he is usually the most educated and wealthiest person in the tribe.

We immediately realized that the chief must be a huge respect figure to all others in the group. Somehow we saw the kids and women constantly working. They prepared the meals, cleared the tables, collected fire wood, carried other heavy loads on their backs or fed the pigs. In contrast, the “big boss” and his pals were always quite chilled-out. They take long (or on-going breaks), socialize, laugh… or spend time with foreigners – us.

The atmosphere during dinner time was quite amusing; the chief kept graciously filling our cups with lao-lao, a strong home brew whiskey made from rice. And besides whiskey, there was also opium.

Well, according to what is communicated to the public, the Akha are former opium growers, but now fruit farmers. No doubt, this might be true, but some of them are definitely still passionate opium smokers. As if it would be the most normal thing ever, the “big boss” and his pals altered the huts into smoking shacks. Their mood improved increasingly and actually, we had good fun watching them with their enormously huge bamboo water pipes and their chilled-out state of mind.

All in all, this trek was another unforgettable experience as so many other things during our time in Laos. Time always seems too short to discover these wonderful countries!

Well, this was our last post from Laos. Right now we are spending our last 3 days on Don Khon Island, one of the 4000 pretty Mekong River islands in the south. And finally we are doing things “Lao-like”… we are reminiscing our past adventures, chill-out in our bungalow’s hammock and listen to rice grow :-).


  1. Good morning Brigitte and Robert, just enjoyed your blog from Laos….a life in isolation and opium consumption from the locals. When I read your report I was reminded of the movie Avatar as you explained their religion „animism“. I think many of these religions have a reason and have some good believes including their isolated life. Also came into my mind that isolation and being poor is always a matter of comparison with another life they don’t have… is that good or bad!?? I agree with your explanation of how simple they live and what a reduced life style people can have, even the word life style is most probably just to „over ranked“. Anyhow, the Akha boss “Cheffe” seems to be quite a character. It’s incredible to read all the time about another thousands of islands like the 4000 Mekong islands… and we are all running around in this world – maybe with closed eyes. Nice to read your eye-opener trip reports. At the end I only see that maybe Robert got infected by the “hard working” Akha boss… looks like listening to rice grow needs some relaxation :-). See you next weekend, Dad….from Shanghai

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