“We should all sing something! Let’s take turns to sing our favourite song”. These are words that usually strike fear into me but this time I thought it was a GREAT idea. Why? Because I was rolling, roaring drunk. Somehow, hiking through the villages around Luang Namtha in northern Laos had turned into a lost afternoon drinking beer. It reminded me of being at university – you know, where you plan to spend the day in the library but you end up in the pub instead? The difference here was the my drinking buddies weren’t an assortment of skiving students or even my fellow backpackers. They were a family from the Tai Dam ethnic group in Laos and they managed to completely derail my day. But in a really, really good way.
The entirety of my time in Laos was spent in its wild and mountainous north. Partly because it was just too damn beautiful to leave and partly because I love the vast array of ethnic groups that are found in this part of the world. My enthusiasm for anthropology goes way back to university and, I think, has played a big part in my desire to travel. I believe that we can learn so much from people who live an entirely different way of life to our own – and also discover that perhaps we’re not so different after all. So I ended up making two trips up to the small town of Luang Namtha because the area has many different tribal villages and I wanted to spend some time exploring them.
I had a map of the various villages courtesy of my hotel and, too nervous to rent a scooter, I would set off each day on an epic hike around the area. One day, however, my trusty map failed me. After walking to a village where there was supposed to be a bridge across the river, I discovered that the bridge didn’t actually exist. A couple of women came down to the riverbank to see what the strange blonde person was doing and when I asked them how I could cross the river, looked at me like I was an idiot and said “you walk”. As in, roll up your trousers and get wading! Funnily enough that didn’t appeal to me, especially when someone gestured that the water comes up to your waist, so I frustratedly retraced my steps all the way back to my hotel in order to pick up a route I’d walked previously and that definitely had a bridge.
But you know what they say about the best laid plans etc…. Yes, I crossed that river but I never did make it back on track. As I power-walked through a sleepy Tai Dam village, someone suddenly broke the silence by yelling “HELLO, HELLO, YES, YOU, HELLO!!” My obviously foreign presence in the local villages often piqued curiosity and I would frequently hear the Lao greeting of “sabaidee”, accompanied by a cheery wave, but very few people spoke English. So this was something different. Across the village, sitting outside a wooden house, a middle-aged man and woman were eagerly waving at me. The woman then shouted, “COME AND DRINK BEER WITH US”. I’m hugely introverted so my natural response to situations like this is usually to smile, say “no thanks” and walk away as fast as I can without looking too rude. But today, for some reason, I thought “f*** it, why the hell not?” and decided to go for it. My whole day changed.
The multi-syllabled Tai Dam names got scrambled in my beer-sodden brain but I remember that the woman’s first name was Mai. Mai worked for the local tourist board in Luang Namtha so she spoke pretty good English and really wanted to chat with foreigners to practise this. Just as I was visiting Luang Namtha to meet the locals and learn about life in rural Laos, Mai wanted to meet tourists so that she could learn about life in a different country too. But not many travellers pass through her village so when she spotted me, she seized the opportunity to get to know me. One large beer turned into four, one of Mai’s sons was dispatched to the shop for more beer and crisps, and soon it didn’t feel that much different to an afternoon spent down the pub in the UK.
It was a great insight into life in Laos – its history, its politics, as well as every day village life. Mai and her family weren’t as “traditional” (for lack of a better word) as some of the other people I met in this part of Laos and they were comparatively wealthier. They wore Western clothes and owned a car and smartphones. But they lived in a fairly typical, one-roomed wooden house that was raised off the ground by stilts. Chickens ran around beneath the property, scratching in the dirt. There was no running water or electricity. The toilet was a hole in the ground in an outhouse (and good luck using that after a few beers). Some people may think of them as “poor” because they don’t have what many in the West would consider to be basic amenities. But it’s just a different way of life. They were comfortable and they seemed happy.
At one point I got back from the outhouse to find that we had been joined by a random and slightly confused French hitchhiker who Mai had picked up on another trip to the shop. It was then that Mai made us take turns singing. For reasons that still aren’t clear, I chose to sing “Summertime” because all the beer had made me think I would sound like Ella Fitzgerald (spoiler: I didn’t). Midway through the afternoon, Mai and her daughters prepared a huge pot of soup which they placed in the middle of the table along with bowls of sticky rice and fresh green beans. Floating smack bang in the centre of the soup, sticking one indignant digit up at us, was the biggest chicken’s foot I had ever seen. It may not have looked like the most appetising meal around but it was homemade, it was delicious, it was unexpected and it was certainly needed after the amount of beer I had absorbed.
There are many amazing benefits that come from travel but it’s the random, unexpected encounters with local people that always stay with you. That time I went for lunch with my tuk-tuk driver in Kerala or the time a barman in Sumatra invited me to drank palm wine on a mountaintop… And despite everything, Mai and her family refused to take any payment for the beer, food, petrol etc. All they said was “when we visit the UK, you can do the same for us.”
Need to know:
- I stayed at Amandra Villa both times that I was in Luang Namtha and can recommend it as a cheap and cheerful place to base yourself.
- There are direct minibus services that run between Luang Prabang and Luang Namtha, and Nong Khiaw and Luang Namtha. The journey from Luang Prabang takes around eight hours. Tickets can be booked from most tour agency offices.
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