slash and burn

Saibaidee from Laos,
   If you thought Laos was an undiscovered jewel, far from the madding tourist crowds, you’re too late. We are in Luang Prabang, quite a distance from the capital and there are planeloads of foreigners arriving every day. We decided to escape the throng and go deep into the jungle and see some of the local tribes in situ. It was one of the most rewarding experiences.

trekking in the mountains

The villages are inaccessible by any means except on foot so we enlisted for a guided trek. First, we reached Muang Gnoi, a roadless village, by boat, before setting off on foot. Some choose to explore these paths without local guidance but we were glad to have co-opted not one but two guides: Kia and Moo. These two local chaps clambered around the steep slopes as though they were fairly used to it. Not for these blokes the Nordic Walking Poles that are de rigeur in so many European hiking places.


The presence of the guides helped us to navigate and also helped with interpretation. It was a bit eerie walking on tracks and crudely-fashioned clay steps which have been used by the mountain people for centuries. The dense jungle bore down on both sides, ready to reclaim the space just as soon as the humans relinquish it. At times we disturbed water buffalo wallowing in the mud but no other creatures of any significant size. Occasionally, there was a profusion of colourful butterflies to match the lush undergrowth. It was a good thing we had eaten well, as we now had to draw upon reserves from subcutaneous fat, especially to combat the enervating tropical heat. 

a vicious circle

The villages in the mountains are inhabited by people from different tribes: the Hmong, the Khmu and The Lao. Some are mixed but most aren’t. The Laos government outlawed the cultivation of opium some years ago and successfully instituted a blanket prohibition. One side-effect has been that many of the villagers have had to revert to slash and burn agriculture, living a subsistence existence. They find themselves confronted by a vicious circle in which they grow the rice to provide the energy to go back out and grow the rice and so on ad infinitum.


The villages are very primitive. Most of the housing is built with bamboo (What would they do without that supremely versatile plant?) and most having the most rudimentary amenities. On the second night we stayed with Khua Ja and her family in a Hmong village high in the mountains. Apart from the superb view, their living conditions would be described by most as squalid.

Every household has earthen floor. There is a steep and dangerous descent for water. (Khua Ja is heavily pregnant and needs to make the trip several times daily, carrying at least one child and four containers.) There is no electricity and no nappies for the children who all crowd into a one-room bamboo hut, with open fire for cooking on the ground in one corner. For us to dine there Khua Ja needs to swing the eight of us through three shifts as there isn’t sufficient crockery. The village has cattle, pigs, chickens, ducks, cats and dogs all roaming free.

the Hmong

The people are Hmong, which means they practise a culture slightly different from their nearest neighbours. (The Hmong people – at least a small portion now resident in suburban America – were featured in that cleverly subversive film “Gran Torino“.)

education for the children

During the rainy season the schools are closed for three months. In any case, these children – of whom there are many – have never seen paper or pencils. We donated quite a few picture books (pre-purchased for the specific purpose) and some exercise books and pencils. The boys I invited to write on the paper had to be shown how to use the pen. The Laos government has implemented an active campaign to spread the availability of education and has a national programme of book delivery. They say that 1 million children are yet to receive their first book. There is little doubt that we were in the company of children who had never even seen one before.
   When not called upon to help with the chores in the households, the children occupy themselves inventively and playfully. They have meagre possessions but are able to play co-operative games in their leisure time.

agglomeration of the villages

It seems inevitable that these people will eventually move down from the mountains. The Laos government has an active policy of agglomeration of the villages so as to benefit from economies of scale in the provision of services. The home stay programme we just participated in is also designed to allow for some income to permeate and taxes to be collected so services can reach these remote places to improve their lives.
   Some villages have empty bomb casings used as garden beds or suchlike. These are remnants of the Việt Nam War (Naturally, these people don’t use that epithet, but refer to that war as ‘The American War’.). A reliable report has it that there remain thousands of hectares containing unexploded bombs in Laos. The government has an eradication programme underway and hopes to have removed the last by 2013. (300 victims have been recorded since 1998. How many before then?)

American bombing

The Americans knew where the mountain people near Muang Gnoi used to hide – in a large cave up the valley. They bombed the mouth of the cave repeatedly. The bombings also took place during the Laos people’s fight for freedom from the rule of the kingdom. This was the Americans helping the regime to cling onto power against the will of the populace. This is yet another example of American military intervention having the effect of steeling the people against the American cause and even more strongly in favour of their own. Counterproductive, eh what?

the Nam Ou

After this sojourn into the mountains, we opted for a leisurely boat trip down the Nam Ou. (“Nam” = river in Lao language). The rivers are a muddy hue in the rainy season, partly due to human habitation upstream. The Nam Ou is a huge tributary of the Mekong, which is 300 m across here in its headwaters. This was a great trip through spectacular karst country with limestone mountains thrusting skywards, swathed in impenetrable green. The visit to the Laos villages in the remote mountains was a chance of a lifetime. In a way, the mountain villagers provided us with a jewel of a memory and we were undoubtedly far from any madding crowds.


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