This photo-blog is designed to work either as a standard blog with images or - by clicking any image - a photo-album. To see an image in full resolution in the 2006 journey, click to the left or right of an image in blog mode.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Into Laos: Luang Nam Tha and Muang Sing

Scenes on the road from the Chinese border to Luang Nam Tha

30th Sep 2006 The road into Laos from the border, by contrast with the highway out of China, was in fine smooth shape and we made it to Luang Nam Tha in half the Lonely Planet's 2 hours. We are now finally having a real rest stop with no horizon of when we have to do anything. I changed $100 US and received a million kip in a wad big enough to make my pocket bulge. It`s really hot here. We KNOW we are in SE Asia and there are mosquito nets and a siesta is really mandatory. Tomorrow we`ll decide if we want to stay put or wander north for a couple of hours or something else. Luang Nam Tha is a good stepping off point either for travel to the hill tribes, or down the Mekong, or by bus to Luang Prabang. We haven't begun to decide which yet.

Luang Nam Tha

(Above) The Panda Restaurant where we ate. (Below) The little
hotel room, a gecko and Akha woman with hand-spinning jenny.

The highway through Luang Nam Tha

Scenes in the Luang Nam Tha market

There are a number of villages one can visit around Luang Nam Tha by bike or motor bike - predominantly 'Black' Thai villages. We have seen there is a large historical Thai population in an arc up to Yunnan in China.

Lanten women in traditional dress heading to Muang Sing

Some wonderful images of a Lanten marriage.

1st Oct 2006 Yesterday Christine and I headed off north to Muang Sing. The road ran up a deeply forested pass into high cool hill country interrupted by slash and burn patches. The ride was weaving and very bumpy in a small jumbo truck with seats along the side. What we thought was going to be according to the footprint a rattan hut studded paradise turned out to be a small how Lao town on a northern plain surrounded by quite distant foothills.

Akha women crowd around a couple on a motor cycle, trying to sell their wares

A brief history (Lonely Planet) From at least the late 16th century until 1803 Muang Sing belonged to the Thai principality of Chiang Khong, after which it came under the control of the Nan Kingdom. In the early 19th century much of Muang Sing’s population was transferred to Chiang Kham district in Nan (now part of Thailand). Both the Siamese and the British subsequently laid claim to the area, but in 1896 France took Muang Sing as part of French Indochina.

As soon as the French left Laos in 1954, the area fell into the conflict between the Royal Lao Government and the Vietnamese-backed Pathet Lao. From then until the Pathet Lao takeover of Vientiane in 1975, ancient Muang Sing served as a setting for a series of international intrigues involving the Chinese, Vietnamese, Americans and Lao. The famous American ‘jungle doctor’ Tom Dooley, a pawn of the CIA in Laos from 1957 to 1961 and a man who courted Catholic sainthood until he was dismissed from the US Navy for his sexual orientation, founded a hospital in Muang Sing during this era. The town was virtually abandoned until after the 1975 revolution.

We bedded down at one of the two cheap guest houses in old French buildings in the main street. There was incessant drumming from a Buddhist temple directly behind which rose to a demented arhythmic crescendo by early evening. Christine managed to get a Thai Lu shawl and I hired a bike and rode out just before sunset in the afternoon heat, catching a tailgate ride with a farm tractor to a Yao village at the foot of the hills a couple of kilometres inside the Lao border with China. I then walked up to an Akha village and down into the main part of the Yao village. The women of each wore distinctive hats and head gear (see the images a little further on).

You can find trekking maps of the Hill Tribe villages in Muang Sing, which is rich with a number of minority groups. The Akha and Yao villages I visited were on the right of the road north to the Chinese border just as the road leaves the plains and head up into the hills. There are another string of Akha and other villages on the road west out of town past the market which you can trek in a loop back to the north west..

Colonial building now a museum

Kees Sprengers - Ethnic Diversity in Luang Namtha - Laos
A highly sensitive and superb photo resource of the diversity of the peoples of the Namtha area.

Internet notes on the Hill Tribes:
Hill people and minority cultures of Laos such as the Hmong (Miao), Yao (Mien), Tai dumm, Dao, Shan, and several Tibeto-Burman speaking peoples have lived in isolated regions of Laos for many years. Hmong, Tai Dam, Akha, Tai Lue and Yao are all regulars in Muang Sing. There are also Lanten peoples in the Luang Nam Tha area. The six major hill tribes are the Karen (Kariang, Yang), the Hmong (Meo), the Yao (Mien), the Akha (Ekaw), the Lisu (Lisaw), and the Lahu (Mussur), several of which we will see again in northern Thailand. The main profession of all these tribes is farming, and all of them tend to migrate whenever they feel that the soil at their present location is becoming depleted. Each tribe is very distinct, with its own culture, religion, language, art, and dress. The Akha originated in Tibet and are among the poorest of Thailand’s ethnic minorities. The Yao originated in China (see our previous blog on Longsheng for the Hong Yao or red Yao) and are heavily influenced by Chinese traditions, still using Chinese characters in the writing of their language.

Images of the Akha village - here the gate poles with guardian spirits

Akha children get a little too frisky

Three YouTube videos of similar Akha villages in the region: Video 1, Video 2, Video 3

The Yao village just below the Akha one was a little more civilized with a soccer field

The Akha have traditionally gown opium although they have been relocated out of the high hill country to try to discourage it although this has simply impoverished the villagers. Nevertheless they were all trying to sell me opium, both in the village, and all the way back to town at sunset and in the main street. While I was away, plain clothes police came to the hotel and tried to literally sniff out the bedroom to see if we were smoking opium or cannabis. There is an instant $500 US fine for any drug use so its an incentive for the local cops to try to go in the take. Actually I had a bit of opium drenched very old leaf which was purely soporific but it was well and truly stashed before I went out.

The Akha women all try to stop me on the way back to get me to smoke opium

Yao (top left) and Akha head gear in the museum in Muang Sing

Gallery of images of traditional dress of the Yao (above) from China through Laos
to Thailand
and Akha (below) show great creative variation withing a traditional theme

A series of images of the Muang Sing market with many Akha and one or two Tai Dan women.
The Akha wear metal beaded head pieces or pink head scarves

Tai Dan woman selling textiles and trying to avoid being photographed in the process

The two forms of Akha head covering

Finally at 10pm the drumming subsided and we got a nights sleep and today returned in an even more diabolical truck with Christine being launched high in the air at every pot hole. Before we left a managed to get down to the local market where the different tribes were all in town to buy essentials a more colourful view than in any single village or anywhere else.

We are now trying to decide how to go south, by bus or river boat neither of which is particularly enticing. The aim is to get to Luang Prabang in a couple of days.

The Buddhist temple in Muang Sing with the drum house (left)

Housing styles in the west of Muang Sing

The trip back and departure from Luang Nam Tha by bus

A very engaging Lanten woman begging at the bus station

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