The pick-up truck carrying, me, a small band of travelers, and two local guides toward the Nam Ha forest reserve rattles through the mountain pass, and moves away from the sleepy little town of Luang Nam Tha in the north of Laos. It is along this mountain pass that I traverse the ridge crowning the Nam Ha valley. After a six-hour hike, I’ll descend from the ridge to the banks of the green Nam Ha river which will lead to the Lanten village of Ban Nam Goy.
Ban Nam Goy is isolated and inaccessible by motor vehicle. It is several hours walk from the nearest dirt road. It is dry season and the river is shallow. The footpaths through the dense jungle are the only arteries that connect the outside world with this forgotten place. Children play amidst livestock and bamboo huts on the clay earth as women draped in hand woven frocks carry bundled goods atop their heads. Aside from a few women who approach to sell the small embroidered bags they have crafted, the villagers keep their distance.
I dine with the village chief in a bamboo longhouse, and he encourages questions about his home over a meal of duck blood soup and rice. There is one question that has been burning in my mind. I ask as tactfully as I can. The chief nods in understanding and the guide translates his answer, “twins OK here.” I’m relieved to hear it. For the neighboring Akha tribes, newborn twins are frequently considered a sign of bad luck. They are sometimes killed or abandoned in the jungle after birth.
Ban Nam Goy has only recently been exposed to western culture, and our very presence here will irreparably change it. However, for this place, change is inevitable. The governor has already mandated the merger of their tribe with another nearby tribe, and there is a new road on the way.
Some villagers do not welcome the change to come, but it excites the progressive young chief. At 31 years old, he is likely the youngest chief the village has ever seen. He was chosen in large part due to his mastery of the Lao language, which is not commonly spoken among the Lanten people, who allow him to represent the village to the government. He speaks of the good things that the road will bring as he enthusiastically circulates a bottle of Lao Lao, homemade rice whiskey, the other trekkers and I then go to sleep on the raised floor of woven bamboo.
I’m awakened at first light by a scream. My ears are still ringing when I see the rooster that managed to creep within inches of my ear before screeching his ‘good morning.’ As our eyes meet through the cracks in the floor I swear that I can see him smirk. I get up to find some instant coffee with satisfaction in the knowledge that he is soon to be dinner.
The chief and another villager left the village ahead of me, but I meet them on the trail where they prepare lunch. They cook baby bamboo shoot soup inside larger bamboo shoots and roast a duck over the fire. The soup is served in troughs made of, you guessed it, halved bamboo, and we eat rice and duck with freshly cut chop sticks off of large banana leaves on the ground.
After lunch, I thank the chief for his hospitality and continue the descent from the ridge. I wind through the dense jungle of old growth bamboo to the road below. There, a pick-up truck takes me back to the electric lights and indoor plumbing of Luang Nam Tha.
Daniel McIsaac, a freelance writer and photographer from Massachusetts, has lived in five different states and eight countries among them Guatemala, Australia, Laos, Ecuador and most notably, the great state of Ohio, where admist the corn fields under a grey winter sky he truly learned to appreciate travel. More of his writing and photography can be found at www.crawlwalktravel.com