Beautiful Laos!! It’s wonderful to be back here. Everything’s how I remember it: small wooden houses, smiley and friendly people, and the happiest children in the world.
Within a few hours of being here, I’m troubled by the language and attitude that some backpackers have towards Laos: an attitude of western superiority, so ingrained in us that we don’t realise that we have this attitude at all. I explain to someone that his use of the words ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ is condescending. Another person says, “These people [Lao villagers] don’t want to continue living in the Stone Age.” Someone else talks about a western organisation that is “helping Lao people to help themselves.” Does this westerner think that Lao people are in such a dire situation that they can only “help themselves” out of their pitiful existence with the help of western institutions?
Luang Namtha is a town in the north of Laos, famous for the Nam Ha protected rainforest and river. I meet some other backpackers and we hire out motorbikes and explore the beautiful countryside and villages. Children smile, wave, and shout “Sabadeeeeeeee!” and adults greet us kindly.
Camille, Nick and Yannick are my new travel buddies, and together we decide to pay for a guided hiking and kayaking tour. I’m very hesitant about booking a tour, especially as this is a trip with homestays in villages. Memories of my last guided trek come flooding back to me: a hike in northern Thailand in 2007 with my friend Paul. In our naivety, we had bought school books and pens to give to the children of the village (yeah, thanks for that advice, Lonely Planet!). When we arrived, everyone had mobile phones and motorbikes, so we kept our pitiful pens and books well-hidden. No-one really wanted us to be in the village, and our hosts tried to force us into buying bags, clothes and jewellery. Paul spent a small fortune in that village! We spent the whole time feeling unwanted and uncomfortable. But maybe this tour will be different…
Camille, Nick, Yannick and I spend a day hiking in the Nam Ha rainforest. The hike’s disappointing – in the near-distance we can even see where the rainforest has been cut down for rubber plantations for the tyre industry. However, it’s our guide, Dang, a twenty-six year old man with a constant child-like, beaming smile, who makes our trek worthwhile.
When we arrive in our first homestay village, a party is in full-swing, and absolutely all of the men are drunk in the middle of the afternoon. We’re greeted with light-headed laughter and kindness. Nick, Camille and Yannick are plied with Lao Lao (rice whisky) and beer within seconds of arriving. Because I’m the only teetotal person, I feel like a complete kill-joy! We’re told that the reason that the village is having a party is because it’s the village elections, and three leaders will be picked. The village was relocated from the jungle to the road 30 years ago “so that the government can control the people more easily,” our guide tells us. I leave the others to drink and walk around the village. Women are going about their daily, sober lives.
I worry again about the effects of tourism in this area, and ponder once more, is my lifestyle making this area more shit? I wonder whether I am acting in a way that the local women would disapprove of (I’m very aware that no women are sitting around drinking) and I worry that I may be doing something that would cause bad luck for the superstitious Khmu villagers, who believe in many different things bringing them good luck or bad luck, and who believe in spirits. As tourists on such a fleeting visit, we can never understand the people or culture that we have come to meet, and I wonder, why am I travelling so fast?
The advantage of having a guide is that he can translate, and I can have a conversation with our 68 year old Khmu homestay host (whose name I sadly can’t remember). Our conversation goes roughly like this:
Me: “Are tourists a good or bad thing for this village? Do the villagers like tourists or not?”
Host: “Laos only opened its borders to tourists in the late 90s. When the first tourists came with their cameras and their big lenses, pointing them at people, locals thought that they were guns. Laos was the most heavily bombed country by the US during the Vietnam war, with 3 million tonnes of ammunition dropped on a population of 3 million people. [The official figure is 2 million tonnes, but it’s thought that this figure is very inaccurate.] When the US bombed, people used to run into the jungle and hide. It’s very sad for some people to see the jungle being destroyed now. The younger people are generally happy with tourists, but some of the older generation still have memories from the war and are not happy with tourists in the villages. People also thought that if a photo was taken of them without permission, then this meant that their soul had been stolen and that they would die.”
Me: “Do people still think that?”
Guide: “Yes, some people do. When we first saw tourists, I remember that we used to run away from them.”
Host: “The village is generally happy with the amount of tourism that we have – a couple of groups per week – but if there were more tourists then we wouldn’t be happy. We wouldn’t have time to work on our farms and the price of food at the market would become too expensive because of tourists pushing up the prices.”
I wonder what will happen to this area over the next few years, whether tourism, which at the moment seems relatively responsible, will increase to an unmanageable level, especially as the area is highlighted in the Lonely Planet, and everyone is carrying a Lonely Planet, doing the same routes as each other. I realise how important it is to ask permission before taking photos of people: we really don’t know what harm we could be doing if we selfishly take photos without asking first.
The next day is kayaking day! I am absolutely shit at kayaking. Nick and I share one kayak, and Camille and Yannick share another. It becomes quickly apparent that the Nam Ha river has a very fast current and many rapids. We’re terrible at controlling our kayak, and regularly collide with overhanging branches of trees. Nick’s oar gets caught in tree vines and he falls into the fast-flowing river. A few minutes later, I almost dislocate my shoulder when my oar also gets entangled and I desperately cling to it. Then a vine manages to wrap itself round my head, almost choking me!
Later on, we collide with a tree and our boat fills with water. “Shitttttt! We’re capsizing!” I scream, and we both fall into the river. Our boat overturns and we try to cling to the tree, but the current’s so strong that we’re taken downstream, clinging onto our boat, our feet and legs smashing into rocks. I lose grip of the kayak and start drifting fast down the river. I grab onto Yannick and Camille’s boat, and then Nick speeds past, still clinging to our overturned kayak. “GRAB NICK!” Yannick yells. So I hold onto Nick and suddenly we flow in a dangerous chain down the river. Meanwhile, our clothes, passports, cameras and money are all underwater, attached to the kayak in a drybag. Finally, our guide, Dang, dives into the fast flowing water, effortlessly flips over our kayak, gets in it, and helps Nick onboard. I’m still in the water, panicking, and Yannick and Camille haul me out of the river, just before we reach more rapids.
It’s with a mixture of relief and exhilaration that we reach our next homestay village! Our drybags didn’t actually keep things dry, but miraculously, our cameras are the only things that are not soaked! It’s been a really amazing day.
We spend the evening in another Khmu village in the middle of the rainforest. There are no roads to this place. As we walk around, we’re not greeted with the usual “Sabadee”, and I get the feeling that we’re not particularly welcome. It’s unsurprising, really: I learn that this village has, on average, three groups per week staying here. I ask Dang whether the villagers get a choice as to whether tourists come or not.
“Yes. They have a choice. If the village hadn’t been happy then the government wouldn’t have given permission for tourists to come.”
We’re told that this village is paid approximately 12-15% of the total cost of the tour and that it goes into a village fund.
But as Dang cracks open the Lao Lao and the guides and backpackers start doing shots and singing loudly, I wonder once again: Other than a little money, what do the locals gain from this invasion into their lives? I conclude that they gain nothing, and I realise that backpacking can be a very selfish act. After all, it’s easy to see what I am gaining from this experience: an amazing time with fun new friends in one of the most beautiful countries on Earth.
We stay in an ‘eco-lodge’. I start to think about the use, and misuse, of the term eco-tourism. And another term that is regularly used by tour companies is the word ‘minority’. All over South East Asia, there’s posters advertising “hikes to minority villages,” with accompanying cliché photos of people wearing traditional costume. Tourism seems to be creating a human zoo, where we gawp at ethnic groups. Of course, there’s the argument that tourists are doing a good thing by visiting remote villages: “spending your money where it’s needed most,” according to the Lonely Planet. But I’m doubtful of this.
As we wander around this Khmu village, I am amazed by how self-sufficient the villagers are. As anarchists, me and my friends often dream about starting communities that are closer to nature and less reliant on the current system. Some anarchists create housing and land projects to try and achieve this. As I walk around this Lao village in the jungle, I realise just how much we could learn from these people. They grow, forage and hunt all of their food, barely needing anything from bigger towns. As a community, they share what they hunt, and ensure that everyone has enough food. They get their electricity from water and solar power and don’t rely on others to supply it for them. They also sell galangal and cardamon, foraged from the jungle, in the local market to make money. I wonder what these Khmu villagers would make of our own concrete jungles that we call home, and which we laughably call ‘developed’.