Kham pointed across the river, at a peak like a rotten canine in the purple distance, with its tip hidden by a monsoon shroud. “That’s where we’re going,” he said, and led us down to dragon boats idling on the Nam Khan, waiting to take us from one riverbank to the other, into terrain that was emphatically blank on a Google map, but only fifteen kilometres east of Luang Prabang.
We were on a tour – a two day “fair trek” organised by a company called Tiger Trail. Kham was guiding Claire and I along with three women from Normandy to a village in the shadow of Houy Fai Peak, where we would sleep; in the morning, we would make our way back along a different trail. It was seven hours up and five hours down in muggy heat, through the sorts of rural areas where three quarters of Laos’ population live. Tiger Trail promised “authentic interactions with Khmu and Hmong villagers,” which rung like clumsy copy for a human zoo, but Laos is not a country of cities, towns and tubing: the majority of its people live in hard-to-reach villages, inaccessible without a guide or careful preparation, and Claire and I had succumbed to the choreography of a tour.
The river was full. Trees with fat, naked roots squeezed its banks, playing a game of chicken with the ochre current. The French explorer Henri Mouhot called the Nam Khan “a beautiful stream, which leads to some Laotian and savage villages bearing the name of Fie.” It was these “savages, with habitations…in the thickest parts of the forests, where they only can find a path,” that we were going to see, and when we arrived on the opposite bank, and started on our way, it was clear that we could have neither found nor followed the path ourselves.
Like an amphitheatre, the jungle flanked a rice basin on every side. Grass had grown tall and flowered in the fallow fields, overlooked by a solitary hut set on stilts. The hut was empty, said Kham, because people from the village a few kilometres away only slept in it during the planting and harvest seasons, when long hours of physical labour left them too exhausted to trudge home at dusk.
We cut across the paddies and turned under a bamboo canopy twenty metres high; it blocked out the sun and left the path rain-sodden and slippery. I walked beside Kham, peppering him with questions. He was from a village in the lowlands; at the age of seven, he had been initiated into an order of forest monks, and every year he had spent time meditating in the bush. He had been given a place at a monastery in Luang Prabang, where he learnt to speak English at a Sangha school; after disrobing he had gone on to study education at the town’s university. When he graduated, Kham wanted to return to his village to teach. “There aren’t enough teachers there,” he said, and I was surprised that Luang Prabang’s cosmopolitan temptations had not convinced him to stay.
The path was flat and our legs were fresh: we made quick progress. Homesteads enclosed by jungle appeared beside the path, with palm-frond roofs and domestic animals scouring sandy yards for food. We were approaching Ban Houy Nok, where the majority of residents were ethnically Khmu. When we entered it, and sat down in a half-built communal hall, we were received with disinterest by dirty toddlers, women bent by age and yapping mongrels. Everybody else was in the fields.
Kham told us that the Khmu had come from Cambodia, but he was only half right: the Khmu were the original inhabitants of northern Laos and their language, which has no formal writing, is linked to Cambodia’s Khmer. The height of the homes set on stilts and their layout, with a separate bedroom allocated to unmarried girls, were both culturally distinct, as was the structure of the village, which included a house for village spirits and a perimeter fence with three to four gates. The carefully divided cemetery, with discrete burial places for people who had died of old age or disease, far from home, by accident, or as children, was also peculiar to the Khmu, who are said to worry more about where a body is laid to rest than other Laotians because they do not believe in reincarnation.
The village must have once been wilfully contained by its culture – by a retreat into the hills from the people who had poured out of southern China into Laos. Its residents worshipped parochial spirits, connected to them directly by ancestry or the land, but because Ban Houy Nok had electricity, a primary school and links with Luang Prabang by road and river, the government was encouraging people of different ethnicities to settle in it, under the umbrella identity of Laos.
Standing in the village hall, behind a lectern of cement bags, Kham told us some of this. Like diligent writers we took notes: “65 families, all farmers; rice harvested in rainy season; get married at 15 or 16; have 8, 9, 11 kids; boy pays for wedding; dowry of two or three million kip; buffalo sometimes slaughtered for wedding, but not part of dowry; electricity, but no running water; families must have a rice field – if not, are forced out.” The lecture ended when Claire found a leech attached to her calf. I took a bag of salt out of her backpack and sprinkled a pinch over the engorged worm. It was the first leech the French women had seen; they watched it writhe and leak blood on the dirt floor.
Kham was impatient to move on, but allowed us to stray through the village, taking photographs of its animals and children. We did not see the cemetery or the communal spirit house; we saw familiar things like satellite dishes, discarded tyres and a small shop, which our eyes could easily pick out.
The path sloped steeply up as soon as we exited Ban Houy Nok. It took us past a cave and a limestone quarry with stone segmented like the scales on fish. Three burnt-orange butterflies gathered on my foot while I walked; they nipped at my skin until I regretfully chased them off.
We did not arrive at the second village gradually, like we had at arrived at the first. We were climbing through dense jungle, pouring sweat, or making our way through valleys, between steep hills; I noticed sporadic signs of agriculture where the jungle had been cleared and was slowly growing back, but when our path widened abruptly and led straight to the pool of stagnant water that was Ban Long Kout’s focal point I felt disoriented for a moment, like somebody who had inadvertently walked into the wrong room.
Kham told us the people in Ban Long Kout were Hmong, but it was more obvious that they were desperately poor. The children wore patched-up clothes covered in mud; they were playing with butterflies tied to the end of sticks, waving them around and around until their wings broke or they were trampled into the dust. Ban Long Kout was a village in decline: it had no electricity or school and was slowly emptying out. Its residents were grudgingly letting go of their village’s ethnic integrity and moving to Ban Houy Nok to live as a minority among the Khmu. The stagnant pool – used for drinking, washing clothes, bathing buffaloes and people – was the only water source; it was too far between villages for the children to attend school. I imagined that only hardliners and the very poorest were left.
We were seated at wooden benches and served fried rice wrapped in banana leaves, which Kham had carried up from the Tiger Trail office in Luang Prabang. Women set up stalls around us, placing bags and bracelets, slings for water bottles and hand-woven hacky sacks on tables before sitting down to watch us greedily, while we ate our lunch. They moved fast; in a few minutes, our group of five was encircled by seven stalls.
Laos has made sense of its diversity by dividing ethnicities into three broad groups: Lao Loum, Lao Theung and Lao Sung – or lowlanders, midlanders and highlanders. The Lao Loum are the Lao-speaking majority, closely related to the Thais; the other two categories include a variety of peoples, but each has its own majority: the Khmu in the midlands and Hmong in the highlands. I had thought Henri Mouhot’s “savages” were the Hmong – that they were the “Fie” he was referring to, whose “cultivated grounds are to be seen on the tops and sides of the mountains” – but the Hmong were only starting to arrive in Laos in 1861, when Mouhot visited the country. They were fleeing China, where they were and still are called the Miao, a name they neither like nor use themselves. Repeated rebellions against the Qing Dynasty – against government-sanctioned Han immigration and a policy of forced assimilation, which outlawed their religious practices and traditional clothes – all failed, so they left. I wondered if the Tibetans in India and Nepal had heard of the Hmong, living on hilltops in Laos.
The fried rice was good: still warm, somehow, and full of egg. It had been shrewd of Kham not to tell us he was carrying our food. We were hungry long before we arrived, but Kham said that lunch was at Ban Long Kout and we assumed people there were preparing our meal. With the village women hovering close by, waiting for our tourist dollars to drop, it seemed senseless that they hadn’t. Tiger Trail pioneered fair treks by allocating a part of their fee to a fund for community projects. The money was used to improve schools, to build toilets or water filters, but if enterprising villagers wanted money – to offer better accommodation or food – it was supposed to be available to them too. The concept did well – so well that it was hijacked by the government and the fund, along with the Fair Trek brand, were now controlled by the Provincial Tourism Office in Luang Prabang, which had an interest in letting Ban Long Kout die.
Claire bought a sling for her water bottle after lunch. A purchase was an interaction and a photo opportunity: I clicked my shutter closed on the seller, extracting a little more from our bargain than had initially been agreed. In the photo, she is wearing a pink t-shirt and a royal blue sinh; both are faded but perfectly clean. Her products are well-made and decorated with embroidery – with intricate patterns punched with bright thread – or elephants and people cut from white cloth. Looking at the photo now, there are signs of vitality in Ban Long Kout, and signs of jaundice in my attempt to sum the village up.
The French women scraped their leftovers onto the floor, for the village dogs, and we made our way out of Ban Long Kout, past buffalos up to their ears in the malarial pool and pigs feasting on rice husks laid out in the sun. At the last hut – without stilts, in the style of the Hmong – a boy was cradling a baby bird in his hands. When I went over to take a closer look, he passed the hatchling to me. Its mother kept a close watch from her chicken-wire cage, hung from the rafters of the hut. She was a bird of prey, with a white, speckled head. I scratched the hatchling’s neck; it opened its beak wide, hoping for food.
For hours, it was just the path and us. We stopped to rest occasionally, but mosquitoes sniffed our group out and forced us to move quickly on. The jungle was forbidding in places – full of oversized insects, battling ants and cicadas that sounded like distant chainsaws – but the path was clear and obviously well used. Just before it opened up into cultivation, we passed a valley with sharply pitched sides, made dark by vegetation – by trees stretched high above antediluvian plant life and rope-thick creepers dangling into the valley’s depths. It looked impenetrable, as if nobody had ever or could ever set foot in it; I wondered what they’d find if they did.
Our final stop was Ban Houy Fai: Fai River Village, which gave its name to Houy Fai Peak. The village’s well-irrigated fields spread out over kilometres and tricked us into thinking our day’s hike was almost over. At an embankment, where the Fai River fell into a small pool, we scurried past a man and his children squatting naked in the cool water. I was sticky, sunburnt and covered in dust; I envied him, but hurried bashfully away.
We arrived at the village gratefully, after more than an hour of making our way through its fields. Kham lead us to our accommodation, in a bamboo hut divided into three narrow rooms, then went off to visit friends. Until he gathered us up in the morning, for the hike back down to the Nam Khan, we only saw him when he passed by and waved. Although he was Lao Loum – a lowlander, with a different language – it was clear that Kham felt at home among Ban Houy Fai’s Khmu.
I found myself a warm beer. The village had private generators, which were turned on at night for TV, but no fridges. I drank it slowly and took a shower, ladling cold water over myself in a dark outhouse. Afterwards, feeling revived, I set out with Claire out to explore Ban Houy Fai.
All through the village, children were playing sport: the boys running up and down between two huts, shrieking while they tried to dodge a ball; the girls playing a game that resembled cricket, with a batter using a long stick to sweep away a disc. The village women were gathered around a water pump, bathing in a group. They were wearing sarongs, which they adjusted as they washed, for modesty, but for a while left casually tied around their waists, leaving their breasts bare.
A few children posed for our camera, by making peace signs or swinging from the rafters of huts, but most of the village ignored us. Adults looked away when their eyes met mine, letting the moment drift away. We greeted people close by in Khmu – with the “Samaile” Kham had taught us – but only succeeded in eliciting grunts. Claire and I were left to wander through Ban Houy Fai like ghosts, lost among its hundred or so identical huts. Near the entrance to the village, I noticed a girl pounding rice in a wooden mortar, with a pestle as long as she was tall. I thought I could help and I wanted to interact; by gesturing, I offered to lend a hand. The girl reluctantly passed me the pestle. I lifted it up and slammed it down: rice shot up and out of the mortar, scattering on the floor. I had struck it too hard, just like a clumsy falang. I was embarrassed, but it was only a thimble-full of rice – then the girl squatted down and picked up every dust-covered grain. With our tails between our legs, Claire and I scuttled back to our hut.
A woman was waiting for us, with a ten-year-old boy. His legs were a mess of mosquito bites scratched raw, leaving welts – purple, infected, weeping – between the red of ordinary bites. The woman was the boy’s grandmother; she had come for falang medicine, because her cure – smearing white clay over the boy’s legs – hadn’t worked. We had brought up a small first aid kit, but didn’t have any antibiotics. The boy looked like he needed antibiotics. We gave the grandmother what was left of our bottle of Dettol and tried to explain that she should dilute it with water. She hesitated for a few minutes – disappointed by our uncertainty perhaps, or hoping that we would hand over something stronger – but eventually thanked us and left.
A dinner of sticky rice and salty soup was served on the balcony of our hut. We ate with the French women, discussing life in China and France: social security, living in shared houses, getting to work. We had hiked up to Ban Houy Fai together and seen something of an alien way of life, but none of us could find much to say about our day. We had exchanged observations on the way up of course – comparing our collections of knowledge about Laos, all of it skin-deep – but we were also a species of voyeur, and voyeurs don’t generally discuss the people they stalk.
In psychology, voyeurism is scopophilia: a strictly sexual act. It was defined by Freud, with all of Freud’s references to castration and excretion, but it is also used loosely, to describe our ogling of others on reality television shows and Facebook and tours through slums. A part of Freud’s definition applied perfectly to our hike to Houy Fai Peak:
By appropriating the other as image, the voyeur makes it an object of pleasure, while remaining uninvolved in the other’s intimacy.
Critics say slum tours make voyeurs of nervous tourists, who they insinuate into urbanity at its poorest. Our hike was a type of slum tour. The villagers, both Hmong and Khmu, were mostly poorer than people in Mumbai’s Daravi, which hadn’t conformed to our South African ideas of a slum when a company called Reality Tours guided Claire and I through it. Like Tiger Trail, Reality Tours gave back to the communities it exhibited; like Tiger Trail, it was a runaway success. Encouraged by the foreign appetite for poverty, it had started to offer one and two day tours through villages outside India’s largest city, with the same emphasis on reality and authenticity, which had been bundled up so it could be bought.
Tiger Trail had invited us to observe people separated from us by wealth, language, technology and education – to take photographs, appropriating these others as images on a pleasure trip. It was voyeurism, but I didn’t think that our voyeurism was Tiger Trail’s fault. Villages are a pivotal part of how Laos is put together: if tourists want to come out with a coherent picture of the country, villages are a part of what they must see, and that wasn’t always easy to accomplish in other ways. Tiger Trail did their job well, while giving something back. They’d suggested that Claire and I forego the trek and live for seven days in an Akha village, doing the work of ordinary villagers. We liked the idea, but we had deadlines for work – we were travelling indefinitely, but we were pushed for time.
I hadn’t felt like a voyeur in India or China: in China, I had language; in India, acclimatisation – perhaps – and an outgoing people. I wasn’t paying to see people in either place – I was living there or passing through, which may have meant nothing to my hosts but was important to my way of seeing myself. In both countries I was a spectacle too: I am six foot eight inches tall, and everywhere in India and China people rushed up to me to measure their height against mine, laughing and jumping and shouting to their friends to come and look. It bothered me occasionally, depending on my mood, but I realised that it was a fair exchange: if we were ogling each other, then none of us were voyeurs. Elsewhere in Laos, people singled me out; they did it quietly, without the noise and aggression of life in the world’s two most populous countries, but they did it, by standing on their toes and raising their hands, to measure the space between our heads.
On the hike to Houy Fai Peak, nobody seemed to notice my height. Perhaps they knew we were paying and that they were the star attraction: the spectacle that justified the ticket price. Perhaps, like tigers in a zoo, they had adopted the pretence of ignoring their spectators, to salvage what they could of their pride.
The next day was better: downhill, making our way back. The adults were already out in the fields by the time we dragged our stiff bodies out of bed. They had left children in charge of the village and their infant siblings, who they carried around in slings. The children wanted to show us how independent they were: how they could prepare bamboo shoots, pick flowers or brazenly smoke cigarettes.
It was still cool, but the day was blue and bright. We left Ban Houy Fai without the heaviness of yesterday’s arrival, passing through the same terrain – fields, jungle, regrowth, jungle, fields – into the same cicada-shriek of chainsaws in the distance. After an hour or two, we came across a denuded hillside being planted with rice. It was off the path, but I persuaded Kham to let us go and look, to see how rice planting was done. He agreed and I hurried off ahead, to prove I wouldn’t take long.
Fifteen or so people were gathered around a hut below the field, where some of them had probably slept. Like sport in Ban Houy Fai, work here had been divided by sex. The men were starting to make their way up the hill, with iron-tipped sticks. They poked holes in the ground as they went, and the women – swaddled from head to toe, to protect their pale skins from the sun – followed with rice seeds, placing a pinch in every hole.
Claire, Kham and the French women caught up. We were invited to join in the planting, and we did, scrambling up after the men, struggling to keep our footing on the slope’s loose sand. Our inability amused the women; they laughed when we had to crawl on all fours, scouring up close for holes; they laughed at our fussy insistence too, when we wanted to know exactly how many seeds should be placed in every hole. Laughing together, we reached the top of the hill, where the women laughed at us again, when we realised how difficult it was going to be to make our way back down.
Our final stop, at lunch time, was Ban Houy Yen, which was also Khmu. We ate instant noodles and napped on grass mats in a village shop, then made our way down to the Nam Khan and into boats idling on its banks once again. We had further to go this time, between the Nam Khan’s green-carpeted sides, past more trees flexing their muscled roots, but we were on the opposite bank before long, climbing up to the elephant camp where our hike had started.
The elephants were in their stables. Old, injured, almost all partially blind, they had been rescued from the logging industry, where they had been overworked or drugged or encouraged on with knives. Now they were a spectacle for tourists, who fed them bananas and sugar cane, watched them bathe and went for short rides on their backs. The elephants were idling in their stables, flapping their ears and prodding one another with their trunks, waiting to be let out into the jungle, where they spent most of their day. Heavy beasts elephants, and – like tourism – difficult to weigh.
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