We all met at the office at 8am looking clean and sparklingly fresh. After leaving our luggage safely locked up in our guide Pon's house, we climbed into the back of a typical Lao pick-up tuk tuk truck and headed off out of town. We soon turned off the main road and onto a dirt track, bumping along while the very cool wind and dust from the road engulfed us in the back of the unprotected truck. We were filthy and covered in dirt before we had even started trekking!
After around 2.5 hours of winding up and along the mountainside road, we stopped at a small village, our first Akha experience. We walked around the village and the poverty and complete lack of anything modern hit us immediately. We were invited into a small house to have a look at the way of life for these people.
We ducked to enter into the very dark and smoky hut, typically made from a wooden structure with reeds for the roof and bamboo for the walls and flooring. We were shocked to see a woman lying on the floor in the sleeping area under a filthy quilt, smoking opium. It was 11am. Pon explained that there is very little for these people to do, and so smoking opium is a means of getting through the day for some. The villagers can grow a little opium to see them through the days, if not it costs around 30,000 kip for a days'supply (about $3.50). The kids in the village watched us with curiosity and amazement, as we walked around the village with our small backpacks, cameras and western style clothes. This village had very clearly not seen many tourists before.
Back on the truck for a short time until the road was blocked by workers repairing a landslide. So off the truck and we started walking a short way until it was time for lunch! Pon had brought with him a bag of food for us all; some sticky rice, omelette, greens and some meat all wrapped in banana leaves. We dug in, eating Lao-style with our fingers, the way it would be for the next 4 days. The trek started with an easy and flat path winding along the hillside, with great views across the valley. We walked for around 4 hours, the path getting a little steep and more difficult towards the end. We ended up at around 4pm in another Akha village, where we would spend the night. We were taken to the house of the village chief and sat around a small outside area for a drink and some biscuits.
The entire village were soon gathered around us. We realised we would not lose our audience for our entire stay! Once we were refreshed, the games began. Gerda pulled out a notepad and began crafting toys made from paper like aeroplanes and other simple things that the kids loved. They even brought balloons with them and handed out a few, which the kids were absolutely amazed by. Fergus began the soon-to-be famous 'Heads, shoulders, knees and toes' routine and soon had a whole group of kids joining in and laughing away. Isreal and Froukje got out the 'devil sticks', putting on a performance and then letting the more brave of the audience have a go. When the cameras came out, at first everyone would run away or hide their faces, either looking terrified or just laughing nervously.
When one of us did manage to get a photo, we would show them the picture on the playback and then everyone wanted their picture taken!! They were all fighting for the camera's attention and desperate to see themselves on the tiny screen. This village was incredibly basic and a world away from modern life. When nature called, it was a trip up the hill into the jungle or, when it went dark, just a duck behind a fence somewhere. There are no toilets of any kind in the village, and the only source of washing is from the one communal tap built into a concrete block in the middle of the village. Therefore it was a trip to the communal water source to wash our hands and faces, together with an audience!!! The shaman of the village, an 80 year old chap carrying an infant came along to join us at one point, and a younger guy sat with a small child on his lap, puffing away on a rather large opium cigarette.
The kids didn't batter an eyelid at the opium being smoked around them. Tonight for dinner we had chicken on offer, and we all heard the suspicious sound of a chicken briefly squawking inside the house before it went quiet. A few minutes later, the chief came outside with a dead chicken and began to pluck it. Now that is fresh meat!! Dinner was served for us inside the chief's house, the staple sticky rice, green stalky veggies, and a bowl of the chicken that had been minced. This being Laos, they eat everything and therefore assumed we did too. The entire chicken had been minced, including the bone, beak and feet so a spoonful of the chicken resulted in tiny bits of hidden bone being picked out of our teeth while we ate!! The chicken was left pretty much untouched.
As we sat and ate, we heard a lot of shouting and screaming from outside. A fight had broken out between a few of the villagers and continued on for a while. It was like a Lao hill tribe live version of Eastenders.
After dinner, we climbed the hill from the village in the dark to sit and watch the kids perform a song for us. Pon had disappeared so we were not sure what the singing was for or about but was nice to watch and listen to the kids perform. When we were ready for bed after a few more singalongs with Fergus leading the way, Pon took Simon and I to the house of the family who we were staying with. We climbed the wooden stairs and ducked under the low bamboo roof to enter the house. The house was typically one room with a small fire in one corner with a big pot over it, and a few bamboo mattress in a line against one wall.
In the house was a couple, their 4 children and another woman who was a guest for the night from a neighbouring village. Pon pointed to a mat on the the floor and told us that was our bed for the night. We were on the mat lying next to the family, in the one sleeping area of the house. So in the area that normally a couple and their 4 kids sleep, they had the 2 of us extra plus their guest. It was actually surprisingly comfortable and we soon got over the lack of normality and soaked it all up. Sleeping on the thin mattresses on the floor is a little hard on the bones but not too bad, and we slept OK until the cockerels all set each other off at about 4am. From then on it was non-stop for the cockerals, the barking dogs and the looming dawn.