We had high hopes of Muang Sing. A lot less touristic than Luang Nam Tha, and the heartland of minorities in Western Laos. And less than two hours away, in a packed minivan on an attractive road crossing a protected forest area, this was a piece of cake compared to any of our previous transfers, except that the lady in the back filled no less than four plastic bags, audibly.
Disappointment! Muang Sing is the pits, really, an utterly unattractive dusty town – the tribal museum and one old French colonial house cannot change that. If I have called previous accommodation basic, here we do another step down the ladder, and restaurant-wise there is very little choice (although the Muang Sing fresh spring rolls, in the local foreigner hang-out, were absolutely superb). But most annoying, however, are the people, basically unfriendly, and totally single-mindedly focused on getting to the tourist money. This is obvious in restaurants, understaffed and unresponsive in the knowledge that you don’t have another option anyhow, and with any of the three trekking agencies we tried; in one the guy couldn’t be bothered to be drawn away from his computer game, the second suggested one tour, take it or leave it (we left it), and in the third there was nobody present at all. In the end we found another utterly unfriendly lady who was prepared to rent us two bicycles – even smaller than the ones in Luang Nam Tha, and no gears at all – and sell us a walking tour. I suspect people have gotten used to too much easy money in too short a period of time, with the rapid opening up of the tourist industry here.
We spent the afternoon cycling, to a few villages in the neighbourhood. It was hard going, sandy un-surfaced road, and only when we turned around after a while we realized that we had been going uphill all the time: peddling on the way back wasn’t really necessary! In the mean time we had been burned to death by a very strong sun and covered in dust by a big Chinese truck. Had we seen a lot? Not really.
The next day we did better, on our walking tour, which in fact turned out to be very nice. An easy five-six hour walk took us along a series of villages, some from Akha and some from Yeo tribes. The villages, especially those further away from the road, had still quite a lot of authentic features, including thatched roofs and various offers of opium. More importantly, some of the minority people still dressed in their traditional cloths, women with elaborate headdresses and the men, well, with a black cap. Once again, the photos tell more. Incidentally, here no surprises when you show the LCD screen, on the contrary, they have all seen it before. And children speak even better English than in Luang Nam Tha: ‘Photo? Money!’ is the opening and closing sentence.
(1) Pumpkins in the village
(2) Village woman
(3) Akha woman and her children (four of those are hers, apparently)
(4) Even children don’t escape, this type of hats is quite common,
and a popular item to sell to tourists, too.
(5) Yeo woman, and (6) Yeo man.
(7) Local transport
We came across a small Buddhist temple, with a range of animal carvings outside, and in reliefs. Buddhism is easily mixed here with animist beliefs, like the spirit bridge – a bamboo bridge designed to allow the spirits to bypass the village – and the spirit gate, to stop the spirits from entering the village, complete with wooden cut-outs of guns pointing outwards. In another village a man – shaman - had been called in to drive out the spirits, and the ceremony was in full swing when we passed; a hundred meters further a children’s fair was set up with darts and balloons, unrelated, I suspect.
(8 and 9) local Buddhist temple attributes.
(10) The shaman, and (11) his attributes.
(12) the spirit bridge.
(13, 14 and 15) the spirit gate.
Women were working the fields – men obviously had better things to do. It was the time of sugarcane harvesting, and like in Phongsaly, all the produce is straight away taken to China –evidenced by hundreds of fully loaded trucks driving in the direction of the border -, as had happened with most other crops as well, apart from some corn and manioc left in the villages. Apparently, the Chinese even come into Laos to grow rice in the dry season, being equipped with better seeds and with irrigation kits they rent the paddies from the locals for an extra harvest. The Laotians are pretty laconic about this: they sell the produce to China, and get electronics back, mobile phones and the like.
We got back from our walk earlier than expected, and in time for the last bus – minivan – back to Luang Nam Tha. We didn’t think twice. We made our way to the bus station, and out of Muang Sing. No regrets here.