|The problem with the hill tribe people in northern Laos is that they live in the hills. High up and away from the roads - at least the more interesting/less impacted ones. So to go visit them is, as it should be, relatively hard work. We set off from the hotel at 7:30 a.m. on the first day with our guide, Somchanh. I managed to talk Tina into coming along. I believe this is the first time that she has done any serious walking aside from serious shopping days at the Mid Valley Mega Mall, but fingers crossed, can't be that bad...... There's a photo of the route attached. The first stage is a one hour bus trip from Phongsali to Boun Neua. This section is all down hill, and the bus driver hands out sick bags before he gets going. I've experience this on subsequent trips now, so you know what is coming......and it does.... Added to the topography, the driver thinks he is the Laos equivalent of Michael Schumacher (again something I've now experienced on subsequent bus trips), blaring his horn before every blind corner, but not slowing down. All of which adds to a significant volume of excreted bodily fluids. The Laotians really aren't good bus travellers. As well as sick bag usage another technique is puking out of the window....remind me not to lean on the side of the bus at the next rest stop.... The drive is spectacular. Early in the morning the mountains are enveloped in mist. It looks like they are submerged in water. Quite spectacular. You drive down through the mist, which dissipates as the sun gets up and the temperature rises. My photos don't do it justice. From Boun Neua we start the trek, plodding up a dirt road, across dry (fallow) rice fields, and up the mountain side in the jungle. Brutal. Shirt soaking wet after a very short time. The climb up the hill seems endless, I guess a couple of hours. But we reach the top, feel the cool breeze, and the guide pulls out a home made lunch which he lays out on freshly cut banana leaves. Sticky rice, fried eggs, pork with turnip. Brilliant. Hurting by now, and although the next stage is downhill, its steep, so pretty demanding on the knees and toes. Tina is complaining of blisters, I'm lucky in that my new boots feel great, its just my highly unfit body that is the issue. We descend to a river valley, crossing the river by walking along a huge felled tree (no hand ropes here), and begin a long slow climb up and down a number of valleys and mountain sides. At one point we pass a couple of hunters, with long rifles. We don't see any wildlife - animals or birds - probably because the hunters (and children) have shot and eaten everything. But we do hear birds - there are some there somewhere.... At 5 p.m., just as the sun is beginning its closing descent for the day, we arrive in the Akha Phixo hill tribe village of Ban Phapoun Mai where we will spend the night. The villages up here are pretty basic; huts, a communal water pipe (two, with taps), food - pigs, chickens, dogs (they eat dogs here), a village cow, a few ponies. There seems to be some form of electricity, because you get the patriotic music and news at sunset and sunrise. Inside the hut was a single weakly glowing light bulb - for a short time. We hobbled down through the village and washed under the tap wearing our sarongs, much to the amusement of the watching children. I seriously don't remember the last time I ached this much. Then it was dinner with the head tribes man in his hut, where we would also be sleeping. The hut is raised probably six feet off the ground, and seems windowless - it is dark inside, with a couple of sectioned off sleeping areas, an open (behind cloth sheet walls) sleeping area for the tourists, and at the back a cooking room - an open fire inside the hut with a small vent in the ceiling. As well as some pretty good food (see photos) - rice, turnips, veggies, fried eggs, noodle soup and even coffee (sneaked in by Tina) - the highlight was the head man serving us Lao Lao (photo) - Lao rice whisky. It is apparently rude to refuse, and after a hard day's walking we weren't about to anyway. Having seen the sleeping area I knew I would need something to knock me out..... In bed by 8:00 p.m. As there is no electricity it's dark (we ate by candle light), so once you've eaten there's not much else you can do except sleep. As with any communal sleeping - we were in a long house with probably three other families - the noise level was high for quite a while. You sleep on the floor on thin mats, with a blanket which you really need - it gets quite cold here at night. For my pillow I think someone had put five rocks into a bag and then added a minimal amount of padding. Needless to say I think I woke up every half an hour to switch positions, such was the pain on the hip and knees from the hard floor. What a whiner..... 3:30 a.m. and I'm pretty sure that all of the chickens and cocks in the village are crowing. Some sort of competition going on. What's with starting at 3:30 a.m.? It's still dark. Even if they applied daylight saving they would still be a couple of hours early.... Not long after that, Grandma is sweeping the floor - what is this Asian affliction with sweeping? Then someone is sifting rice (photo attached). 6:30 a.m. and that's it, I'm out of bed and looking for a quiet place to have a pee. The village first thing in the morning is a hive of activity. The women and young girls seem to be doing most of the work - fetching water, feeding the animals, cooking. I wandered around taking photos. The villages are obviously used to foreigners, but still don't really like being photographed - they will turn away or bow their heads as soon as they see the camera. Asking them if you can take a photo is no help - they giggle, say no and turn away. So getting decent shots is a challenge, but with persistence, and seeing a couple of the women I'd seen the night before, I got a couple of shots. Breakfast - more rice, veggies, canned sardines, fried pork skin (scratchings to the English) - and we were on our way. The walk out is a gentle slow descent along quite a wide track back to the town of Boun Neua. We saw plenty of the hill tribe people walking to town/market. The women all wore their traditional clothes and head dresses, and we saw a couple of ponies taking produce down to the town. A small way down we passed through the village gate (see photo) - which was shut after we'd passed through. This keeps out the spirits/bad Phi (I think) - the people here are animists and believe that everything has a spirit - some spirits are good, some bad.... Closing in on the town our guide worried that we might miss the 1 p.m. bus, so we flagged down a "Tok Tok" - basically a tractor bolted on to a small trailer (see photo) - and bumped our way along the last couple of kilometers. What a great trek, something I would recommend to anyone. Quite demanding, but very rewarding, quite unlike anything I have experienced before. Needless to say the 1 p.m. bus never materialized. The next one was due at 7 ish (the daily one from Udomxai). But by chance we managed to get onto a bus (I think it was the 1 p.m. bush hijacked for other usage) that was packed with produce bought in China and on its way to Phongsali. Hence you can see the attached picture of the guide and I sitting on all sorts of produce - I sat on sacks of sunflower seeds and lay back against packs of toilet rolls. I was asleep in minutes. What a great two days.