We spent three days trekking through the mountains of Laos near the Chinese border, walking from village to village with a local guide delightfully named Bounsy. This is a wild place where few foreigners go and many villages are connected only by steep footpaths.
This is the time of year when farmers burn their rice fields, and the air was thick with smoke; in some places, ash rained down from the sky like feathers. Although I know very little about slash and burn farming, I can’t help thinking that there must be a way for families to feed themselves without destroying these mountains.
Here, each family has its own plot of land, and so farming can be lonely work. During the rainy season, the families move to a temporary hut in their field, to be as close as possible to the rice that will feed them for the next year.
We trudged up a particularly steep hillside that was blackened and smoking, and saw the obscure figure of a bare-breasted woman materialize from the smoking ashes. A child ran out from behind her, calling to someone, and then they both disappeared again. The air in those mountains is thick with superstition.
The villages consist of a collection of small wooden huts with dirt floors, each with its own storage of rice, and yards full of pigs, chickens, dogs and children who would follow us, shrieking with delight each time we tried to speak. The only bathroom is in the woods, and the pigs are happy to clean up after you.
Laotians are very reserved—tribal people in particular—and often we could see women peeking out at us from their doorways. They wear fabulous costumes embroidered with colorful beads, electric pink stitching and old French coins. They dislike being photographed, so we have almost no pictures.
Here’s one I found online that’s very similar. (Photo Credit: Loic Brohard)
Each night, we slept in the chief’s house and ate dinners of curious pickled vegetables, egg, and once, dried squirrel (ask the vegetarian how it tasted), washed down with shots of Lao-Lao, the local rice whisky. Since there’s no electricity, the meals were eaten and prepared with headlamps, which the women wear over their glorious headpieces. After making dinner, however, the women eat with their children at a table that’s separate from ours; they wash up while thier husbands smoke and drink whisky, and wake up first in the morning to prepare breakfast over the fire. At the first house, the wife barely acknowledged us, and my only impression of her was in shadow, standing bent over the fire with a baby tied to her back and a conical headpiece. Her hunched silhouette made her seem like a being from another world.