Whatever happened to the UNICEF Halloween ride

Ban Honglerk in the far north of Laos: A journey through time to the Akha

Yes, they still exist in Southeast Asia. The places where there has never been a "white long nose". A few years ago I went to one of these places without knowing what to expect. An experience report.

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During my first months in Laos, I was able to visit the far north of Laos several times as part of my work with development aid organizations. Many of the country's 46 ethnic minorities live here. In some of these villages you feel like you have been transported back in time 100 years. I would like to take you on such a journey through time today - to the Akha in Ban Honglerk.

Ban Honglerk: a village in Laos

The village was part of a pilot project of the UNODC (United Nations office on drugs and crime) to offer the people in this region an alternative to opium cultivation. The residents of the 30 villages were able to choose between three alternatives:

  • the cultivation of other "cash crops" such as cotton
  • the manufacture of handicrafts for sale
  • tourism

Long journey for the first tourists

Ban Honglerk had decided to go tourism without ever having seen a foreigner before and so we long noses came to their village.

The journey there has been an adventure to this day, except that you don't need a road map for the ten-hour journey, as we explain to the astonished companion of a Swedish NGO. Because on the way to the far north you only need to know where to turn at two intersections. So after we have everything on board except for the road map, which probably doesn't exist for this region anyway, we can start.

The journey takes you from Luang Prabang on National Road 13 towards the north. It goes through countless small villages, where the children play in the street, the dogs doze in the sun and the pigs and chickens look for something to eat and sometimes even have dinner themselves. If grilled rats and other rodents are not your favorite food, then you better bring your own food for the trip. Nothing on the way is geared towards tourists and apart from water, sweet soda and chips, not much is available.

The last outpost of civilization and meanwhile also the first of China in Laos is Oudomxai. Here, even during the day, the big trucks loaded with tropical wood drive unabashedly towards China and on the streets you can see Chinese police, although the border is still 90 km away. In the last Laotian restaurant in town we have a more than sumptuous lunch and stock up on Chinese flashlights at the market before we continue to Muang Khoua. It is advisable to make this little detour and spend a night there, because the really adventurous part of the road awaits you only now.

The great achievements in Muang Khoua in recent years have been the arrival of electricity, milk and raisin buns. When asked where the road after Muang Khoua leads, the answer is nowhere. The road ends a few hundred meters behind the town. So I have actually reached one of the ends of the Lao disc.

The biggest attraction of the place is the adventurous suspension bridge, which has been in need of renovation for decades. At about 30m height you have a beautiful view of the gardens that the residents have created on the banks of the Nam Ou, and through the holes in the bridge you have a clear view of the floods below you.

Otherwise, there are a handful of very basic accommodations and a few restaurants with river views.

We meet people in charge of the provincial government here to talk to them about our planned school project in Ban Honglerk. As in the past, the school is to be built of clay so that both construction and maintenance are easier and can be taken over by the villagers themselves. They can still remember this old design that the Chinese brought across the border a long time ago. However, the knowledge about this has already been forgotten in this region.

The “no” to the contribution of wood for the roof construction is frightening - not because the government does not want to, but because it cannot. There is no longer a single halfway usable tree in the whole region. Thanks go to the Chinese, whose heavily loaded trucks we saw driving towards the border a few hours ago. So it becomes clear that we had to bring the wood up here from Luang Prabang and that the success of the school project has already died his first death.

Onward journey to the north

You don't have to stay here for more than a day and so almost all visitors go on the next day across the river to Vietnam or further north, towards Phongsali.

From Muang Khoua we also set out for Ban Honglerk the next morning. The journey first goes back a bit and then a dusty road branches off towards Phongsali. On the way we take another provincial chief with us - but in Laos this does not look like you stop in front of the house, he gets in and we continue - no, far from it. Everyone out of the cars, plastic stool and rice schnapps and first of all drank the two obligatory schnapps, then a little bit of small talk and then it goes on.

Here in the far north of Laos you definitely need an all-terrain car and the constant honking in front of every hilltop, curve and in the village is essential for survival for all road users, because not even the dog leaves the road voluntarily. On the way we collect a few passengers who couldn't afford the bus or who missed it until the loading area is full.

The road gets more and more bumpy, but that doesn't really impress the other drivers and so we drive up and down the mountains fairly quickly until the junction to Ban Honglerk comes. The UNODC dug this mud track into the slope so that the village can even be reached by car. As soon as it rains, however, the whole thing becomes a slippery adventure or even completely impassable.

At the second attempt we manage the last climb and luckily we don't slide down the slope on the other side. Behind the last bend before the village we meet a group of children who, at the sight of us and our monster, have panic written on their faces, which is why they crouched very close to the slope. We think that is how it has to be when the aliens land in front of us.

When we finally arrive in the village, we are welcomed by the village chief and a few other curious men and taken to the hut of the village elder. The village is very picturesque on a ridge, as is typical of the Akha villages. This ethnic group immigrated to Laos, Vietnam and northern Thailand from areas further north of Myanmar and southern China. Around 400,000 members of this ethnic group live here, making it one of the largest ethnic groups in mountainous regions and at altitudes over 900 meters.

The Akha still operate intensive agriculture with slash and burn and are among the poorest sections of the population. So it's not surprising that many families see the only way to make some money is growing opium. In the past, there were strict rules for the consumption of opium among the mountain peoples and only the elderly, the sick and the shaman were allowed to smoke it. Today, many young men are addicted themselves and often fail to provide enough bread for the family. The lethargy of opium also threatened to literally exterminate the Akha, because many men only lie in the corner, smoking.

Opium has been around for a long time in this region, but it has never had this status and such a distribution. First the British and then the Americans brought ruin to China and the Golden Triangle on a large scale and often forced people to cultivate large areas. So the deceptively beautiful pink and white flower fields have spread in the mountains.

Now tourism should take care of it and offer people an alternative income to opium. The villagers did not have to actively participate in this new project with homestay, catering for visitors or activities, but they are no longer allowed to grow opium.

First encounters

First we go on a tour of discovery through the village and a picture presents itself to us on every corner - women and children who are fleeing from us. No, we don't wear Halloween masks and my colleague is even half-Thai - it's all useless and we have our first doubts as to how we should market this project if we only have photos of fleeing villagers.

It took a while in the end, but with every visit they get a little braver, at some point they even work with the photos.

Lunch is then again an adventure for us. In the months of the dry season, many villages up here depend on the World Food Program, including Ban Honglerk. After we have had high-profile visitors in the form of the provincial government representatives and there are hardly any vegetables left, a pig is to be slaughtered.

Of course, we also brought some delicacies from Muang Khoua in the form of grilled frog skewers, fish and noodles, but the pork is a must. Fortunately, it is dark and smoky in the Akha huts, as the open fire pit not only blackens the walls and lungs, but also the view. There is mainly the innards of the pig - chopped brain with ginger, which is very tasty, the semi-cleaned tripe takes a lot of getting used to and otherwise we wonder what happened to the meat of the pig because on the table it never landed. But the pumpkin stew is very tasty and on my third visit to the village there is an extra bowl for me.

After lunch we went on a little exploratory walk that we soon regret. Because the "freshly slaughtered" pig turned out to be the dead pig from the ditch on which the chickens had already danced before. The only hope that remains is that there was enough chilli in the offal stew and that the ginger could eliminate possible causes of death in the chopped pork brain. Well, what doesn't kill you ... And so it goes on.

As poor and simple life up here may be and as great as the hardship and hardship for the villagers, they often seem so happy to us. There the boys - whether they are kindergarten or teenagers - sit together and play peacefully with marbles. The girls are instructed in Akha embroidery by their mothers and aunts and the kittens and dogs frolic in the sun.

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Photographed for the first time

The “photo shoot” is then a big party. Nobody has seen a camera before and other hill tribes like the Hmong even believed for a long time that this strange box would capture their souls. So we take photos of ourselves with the children and then show them the pictures - needless to say, we are the heroes of the day.

Otherwise the women and less brave children scurry past us and carefully peek around the corner or out of the huts, because of course they are all curious. The other villagers come back from the fields and the forest, some heavily loaded with firewood and their water buffalo.

Now it's time to start with the two new washing areas that the UNODC has installed in the village. Before that, all the villagers had to run down the slope to a stream to wash themselves and get their drinking water. The Akha are strictly gendered to this day and so women and men have their own washing place. At some point we will also be the big attraction here - a European and a half-Thai try their hand at the washing area with sarong and soap - better than any cinema show - that doesn't exist in Laos anyway.

The villagers wash themselves here after a long and hard day's work and the women bring the water home in bamboo and pumpkin containers. We watch the peaceful and exuberant scenery a bit before we head towards dinner.

The villagers have prepared our night camp in their modest and somewhat crooked guest hut, but after our friend from the Swedish NGO really wants to make a real homestay, we take our mattresses under our arms and move back into the hut of the village elder. So the guesthouse has to wait even longer for its first overnight guests.

The women prepare dinner downstairs while we sit together upstairs and discuss the next steps for the tourism project and the school building. With the Akha, men eat first. The women are only allowed to sit at the table when they are finished - therefore never finish everything, otherwise the women go to bed hungry. Of course, the obligatory Lao Lao rice schnapps should not be missing at the table and they have also prepared a traditional baci ceremony for us and the success of the project.

We also have another highlight for the villagers in our luggage - a water filter. The village has got a water pipe, but the water is only conditionally suitable for drinking and should be boiled - but this is often not done because the children do not like warm water, they say. The fact that you can also let the water cool down is probably a train of thought too far and the simple water filter with a clay insert seems to us the better solution. Everyone then sits in a semicircle around it and waited - armed with flashlights - until the first drop falls through the filter - all that's missing is popcorn and cola.

But they also have a surprise in store for us - the famous Akha massage. Well, you shouldn't have any back problems, but otherwise the massage of the girls who come to them in their "dressed up" is definitely an experience and I don't know who will have more fun with it.

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Sleepless night

Since only a few huts have enough electricity for a light bulb and the night quickly drifts across the country, we too will soon set up our night camp on the living room floor, well guarded by the pictures of Mao, Lenin and the Laotian army. The family squeezes into the adjoining room between sacks of rice and all sorts of other odds and ends - the guest is still king here. As we are just about to fall asleep, we can suddenly hear shouting and drumming against the door outside - they have locked Grandma out.

Falling asleep again and suddenly a rustling from the corner - we disregarded one of the golden rules and forgot to eat in the bedroom. So climb out of the sleeping bag and feel the bag in the dark, in the hope that there is only a cockroach in it but not a rat. Less than 5 minutes later - oh, there was still the grilled fish in the other bag ...

Next attempt, now it has to work with the well-deserved sleep. Far from it, now a family quarrel is taking place outside among the water buffalo and it is not being carried out quietly. When the cool freshness of the early morning finally comes up and the silence has returned outside, we have regained hope of getting some sleep.

Suddenly all the roosters in the village and in the neighboring village and in the whole valley start crowing and in the next moment the door flies open and the Akha get up brightly. Why do you voluntarily get up at four in the morning without electricity? We will never know, but sleep is now out of the question. So there is breakfast at six o'clock in the morning with freshly slaughtered chicken head and rice schnapps.

Conclusion

We would certainly not have survived up here for more than a week, we would have died of lack of sleep and alcohol poisoning. But one or two nights is an unforgettable and very impressive experience.Unfortunately, the UNODC project was not extended for unexplained reasons, and the construction of a new school has not yet been implemented due to power games between the UN and Unicef. But you can visit the village with the Tiger Trail and help the villagers and get to know life with the Akha.

Have you ever been to a place where hardly any tourists have been?

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About the author

Sabine Geier has been traveling to Southeast Asia for more than 10 years - first with a backpack and later as a tour guide on the Mekong and its neighboring countries. She is particularly attracted by contact with people and their culture. Her great loves are Laos and Thailand.

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