My Akha Diary

My friend (Jason) and I recently visited a place where he made a comment ‘this is like the Akha experience we had in Laos’. My thought immediately went back to November 16, 2016 when we started our 3-day trekking trip into the primary and secondary forests of Muang Sing. We decided to do it largely in hopes of gaining a learning experience into the culture and daily life of the Akha hill tribe.

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Oung and Lar Tue making a ‘bridge’ for us to cross the river. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

It has been more than a year since the trip, but certain memories of it can never fade. They are timeless treasures of the heart. The first day mainly involved trekking through the forest.

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The dense forest of Muang Sing.

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The valley we were heading to.

There were four of us: our Akha guide named Oung, the head of the family with whom we would be staying Lar Tue (my spelling of his name might be questionable), Jason and I. Since we were far away from the hustle and bustle of modernization, peace was all around us. We had our lunch at beautiful waterfalls named Nam Keo Noi. I still remember how delicious and fulfilling the lunch was!

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Nam Keo Noi waterfalls where we stopped for lunch on our first day of trekking. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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Our first day’s lunch- rice, chicken, stir-fried veggies and Mandarin oranges. Absolutely yum!

One of the most beautiful experiences of this part of first day was seeing Lar Tue and Oung catch spiders in the forest (for dinner!). The happiness, joy and contentment that they seemed to exude were contagious. I remember feeling absolutely present in the moment.

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Oung caught a spider with a stick he created with his creativity.

I also learned one valuable technique of warding off bloodsucking leeches: applied tiger balm all over our shoes as the smell was too repulsive for those little monsters. During one of our rest stops, Lar Tue and Oung shared their local delicacy of bamboo rice cake with us. I enjoyed it so much that Lar Tue let me have one of his. What a joyful moment of sharing in the depths of Muang Sing forest far away from daily burdens and stresses, with two happy, generous, and funny Akha tribesmen!

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Bamboo rice cake that Oung and Lar Tue shared with us.

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Lar Tue’s village, that was where we would be spending our first night. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

It was already late in the afternoon when we reached Lar Tue’s village. I remember having this so-close-yet-so-far feeling as the appearance of the village and all that was in it was not much different than what one would usually find in a typical village in Sabah – wooden houses, animal barns, vegetable farms…even the faces of the villagers. While most things seemed familiar to me, they were still pretty much foreign to me. I did not speak the language. I did not know how things were supposed to work there. In other words, we were worlds apart when it came to our cultural perspectives. I treasured both the similarities and differences as they both gave me a sense of familiarity and a sense of authenticity in my encounter with the friendly and lovely Akha people.

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Lar Tue’s village.

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Beautiful faces of the Akha people.

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Lar Tue’s home, where we spent our first night of the trek.

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Lar Tue’s wife preparing wild veggies for dinner (and for all the other meals).

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Dinner time – rice, boiled wild veggies, fish, peanuts, and deep-fried spiders.

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We visited the school before starting our second day of trekking. It was interesting to learn about the village’s school system. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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Lar Tue and his wife.

Another beautiful memory from the trip that never fails to make me smile every time I look back on my Akha trip is the second day’s trek through various villages, schools, sugar cane, rubber and banana plantations, paddy fields, and bushes. Most villagers whom we walked past were warm and friendly, especially the kids. At one of the villages, we were surrounded by kids. I had fun taking some wefies with them. They giggled and laughed as I showed them the results. It was certainly a heart-warming moment to see such simple gestures could still bring much joy to some of us.

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Showing the outcome of wefies to some kids in one of the villages we were passing through. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

I remember being followed by a group of school kids. They were eager to speak to us in English. Jason did most of the work. I think they even talked about football. Our guide had to tell the boys to go home haha!

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Jason was surrounded by some school kids who were eager to practice their English, and ask all kinds of questions from Canada to football.

We were slashing long grass and branches as we walked through the plantations and bushes. In doing all this, Oung occasionally sang what appeared to me as a sad love song (later I discovered that indeed he was singing a sad love song!). Sometimes I tried to whistle in tune with Oung’s singing. More slashing. More singing and whistling. I was happy.

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Slashing the long leaves of sugar canes with a stick. Slashing. Singing. Whistling. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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Paddy fields after harvest, and a lone water buffalo. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

Another unforgettable moment from the trip is the second evening spent with some Akha kids. We were strolling through the village. I must say the kids seemed to love foreigners! They followed us, and just like all the other kids we had previously encountered, they wanted to practice their English, asked questions, played games…

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Jason drawing a smurf on the dirt for his little Akha fans.

By the time we got back to our ‘homestay’, we had collected quite a number of little guests. I braided some of the kids’ hair. Jason took photos. We asked them questions. They did too. They also performed some dances for us. They kept us company until it was about time for dinner.

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Time for some hair braiding session. Girls were lining up for my free-of-charge service. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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My first two sweet little customers. One of them (on the right) did not have a rubber band so I decided to give her mine.

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The Akha version of Spice Girls (and a little boy). Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

Just before we departed, some of the kids came to say goodbye. Though the amount of time we spent with them was minimal, it was still sad to part. They were standing on/near the porch of our ‘homestay’ till they were out of our sight. That was the very last image I had of them. I remember having this conversation with Jason about what would happen to these kids in the future. Would we see them again? Would they still be in the same village years later? Perhaps some of them would move to the city? Getting married at a young age seems to be a common practice, so… or perhaps some of them would end up studying or working in another country? Whatever the future held for them, we had our best wishes for the kids who made our Akha experience that much more beautiful and meaningful.

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The last image I had of the kids as we were leaving.

There was so much more to our Akha experience. The encounter with some water buffaloes and what Oung did to scare them away… the same meal of rice, wild veggies and fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner… the taste of deep fried spiders… the Akha traditional massage… the overnight stay at Lar Tue’s home with some of his kids stealing glimpses of the two weird foreigners sleeping under mosquito nets… Oung’s attempt to say 1 to 10 in Japanese… the sum of all these experiences has definitely given me one of the most amazing travel memories, and the realization that interactions with local people can really add depth to the outcome of a trip.

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Our encounter with a couple of huge water buffaloes. Get out of their way! Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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Jason, Oung and Lar Tue at the back of a Lao version of Tuk Tuk. We were on our way back to the town on the last day.

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