Before leaving for our trek into the Nam Ha National Protection Area our guide said we needed something for every child at each village we were to visit. He recommended balloons. I wondered why. Perhaps pens or paper, I suggested. Or balls to play with. He shook his head. Something for every child, he said.
So we got the balloons – packets and packets of them. About two hundred balloons in total. A bit over the top I thought.
There are more than forty ethnic groups in Laos. During the course of our trek we visited three different villages. The very first was an Akha village. Women from this particular ethnic group, their lips red from chewing betel leaf, sell their wares in Luang Namtha in a manner which, to me, seemed pushy. They stopped tourists in the street and demanded a sale, albeit with a smile. They came in to the restaurant we favoured, not once or twice, but several times each evening.
So perhaps I should have expected this.
That’s me, two minutes after arriving and already unhappy. Mobbed by a crowd of kids. Not for the balloons – although that happened, too, a few minutes later.
These kids are all insisting I purchase their hand-made bracelets. My error was to hesitate. The others just walked away. I’m soft hearted. But not so soft hearted as to buy from every child. But how do you choose who to favour with your custom? What a dilemma. “Please, madame! Madame, please! they begged, thrusting their beaded bracelets in my face. I ended up buying from the noisiest, the quietest, and from a girl who was almost lost in the crowd because of her height. Us shorties have to stick together.
When the Akha women next came to our restaurant at least I had evidence I’d done enough shopping.
When John and our guide produced the balloons the children were just as insistent. Swarming around John, they clamoured for a balloon as a truck loaded with firewood trundled down the road. A disaster waiting to happen, I thought. But what seemed like chaos wasn’t. You can see from the photo there were plenty of adults keeping an eye on the kids, and making sure they all got a balloon.
This serious little one followed us around the village; watching, never smiling. I hope the future is kind to her.
Seated apart from all the action were this father and son. They’re making stools similar to the one the Dad is sitting on.
Later that afternoon, after our walk in the jungle, we visited a Khmu village. There were children there, too. They were a lot more uncertain. Often they hid, peering at us from inside the houses, until an adult they trusted encouraged them to take a balloon.
A group of people were preparing bamboo for a new house. The leaves are used to thatch the roof, the stalks for the walls. Our guide told us that each house, especially if the roof is well made, is good for up to ten years.
The last village we visited was from the Lanten ethnic group. Lanten people migrated to Laos from China about one hundred years ago. There’s no road to this village, yet.
It was about four in the afternoon. Women were sitting in small groups outside their houses doing needlework. Some were lighting fires, ready for the evening meal. The children were keen to have a balloon. Here they waited patiently, each taking their turn.
The Lanten people are known for their distinctive style of dress, indigo dyed cotton and silver jewellery, as well as paper making.
We were invited into one of the houses. It was large, airy, with woven bamboo walls, a thatched roof, and a dirt floor.
This elderly woman was proud to have her photo taken.
She’s 86 and must have seen an enormous amount of upheaval in her life. When I showed her her photo she became a little agitated. I called our guide back, and he explained she wanted payment. Once paid she waved me on through her house, encouraging me to take more photos. That didn’t seem right to me. It was one thing to take a photo of her sitting near the door, her equivalent of our kitchen, an entirely different thing to take photos of the sleeping space and other private areas.
Since I arrived home I’ve been asked how I felt visiting the villages. Some people have assumed it would have made me appreciate my advantaged life. The first time someone said that to me I actually laughed. It’s not like that, not for me, anyway. It’s not that I’m not advantaged – of course I am. And of course, sometimes I was shocked by what I saw. But mostly, for me, it’s more that what I glimpsed was a way of life that’s different from my own. As different from mine as those people who live in mega cities, cities that are double or triple the entire population of my country, and whose homes are apartments in a thirty floor building.
Others wondered if I felt as if I needed to do something to help the people because of the poverty. My answer isn’t straightforward. You see, I’m pretty allergic to people coming to New Zealand and casting their opinions about our lifestyle. I often hear remarks, usually from visitors from much larger countries, about how quaint or cute our way of life is, about how our lifestyle reminds them of their own country thirty or forty years ago. Those comments never fail to offend me. Our lifestyle is the way it is. We’re working it out – our way. And I suppose that’s what I think about the situation in Laos. It is for Laos people to work out how they want things to be.
But I don’t intend this as an excuse to do nothing. There are ways to support local initiatives.
- When choosing a trekking company we asked at the Tourist Information Centre in Luang Namtha for recommendations. We wanted the villages to benefit from our visit.
- I keep an eye out for tourist ventures that put money back in to the community. In Luang Namtha the Bamboo Lounge provides training in the service industry to young Lao people.
- In Luang Prabang purchases from the TEAC centre support ethnic minorities.
- And Big Brother Mouse is an NGO which introduces books to Lao children, especially those in remote villages.
Believe it or not we needed all two hundred of those balloons. The population in Laos is growing rapidly and there were a lot of children in each of the villages. But I did wish we’d taken something more than balloons. We were dependent on the advice of our guide but I worried, and still do, that both buying from the children as I did in the Akha village and giving away balloons wasn’t the best of approaches. Some guidelines say don’t take gifts for the children, others say gifts are expected. So when in doubt the best thing seemed to be to do as our guide recommended.
If you happen to be in Luang Prabang and are planning to visit a remote village consider purchasing books from Big Brother Mouse to take with you. I wish I had.