100% pure unbridled nature. That's what we got trekking through the beautiful Nam Ha Valley in northern Laos. Two full days of rigorous trekking (most of it seeming to be uphill) brought our group through three Lanten villages and up, down and across more hills and jungles than I can count. But with natures glory bursting with joy out from the ground, and beautiful mountain vistas awaiting at the top of every hill, things weren't so bad.

The end of the first day of trekking up/down/around hills left our group (Shannon, Sam, Jack, Emily Long, Mckenzie, Jack, Jeremy, Craig) staying at a lodge in a Lanten village near the Nam Tha River. The Lanten are an animist tribal group in Laos who still live off the land as hunter gatherers, and now to some extent, traders. To give an idea of how remote we were, the village had no road, power of any sort, and the closest town was a 5 hour WALK away (this village could only be reached by walking or on the river during the wet season). So we were 'out there'. Although ethnically Tai, the Lanten are animists, meaing they believe in nature spirits, and are very superstitious. Some examples…they throw a bit of food into nature each time they have a meal as an offering…all their houses face down-stream…married women shave their eyebrows…water buffalo guts and other oddities are hung from the ceilings in the houses to ward off evil spirits. Kinda eccentric huh? Although you have to wonder what they say think about us 'crazy Americans'.

People may grow up and start expressing themselves differently, but our senses of joy and happiness inherited from childhood are all the same. I'm pretty sure that's a profound thought, or else maybe I just have taken it for granted, but playing with the children in this Lanten village had to be the most fun of the entire trek. Craig's (genius) idea of bringing bubbles paid off 10x its cost through the magical joy the Lanten kids expressed at these colorful, floating delights. Sam, Jeremy and Emily started blowing bubbles too and for hours these kids couldn't get enough. They thought our camera's were pretty cool too, but it was as if bubbles were the best thing to come from Western culture for these children. Who knows, maybe they're right! After that, the kids proceeded to play 'tag' and 'boys chase the girls' in the river sand naked, which was pretty funny, but nice to see that, although worlds apart, kids are still kids whatever circumstances you grow up in. Sometimes bubbles bring more joy than a Ferrari (if anyone wants to trade, I'm game).

That night, our group had some very interesting conversations about Bhutan, with the one outsider who trekked with our group. From idolizing and creating religious statues and staffs of penis', to over-the-top religious imagery (in temples) involving 'sky-clad' demi-gods ridings flaming tigers to earth, it sounds like a very…'interesting' culture. Bhutans form of Buddhism has embraced the very toungue-in-cheek religious teachings of a famous Divine Madman, yet take these as completely serious. After two hours of fireside explanations, I think most came out more confused than not.

After a night of wonderful sleeping (for some), we all awoke to the heavenly song of roosters bright and early at 6am. We were treated to some famous Laotian tea or coffee (both very good) then trekked our way to where the vans were set to meet us. After Jack and Emily's run-in with some leeches (we defeated them valiantly), we finally made it across the river, through the woods, and into the clear.

A beautiful taste of Laos, a lovely sup of nature, and a quaff of humbling, back-to-basics living left everyone in this group very happy to have been able to partake of this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Jack Crestani


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Author Jack Crestani Posted

Program Southeast Asia Departure Spring 2009