ENDANGERED

The Tranquil Traditional Laos Villages—That Might Disappear Thanks to Chinese Trains

Days of undisturbed authenticity are numbered in Muang La. The Chinese are investing heavily across the country, building infrastructure that threatens the undeveloped tranquility.

Avichai Scher

The frail old man walked slowly, carrying a live chicken by the neck. He squatted down over a woven basket of flowers, eggs, and candles, and waved the chicken over it, singing and humming.

This was the village shaman, preparing the chicken for slaughter to drive out an angry spirit blamed for the sickness of a villager, my guide told me. That’s when I noticed the knife.

For a brief moment, before Western reflexes kicked in, I believed in his power. I felt the energy and intention of the ancient ways of life in Muang La in Northern Laos.

Close to China, the area is home to ethnic minority tribes living off of the land and practicing a traditional culture that has changed little in hundreds of years. Scattered across the remote, postcard-perfect mountains of lush greenery and rice fields, the tribes of Muang La offer visitors the privilege of experiencing their world.

But the days of undisturbed authenticity are numbered in Muang La, and Laos in general. The Chinese are investing heavily across the country, building infrastructure that threatens the undeveloped tranquility of much of the country, including Muang La.

One of the biggest changes coming is a high-speed train line being built to China, which will cut through Oudomxay, a small city about an hour from Muang La. Today, Muang La villagers enjoy welcoming small groups of visitors, but they fear the train will bring development and crowds of tourists.

Their culture is also being threatened from within. With a recent Lao government mandate that tribal children attend school, the younger generations are already moving to towns and cities to live modern lives.

Laos, with a population of roughly 7 million, is a landlocked country in Southeast Asia bordering China, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. It’s home to 49 ethnic groups recognized by the Lao government, but some estimate there to be more than 200. Oudomxay province, specifically the Muang La region, is home to Akha, Hmong, Khamu, and Lao tribes, about 18,000 people spread over 44 villages.

The three-week trip—our honeymoon—was a sweep through Southeast Asia in late December, which is peak season. Everywhere we went was crowded and full of tourists, except Muang La, where there were barely any other visitors.

The villages were rustic, but a visit to Muang La can be luxurious. We stayed at Muang La Lodge, about a 45-minute drive from the mountains where the tribes live. The resort is set over a river with natural hot springs, with food from local markets, fisheries, and chefs, and only 10 rooms. It was an unpretentious indulgence. The only nuisance was a stray goat we had to shoo away from the pool.

Some reach Muang La from the capital city, Vientiane, which has flights to Oudomxay, the city about an hour away. But, like us, most come from Luang Prabang, a UNESCO world heritage city known for its Buddhist temples, French colonial architecture, and the Mekong River. It’s a popular destination full of tourists, but it’s managed to retain much of its authenticity and Buddhist culture.

But huge billboards just outside the city herald the coming train to China, the same train that reached Muang La—with crews of Chinese workers already on the ground.

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The drive from Luang Prabang to Muang La is about six hours. Along the curvy, narrow, and steep roads that lead north, behemoth trucks bearing Chinese letters barrel through, coming within inches of children who play on the side of the road.

But as we kept driving, signs of the modern world gradually faded. The fear of being hit by a truck was replaced with the inconvenience of waiting for pigs to cross the road.

As we got close to Muang La, our tour guide spotted a village celebration. We pulled over, hoping to observe. Instead, the villagers led us to a large bowl of homemade fermented rice wine, then pressed shots of Lao whiskey against our lips, cheering as we drank.

They pulled us onto the dance floor (a dirt patch on the side of the road covered by a canopy) to join in singing, playing music, and traditional dance. They yelled out “ha!” while stomping a foot to the ground and punching the opposite arm in the air.

They were impressed at how well I picked up their moves, not knowing I was a former professional ballet dancer. Perhaps it was the whiskey, but I couldn’t resist sharing some ballet with them. I cleared the floor and performed my best jeté and turns à la second. “Ballet!” yelled an older man who was the village art teacher, as a 5-year-old boy tried to copy me.

For a moment, we were one of them. There was no exchange of money or goods, just warmth and kindness, even without speaking the same language.

From there, we drove another hour into the remote mountains, where we reached the village with the shaman and the chicken. After the slaughter, I checked my pocket for the granola bar I brought, afraid I’d have to kill my next meal. A few moments later, young boys proudly demonstrated how they tie worms into a trap to catch birds for dinner.

The villages are intensely poor. Parents work in the rice fields all day, leaving small children, some without pants, to spend their days unsupervised, running barefoot over the dirt. A woman who looked to be about 100 years old, with two, maybe three teeth, told us she was in pain and asked for medicine. We visited glorified shacks, that inside, had thin wooden planks serving as benches and desks over a dirt floor. It was the government run school.

We weren’t expecting to see such poverty because Luang Prabang, while modest, had much more modern living conditions. No one warned us that the mountain tribes were far less well-off, so we arrived without anything to give them for their hospitality. We felt embarrassed and quickly looked for a way to show our appreciation.

We stopped in a small shop selling modest provisions—instant noodles, soy milk, candy, and baby powder. We bought and distributed what we could, but it felt paltry. Six months later, I still regret not being better prepared for the visit.

We wondered why the tribes don’t move to areas with more opportunity. Our guide told us that they want to preserve their way of life, and part of that is poverty.

Rather than dwell on the poor conditions, we focused on the opportunity to soak up this time capsule—teenage girls and boys in traditional garb standing in line for a courtship ritual, a young mother tapping a stick on the ground to soothe her baby to sleep, older women in beaded headdresses sifting rice and packing it in large brown sacks, and pigs and chickens roaming freely. They would be dinner—on special occasions. Otherwise, it was birds and rodents.

Many of the children were afraid of me—it was my bald head, our guide explained—but one little boy let me teach him to high-five.

We returned to Luang Prabang by boat along the Nam Ou River, taking in sights of fisherman, water buffalo, and trees with massive roots that looked centuries old. But our tranquil ride was interrupted by the construction of a dam by—of course—a Chinese company. To transfer to another boat, we had to stop at the dam, hike up high into the construction and cross a narrow ledge one inch away from workers pouring wet cement. One slip, and we would have been concrete.

The sight of the huge, powerful dam taking over the river and mountains made me long for the tribes and their Animism, a religion that ascribes souls to inanimate objects and worships nature.

I recalled an experience from the tribe visit I wished I could have shared with the dam developers. Back in the village, I snuck behind a bush to relieve myself and our guide warned me to ask the bush for permission, lest I anger it. He wasn’t kidding—so I did it. I didn’t want to piss off the gods.