Mike visited:

» Thailand
» Myanmar (Burma)
» Laos
» Cambodia
» Vietnam
» India
» Nepal
» Egypt
» Jordan
» Uganda
» Tanzania
» Malawi
» Mozambique
» Swaziland
» South Africa

View a map of his route.

 press/awards earned a few nice mentions in the press, including's vote as best travel blog on the Web. Read about it on the Press/Awards page.

Three Day Trek in Northern Laos

kids near Muang Sing
When I crossed from Thailand into northern Laos I headed straight to the Chinese border and visited several hill tribe villages on my own. Over four days of trekking I:

  • played rattan with village children and chewed their sugarcane
  • shared a lunch of sticky rice and fish head soup on a tractor trail with field workers
  • took a dip in a local swimming hole
  • accepted tea and a dinner invitation in an Akha family's hut

I even watched the chief of one village recline on a bed of Chinese cushions and smoke ten pipes of opium.

But communication with the hill tribe people – some of whom don't even speak Lao – was difficult.

I was anxious to learn more about the villagers' way of life, so I headed down to Luang Nam Tha and signed up for a three-day trek led by an experienced guide/translator.

cast and crew
Cast and Crew
The trekking organization was a low-impact, eco-friendly outfit sponsored by the government of New Zealand. Our guide was a young, well-spoken local; he was assisted by a middle-aged lady who possessed the strength of four water buffalo.

My fellow trekkers included four Australians, one Canadian, and a fellow American. They were a friendly bunch, with plenty of travel intelligence and good humor to share. Joking about 80's films and the Jackson Five in the middle of a Lao forest preserve was a surreal experience.

A Most Wonderful Time of the Year
December in northern Laos is an ideal time of year. Cool, overcast mornings give way to bright, sunny afternoons; sunny afternoons dissolve into crisp and clear evenings. The complete absence of light pollution – or any real pollution at all, for that matter – allows the stars at night to shine big and close and bright.

river crossing
Primary Rain Forests, Creative River Crossings
Wild banana trees, gigantic ferns, and cascading vines dominated the scenery on the first day of the trek. We climbed dry dirt paths to the top of rolling mountain ranges and descended again into dense jungle valleys crisscrossed with clear and clean rivers. Simple log bridges spanned the larger rivers, putting my grade-school balance beam experience to the test. Too bad we didn't study slippery rock hopping in gym class.

Vice Chief enjoyed the occasional nip of lao-lao
Dinner and Lao Lao With the Chief
For each of our village stays we were to be joined by the Chief for dinner. The Chief of the first village was out on business when we arrived, so we were joined by the Vice Chief. He was a short, handsome fellow of 44 who resembled Al Pacino circa Scarface. He came bearing a liter of Lao Lao, which is clear-colored, village-brewed whiskey that tastes like grain alcohol and kicks like diesel fuel.

We sat cross-legged on the floor around low tables and feasted on heaps of sticky rice, pumpkin curry, and eggplant dip. Shots of Lao Lao circulated throughout the meal; the Vice Chief howled with laughter as we gasped for breath after each shot.

Q & A
Well-satiated from the meal and well-lubricated from the Lao Lao, we engaged in a lengthy question and answer session with the Vice Chief. Through our guide/interpreter, the Vice Chief told us about the village's marriage customs (18 and over is the preferred age, although this is flexible), religious beliefs (animism), and funeral ceremony (deceased are placed into a wooden boat and buried; a celebration follows).

the girls gave Vice Chief a triple-team speed massage
After-Dinner Massage
A parade of village girls piled into our hut as the Q&A winded down. "Who wants a massage?" the Vice Chief asked. Surprised and delighted, we all crawled over to our thin mattresses and allowed the girls to knead our backs with spine-snapping intensity, karate-chop our legs, and give all of our digits a good cracking. Cries of pleasure, pain, and comedy filled the room. The Vice Chief presided over it all, and once our massages concluded he flung himself down on a mattress and had the girls gave him a triple-team speed massage.

A Soggy Second Day
A slate grey sky greeted us on the second day, and grew darker as we hit the trail. By lunchtime it was raining steadily, transforming the moderate trail hike into a treacherous muddy Slip-n-Slide. Olympic-style, my fellow trekkers and I judged each others' tumbles and recoveries. Australia won the gold.

misty mountains
Every Cloud Has a Pork Lining
The second evening began similarly to the first, except this time the real Chief joined us. We had another feast, more lethal Lao Lao, and another comedy massage from the village girls.

After the massage the Chief invited us over to his hut, where a party was taking place. Because the rain had prevented the villagers from collecting food that day, they had slaughtered a pig and were holding a feast.

We entered the Chief's spacious, modest hut and sat around a low table that was crowded with roasted pork and various spices. The pork was stunningly delicious – crispy on the outside, tender and tangy on the inside; a dip of chili powder elevated the pork to Utopian heights.

pork preparation
But Every Pork Lining Has a Kilo or Two of Fat
We dispensed with the pork – and several more shots of Lao Lao – in record time and were hungry for more, so we negotiated a deal with the Chief: sell us more pork and we'll share it with everyone in the hut.

Our pooled funds of $3 bought us two kilos of pork. One of the men sliced up the meat while others diced garlic and chilies. The whole lot was fried in a wok atop an open fire. We sat and waited and whetted our appetite with Lao Lao.

But no amount of Lao Lao could obscure what was ultimately served to us in gigantic ceramic bowls: mounds and mounds of steaming, glistening pork fat.

To be fair, there was a bit of pork liver and skin in there too.

Mining through a bowl of pork fat with chopsticks in search of stray bits of meat is no easy task, and we quickly abandoned the pursuit. But the villagers tucked in with abandon. The Chief attacked the fried fat with particular relish.

Our abstinence went unnoticed as the men around us hungrily consumed several weeks' worth of calories.

Mr. Porkman, Bring Me a Dream
Later that night, as I lay in my bed, an improvised song (sung to the tune of "Mr. Sandman") ran through my head:

Mr. Porkman, bring me some pig
Make it all fatty and fleshy and big
With glistening cubes and pieces of liver
Oh Mr. Porkman how you make me quiver!

I envisioned a chorus of cabaret girls dancing around a giant Porky Pig figure with a top hat and cane. And I chuckled myself to sleep.

Posted on December 16, 2002 08:47 AM


Comments (post your own below)

Lao Lao is Northern Laotian for: Psychotropic freaky deaky that makes you croon like Bing Crosby.

Posted by: craig lycke on December 16, 2002 09:28 AM

mmmm... fatty pork cubes

I think I know what I want for X-mas!!!

Posted by: chad on December 17, 2002 10:34 AM

Give Dan a call when you return. He might be able to make a recording of your fabulous song.

Posted by: angie on December 18, 2002 12:27 PM

Can you bring some Lao Lao back with you? I'm trying to come up with some new songs for my new album and record deal!!!

Posted by: Scott Ahrens on December 20, 2002 11:46 AM

Mike, you're a lucky, brave man.
Enjoy! Martha.

Posted by: Martha on December 20, 2002 08:24 PM

If only my Lao Lao expereinces were so memorable! The good stuff tastes like scotch whiskey with wood and bits in the bottle to keep you wondering over a yummy shot or two if you're lucky. i managed to see a bit of that spalshed around. But the cheap and nasty stuff is actually called Tiger Melon Whiskey, is $US0.50 and is proferred by Loations soley to while the day away muntrifying your mates or gullible but friedly passing tourists. Pure entertainment! Only the spirits of the forest will ever know how I made it back to my guesthouse! (Mark has his own version). Lao massages however are the best and most needed (after a 12 truck ride for instance) in asia!

Posted by: Andrew Di Donna on December 27, 2002 11:03 PM

I hope you all are safe... I am American and it seems were hated all over the world...

Posted by: Rob B on January 12, 2003 08:57 PM

I have been examing your site and and hugely impressed with your work. I was in Laos in September and have a number of fond memories, especially boating down the Mekong. I have 18 Email travelogues that I'm looking to do something with. Cheers.

Posted by: Eric Zeliff on February 9, 2003 06:12 PM

Wow, sounds like a great experience. Sounds like I must get myself to Laos. It is definitely my next major travel destination!!!

Posted by: David on May 11, 2003 09:24 AM

Love this site, but this: "Joking about 80's films and the Jackson Five in the middle of a Lao forest preserve" is exactly why I avoid travelling with groups, nuff said. (Maybe it's also a clue as to why I am slower to make friends on the road than many people, hmmm....)
About this site - please don't stop travelling and posting; you're brightening up a dreary winter for a bored techie here in Toronto.

Posted by: jb on January 21, 2004 09:37 AM

Comments closed.


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