Trekking through Laos’ ethnic minorities

As we planned a short visit to Laos, trekking with Tiger Trail seemed to be an appealing idea to see a bit of the country’s rural life and at the same time enjoy some stunning landscape.

Tiger trail organizes various outdoor adventures, eco-tours and ‘fair treks’ – part of the money you pay goes to development funds aimed at local villages where ethnic minorities (the so-called hill tribes) live. Tiger Trail was the first of its kind in Northern Laos and it was founded 10 years ago by a German man, Markus Peschke, who first came to Laos on holidays in 1998. As he travelled, he fell in love with the country and decided to quit his government job back in Germany to re-locate to Laos. When he moved to Luang Prabang he founded various companies including Tiger Trail Outdoor Adventures and, a few years after, the ‘Elephant Village’, an elephant training centre where tourists can attend Mahout courses.

Tiger Trail offers various options, ranging from one day up to three or four day treks, some of their packages include kayaking, bicycling, etc… After careful consideration, we thought that taking a two-day trek was the most suitable option for us, based on our interests, the time we had available, and our level of fitness.

The whole thing was a little too expensive for our long-term traveler’s pockets, but since these are eco-tours and, as I said before, part of the money goes to development funds, we didn’t think too much before deciding to give it a go. The employee at Tiger Trail’s office also explained that to take the price down considerably it is possible to take the trekking on Saturday, so that’s exactly what we did.

On Saturday morning we met our guide Phoui near Joma café, on the main street in Luang Prabang and took a van to the Elephant Village. We didn’t stop there much, but we had enough time to sort out our provision of water – with 35 degrees out there, we needed to carry at least 7 litres of water between the two of us.

Some tourists riding elephants across the river close to the Elephant Village.
Some tourists riding elephants across the river close to the Elephant Village.
Romana enjoying the beautiful landscape.
Romana enjoying the beautiful landscape.

The first day’s trekking lasted about 6 hours and it was quite challenging, mainly due to the strong sun and some up-hill parts. But what a beautiful set of landscapes we got to see! Of course the 6 hours included some breaks – the longest break was in a Hmong village where we had lunch, eating fried rice with chicken in banana leaves. Soon after lunch we had an opportunity to interact with the villagers, buy some of their crafts and ask our guide some questions. We found out that that only 7 families live in that village and their main activity is trading and growing cows, pigs and chicken. It looks like many families who used to live in this tiny village moved to some bigger and less isolated villages in the region, but the 7 families still living here are happy about it and won’t leave their home to move away.

A child in a village we crossed during our trekking. He was pulling a toy car made with a plastic bottle and some stones.
A child in a village we crossed during our trekking. He was pulling a toy car made with a plastic bottle and some stones.
We met this young girl soon after the child in the previous picture. We loved her eyes and her expression so we asked if we could take a picture of her.
We met this young girl soon after the child in the previous picture. We loved her eyes and her expression so we asked if we could take a picture of her.
Hmong women selling handmade bracelets and purses, at the village where we had lunch.
Hmong women selling handmade bracelets and purses, at the village where we had lunch.
A young Hmong girl carrying her baby brother on her back.
A young Hmong girl carrying her baby brother on her back.

In the evening, just before sunset, we finally arrived in a remote Khmu village where we were supposed to stay for the night and where our host family was waiting for us. In fact in this village the only available accommodation is a so-called homestay, meaning that you stay with a family in a house. The village was very simple, with bamboo shacks dotted along dirt roads, plus there was no electricity. Our rooms were at the back of the house in a shed made of wood. No real beds were there but a wooden structure with some thin mattresses, a couple of pillows and a mosquito net on top.

This was our room, that is the real minority village experience. Actually it wasn't too bad and we slept wonderfully - although i'm sure the tiredness from the long trekking day helped a bit!
This was our room, that is the real minority village experience. Actually it wasn't too bad and we slept wonderfully - although i'm sure the tiredness from the long trekking day helped a bit!
Soon after we left our hosts we went for a walk and came across this young girl, her mum and her granny. They were hanging around their home and we stopped by.
Soon after we left our hosts we went for a walk and came across this young girl, her mum and her granny. They were hanging around their home and we stopped by.
During our walk we saw some children carrying what seemed to be bunches of straw.
During our walk we saw some children carrying what seemed to be bunches of straw.
I love how in children's hands everything can become a toy. In this picture one of the three kids is sitting on an empty plastic tank and the other kid is pulling him with a string attached to the tank. The third kid was simply following the other two, beating a stick on the floor and laughing.
I love how in children's hands everything can become a toy. In this picture one of the three kids is sitting on an empty plastic tank and the other kid is pulling him with a string attached to the tank. The third kid was simply following the other two, beating a stick on the floor and laughing.
We  stopped by this bunch of children and played with them for a while.  Romana took out our iPhone, shot a short video and then showed it to the little guys who were amazed and amused at the same time.
We stopped by this bunch of children and played with them for a while. Romana took out our iPhone, shot a short video and then showed it to the little guys who were amazed and amused at the same time.

Bathroom facilities were just outside the house and they had squat toilets and a sort of bucket-shower. Once we used the shower to get some relief from a very long trekking day, we went out for a walk and took some pictures of the locals and interacted with them. Soon after dinner we went to bed as we were wrecked. But before going to bed we took some time to look at the sky. In this remote village, with no lights around except the candles, and most importantly with no clouds in the sky, the stars’ light appeared so strong and intense.

In the morning we ate breakfast and got to spend some more time with our hosts. Eventually we left for a three hour trekking and ended up in the Nam Khan river, where we took a boat to the Sae waterfalls. During the dry season, meaning now, these waterfalls are not worth visiting, as many of the pools are dry. A better place to go is the Kuang Si waterfall (we went there yesterday and had a nice time, plus a swim in some of the pools).

Our hosts posing for a group picture after breakfast.
Our hosts posing for a group picture after breakfast.
Our host smoking a sigarette through a bong.
Our host smoking a sigarette through a bong.
The two youngest members of our host family.
The two youngest members of our host family.
A huge spider we met on our second day trekking.
A huge spider we met on our second day trekking.

When we left the Sae waterfall we took the boat again and went to another village for lunch. After lunch a tuk-tuk came and picked us up to give us a lift in town.

We’re happy that we made it and it was worth every cent. Tomorrow we will take a two day boat trip down the Mekong, slowly making our way to Thailand. Hopefully we wil be able to visit and photograph more minority villages there as well.

Keep in touch through Facebook, because we’ll post more pictures soon.

  • Have you been to Muang Ngoi? It was a really lovely little village to which you could only get by boat along the river (seeing some fascinating village life along the way). That was almost ten years ago now, I wander if things are still the same. Judging by your images they might be.

    • Emanuele

      We haven’t been to Muang Ngoi, but I saw some pictures and it looks pretty much the same – makes me think very little if anything at all changed in terms of rural life since your visit. However I heard Vientiane and Luang Prabang have evolved somehow over the last few years. These villages we visited were south of Luang Prabang, not too far from the Nam Khan river. Great trekking, but the boat trips weren’t less interesting with so many fishermen at work (you would have loved that :)), people bathing, children playing… I got to take some shots of this ‘riverine’ life, but from a moving boat, just a few of them are worth keeping. And I didn’t get to sort them out yet.

  • Dear Ramona,

    I am the GM of Tiger Trail in Luang Prabang and I came across your blog. It is a great story about our tour, and some great pictures I must say. Is there any way we can get a hold on some of the pictures? Maybe send some by email? I like the Hmong woman carrying her child very much! Also the others with the villagers I liked a lot!

    Enjoy your travels!

    Best wishes,

    Adriaan

    • Emanuele

      Hi Adriaan, we’re happy that you found our blog. And of course we’re happy to send you some of the pictures – I’ll be in touch by email. Thanks for dropping by.

    • Tanya Degener

      Dear Adriaan,

      PLEASE HELP ME!…
      I am desperately trying to get in contact with someone from Tiger Trails, my friends and I from South Africa have been sending loads of emails regarding some tours, and have not recieved any response what so ever.

      It is becoming quite urgent, if you could PLEASE put me into contact with someone!

      Many thanks,
      Tanya

      ps: Romana, your pictures are amazing! Really enjoyed your blog!

  • Pingback: Chiang Rai: Meeting hill-tribes in Northern Thailand()

  • Tanya Degener

    Hi Emmanuel

    PLEASE may I have your email address, from looking at your blog, I can see that the tour you did is similar to the tour we are busy planning for December.
    (Vietnam, Laos and into Thailand)

    Please can I ask you a few questions about your travels? Would really appreciate it!

    Many thanks,
    Tanya

    • Emanuele

      Sure Tanya, we’re happy to help – I’ll send you an email in a minute so you can reply to me.

  • caitlin

    Hi!
    Thanks for those great photos. My favorite is the one with the iphone because of the smallest one’s expression in the front. He’s so excited and amazed! I’ve been doing a lot of research for a trip to Luang Prabang but have been unable to get in touch with Tiger Trails – how did you set up your trip with them?
    Thanks for sharing the trip and your wonderful photos! I am excited to dig into more of your blog as I learn about life behind the lens with my new DSLR!!
    thanks,
    Caitlin

    • Romana

      Hi Caitlin,
      Thanks for your comment 🙂
      We set up the trip while we were there. You can just go to their office on the main street in Luang Prabang when you get there – that’s how we did it.
      If you have any other questions we can help with, feel free to contact us by email.