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Among the Khamu and the Ikhos

Indochina Day Twelve

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Early morning at Muang La

My stomach had settled quite a bit overnight, thanks no doubt to the Imodium I finally succumbed to taking, and I slept well in what was easily the most comfortable bed so far on this trip. When we left our room to go to breakfast at around 7.30 it was decidedly cool outside, and down by the river we could see steam rising from the hot springs, adding to the mist that hung around the mountain tops.

Our room is on the right

Early morning at Muang La

I decided not to take any risks at breakfast as I wanted to be able to enjoy our planned day out. So I restricted myself to some banana slices from our fruit selection and a mint tea, even though I was craving coffee!

We had arranged to go on one of the tours offered by the lodge, so Lee technically had a day off (as did Mr Ha) but he elected to come along with us – I suspect as much for something to do as anything else, although he was to make himself useful in more ways than one.

Up into the mountains

Staying at Muang La offers you the opportunity to learn about, and interact with, people from Lao’s minority ethnic tribes. As the website explains:

‘A mosaic of traditional ethnic tribes, Laos is home to 130 different recognised groups divided into 4 main language groups. Some of these tribes only have a few hundred people and some are only found in Laos. The minorities that do not have a written history are at the biggest risk of disappearing completely.

At Muang La Lodge, we designed some of our excursions to allow you to meet and learn about the typical ethnic communities of the region. Originally from Yunnan in China & Tibet, these tribes of “hunter-gatherers” are called the “people of heaven” by the Lao people living on the plains. Their villages are found above 1,000m above sea level, built on the side of the mountains, where the villagers retain their centuries old, traditions and customs. Among these groups are the Ikhos, Akha and Hmong people.’

Map showing location of minority tribe villages

We were to visit a couple of the mountain villages near Muang La, home to two minority ethnic tribes, the Khamu and the Ikhos. We had a local guide, Banyang, and a driver for the 4x4 needed to reach the villages. We drove a short distance along the road we had driven on our arrival yesterday, following the Nam Pak (the Nam Pak flows into the Nam Ou, which we had travelled along on our way to Muang La, and the Nam Ou into the Mekong near the Pak Ou caves).

Our driver stopped several times for us to take photos, the first time being on this road so we could see and photograph the bamboo bridge used by the villagers. These bridges are usually washed away during the wet season so have to be rebuilt each year.

Bamboo bridge

Farming in the Nam Pak valley

Soon after this we turned off on to the mountain road we were to use to get to the villages. It was rough and dusty but more than serviceable. Banyang told us that it was built just a year ago, and pointed out the much steeper one that it had replaced. We stopped several more times along the road as we climbed higher. From the first viewpoint we could look down into the Nam Pak valley and the main road we had left.

Views of the Nam Pak valley
~ on the left looking east and on the right west towards Muang La, the road we had taken

From the next we had a good view of the road we were travelling and the mountains on the far side of the valley and beyond.

Looking back the way we had travelled
~ you can see the main road in the distance right of centre, alongside the Nam Pak, and the dirt track up the mountains on the far right

Across the valley

Looking east up the Nam Pak valley

The next stop was just outside the village of Phang Som. Banyang told us that both Khamu and Ikhos people live there but that in the villages we would be visiting, further up the track, they lived separately, although all the children go to the same school, as we were to see.

Phang Som village

Before reaching the villages we made one last stop to enjoy and photograph the views, at a point where the road ran along a ridge with sweeping vistas on either side. Our guides, both Lee and Banyang, seemed to enjoy the views as much as we did. By now the cool of the early morning had given way to pleasantly warm sunshine and the temperature continued to climb.

Mountain views


Banyang at the highest view point

There is farming even at this height

Phou Taen Khamu

Map of Phoe Taen Khamu
and Phoe Taen Akha

We arrived at the first of the villages we would visit, Phou Taen Khamu. Leaving the car, we walked in under the spirit gate. As I mentioned, these people are animist and we saw in both villages how their beliefs shaped their way of life. Underpinning these beliefs is a faith in spirits, which they call phi. The power of these spirits drives everything that happens in their lives, good and bad: illness and recovery, death and birth … They believe that we all derive from four basic elements in the universe, earth, heaven, fire and water, and are protected by thirty-two spirits (khwan). These living forces harmonise and balance the body; each controls and defends a specific part of the body. When we are sick it means that one or more of these spirits has left us and certain rituals are needed, usually performed by the village shaman, to call them back.

Each ethnic tribe has slightly different beliefs, but the influence of the spirits and the role of the shaman are common to all. The village shaman may be a man or woman and is someone who has been identified as having a special connection with the spirit world. The role is usually passed down through families.

Entering Phou Taen Khamu - the spirit gate

Many tribes, the Khamu and Ikhos among them, also believe that another type of phi is created when a person dies unexpectedly through an accident or violence. These spirits are evil, haunting and bringing bad luck to people. To appease them offerings must be made, and a ‘spirit house’ built so that the evil spirit has its own home and doesn’t harm any more people in the village. Most homes will also have their own small spirit house. And in a similar way, the spirit gate we had passed under protects the village by holding back evil spirits and holding in the protective ones.

Entering Phou Taen Khamu

We wandered through the village, past small wooden houses on stilts (for protection during the rainy season). Each house had a detached kitchen building – Banyang explained that the Khamu always have their kitchen separate from the main house, while the Ikhos have them inside the house.


Houses in Phou Taen Khamu

Banyang led us to various spots in the village where he thought we might find something of interest. He followed the noise of a blacksmith who welcomed us to take photos as he worked on a machete.

Blacksmith making a machete


Soon after we left the blacksmith, I realised that my sunhat, which had been hanging over my arm on its chin-strap, was no longer there. It must have fallen off as we explored. Lee came to the rescue, retracing our steps back towards the road until he found it on the ground. The strap had become detached from the hat, and thus the hat had become detached from my arm! The strap was soon reattached and the hat placed firmly on my head. Thank you, Lee, I’m glad you came with us!

We came across a small group of villagers making the grass brooms that are ubiquitous here - we had seen them drying by the roadside on our journey to Muang La yesterday. One told us that they can be sold at the market for 10,000 kips (roughly equivalent to €1).


Broom making

Nearby some women were working with rafia to make hats and mats.


Rafia work

Everywhere we went there were dogs (some with puppies), pigs and piglets, chickens and occasionally ducks. I assumed everyone knew whose was whose, but they were clearly free to roam where they chose.

We met another blacksmith and again were welcomed to take photos as he worked. This is by no means a given in these villages, unlike much of the rest of the country - as animists, many people here believe that something of the soul leaves the body when it is captured in a photo.

The other blacksmith

We climbed up out of the Khamu village at the far end, back on to and across the main track. Signs here recognise the importance of these villages in preserving the traditional way of life and the investment being made by the Lao government, with overseas help, to mitigate some of the poverty here - something our visit, like the other activities organised by the lodge, helped with.

Climbing up out of the village

Mountain views on the edge of the village

Phoe Taen Akha

Climbing further up this side path we came to Phoe Taen Akha, home to Ikhos people. They share the animist beliefs of their neighbours as do most of these minority tribes.

Phoe Taen Akha

Here we saw the small primary school – pupils, who come from several of the villages in the area, were just coming out at the end of the morning's lessons.

The school

School's out!

Banyang pointed out a skin hanging outside one house, which he said was that of a flying squirrel – the animal itself would have been eaten. And we saw how the people built raised wooden troughs in which to grow vegetables to keep them clear of any animals who might want to eat their crops.

Flying squirrel skin, and raised vegetable garden

Kitchen in the house of a friend of Banyang's

He showed us the home of the village head man, easily the nicest house in the village – built of concrete and colourfully painted.

Headman's house

We saw cloth that had been dyed with indigo hanging up to dry, the large tub of the dye, and the gourd used to scoop it up.

Gourd for indigo dye and dyed fabric


There were signs everywhere of the villagers' beliefs in the spirit world - a tree marked with a bamboo symbol indicating that the shaman had identified it as sacred and it was not to be cut down; a shrine ornamented with eagle skulls which Banyang said was used for animal sacrifices; and the frame of a swing which was only to be used on three days of the year in September and the ropes then cut – I didn't quite catch the significance of this however.


Animist shrine

Animist shrine detail, and sacred tree

View over Phoe Taen Akha from the shrine

Then we came across a woman, surrounded by young children, who was wielding a long bamboo stick. At first I thought she might be using it to knock fruit from a tree, as we had watched someone doing at breakfast near the lodge, but there was no tree nearby. Then it became clear – one of the children had thrown the house keys up the air and the string that linked them had become entangled around a telephone wire. Lee came to the rescue, took the stick, and managed to dislodge the keys!

Wielding the stick

The keys caught on the wire, and watching children

Our driver picked us up at the far end of this village. Some of the children had followed us there, bringing a rather deflated football, and before getting back into the car I had a quick kick-around with them, much to their delight.

Village children and drying broom grass

A game of football

On the way back to the lodge we stopped briefly in Phang Som, as we had seen on the way through that some sort of ceremony seemed to be going on. But when we got there, we could only see groups of people hanging around and the remains of a meal. Banyang asked someone nearby about the event and learned that there had been a wedding yesterday and this was simply a meal for those still left here after the celebrations. A shame we had missed it!

Mother and child in Phang Som,
and a view of Muang La village

~ the lodge is hidden among the trees on the right


A restful afternoon

Back at the lodge we decided to have a relaxing afternoon making the most of our luxurious surroundings. We sat out on our balcony overlooking the lovely garden, spent some time by the pool on the far side of the river (I went in for a chilly but lovely swim) and generally took it easy.


In the pool at Muang La

In the evening I felt sufficiently recovered to eat the five-course tasting menu offered here (and included in the price of our stay). Tonight there was fish flavoured with herbs and lemongrass steamed in a banana leaf, gazpacho with Lao seasonings, pork with ginger and steamed rice, a river fish fillet served on oriental vegetables and topped with a sauce vierge, and a mini fruit crumble made from roasted local fruits topped with cinnamon scented peanuts. The soup was maybe a little bland but everything else was delicious and I really enjoyed my first full meal in two days!

Fish steamed in a banana leaf

Gazpacho with Lao seasonings, and pork with ginger and steamed rice

River fish fillet

We went to bed wishing we had planned to spend three nights here rather than two as we’d had no time to explore the village and see its 400 year old sacred Buddha; no time to visit the hot tubs or spa; and only very limited time to enjoy the pool on its private island. But tomorrow we would return to Luang Prabang, which we also loved, so were looking forward to spending a final evening there.

Posted by ToonSarah 03:04 Archived in Laos Tagged mountains people children food culture views hotel village houses laos crafts tribes customs

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The pool looks amazing!

They are IMO not too far off by believing that photographing takes a piece of the soul if you think about it. You see everywhere people with their cameras. For example, say you go to see world biggest/most famous something, you stop, take a selfie, post it in social media and leave. Like the most important thing in the world is that perfect photo of you, not the place you are visiting.

And by this I don't mean that photographing or even selfies are bad, I am just pondering :)

by hennaonthetrek

These people remind me of the Montagnards in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.

by Nemorino

Swimming in that river looks fantastic. You obviously had a very interesting day and the scenery looks beautiful,too.

by irenevt

Thank you all :) Henna, personally I have very little interest in having photos of myself in front of these sites; I prefer to try to capture the essence of the site itself. And it drives me crazy when I can't do that because everyone else is posing for their selfies or group photos!

Don, I understand that there are similarities between various ethnic groups in the region and across what are after all relatively modern national borders.

Irene, yes it was a fascinating day, but I should point out that I'm not actually swimming in the river - it's an infinity pool so just looks like that! But it was unheated so with the chilly nights the water was cool even in the hot sun of the afternoon :)

by ToonSarah

Once again, I find myself sitting on the fence about the ethical arguments for/against visiting minority ethnic tribes. I can see arguments on both sides but I do appreciate having seen them through the lens of your camera Sarah. One question that popped into my mind was, "If the two tribes you visited live in such close proximity and children from both attend the same school - how many generations might pass before they become indistinguishable from one another?"

by Yvonne Dumsday

Very expensive selfies if you ask me :) Looking at your photos you are capturing the essence of the sites quite well (even surrounded with the herd of tourists)! :)

by hennaonthetrek

I know what you mean about the ethics Yvonne, but from all I learned about the ethos of Selective Asia, plus what I read on the lodge's website, I felt we could trust them not to arrange anything inappropriate. It didn't feel as if we were intruding here in the slightest (nor in the village we visited on the following day - entry to come) - everyone was welcoming and seemed to appreciate the interest we were taking in their way of life.

On your other question, we were told by one of our guides in Laos, possibly Lee since we spent the most time with him, that marriage between tribes is quite common and people often describe themselves as, for example, Hmong/Khmer. But of course in the most remote areas it will have been less common. These days, with compulsory secondary education which most village children have to travel miles for, the issue of mixing two very similar tribes at primary age is probably not the most significant factor in changing that.

by ToonSarah

I was really interested in learning about the belief systems in the villages. They both looked quite sparse of people, maybe they were off selling the goods they made? I couldn't believe they had keys! I wouldn't have thought that necessary in such a remote place and imagine they wouldn't have much to steal. Any insight on that? Your photographs were great and I agree there's nothing I want more than to capture images of unique situations, when I'm not in the photo! A great trip by the look of it.

by katieshevlin62

Yes, Katie, I was surprised about the keys too but didn't think to question it at the time unfortunately!

by ToonSarah

Loved the piglets. I wondered if the children went just a half day here.

by greatgrandmaR

Yes, pretty much everywhere across the region the schools operate on a shift system, with half the pupils going in the morning and half in the afternoon. Our guide in Siem Reap told us that they swap every three weeks and that the children don't like being in the morning group because the have to get up early!

by ToonSarah

What an adventure and you were right, reading your entry I don't get that tourist trap feeling I had when we visited a minority group. I guess we had to stay a few days longer in Luang Prabang. ;)

by Ils1976

Thank you Ils :) No, this definitely didn't feel like a tourist trap - I think the hotel owners have worked so carefully with local people that they have built a good relationship and arranged the visits in cooperation with them, so the villagers feel comfortable with it all. Or at least, they certainly seemed to do so, and of course they benefit financially as the hotel supports projects in the villages.

by ToonSarah

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