Three Levels of Hill Tribes – Luang Prabang

Diversity is tucked into the hills surrounding Luang Prabang. Our trek took us through three distinct layers of hill tribes, culture, and life – Lao, Hmong and Khmu. Our guides patiently waded through all of our questions – from life in the villages to the American bombing of Laos in the 60s and 70s – and our group (two Australians, one Guatemalan, and two Filipinos) kept the conversation lively throughout the day.

1. Lao Village

The first village in the low-lying area was ethnic Lao, their livelihood coming from the river and agriculture. The Lao makes their lives and livlihood from the river and low-lying agriculture. The elementary school was in session and we dropped off some books from the book publishing and literacy program, Big Brother Mouse. As we did, kids curiously peered out at us from the classroom. We felt guilty for disrupting the their school day, but the teacher didn’t seem to mind…and neither did the kids.

Hmong Siblings - Luang Prabang, Laos
Trekking in Lao villages outside Luang Prabang

2. Hmong Village

As we rose in elevation, we came across a Hmong village. The Hmong, descended from Mongolian nomads, have higher cheekbones and wider faces than the Lao. They are known for living in the hills and highlands, with their homes built on bare earth (rather than on stilts, like other hill tribes and ethnic groups ) in order to accommodate their livestock and protect themselves against the highland winds.

Brother and Sister Piggy-Back Ride - Luang Prabang, Laos
Hmong kids in a village near Luang Prabang

The first Hmong kids we saw when we entered the village looked at us like we were aliens. Although we were on an organized trek, the villages apparently weren’t accustomed to foreigners. One little boy started crying when he saw our group. Our Hmong guide told him in the local language that he was also Hmong and the big white creatures were OK. It still took the boy a few minutes of eyeing us to believe it and stop his crying.

Lunch Discussion

Laos is a communist country, but its flavor of Communism is different than that of Vietnam where people openly complained about the government. Our guides would often speak in hushed tones after more probing questions, indicating that if people heard him talking about that topic he might end up being questioned by the police. He overwhelmingly praised the government and the development projects they’ve undertaken since 2000.

3. Khmu Village

The last village we visited was a Khmu village. Khmu villages are normally quite poor and most do not have electricity. The one we visited, with a new school and new houses, was relatively well-off. In contrast to the Hmong, the Khmu build their houses on two levels, with the main living area elevated on stilts. We left the remaining books from Big Brother Mouse with the chief’s wife to give to the school.

Child Waving Goodbye - Luang Prabang, Laos
Khmu girl in village near Luang Prabang.

Questions About America

On our descent from the hill villages back to Luang Prabang, one of the guides started asking us about America. He explained how he gets confused sometimes when he meets American tourists who are not white-skinned, wondering how someone could be American yet not white. We tried explaining America’s melting pot origins and its diversity, drawing on similar analogies where different ethnicities co-exist throughout Southeast Asia, in order to provide a context that he might relate to. His curiosity piqued and he began asking us about the war in Iraq and politics. Always an interesting topic of conversation, it was especially so with an educated Lao to hear what information had made it into Lao news and what had been conveniently left out.

Photo Essay – Luang Prabang Hill Tribe Trek

 

Video – Our Hill Tribe Trek – Luang Prabang, Laos

 

Arranging a Village Trek Around Luang Prabang

White Elephant Tours: Located on the main street of Luang Prabang, White Elephant advertises educational and environmental tours. The villages they go through are less touristed, providing a more realistic view into village life. The daylong trek described above is around $30 per person.

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Comments

  1. Jeff says

    Good morning…. as a seasoned traveler and professional photographer, I love your material….. I do have one suggestion regarding the video…. the panning is too fast… slow it down some. I produce digital slide shows that I take on the road etc… Speaking 7 languages myself, I love to travel. Keep up the excellent work.

    JK

  2. says

    Our foray into video is still at its nascent stages, so we appreciate the advice! We’re learning on the road, many times by trial and error.

    Seven languages – that’s impressive! I’m up to five, but not all fluently. I’ve learned most of them out of necessity (i.e., no one around spoke English), so they are at a functional level instead of a deep discussion level.

    Enjoy your travels, wherever they may take you next!

  3. Ivie says

    Hi,

    Nice article and pictures. I am planning a trip there in a few weeks’ time. I have been trying to find out more about the terrain of this trek. Usually, I would not be too concern about that as I do consider myself a season trekker. However, I will be close to 5 months pregnant should I make the trip. Even though I still do my hill walk and jog, I am a bit more concern of uneven surface. It would be wonderful if you could comment more on the terrain – are there a lot of steep rocky surfaces, any river crossing?

    Thank you very much in advance.

  4. says

    @Ivie: Although this trek was not very difficult, it does have quite a bit of uneven terrain and rocky surfaces. The trek goes through quite remote areas, meaning that it would be difficult to get medical treatment if anything happens. So, my suggestion would be to avoid this trek. But there might be other walks closer by that would be fine and also quite interesting.

  5. Ivie says

    Thanks a lot for the reply, Audrey. We now have decided not to book for any trek/outing and will decide when we reach there. :)

  6. says

    Hi Audrey!

    After reading your post and considering that my wife and I wanted to do a trek around Luang Prabang ended up choosing White Elephant for a 3 day trek to the remote hill tribes. All I can say is thanks for the recommendation as we did want to do something different and it sure was! We loved the trek, even though at times it was tough. And nothing beats taking a “shower” at the communal tap while little kids are laughing at your hairy chest, whilst surrounded by pigs, chickens and ducklings! :)

    Thanks for the recommendation! :)

  7. says

    @Tony: So glad to hear that you had a good experience with White Elephant and that our recommendation helped. Now I’m dreaming of a 3-day trek in Laos to hill tribes – must have been quite a lot of fun playing with the local kids and having them laugh at your hair. Great memories!

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