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I arrived in Vieng Poukha, a Lao village a few hours away from the Thailand border. A generator provides electricity during a few hours in the evening, there are a few shops, a tiny hospital and a school. More importantly there is a governmental trekking office, with guides trained by the European Union in eco-tourism.
Mr. HongThong was to be our guide, as we formed a group of 4 falangs (tourists) and 2 guides for a 3-day trek in the Laos mountains. We walked about 30km in total, and it was a truly incredible experience.
Besides the actual hiking in luxuriant tropical rainforests, our guide introduced us to the local people. He expertly spoke 6 local languages, translating for us and explaining to us a lot about local culture.
The first people we ran into were the Akha. They were harvesting rice in a field, as they prefer this type to the one you find in rice paddies. They practise a “slash and burn” type agriculture on the mountains of the North of Burma, Thailand and Laos. We helped them collect the rice, shared a cucumber and continued climbing.
In the afternoon, we crossed a river in which we bathed, before arriving to the Akha village we were going to spend the night in. They have a “community lodge” there, that tourists can use. The bare minimum: a house on stilts, a bamboo-leave roof, mats on the floor and mosquito nets. No running water, no electricity. Our guides cooked rice and tea on a fire, and we ate a basic meal, before meeting the King.
The village shaman is also known as “the King”, as he is also at the head of the village. His main role is to take the important decisions for the Akha people, as well as do the rituals and ceremonies for the local traditional animism. He also knows the herbal remedies and special ceremonies to treat the sick.
He is helped in his task by the big O. Opium.
When we met him at dusk, around 6pm, he could hardly stand. His pupils were dilated and his eyes could not focus. He had great trouble speaking, and he did not notice I was a woman so shook my hands (women should never be greeted in this way in Akha tradition! I was not offended…)
We each had 2 shots of “rice-whisky” as our welcome gift, and a chat at him. He did manage to kick his comatose to answer a few of our questions, but did not teach me anything new on local traditional medicine.
As we got back to the lodge, 4 Akha girls were waiting for us. They were to give us a traditional welcome Akha massage. The Akha are historically farmers and gatherers, and traditional massage is given to aching bodies after long days in the fields, or in this case after our first day of trekking.
I was so excited at the prospect of finally finding out about traditional massage from the hilltribes. And I was not disappointed.
The Akhas originated from Mongolia, and have migrated South until they reached Laos. The massage is done with no oil, with the receiver dressed in a sarong. First, I was made to lay on my front, and the teenager started working on my legs and back. The “choreography” from bottom to top and back again was repeated many times, always in the same order, always with the same speed and intensity.
I could see that the other girls were working in similar ways and at the same speed.
The girls were using thumb presses, as in Thai massage, as well as “springing” of the spine, which is a manipulation technique of the thoracic spine. However I did not feel they were following lines that I was familiar with, i.e. the Thai Sen lines.
We turned on to our backs almost simultaneously, and the girls continued their work on the front, working on the arms and then finishing on the legs. A few stretches, especially on the knees (extension and hyperextension mobilisation)
The result was effective, but made of unusual techniques I had never seen before, with a mix of Thai (thumb presses, especially on certain sen lines on the back of the legs), and then I guess some Chinese type acupressure and stretches.
The following day we continued trekking, through the mud… as a tropical storm exploded in the sky and onto us. And we came across some wildlife of Laos: leeches! I only got bitten once, but I retrieved about 30 from my boots, trousers and socks.
ps: I would like to add more photos, but the connection here is very bad. Next time maybe?