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Holiday in the Highlands

Tagging along on a photography tour to a hill tribes festival on the Chinese border

August 15, 1999|ELLEN CLARK | Ellen Clark is a freelance writer and photographer in Los Angeles

VIENTIANE, Laos — How could I resist? Ten days with my Nikon and the tutelage of a pro photographer in hard-to-reach Laotian hill country. . . . Be still, my heart.

I maxed out my credit card, packed up my camera gear and hopped on a plane. The whole trip was 16 days (the remainder in southern Laos), and by the time air fare and incidentals were added, it cost me almost $6,000. There were 10 of us along--nine adventurers and photographer Nevada Wier. She has traveled extensively in Asia and is well versed in how to charm all sorts of people who might otherwise shy away from a camera.

Laos would put all our skills to the test. Landlocked and bordered by Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and China, it is a country of diversity. A dizzying conglomeration of tribes, languages and beliefs is represented, particularly in the hilly north.

That's where we were headed, for the hills. The accommodations and food would be basic at best; the transportation, local, marginally comfortable and probably unreliable. And forget air-conditioning, hot water and flush toilets, but so what? I'd been on a similar trip with Wier two years before in Central Asia, and I felt sure the discoveries, artistic and otherwise, would be worth the discomfort.

Jit, our Lao guide, met us at the airport in Vientiane, Laos' capital. He was only in his 20s, but he was a seasoned worrier. When we all agreed that noodle soup in the airport cafe would be fine for lunch, he was appalled. It wasn't good enough for Americans; we must go to a "real" restaurant for a proper meal. We tried to set him straight: We were here for photography, not five-star hotels and haute cuisine.

After the hotly contested noodle lunch, we boarded a Lao Aviation turboprop for Luang Nam Tha.

There are 39 ethnicities among the population of 115,000 in Luang Nam Tha province, which is bordered by Myanmar and China. Most of the people live in small communities off narrow, rutted dirt lanes some distance from the main roads; many still wear traditional clothing and have had little if any contact with Westerners.

Opium poppies had long been an important crop in northern Laos. After the French quit Laos as a colony, the combination of international drug trading and political chaos drew Americans into the region, clandestinely. In 1975 the communists took over the new Lao People's Democratic Republic, and the country went through some long, dark years of hardship and repression. Only in the past two years or so has the government really opened up to the Western tourist trade.

Immediately on landing at the airport in the provincial capital, we learned what "provincial" means here. The landing strip was in a brown, grassy field. Our "tour bus" was parked nearby. We walked over to it, then stood to watch for our baggage. A truck parked next to the plane's open cargo door, but nothing happened, and no one could explain the delay. One of our group discovered a little snack bar nearby and came back with a beer, which he generously passed around. It was after noon, and the humidity was rising. After almost an hour, our bags emerged, were loaded into the truck and were driven the 200 yards to the bus, where they were dumped at our feet.

The young bus driver got everything aboard, and off we went.

Our wait in the sun, sharing one warm beer, made for quick bonding. The 10 of us were all Americans, all photography buffs but of varied backgrounds. One woman was a homemaker, one man an investment executive based in Hong Kong.

On the map, the distance from Luang Nam Tha to Muang Sing looks like 30 miles. It took almost three hours to cover on a road that was paved (well, mostly) but heavily rutted, especially where it snaked up hills--not a ride for anyone prone to carsickness.

On the way, Jit told us about Muang Sing, an old trading village nestled on the border with China. Its people are largely Thai Lu, he said, and they keep many of the customs of their ethnic cousins in today's Thailand. The festival we would attend, called That Muang Sing, occurs during the full moon of the 12th lunar month--in our case, mid-November 1997.

Before we reached Muang Sing, the bus stopped at a crossroads hamlet. Our "assignment" for the afternoon was to get a feel for the place, and we split up, trying our best not to look like an invading army of shutterbugs. To see a bus stop and a bunch of Americans get out, loaded with camera gear--goodness knows what the villagers thought. But they seemed to enjoy the diversion and took our intrusion with grace.

As at all our rural stops, Jit explained what we were doing and asked the elders' permission. Except for one Akha village, we were welcomed. Still, we never pushed if an individual didn't want to be photographed.

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