A great way to explore
To an outsider Muang Sing’s nine ethnic groups may all seem the same but there are differences from head to toe: from a person’s dress to the way they build their houses to what they craft, worship, eat and grow. A guided trek or a homestay is the best way to gain insight into the culture and traditions but if hiring a guide is not an option, here is a self-guided village tour. Hire a bicycle or motorbike, pick up a map of the villages from the Tourism Office and hit the road.
Before you go, remember that appropriate behaviour and dress are of the upmost importance when visiting any village in Laos. Men shouldn’t be shirtless. Women: no singlets or shorts – skirts and trousers should be at least knee length. Be delicate when taking photos and don’t take photos if someone is obviously uncomfortable with the camera. Do not give candy or gifts to children. On the rare occasion the path to a village may be blocked by bamboo, ropes or special symbols. This indicates a ceremony is taking place and no outsider should enter the village.
On the road towards Xieng Kok
The Tai Neua originated from South China and they settled in Muang Sing around 1877-78. Like the Tai Lue, they are Buddhists mixed with a belief in animism and spirits. Set out early to visit Tai Neua village Ban Siliheuang to see them making khao soi, the traditional noodle of Muang Sing. The flat and wide rice noodles are made from a rice batter, steamed then cut by hand. It’s an impressive art to watch but you’ll have to get there 07:00 at the latest as it’s usually finished by the time the sun comes out. Afterwards you can try a breakfast bowl of khao soi noodle soup at the Morning Market.
Northwest of town
From what little history is known of Muang Sing, we do know that the Tai Lue began settling here in waves as early as the 15th century. They founded and built the town in 1890 and they currently form 30% of the population, second after the Akha. The Tai Lue practice Theravada Buddhism and you will find a temple in each village. Head to Ban Tapao, a Tai Lue village to see Wat Tapao, a small, elegantly built wat boldly covered in grim depictions of hell. The village still has some traditional wooden Tai Lue stilt houses. Look for homes with long sloping roofs and heavy posts supporting the building. The ground floor is open, used as a garage for equipment and animals, while the living area and an attached kitchen/washing terrace is located on the second floor.
East, on the road to the China border
The road to the Chinese border is flat, scenic and quiet, with rice paddies and mountains flanking each side. The Yao, also known as Mien, are an old group believed to have lived in China for thousands of years. They migrated from southern China in the 18th and 19th century when the Chinese government retaliated against hill tribe people. Enter the cluster of Yao villages Ban Nammay, Congkha and Sailek and you will no doubt see women young and old sitting in front of their homes industriously embroidering and sewing. Some will be wearing black embroidered turbans and black jackets with fluffy red trim. The x-stitch embroidery is done from behind the cloth and each stitch is perfect on both front and back. They are masterful works of art and if you’re lucky, they may have a few items to sell like embroidered bags, scarves and even traditional Yao clothes with giant red poms poms. The price will reflect the amount of hours and skill that went into each piece and it’s worth every penny.
On the road to Luang Nam Tha
In Ban Nongbua there is a Tai Dam community easily recognizable by the women’s distinctive and stylish topknots secured with a hair pin adorned with silver coins. They also may be wearing brightly coloured tight fitting shirts with silver buttons. The Tai Dam originated from northwest Vietnam and unlike the other Tai groups, they are not Buddhist and solely practice ancestor and spirit worship. They specialize in weaving and you’ll see a loom underneath most houses. You can buy scarves with colourful designs.
Ban Patoy, another Tai Neua village, makes lao-lao whiskey. The operation is rudimentary – a steel drum over a fire distilling fermented rice makes the powerful local firewater. The village is good for a quick shot – both photo and drink.
The Akha are the most populous group, forming half of the residents of Muang Sing. They are perhaps the most interesting and recognizable ethnic group – the women wear headdresses full of silver coins. They are also the most complicated to understand as they have a strict ethical code and way of life with many rituals, laws and ceremonies. Doing some research or hiring a guide will give you the most insight into this group.
They are traditionally hill people but some have settled in the valley. If you are curious to see an Akha village, you can stop in Ban Sopee Mai. Akha villages always have a gate at the front and back to keep the spirit world away from the human world. Beside the gate is a wooden swing and simple wooden sculptures of a male and female with oversized sex organs. Outsiders can pass through the gates but should never touch it. If you are staying at Phou Iu II or are passing through Luang Nam Tha, you will no doubt meet Akha women trying to sell you handicraft.
Cindy Fan is a Canadian writer/photographer and author of So Many Miles, a website that chronicles the love of adventure, food and culture. After falling in love with sticky rice and Mekong sunsets, in 2011 she uprooted her life in Toronto to live la vida Laos. She’s travelled to over 40 countries and harbours a deep affection for Africa and Southeast Asia. In between jaunts around the world, she calls Laos and Vietnam home where you’ll find her traipsing through rice paddies, standing beside broken-down buses and in villages laughing with the locals.