A land of fire and rice

A lodge in the heart of a tribal village gives Julie Miller an authentic glimpse of rural life.

Life glides slowly by on the Mekong. A fisherman casts his net from a wobbly, leaky dugout; elderly women, faces shrouded by conical hats, squat in the shallows panning for gold; children dive-bomb off jagged rocks protruding into the caramel flow. Every bend illustrates that old South-East Asian adage: "same same but different" timeless, unspoilt, hypnotically beautiful.

It's the month before the rains begin and the air is thick with humidity and the haze of forest fires but our open-sided longboat provides natural ventilation. It's not until we pull into shore and onto a white-sand beach that my lungs start to convulse in protest at the intensely smoky air.

I have travelled two hours upriver from the city of Luang Prabang to experience the lifestyle of one of Laos's ethnic minorities, at an ecotourism venture called Kamu Lodge. What I hadn't realised was that at this time of year this means being subjected to a questionable farming practice known as slash and burn, whereby villagers torch hillsides to prepare them for sticky-rice cultivation.

Though this technique is effective and widespread, it's derided by environmentalists as destructive and harsh, leaching the soil of nutrients, promoting erosion and, of course, cloaking the Mekong Valley of Laos and northern Thailand in a cloud of smoke for weeks on end. But to the people of Laos, the annual haze is a symbol of productivity of new life associated with the wet season, of sustainability, of ensuring each village has food for the coming year.

And as I was soon to discover, what's important to people leading this hand-to-mouth existence is the here and now particularly food in the bellies of their children.

In an area inhabited by Kamu, one of Laos's minority hill tribes, Kamu Lodge is a unique venture that allows Western tourists to relax in a peaceful, low-impact environment while gaining an insight into traditional life, warts and all.

The lodge was built in association with the neighbouring village, Ban Yoi Hai, and is staffed mostly by the villagers (except for a Laotian guide and a French manager). Guests are invited to experience Kamu activities such as fishing, gold panning and working in the paddies. A small percentage of every booking goes directly into village coffers, largely to employ schoolteachers, while daily village visits also result in a cash injection of $US1 ($1.30) a visitor, which is paid directly to the village chief.

The payments are minimal, considering the lodge is in no way a budget accommodation, but in Yoi Hai they want for little every one of its 315 residents has a roof over his or her head, running water and power where necessary (the school and some of the larger houses run off solar or hydro power and there is one television available for those who buy a ticket). The children have access to clothing, medical care and basic education, and the village is sanitary.

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Yes, these people are poor by Western standards but they are certainly not living in abject, tragic poverty, reliant on begging or handouts. Kamu Lodge not only provides employment for many of Yoi Hai's young adults, it also creates a symbiotic sharing of cultures, with the locals as curious about their visitors as we are of them.

"Falang, falang!" The cry echoes through the village as we approach, dozens of children gathering around shyly, intrigued by the crazy, camera-wielding white folk who coo at their farm animals, cuddle their babies, buy their handicrafts and drink their toxic rice wine on a daily basis. It's a novelty that never seems to fade the children still gasp with delight on seeing their image on a digital camera screen and they are more than happy to belt out Frere Jacques to groups of adoring French tourists.

During the walk back from the village to the lodge, we learn about traditional medicines and which plants cure what ailments. Every living thing, it seems, has its purpose and heaven help small furry critters living in the jungle, all fair game for sharp-eyed locals.

Then it's on to the terraced rice paddy, the focal point of the lodge and another important source of sustenance for the villagers. A pink water buffalo trudges through the mud dragging a plough, clods of earth upturned and softened. Rolling up my trouser legs, I step in to plant juvenile rice shoots in a wonky row, my token gesture towards the village's future.

Most visitors to Kamu Lodge stay just one night, the package including traditional activities, the village visit, dinner in the open-sided fale in the centre of the rice paddy and overnight accommodation in one of 20 safari-style tents on the banks of the Mekong.

For those who choose to stay longer, there are treks to caves and waterfalls, traditional Kamu massages and boat trips along the Mekong, all conducted at that sleepy Laos pace.

Relaxation is mandatory; most guests seem happy to put their feet up with a good book and a can of Beerlao, absorbing the tranquillity from private balconies overlooking the river.

The tents are incredibly comfortable, with twin beds covered by mosquito nets, furniture and an ensuite bathroom complete with flushing toilet and hot showers. Electricity is solar-powered and as in many parts of Laos cut off at 10.30pm.

I drift off to a chorus of cicadas and distant gunshots; there'll be food on the table in the Kamu village tomorrow.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Thai Airways and Emirates both have daily flights to Bangkok, where you can transfer to a Bangkok Airways flight to Luang Prabang. See bangkokair.com.

STAYING THERE

Kamu Lodge is two hours from Luang Prabang. An overnight package including longboat transfers, accommodation in a safari tent, activities, dinner and breakfast costs from $US120 ($170) a person, twin share. See kamulodge.com.

FURTHER INFORMATION

The lodge is an ideal destination for children who are curious and willing to experience new cultures. Travel Indochina features Kamu Lodge in its 10-day Mekong, Mountains and Monks family journey as well as several other tours of Laos. Priced from $1551. Phone 1300 365 355, see travelindochina.com.au.

The writer was a guest of TravelIndochina

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