While it is possible to organize trekking entirely on your own, if you arrange to be accompanied on your trek by a local who will act as a guide and interpreter, your experience will be greatly enhanced. Do-it-yourself trekkers often find that their visit to a hill-tribe village degenerates into an exercise of mutual gawking. A good guide will be able to explain customs and activities that you might otherwise find incomprehensible and can help you to interact with the hill folk, who may be unaccustomed to or apprehensive of outsiders. If you do decide to do a trek independently, using a bit of common sense and following a few rules should make for a smooth, memorable visit.
(1) Never trek alone. While Laos is a relatively safe country in terms of violent crime, there have been robberies of Western tourists in remote areas. Owing to the government’s total control of the Lao media, word of these incidents is suppressed, making it impossible to ascertain just how much risk is involved in solo trekking. Encountering armed men while hiking through the woods does not necessarily mean you are going to be robbed, but it is best to treat all such encounters with caution. If you are approached by armed men and robbery is clearly their intent, do NOT resist.
(2) Most hill-tribe peoples are animists. Offerings to the spirits, often bits of food, left in what may seem like an odd place, should never be touched or tampered with.
(3) The Akha are known for the elaborate gates which they construct at the entrances to their villages. Far from being merely decorative, the gates are designed to demarcate the boundaries between the human and spirit worlds. If you come across a spirit gate at the entrance to a village, you should find another way to walk, skirting the village to avoid disrupting it while it is being “cleansed” of bad spirits. It goes without saying that climbing onto such a gate to pose for a photograph is poor form.
(4) Many hill folk are willing to be photographed, but, just like everyone else, do not appreciate snap-and-run tactics. Old women, particularly of the Hmong and Mien tribes, are not always keen on having their picture taken. It’s best to make it clear to a potential subject that you wish to photograph them and to gauge their response before taking a photo.
(5) Don’t give out sweets or pens to village children, which often leads to them begging the same things off future tourists, and insults the self-sufficient nature of these tribal peoples. Likewise, the indiscriminate handing out of medicine, particularly antibiotics, does more harm than good. Unless you are a trained doctor, you should never attempt to administer medical care to hill people.