There are plenty of thrills and spills in store for those who attempt traditional Mekong stilt making in Laos.
If ever I had become a circus performer, I would have been a clown or a human cannonball. There is no chance I could have displayed the remarkable balance and finesse required to walk a tightrope, swing on a trapeze, pedal a unicycle or spin plates.
This explains why I’m now sweating profusely. Why, oh why, have I just volunteered to walk on stilts through mud in a jungle- draped village in Laos? Pesky male pride is the answer. How could I decline to take up this challenge when it has just been conquered with ease by two people — a middle-aged Laotian man and my tiny wife?
A part of me — an annoyingly overconfident part — is convinced that a big Aussie lad like myself should have no trouble mastering stilts, regardless of the terrain. So here I am, with my right foot plonked on the platform of the corresponding stilt and my left paw still anchored to the earth as doubts begin to swirl.
Soon enough, I’m sprawled on the sludgy ground, the stilts in a heap next to me. Unlike my spirit, these walking aids have not broken. Which provides me with a fillip, of sorts, given that I’d just constructed them myself under the guidance of a master craftsman here on the outskirts of Luang Prabang.
Chong Mua tells me, via a translator, that he has been using stilts since the age of five and later learnt from his father how to build them from bamboo wood. Stilts have long been used in his village, which is inhabited by the Hmong hill tribe, an ethnic group which originated in the mountainous areas of southern China and spread to parts of Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar.
The Hmong remain a very traditional people and tend to group together in small villages and live in a manner not dissimilar to their ancestors from many generations previous. Many Hmong are self-sufficient farmers keen to protect the traditions of their culture.
Chong Mua says he is proud to teach visitors the Hmong style of building bamboo stilts as part of a unique tourism experience offered by Backstreet Academy travel company. This company provides locals across South-East Asia with a web-based platform through which to offer offbeat travel experiences. In Luang Prabang alone, tourists can join locals to learn unusual skills such as how to construct Lao crossbows, brew rice wine, cultivate rice paddies, or build a bird trap.
Chong Mua explains that stilts now are mostly used by Hmong people for sport. Also known as “horse-feet riding”, racing on these stilts is a popular activity, particularly among schoolchildren. Originally, though, the Hmong had used stilts to negotiate difficult terrain — to walk through areas of deep mud, or to cross shallow but fast-flowing rivers.
A fit, wiry man, Chong Mua grabs two long pieces of bamboo from a pile outside his basic wooden home and motions for me to sit on a stool next to him. He assures me that making stilts is elementary and using them even easier.
We measure the two pieces of bamboo against each other and mark the cutting points by gouging into the wood with a knife. With a handsaw I begin to lop the bamboo to create four pieces of identical length — two long and two short. Then I’m instructed to use a machete to gouge two holes near the bottom of each of the short pieces.
In one hole the foot platform will be wedged, jutting out at a 90-degree angle to the upright pole. The second hole, lower down on each pole, is for a support beam which will connect at a 45-degree angle between the pole and the platform.
I wedge the pieces together and I’m left with a pair of stilts which look and feel surprisingly steady. At least, they do until I try to use them and end up in the dirt as Chong Mua and my wife heave with laughter. Thank God I never tried to join the circus.
Picture at top: Chong Mua has used stilts since he was five years old. Picture by Ronan O'Connell
The Lao stilt walking class in Luang Prabang takes about two hours, costs $30 per person and can be booked online, go to Backstreet Academy.
Backstreet Academy also offers a range of other tourist experiences in Luang Prabang including knife-making, weaving, wood carving and flute making, which start from about $25 per person.