Jungle Treking in the Nam Ha and fond farewells to Laos…

Our minibus to Luang Namtha left Luang Prabang at around 9.00am and after around 5 unscheduled and rather annoying stops we pulled up at the Luang Namtha bus station (10kms outside of town!) at around 5.00pm.

We had arrived in plenty of time to find the Green Discovery office to confirm our trek for the next day so went to see them only to find that no one else had joined our chosen trek to the Nam Ha NPA (National Protected Area) and that they had in fact failed to advertise it as agreed – listing it as ‘full’ on their noticeboard! We were pretty peaved as this meant that nobody would have even inquired about it, so decided to cancel the trek altogether, get our money back and re-book with another company!

Part of the reason for cancelling was just to prove a point but we really wanted to do a ‘jungle’ trek rather than just traipsing around upland fields (which we’ve kind of done to death!) and ‘handicraft’ villages, so we were really glad to walk past the office of Along the Namtha and see that they were advertising a ‘One day Jungle Trek in the NPA’ – perfect! We managed to get a good price too as while we were in there an older Israeli couple came in and we persuaded them to join the tour too! So, after arranging to meet at 8am the next morning we went off to have a look around Luang Namtha town.

It’s pretty tiny without much to do – every other building is a treking or eco-tourism company of some kind and every foreigner in town is here for just one thing – trekking in the NPA! Luang Namtha is in Laos’ Bokeo province and is one of the highest and most beautiful parts of the country (as if it can get any more beautiful!) so there are loads of cool activities that you can do to take full advantage of the surroundings. Treking can be mixed with cycling, kayaking, climbing and hill tribe homestays but unfortunately we only had time for a one day trek.

We had a quick look around the night market in the centre of town – it’s very small and more of a ‘food’ market than anything else, but is still a cool place to hang out with a beer and meet like-minded adventure travellers! After that we had dinner in a restaurant on the main street before heading back to our guesthouse to pack our day-pack for the next day and get an early night!

The next morning our alarms woke us at 6.45am and for once we were actually looking forward to getting up early! We had a quick shower then grabbed our day pack which consisted of fleeces, torch, knife, water, hand sanitiser and a packet of Oreos! The Israeli couple were already waiting at  Along the Namtha and soon after we joined them, our guide (Van), his machete and us, sped off towards the NPA in a tuk tuk. Around 35 minutes later we pulled up outside a rice field and set off. He explained a little bit about how the rice was harvested and we got to see the little grains of rice inside their casings up close – it  would need to be processed of course so we couldn’t eat it, but it was really interesting to see how our staple diet of late, begins its life!

Next we crossed a stream that was blocking our path – our guide went across first and laid out some rocks for us to step on and luckily none of us fell at the first hurdle and got soaked!

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Then we started our ascent past rubber tree plantations, heading towards the rather thick looking jungle in front of us. Even from that early point we could tell the trek would be quite hard as it was really steep – it all made for fantastic views however!

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Soon we found ourselves in the midst of dense shrubbery and the sun disappeared above the jungle canopy. The sounds of the insects got louder and louder and our guide began to make use of his machete – cutting down branches and leaves that were blocking our way. We were so excited to be there, we had been waiting to do a trek like this ever since we knew we were coming to South East  Asia and were so pleased that we’d waited until Laos to do it!

Along the way Van pointed out various insects and plants to us such as bamboo and rattan – he cut off pieces of the plants, stripped them down and then gave them to us to eat. We weren’t too sure of eating raw plant but it was absolutely delicious! The bamboo tasted very much like spring onion and the rattan was really ‘nutty’. You really could live off most things in the jungle it seems!

After a couple of hours we stopped for our first ‘water break’ and Van went off to chop down some bamboo for us to use as walking sticks – the trek was about to get even steeper so we knew they’d come in handy!

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We stopped for lunch soon after which was quite an experience! Van disappeared again to find some big leaves to put on the floor and use as a table, then proceeded to make bowls out of leaves and sticks for us to eat our food out of. Lunch consisted of sticky rice, fried bamboo, chicken legs and a few different kinds of fruit and vegetables that were as yet unknown to us! We sat on the floor and ate it with our hands – not something I’d envisaged us doing in the middle of the jungle but it was just the sort of experience we were after. We then got slightly distracted by a huge vine hanging off an even huger tree and took turns in playing ‘Tarzan’ (except me as I’d never have been able to pull myself up!)

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After we’d eaten we continued our trek through the thick vegetation, getting a few scrapes and scratches along the way – some of those trees were pretty lethal looking! We also encountered some enormous crickets and a big nest of hairy caterpillars and vowed not to look too closely at the other trees and plants we passed. We continued to climb up to the highest point where we could finally look around at the rest of our spectacular surroundings before beginning our descent back towards the road.

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Crossing another stream we then came out in the middle of more rice fields where farmers and their buffaloes were in the middle of harvesting the left over straw. We watched them working for a while before walking up to our waiting tuk tuk.

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We had an absolutely awesome day and definitely made the right choice waiting until we reached the north of Laos to do the trek. It was pretty tiring however so when we got back to town we just booked our bus tickets to the Thai Border for the next day, had something to eat and sat on the internet for a while before going to bed. Our bus was due to leave from Luang Namtha bus station at 9.00am the next day and our tuk tuk was going to pick us up at 8.00am.

That morning we were back to ‘not wanting to get up’ again, especially as we knew that it was time to say goodbye to Laos. We’d been there for just over three weeks and completely fallen in love with it. Before we arrived we really didn’t know what to expect and we thought that it would probably just be another poor, dirty, country full of disgruntled locals with negative attitudes of the West, but we couldn’t have been more wrong. As soon as our feet landed on the Laos side of the border we met some of the nicest people we have ever met. In Don Khon especially, the local people were beaming with smiles and hellos for everybody which was so refreshing and unexpected.

In the rest of the country too, even in the big cities, we were met with the same open, friendly attitude. Despite the fact that Laos is evidently still extremely poor and the people and their children have hardly a penny to their name, they are still so generous. We witnessed some real poverty here, with tens of local people crammed into tiny bamboo-huts and babies running barefoot and shirtless through the dusty streets, but this didn’t seem to affect their attitude. Unlike Cambodia where the local people seemed rather forlorn and on the verge of ‘giving up’, the people we met in Laos all seemed to still enjoy life, no matter what this life comprised of.

The fact that the country has had such a tumultuous past  – i.e.  the French Occupation and the ‘secret’ bombings by the US – doesn’t seem to have left the people here with a distrust for foreigners. In fact, they are happy to see us. Laos is the most bombed country in the world and the thousands of UXOs that still litter much of their countryside continue to cause poverty and suffering on a daily basis, but the people here do everything they can to help themselves and others. There is such a sense of community here and it’s so refreshing that this caring attitude is extended to the foreigners who visit this fantastic country year after year. We will miss Laos and the beauty that lies within its borders and its people, but we know one thing for sure, we will definitely be back.

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