Surprised and maybe a little relieved at how straightforward the journey from Chiang Rai to Luang Namtha had been, we spent some of the afternoon we arrived speaking to a few agencies about the various treks and what was involved. The rest after the afternoon was spent with cold Beer Lao’s, warm flat breads, hummus, and an aubergine dip.
Luang Namtha has a few attractions around the town; a bamboo bridge which gets washed away every rainy season, a waterfall, and a stupa with an average (by SEA standards) view. However, the main draw for the town is the close proximity to the Nam Ha National Park and the activities available within its primary rain-forest.
We first headed to “The Hiker”, their shop and sales materials looked smart and their prices reasonable (although considerably more than Myanmar). We also checked out Forest Retreat Laos which probably because of the Lonely Planet recommendation (price curse) was even more expensive. All the agencies seemed to offer similar experiences which could be anything from an easy day hike, to 5 days hiking, cycling and kayaking whilst staying in jungle camps and village homestays.
Something else to consider is that the price of the trek goes down the more people who sign up, so you don’t know how big your group will be (you can pay to have a private group) or how much you’ll pay often until the morning of the trek. Agencies will advertise the type of trek and how many people are signed up outside on boards, so you can always find a group to join.
We were more swayed to The Hiker, this was reinforced with first hand reviews from a group returning from a 3-night trek as we were handing over our deposit, although this could have been another part of their professional sales pack! We’d just put down a 100,000kip deposit on a 2-day, 1 -night trek with a homestay confirming that we’d be happy to go just the 2 of us should nobody else sign up.
36 hours later…
We had done an overnight trek a few weeks before, so we were pro’s at this now!? We’d still not learned to reign it in the night before a trek, rum sours in Kalaw and red wine and big Beer Laos this time round. Luckily Luang Namtha is small and we were staying a 30 second walk from The Hiker. We’d checked out of Zuela Guesthouse and dropped our bigger bags into storage. Another couple Heidi and Rob from Belgium (Flemish speaking Belgium this time) had signed up so the price had dropped. As we were handing over our cash Matteo fresh from his nightbus and 3 hours sleep turned up, signed up then ran back to his (very) temporary guesthouse to get his things which made the price drop even further.
Moy and Jai our guides loaded us into the back of the mini van and we headed to our starting point in the Nam Ha Forest. We spent 45 minutes on dodging potholes until we pulled up on the side of the road. Not sure whether we’d broken down or stopped for a toilet break we got out of the van and were told “this is it”. Not the glamourous start my $126 receipt had in mind. We crossed the road and crossed a stream on a rickety single log bridge. I like to think this is the triage test they use to decide the route they take us on over the next 2 days. If somebody falls in we’re going for the leisurely stroll, otherwise, and in our case, we were getting the full jungle experience.
We started by walking through a cardamom plantation to a stream whose narrow gully we ascended for around 90 minutes, hopping from rock to rock or in my case (with my waterproof boots) walking in the shallower bits. It was muddy, slippery and humid just as I imagined it would be. After a short, steep ascent we stopped for a water break underneath a ‘strangle tree’; a huge tree which grows on another and suppresses it of all light and water until it eventually dies, leaving the hollow strangle tree to thrive. It’s not all doom and gloom, Moy found some ‘Sing Sung’ fruit on the floor and offered it around the group. Persuaded by the fact that it’s ‘only in the jungle, not in the market’ I took a bite of the unknown (and unwashed) fruit which tasted like a sweet banana! 8 out of 10.
There was another slight ascent until around 12:30 when we stopped at a small clearing with something which my head suggested could be a bench, but my knees disagreed with. Moy threw down some banana leaves in the middle of us all. This was our table. It was also our plates. Our knives and forks? Already attached, we’d been using them to grab vines or bamboo to stop us falling over all morning. We were given a ball of sticky rice each and in the middle of the table was a selection of salads served in a Jamie Oliver fashion. We used our rice balls to scoop up the cooked bamboo, spinach with chilli and garlic, noodle salad and grilled fish to fuel up for the afternoon. The bananas for desert were eaten in the normal fashion. Lunch was cleared away, no washing up and we set off around 13:15.
The afternoon consisted of trying to avoid “mild peril” as Katy put it. When there wasn’t steep downhill, there would be poisonous caterpillars, the only things they weren’t on were the rattan trees. Rattan which makes that semi comfortable furniture people have in their conservatories back home. Well, in its natural form rattan is possibly the most aggressive looking tree/bush/stick(?) I’ve seen. Eventually however, we made our way out into the rice paddies, on a ridge alongside a river every so often rising back up into the jungle through banana, papaya and passion fruit plantations for a bit of shade. It was on one of these ridges, tired from trying to avoid absolutely everything, that Katy decided she was going to do a barrel roll from the ridge into the vegetation below. She’d stumbled and then once she realised she wouldn’t be able recover decided that the backpack full of tomorrows clothes would be better at breaking her fall and launched herself over on to it. After a few seconds of looking like an upside-down tortoise we righted her and carried on. Turns out we weren’t too far from our final stop, the village of Na Lan where we would be spending the night.
Eco tourism has been helping the village since 2000. We would be travelling through 3 villages on our trek, and they’d all joined together and decided to split whatever money was raised through homestays etc between the 3 of them. This had enabled them build communal buildings and generally improve the local infrastructure; so much so that the majority of the village had taken their one car the village had to a wedding a few villages along. We all decided to have a “swim” in the “very refreshing” river. For me this involved paddling around in my shorts with the cold water just above my knees. Our guides were lathering up and then swimming about and some local women were showering and doing the mixed colours washing.
We took a walk around the fairly quiet (apart from the chickens, dogs and pigs roaming freely) village with Moy who was pointing things out and explaining and doing his best to answer our questions. He showed us the village shop, spoke to some locals skinning a wild bird, and asked the oldish looking lady stacking wood with a pipe in her mouth how old she was (78!!) before beating some of the local children at a game of Kato (a sport very similar to Chinlon). He left us just after the bamboo bridge to go back and help cook our dinner, we watched the sun set and returned to camp.
We’d booked the trip and had specifically requested a homestay, it was quite disappointing to then be told that we’d be staying in the purpose built ‘eco-lodge’ instead because firstly, all the locals would benefit from the money rather than just a single family, and secondly, because most of the villagers were out at the wedding – both excuses could have been explained to us before we handed over our money! The feeling was mutual amongst the group who all felt a little disappointed that we weren’t participating in the full homestay experience. Anyway, our dinner of pumpkin soup, sticky rice and “tomato sauce” prepared by Jai was awesome. We drank a few beers and chatted around the campfire before calling it a night just after 9:00.
The night was as cold as we’d expected it to be, but I was prepared and had already worn my hoody to bed. The biggest issue is the argument you have with yourself throughout the night as to whether it is worth it to get out bed, risk waking the others to go for a wee, or can you hold it until the morning? At 4:20am I decided that it couldn’t wait until morning… but nobody seemed to notice.
Breakfast was some more sticky rice, and a vegetable omelette, really tasty and with the addition of 3-in-1’s, turned out to be the perfect fuel for the morning. We packed our previous days semi dry clothes into our bags. Moy packed 2 live chickens into his. He joked that it would be our lunch, before explaining that someone in the village had given them to him and he was going to add to his collection of 24 other egg producing birds. We wished “La Kon” (goodbye) to the people of Lan Ha before setting off along the only road out of the village. We passed some children on the way who were making their way to the river with some goggles and a home-made sort of spear gun. We wished these guys “Sok Dee” (good luck) and continued until we reach the next village of Nalang Tau (which has now been conveniently renamed Nahome 1).
Here we sat with some of the locals on stools lower than the makeshift bench from yesterdays lunch. Moy shared some unripe tamarind pods dipped in sugar, salt and chilli with us as well as some “Sour leaf” which was very very sour!
30 minutes of walking later we arrived at Namkoy (now renamed, yep, Nahome 2) a Lantan village where they still dress in the traditional black with purple outfits. We declined the 100000kip bracelets and purses before starting the next ascent back through the rainforest.
Again, it was hot and humid and felt like slower progress than the previous day. We stopped around 12:45 in a clearing similar to the previous days for another al-fresco salad dining experience. This afternoon we had some more sticky rice, green beans in a garlicky sauce, mushrooms and onions and rattan (the death stick from the day before but burned, then peeled, then cooked with garlic onions and served with a really nice chilli sauce). Same as yesterday, no washing up and we set off again just after 13:30.
The heat and humidity was taking its toll, the pace was momentarily sped up by the sighting of multiple huge nests of spiders in one of the gullies. The type of spiders that you see on videos shared across social media that would be no trouble on their own, but in their thousands and when one of them is spooked cause carnage when they run off in all different directions. At the next water break we learnt that you could eat the red ants I’d been trying to avoid for the last few days. I didn’t give them a go though after seeing Moy who had been happily eating the tamarind, shudder and gurn as he chewed on the body of one.
We started our descent to the final village and where we would be getting picked up from and discussed the effects of the Chinese investment over the recent years. It was great that they’d helped with the infrastructure, but it reminded me of the Hugh Grant speech in Love Actually when he talks about the relationship with the US turning into a bad relationship because one party decides to take whatever they want. Just as “Britain is a nation of Harry Potter, David Beckhams right foot, and left foot” Laos is a nation of fertile land, experienced farmers and people not really concerned about the future just wanting to be happy in the present. It seems they’re now being taken advantage of to meet the quotas (demands) of their Chinese investors.
The trek was good, but just good. We felt a little let down at the fact that there was no homestay; this could have easily been communicated before we parted with our deposits. The trek was described as moderate to difficult which it was. At times it felt more like a scramble than a trek, with the majority of time being spent looking at the floor rather than the jungle canopy. Our guides were fantastic, no question unanswered and the food was spot on! The people in the villages we visited didn’t seem too interested to see us all of the time either which begs the question… Is the money generated by eco-tourism worth the intrusion into these people’s way of life?
Our Trek was booked with The Hiker and cost $126 for 2 people.