The border crossing from Vietnam into Laos was in a gorgeous location along a twisty dirt road, complete with fresh land slips. Although the trip could probably be done in 2-3 hours, in actuality it takes 7 due to the extremely frequent stops. Getting through immigration was fairly breezy, and the one dollar H1N1 “check” (read: thermometer applied to your forehead) provided much amusement, although we were held up a bit by a young Dutch man who refused to pay the dollar on principle that we were being extorted. Of course we were, but come on, pick your battles. They almost didn’t let him in the country.
We met some interesting characters on the bus! Another young 18 year old kid from England was travelling around Asia with only the clothes on his back and a plastic bag with a few other belongings, having sold his backpack and other worldly possessions shortly after starting his trip. To each his own!
Two days, one boat ride and two buses later, we found ourselves in Luang Nam Tha, gateway town for trekking trips into the jungle of western Laos. Right away, we could tell Laos was very different to Vietnam. Whereas in Vietnam everyone seems to be yelling at each other constantly and always trying to get us to part with our money in one tricky way or another, the people of Laos are so totally chilled out and seem to just be happy that you are there.
Because the trekking trips are cheaper the more people you have, we soon formed an eclectic group of awesome folks we met in town and signed up for 3D/2N with a company called Green Discovery. Our group included: Hans (aka Gary), a tall dutch bloke who loves beer and speaks like a Kiwi from spending a year in NZ; Gulla and Anna, 2 cool chicas from “downtown” Iceland, travelling the world; Carlos, a super fit and uber friendly man from Catalan, whose English improved immensely during our time together; Tom, our English speaking guide; and Wong, our Laotian guide.
As seems to be the rule for trekking trips, the journey began with a bumpy twisty dirt road ride to a small village where we played with the kids for a while before hopping in a boat across the river. Shortly after starting the hike, we got our first taste of what was to be the best trekking food we’ve had thus far. In true Laos style we ate on the ground using 2 large banana leaves as our table. Each person has their own huge package of sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf that they use to scoop up various other things including bamboo, eggplant, rattan, cucumber, tomato and pepper dishes. Most often the dishes were spicy and included a LOT of garlic. Just how I like it!
Village where we began our trek. Man repairing fishing net.
Gary getting acquainted with the village kids.
Gulla and Anna crossing the river
The boys turn on the boat
Carlos, Ryan and Tom eyeing up our tasty lunch
Our trek through the jungle was fairly up and down and of course, extremely hot and sweaty. The scenery was beautiful though and filled with butterflies and large creepy crawlies. Laos has the most butterflies I have ever seen and the most varieties. Laos for the win!
Into the wild
Butterflies butterflies everywhere!
Millipede Love In
Our ant friends
When we arrived at our jungle camp, which consisted of essentially a large lean-to made of bamboo, we cleaned ourselves up in the stream nearby and played a great card game called Yanneh until dinner. I wish I could remember the rules! Dinner was similar to lunch and equally delicious, complete with bamboo chopsticks Tom carved for us on the spot.
After dinner came the Lao Loa, an extremely strong whisky made from sticky rice. We all took turns shooting the clear liquid from a bamboo shot glass, also carved by Tom. Apparently, the rule is that once started, the whole bottle must be drained, so the Lao Lao shots continued, while Tom told us local ghost stories and myths and finished up with James Blunt ballads. I don’t make this stuff up people. The stories included a ghost monkey with backwards feet, a “ground ghost”, a small water elephant that is bad luck and lives near ponds, and something about putting a crab on the fire, which is also bad luck. Duh. Everyone knows that.
Our jungle camp, featuring: Ryan, Carlos, Tom, Gary, Anna and Gulla
Freshly carved bamboo chopsticks next to our package of sticky rice
Gulla loves the Lao Lao
Wong, Gary and Tom gettin’ into the Lao Lao during storytime
I’m not quite sure when it began, but at some point during the trek Gary decided that Ryan resembled (mostly in appearance, but slightly in character), Karl Pilkington from “An Idiot Abroad”. Thus, from then on, Ryan became known as Karl, who is ever concerned about his boiler back home, and I, Susan, his humble wife.
Ryan Hoetmer (L) and Karl Pilkington (R). Uncanny.
The jungle became very bamboo-y today, different varieties lining the trail and encroaching upon it little by little until we had to crawl through bamboo tunnels. We walked in the heat and a bit of rain for 4-5 hours before we came to the first village, populated by the Lanten tribe. According to Tom, this particular village used to farm opium and now have only a small rice field. As a result, they have no rice storage and therefore must buy most of their rice. Perhaps due to the opium farming, they are apparently also not very hard working, and the state of the village and appearance of the people definitely reflected this. Our stay in their village was brief, just long enough to purchase a few handicrafts and drinks they thrust on us immediately upon our arrival.
Crab we found in the morning that Tom threatened to put on the fire. Noooo!
Lanten villagers displaying their handicrafts
The second village we encountered, and our resting place for the evening, was a mere 15min walk away, but had a very different vibe. The people of this village were of the Khmu tribe and are rice farmers. They have a significant amount of rice storage and are a hardworking and friendly bunch, obvious to us by their beautifully taken care of village and loads of previously made roofs, walls, etc. ready to go whenever someone’s house may be in need. The village has a very lucrative agreement with Green Discovery to allow tourists to stay and experience village life. Each time a trekking group comes through, 2 different families are assigned to look after the group (e.g. cook dinner, make a fire, and otherwise tend to our needs) and paid around 500 000 kip ($63 US dollars) which is then shared among the entire village.
Khmu village in the evening light
Piggies in hiding
Upon arriving at our “lodge”, a lovely bamboo hut directly next to the Nam Ha river, most of us discovered that our feet were slowly being drained of all their life-giving blood by disgusting leeches we must have picked up walking through the jungle. Yay! After relieving ourselves of their unwanted presence and taking a bath in the peaceful Nam Ha, we explored the village in the evening sun. The light was so perfect it made the whole village glow. I spent most of my time playing with the children who were fascinated by the videos and photos I took of them. In the meantime, Karl and some of the others got a bit of a lesson in the schoolhouse by a few young school children. Gary and Karl later taught the kids to play jump rope with the water hose. I’m not sure if their parents were impressed, but the kids were in heaven!
Our “lodge” in the Khmu village with Nam Ha river in back
Mooooo. Cows/buffalo at the river where we bathed
The aftermath of the leeches
Cross-stitching a bag
Little ones writing their names in the sand
Skipping rope with the hose is fun! Just don’t tell mom.
Dinner was yummy of course, but by this time Gary was getting mighty sick of sticky rice. What comes after dinner? Lao Lao of course!! Significantly more Lao Lao was drank this night, in addition to a few beers. The night got interesting when we met 25 year old Yom, the only bachelor in town, who was wasted out of his tree from a wedding he attended in the afternoon. As we sat around the fire, taking turns singing songs from our respective countries (Karl and I sang the intro to “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” – come on, pretty good, no? – Tom broke out the James Blunt again), Yom took a liking to Gulla and I’m pretty sure they might have gotten married at some point during the evening. Yom and Tom eventually retired and we were left playing “Guess That Tune” with songs from Gary’s iPhone. Carlos, Gulla and Gary rocked that game!
A beautiful little girl about 7 years old followed me around in the morning as I took photos of butterflies. Each time I took a photo I showed her and she nodded her head in approval. Although she never smiled, she was very curious. Gary decided to give the young girl “Annabel”, his stuffed monkey (version 3.0) that she had been infatuated with since we got there. She was overjoyed (at least we think) and quickly shared the monkey with the other children.
Dragonfly or mayfly. Who knows?
My Nat Geo shot of the never-smiler. Shame about the blue undies.
The never-smiler with Annabel. Can’t you see the joy?
The trek out was fairly short, but plenty hot and we welcomed the brief rain showers when they came. During the walk, Gary regaled us with stories of his many horrific injuries and Tom and Wong fed us various jungle foods.
We arrived back at Luang Nam Tha in the early afternoon, dirty, sweaty and covered in bug and leech bites, but extremely happy with the successful trip and ready for a beer at the Kiwi-owned bar across the street!
Trying to remain inconspicuous, but we found him!
Water buffalo bathing in our trail
Khmu village where we ended our trek