22nd January to 26th January
22.01.2014 - 26.01.2014
We started our journey on the back of a pick-up truck with two Dutch ladies to the bus station out of town where we had booked a so-called VIP bus to Luang Nam Tha. It was a bus like no other. It arrived emblazoned with Chinese writing as it does the route right through Northern Laos into China. Inside there were no seats but actual beds – double beds on each side of the bus, equipped with comfy mattresses (comfier than many guesthouses we have stayed in), pillows and warm duvets! Susanne managed to get a good sleep for the three hour journey as she was suffering from a cold, while Matt looked at the gorgeous scenery through the mountains. When we arrived in Luang Nam Tha it was a bit of a dishevelled town, not particularly pretty to look at but surrounded by the mountains of the national park in the distance. We found a cheap guesthouse and then had a wander around the town, stumbling upon a local football match where the spectators were literally surrounding the pitch on the throw-in lines. In the evening we savoured some of the local cuisine at the daily night market which also had a few Akha people wandering around (one of the ethnic tribes in Laos). However, one thing to say about Northern Laos is that it is seriously cold at night and in the morning. The temperature dropped to somewhere around 4 degrees and we could even see our icy breath.
The next day we hired some bikes to head out of the town and into the surrounding rice paddy fields and villages. Luang Nam Tha province and the national park are renowned for being home to a large number of ethnic minorities some of which are unique to Laos and others which can also be found in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The ethnic makeup of Laos is quite fascinating, with these different groups having distinct traditions, appearances, costumes and languages. We grabbed a map from the local shop and headed out on a circular route that took us through some beautiful scenery, rice paddies, villages and a nice waterfall. At times it felt a little strange meandering into people’s villages, but it was a lovely experience to see how people live their day-to-day lives. Many of the villages were also beautifully cared for which was quite a departure from some of the dirty and untidy villages/small towns you find in Thailand. We stopped for some lunch at a lovely little place on the river, but Susanne managed to order a fiendishly hot aubergine dip which made us both feel quite ill. In the evening we ate again at the night market trying to avoid anything hot this time and then booked up our two-day trek for the morning.
25th to 26th January:
We and seven other people in the group were picked up in the morning by our guides, one chap who we can’t remember his name and our trainee guide Ponchi who was apparently 16 but looked like an 11 year old! During the cold morning we were first taken to a local market to pick up food for the trek and presents for children in the village. The market was amazing with a wondrous selection of fruit, veg, fish and meat and weird and wonderful dishes being sold everywhere. In amongst it all were certain exotic items like colourful jungle birds for sale (for eating not for pets!). We were then taken in a tuk tuk to the start of our trek which began in a local village. Our guide showed us how to make a simple bamboo flute, something he had been taught to do in his own tribe the Khmu. Matt was in ethno heaven and later quizzed him on the musical traditions of the Khmu tribe! The walk went through beautiful hills, paddy fields, rubber trees and thick, wet jungle – it was a lovely mixture of all the natural habitats Luang Nam Tha national park has to offer. For lunch we stopped at a little hut in the forest and had a lovely meal of stuff bought from the market all laid out on massive banana leaves over the table – all we had were our hands and sticky rice to mop up the lovely dishes. After more trekking we finally reached the village we were staying at just after Susanne managed to spot some wild dogs running across the hills.
The homestay in the village was a strange but wonderful experience. The Luang Nam Tha national park is well-known for its eco-tourism, and there are many tours that spend time in many of the hundreds of ethnic villages dotted around the park. While catering to the tourist trade, the villages still receive a large proportion of the tour sales making it a significant form of community development. However, it still felt quite intrusive to wander around someone’s village and stay in a stranger’s home. Many of the villagers didn’t really make any contact with us and just went about their day-to-day business. Even so, the villagers we did meet were really friendly and there were loads of children who were naturally quite fascinated by us. We stayed in a Lanten village which is a group that arrived from China around 500 years ago. After chilling in the village and relaxing after the walk, we were taken to the local school where we were encouraged to teach English – but clearly the kids had already experienced tourists teaching them and were familiar with the abcs and 123s that we were teaching them! We were allowed to wander around the village and observe the very peaceful lives of the people living there. In the evening we sat around the fire for dinner and were treated to some local rice wine which was powerful but really quite tasty. It was nice sitting around with the rest of the trekking group, all of whom were really nice people. At around 8.30 we were filed off in twos to our host families, Susanne and I quickly met the family and were then beckoned to go to bed on our raised bamboo platform – certainly an early night!
We were woken up early by roosters making a racket and were then treated to some ratten shoots roasted in the fire for breakfast by our host family. These are basically soft bamboo, and when eaten with chilli flakes and salt they are absolutely delicious. After a second breakfast with the rest of the group, we begin the second day of trekking. We headed through some of the most beautiful and pristine jungle we have ever seen with streams running through and large palm leaves. We then entered a lovely bamboo forest where our guide showed us how local villagers would make a traditional trap to catch large animals such as deer. After more beautiful forest, we stopped for lunch and were treated to a jungle cooking course with the guides showing us how to do traditional bamboo cooking over the fire. They whisked up two soups almost entirely made from ingredients found in the forest apart from tomatoes and salt, along with a crab our young guide Ponchi managed to catch in the river. We were then taught how to make banana-leaf spoons with which we ate the delicious soup served in traditional bamboo containers – it was quite a memorable experience. After lunch we headed through more beautiful jungle and then to a waterfall where Susanne and other members of the group took a ‘jungle shower’ – Matt wimped out! At the end of the trek we visited a Khmu village and then headed back to Luang Nam Tha for a well-earned shower and some grub at the night market. Tomorrow morning we are off to Nong Khiaw, a village to the east on the river – hopefully for a bit of relaxing time after some hardcore trekking!