Next on our wish list :- Jungle treks and exploration of hill tribes.
Packed in like cargo amongst sacks of grain and many more people than the van was made for we chugged along the mountain paths. Children packed in with their father in the stairwell of the bus were forced to stand while vomiting into plastic bags and throwing them out the window. As usual it took longer than expected and we are both ravenous in the afternoon as we arrive in the little town of Luang Namtha. Ushered to a guesthouse which had been coincidentally advertised in the tuk-tuk from the bus station we met Alack, a friendly, funny and energetic young Laos boy who would also be the centre point of our best adventures in Laos.
Invited to drink Beer Lao with the guest house boys they talked of jungle trekking and we were sold. Especially as Alack was to be our guide. A bit expensive as it would be only the two of us and Alack, but all the more exciting. However, we thought one more person would be good for a more reasonable price. That evening a lovely girl from Germany, Caroline, arrived from China and decided on a whim to join us on the trek. We all met in the morning and were joined by another young local, Savone who would be joining us as a second guide. Many of the tour operators weren’t offering two day treks in the wet season and we were soon to understand their reasoning and be glad to have two guides.
We peruse the bustling morning market for supplies, ogling the many oddities we encountered. Squirming eels in plastic bags, buckets of bugs of various shapes and sizes and tables and tables of our old favourite, mystery meat. We were soon dropped off on a jungle track and headed straight into the forest on a thin, barely visible track that disappeared into an overflowing creek. Before long the track became the river and we were walking in pristine jungle walking amongst the stones and the currents, all the while pursued by butterflies.
An hour in the rain began and not just a light rain, but a deluge. Ahh the wettening. Poncho clad and armed with sticks we were adventurers, pushing through the jungle despite the elements. No signs of man besides ourselves, we felt like real explorers. No nicely formed paths, board walks or restrooms.
The forest changed over the hours, from dense jungle to bamboo forests, slippery mud swamps and mountains tangled in giant weeds to name but a few. It was slow going as Sevone often had to cut our way through with his makeshift machete, as well as the continuing hilarity of laughing at each other as we fell on our asses in the mud. Not to mention the constant stopping to check for leeches.
We finally came upon an old hut that had a little shelter in one corner from the rain. The boys laid down some banana leaves and lunch commenced from what was purchased from the markets.
Hours wore on and the guides became weary of the approaching darkness. Especially when our way was blocked with fallen trees and we were made to go the long way round. Which just happened to be up a really steep mountain. Not the kind of news you want to hear when you have been laboriously trekking for 6 hours. Finally we made our way out of the jungle and into the rice fields that belong to the family with whom we were to stay with that night, eating sugarcane growing in the fields to boost our energy. A sight for weary eyes and after 8 hours of walking we came to the little farm just as the sun was going down. We were greeted by a menagerie of animals and the warm welcome of a lovely old couple who were to be our hosts and are like family to Sevone and Alack.
To refresh ourselves and wash off the mud we were shown to a little waterhole dammed off from the river. The smell of cooking from the camp-fires sent our mouths watering and the serenity from our surrounding eased our sore muscles. With no electricity, as their generator is powered by the river and the river was too high this season, we contented ourselves by watching the fireflies and dinner being made, everything fresh from the garden with duck plucked for the occasion.
A memorable feast, a foodie high-lite of our travels. The company making it even more so as the Lao Lao was passed around with stories from the old man combined with clapping and singing of old traditional Thai songs. Covered in traditional tattoos, each with its own tale, we were fascinated with this jolly man who had been a monk for many years in a previous life but decided to leave the “cities” and move to the jungle where he is now blessed with a prosperous farm, four wifes and four sons. It was a real insight into life in a small village.
After all sleeping in a raised wooden hut under mosquito netting, being pestered by the cats incessant meows we awoke to the rowdy rooster’s call and the sun pushing up over the rice paddies. Breakfast of fresh eggs and garden vegetables was delicious, but the thought of trekking for another 7 hours was a little unsettling for our poor limbs. Another man from the village joined our troupe to speak to us about the flora of the jungle, taking us briefly to his home in the Cham village 15 min across the stream from the farm we stayed at. A cluster of wooden huts with hatched roofs, children and pigs running free. The men were mostly off working the fields leaving the village very quiet with half-naked children running out to shyly look at us before running to their grandmothers. The woman weave and die their own traditional clothing with plants from the jungle and craft amazingly beautiful silver jewelry and headdresses. What little power they have is solar, as the water generators are mostly washed out in the wet season, ensures that the ubiquitous giant and rusty satellite dishes can be put to use.
More dense jungle greets us with a moist smile but the day promises nothing but sunshine. We stumble and slip over through the annual leech festival constantly picking them from our legs and boots. We are forced to fight for our lunch as the leeches try to join in the revelry. Rolling balls of sticky rice between our fingers and picking at the delicious morning glory and bamboo shoots off our now familiar banana leaf table. We encounter a man digging in the forest and find that he is excavating large rhinocerous beatles from their tunnels and throwing them in a basket after taking off their legs, planning to take them to market the next day. We encounter other foragers on our journey, picking fruit and plants from the forest for the village and the local market.
How much longer? Only 4 more hours of up, now only 3 more hours of up. Laugh the boys as our faces drop with exhaustion. They tease us constantly, warning us continually of the impending doom of hours of mud mountains, giggling at their power over these out of place foreigners. Luckily they were mostly joking to our relief, but not always.
As the forest rolls away we are greeted by the river and a scary crossing by raft in the strong currents.On the other side they joke that more hours of up await but thankfully only a tuk tuk into town is there. We arrive back again, covered in mud and happy with our new-found sense of adventure. Surprised at our luck at experiencing such an authentic and tourist free ( Ok, other then us) side of south east Asia. Mr Lak and Mr Sevone, as they called themselves, were not ready to finish the fun and asked if after we showered and settled we could meet up for dinner at the markets.
Thus another night of fantastic food rolled with sticky rice commenced with glasses of Beer Lao tapping together in salutes to good luck.
Big thanks to Caroline Sickert for the use of some of her photos.