After a twenty-hour local bus journey soundtracked by non-stop ear-burning pop music, we arrived in Northerly jungle town, Luang Nam Tha. Surrounded by protected primary jungle, the tiny town has a remote feel, consisting of little more than a market, a few restaurants, and guesthouses built to serve the influx of trekkers and outdoors enthusiasts.
After a quick noodle soup on the market, and a gander at the livestock (including snakes and pig faces!) we spent a tiring hour or so exhaustively plying the tour agencies to try and find the best guided jungle trek that would offer us the right balance of adventure, challenge and beautiful scenery. We had our hearts set on sleeping in the jungle combined with a homestay in a local village, and found the outfitters were all offering very similar treks at similar prices.
Never ones to make it easy on ourselves, we spoke to every agency twice (!) and were enamoured by their friendly, easy charm and reassurances of great trails and ‘authentic’ experiences. In the end we just went with the guy who Sam thought was most charming, but who’s blurb also included the caveat it was the ‘difficult’ trail we’d be taking on, rather than the medium or easy trails promised elsewhere. We’ve done loads of trekking, we thought! We’ll be fine! Ha-ha-ha!!
That evening, after booking ourselves onto the three-day jungle adventure, it started raining torrentially and didn’t stop all night. I pictured us in the jungle, sleeping in a pool of bug-infested muddy water, and snuggled up to thoroughly enjoy our last night in civilisation.
Thankfully we woke to dry weather and were introduced to our fellow hikers, a nice German couple and an older Canadian guy called Jeff. They all seemed really nice, and we bonded on the songthaew journey to our trek starting point in the Nam Ha NPA (National Protected Area).
Within the first five minutes, it was heart-sinking-ly clear what we’d gotten ourselves in for. The starting point was just an almost vertical climb off the road into the dense, heaving jungle. No trail, no path, nothing to hold on to. Our guide, along with a jungle-savvy local from a nearby village, led the pack with a machete, hacking our ‘path’ through the spiky vines, trees, overgrowth and slippery leaves. After only a couple of minutes one of us had fallen over, and our guide fashioned us spiked walking poles from tree branches so we could skewer our path into the mud. I slipped and accidentally grabbed a thorn tree. ‘That tree is bad! Do not touch!’ advised our guide. Yeah, thanks!
Having the additional guide was cool, he was like a Laos version of Mowgli and managed to find weird stuff for us to eat off the tree like rattan shoots and nuts, and we even found a crab scuttling around!
Lunch was pretty awesome, as we broke from our sweaty few hours’ walking to set up a makeshift bench made from branches secured with vines, with a huge leaf as our ‘table’. We sampled delicious traditional food from brought from the local market, including bamboo curry, spicy laab, sticky rice, and fried dough sweets.
After lunch – the rest of the day – was probably the most challenging and bittersweet part of the hike. It started with slip-sliding our way down muddy jungle to an overgrown narrow river, which we proceeded to follow for the next few painful hours. The walk, or more accurately, slow-paced horror shuffle, involved slipping on and off the muddy sides of the river, falling in the river, getting covered in leeches, clambering over ravines, tree stumps, mud and moss. We were sticky with sweat and mud, bits of branches and plants sticking to us, and insects in a constant swarm. With absolute density and no trail apart from the on/off flow of the river, it felt like true primary jungle. No signposts, no obvious way out.
After a few hours of hard concentrating, sweat, tears, and some blitz-spirit style bonding with our fellow trekkers (helping across branches, helping up from falls, group swearing…) we came to our exit from the jungle which involved a near-vertical scaling of slippery rocks and mud. At this point I was pretty exasperated and close to tantrum-throwing, but Sam managed to distract me with jokes and support until we reached the top (terrified!) At this point we noted that we hadn’t passed a single other trekking group. Clearly this wasn’t a popular route, perhaps due to its ‘difficult’ status!!
After a hot sunny walk through some crop fields (a welcome change of pace!) we arrived at the little Akha hill tribe village which would be our home for the night. We walked along the spiny ridge of the village – which consisted of a few huts, a shack that acted as a shop and a communal outdoor shower – and were subjected to stares and shouts of ‘SABWADEE!’ from the cute local kids.
We saw men and women in their modernised-but-still-tribal clothes with wicker baskets on their backs; pigs scuffled around next to motorbikes; simple wooden and thatch stilted huts dominated the town. We also saw some bizarre shipping-container-sized wooden huts with guys sitting on ladders next to them, and our guide informed us these were the villages’ batchelors, who live in these tiny huts before they get married off! And I thought the London living situation was bad.
We were introduced to our family for the night – welcoming, if tourist-weary, with an excitable bunch of eager kids who were definitely the happiest to talk to us. Nightfall came quickly and since there wasn’t any electricity in the city, we instead read with the kids by head torch (English reading books left by previous trekkers) which was so much fun! We sounded out words with them and worked our way through the alphabet, with all three brothers jostling to get near the book and be the best at pronouncing the words correctly.
We then ate dinner outside by candlelight (a delicious noodle curry cooked by our guide) and retired to a big barn-like room full of blankets, the ‘family room’ of the house where we’d be sleeping. Exhausted from the day’s trek, none of us minded the rustic conditions and we fell asleep almost instantly.
Woken by cockerels crowing under the wooden beams on which we slept, we all lumbered out of ‘bed’ and took turns in the outhouse across the road, and I took a wander into town. Looking for some interactions with the locals that wasn’t part of a tourist gig, I was lucky in finding some of the cutest children to ever have lived. Most just smiled, waved and shouted SABWADEE! but I found two particular girls, hanging out outside the aforementioned hut shop, who insisted on sharing their breakfast (spicy crisps!) with me. We had fun taking pictures and looking at them; then some more kids wanted to get involved so I took some more cute snaps of kids doing thumbs ups, and – inevitably – a small boy trying to flash me.
The second day’s hike was – thankfully – far less work, and after a slip-slidey start down a hill where I got attacked by a spore-covered plant that stuck all over my leggings, the trek opened up to more of a trail. We walked through more jungle, up a couple of steep hills, and came across some local kids with a huge net who were catching bats. ‘The bats can’t see the nets at night time so the kids come back the next day and take the bats to cook for food. They don’t have much money and the bats are a good source of protein’, explained our guide. I couldn’t resist taking a photo of its horror-show face. We also saw some pretty cool butterflies and even a praying mantis!
As we trekked on through the afternoon, stepping carefully over fallen trees and admiring cool plants and mushrooms (now the trekking was calmer), our guide informed us it was probably too rainy to sleep in the jungle as it had rained the previous night. We walked past another group’s makeshift camp (made of branches and leaves) and it was swimming in a pool of muddy water and leaves, so we concurred maybe it was for the best!
Instead, we lucked out as our guide took us to a nearby rice paddy where there was a bamboo shelter/platform where we would sleep instead. His mate came to meet us with some sleeping bags, and we were set! We stripped down for a wash in the river, and found, to our horror, an absolutely HUGE leach that had been feeding on Sam’s ankle all day! We washed the blood off in the river, and settled in for the night.
Dinner was a real treat – an al fresco meal of plants we’d foraged from the jungle that day, cooked to perfection by our guide Sim. We dined on banana flowers, wild mushrooms, leaves and even crickets fried in ginger. Sim explained that everyone learns to cook in the household in Laos, and he really knew how to work the flavours… helped along by MSG, of course.
We giggled in our sleeping bags passing around the bowl of crickets and egging each other on to eat them, like a bunch of teenagers. Sleeping out in the open was a really fun, peaceful experience and waking to the open rice paddy was just beautiful.
Relieved that the trekking was over, our third day was kayaking down the river back to town. I decided to pass on it as I managed to pull my back by slipping over unceremoniously in the rice paddy whilst, err… nature was calling. Observed by some very awkward-looking locals. Ach.
Sam said the kayaking was really pretty but a bit too long (five hours!) and the river was slow-moving so he was pretty tired by the end. That evening we gorged on some more local deliciousness of duck noodle soup and fried ‘big noodle’ (wide rice noodle) and planned our next move onto tourist favourite, Luang Prabang!