October 1 – 15, 2015
By Jennifer & Steve
Laos! After six weeks of China we needed a place to kick back and catch our breath, and Laos was perfect for it.
Our arrival in Luang Namtha followed a sleepless night on an overnight bus from China, a crazy 2 hour border crossing rife with Chinese bureaucracy, and another 2 hours of sleeper bus where we actually fell asleep and almost missed our stop. We stumbled to our guesthouse and crashed. Not for a day, but pretty much 5 days. We ventured out to town and the surrounding areas a bit, but were pretty much confined to our AC’d room resetting and getting ready to travel again. One cool thing discovered during this hiatus in Luang Namtha was the morning market. You can buy all kinds of fruits, vegetables, meats, animals, spices, and foods.
Some of the niftier goodies available at the market (Clockwise, starting from the top left): 1. Water buffalo legs, 2. Live frogs tied together by a leg, 3.Bamboo worms, 4. General market layout, 5. Squirrel, birds, and roadkill of the day. Yum!
After our hermitage and sufficient recovery we emerged for a trek with Forest Retreat Eco Tours. This 3 day trip (1 day kayaking and 2 days trekking) was in the Nam Tha National Park/Protected Area. We decided to go with an organized tour because you are required to have a guide when in the protected area. We also thought it would be a good introduction for hiking and camping in a jungle environment, something foreign and a little daunting for us. The trek we booked grew in numbers (good news because the price goes down as more people join and it is always nice to meet fellow international travelers). What started as us and a guide became a group of 12: 2 Canadians, 2 French, 2 Aussies, 1 Belgian, 1 Fin, and 4 Lao.
We started out the first day bright and early in inflatable 2-person kayaks making our way down the Nam Ha River. The start of the river was pretty mellow, but as the day went on there were some pretty good rapids and rocks to navigate; 2 people (including Steve) fell out during some rough spots, but luckily no one got hurt:) Along the way we stopped at two different riverside villages which were very small (maybe a few hundred people) and had lots of animals roaming everywhere. Everything is dirt – no concrete roads or sidewalks- and all of the houses (a few concrete but most traditional) are built on stilts, with electricity, but no plumbing. Very simple, and worlds away from small town Canada.
We continued for a total of 22km kayaking downstream before stopping at a village for the night. This particular village is well known for its weaving, and everywhere you looked, there were women on looms weaving intricate patterns by hand to make clothing. Some continued late into the night, wearing headlamps to see. In this village, the men are allowed to wear modern clothes, but the women all wear their hand-woven skirts.
After a delicious supper of sticky rice, tomato tofu, jungle ferns, and chilies (of course) we opted to spend the night in a local’s house, rather than the companies’ camping hut. It was a really unique experience. The family was very friendly, but unfortunately we were unable to talk with the due to the language barrier. The only bad part (well, it’s a funny story now), was that in the middle of the night Jenn had to go to the washroom, which was outside and a couple of houses away. As soon as she got outside – it was pitch black and completely silent – the neighbor’s medium/large sized dog started barking and snarling and wouldn’t let her past to get to the toilet. It was pretty unnerving in a foreign rural village where you don’t want to wake everyone up. There was no way she was getting past this dog, so had to settle for the middle of the dirt road and pray the dog didn’t charge or a local didn’t come outside to see what all the noise was about. But, after much cursing and shushing of the dog she made it back safe inside. Steve had a similar experience shortly after, except this time a pack of dogs gathered to bark and snarl in the dark. Fortunately a stomping “haka” impression complete with a few grunts sent them scattering… fun times in small town Laos!
The next morning we had an early breakfast (featuring the standard sticky rice) and caught a boat across the river to start trekking in the Nam Tha Protected Area. We began among sticky-rice fields (which grows on hillsides, unlike most rice which grows in flat paddies, some good “did you know” information), and then continued up into jungle that got thicker and buggier with each step. The scenery was beautiful, but the most interesting part was how the guides kept picking wild fruits, nuts, leaves, etc., as we hiked and got us to try all sorts of jungle treats that you wouldn’t think to eat. We were always nibbling on something while we were walking. It was surprising how fruitful the jungle was, you really could just survive off of scavenged fruits, seeds, animals, and greens.
We continued hiking, (lots of uphill and it was boiling humid hot, so lots of sweating) for about 5 hours until we got to our destination for the night – a hut on top of a mountain with a beautiful 360⁰ view of the surrounding jungle and hills. After cleaning up and eating lunch (sticky rice and pumpkin) we went for a short hike to collect water and supplies for the evening meal: baby bamboo shoots and bamboo worms. Steve ate the cooked worms ( Jenn couldn’t get herself to try them), which taste like overcooked egg and garlic. They are a Laotian delicacy, and apparently very high in protein and nutrients. Jenn stuck to the vegetarian-friendly and tasty sticky rice with bamboo shoots.
One thing that has really sunk in during this trekking adventure has been the significance of two staples for village/jungle life in Laos: sticky rice and bamboo. Bamboo is amazingly stuff! First of all, it grows insanely fast, approximately 20cm per day, making it a fairly renewable resource, relative to trees which take much longer to grow (provided that it isn’t over-harvested). And second, it is surprisingly versatile – you can make so many things from bamboo, including food, shelter, traps, mugs, shot glasses, furniture, fences…the list goes on and on. The second staple is sticky rice, a certain kind of rice that is soaked for 2-5 hours and then cooked with steaming. This accompanies almost all meals in Laos. It is super sticky and you eat it with your hands, clumping it into a ball and then scooping up the vegetables/meat/sauce. If you find yourself in Laos, it will be hard to go a day without seeing the importance of sticky rice and bamboo in rural life.
The final day of the trek we packed up and hiked out, mostly downhill, and all through old growth forest and jungle. It was beautiful and gladly protected for future generations by the government. One sad, and apparently unusual, thing we witnessed that day was tree poaching or illegal logging. As we followed a stream out to the main river we found three old-growth trees that had very recently been cut down. The poachers had likely been told we were coming by locals in one of the villages we had visited, and packed out their gear as not to be caught. Our guides were visibly shaken and angry, their livelihood is based on the preservation of the old-growth jungle. They promised that the people would be caught and sent to jail. It was sad to see, and humbling as we considering the swaths and hectares of forest (including old-growth forest) that are clear-cut in Canada. A bigger and often ignored issue in Laos forest conservation is the converting of wild jungle and farmland to rubber tree plantations. Luang Nathan and the park were surrounded by these. The rubber trees are very hard on the soil and the ground around the rubber trees is barren, nothing else will grow there an wildlife cannot survive either. Even if/when rubber trees are removed, nothing else will be able to grow there for years. With the encouragement f the Chinese, many people changed their land to rubber plantations because rubber was selling at a higher price a couple years back; now, however, the price has dropped. People are not making as much money from their land and they cannot even grow their own food on the soil. A sad story indeed.
After another 5 hour day of hiking through beautiful scenery we made it back to the river, and our ride back to town. Overall, it was a great eco-tour experience, from the guides with their wealth of local knowledge, to the village home-stay and cultural immersion, and also (of course) the natural beauty of the jungle. We also really enjoyed this guided tour because, although we had cooks and guides, we were still ‘roughing it’ and sleeping in local accommodation and eating local food rather than in touristy restaurants and resorts.
Our next destination was 300km (9 winding hours by night bus) south to Luang Prabang. We arrived around 5:30am, and as we rode a tuk tuk into town got to witness the local Buddhist monks taking their daily ‘giving of the alms’ morning walk. For this daily and ancient tradition local women and Buddhist nuns cook sticky rice and other foods and sit out along roads around the monastery. They then wait for the monks to come by and offer each passing monk a small handful of what they have prepared, bowing their heads and saying some prayers. It was quite interesting to observe, and we were especially taken by the perseverance, consistency, and generosity not of the women who rise, prepare food, and then sit and wait for the monks to come and get it. The dedication it takes to do that for one day is impressive, but these women do it for 365 days each year, truly astounding and selfless. This was definitely a telling introduction to Luang Prabang.
We spent our time in Luang Prabang walking and running around the town, exploring the numerous Buddhist temples and landmarks. We also spent hours just sitting on the riverside or main street cafes and restaurants, watching the Mekong River and tourists pass by. As a former French colony and current tourist hot spot, Luang Prabang has hundreds of quaint roadside cafes. With so many tourists around, you almost feel as you are in France.
We made two memorable bike excursions while in Luang Prabang. One was to the Pak Ou caves, some 30km up the Mekong River from the city, and famous because they are housed with thousands of Buddha statues. Apparently you are not supposed to discard any statues of Buddha, so people put their older and broken statues in the caves for safekeeping. The caves (there are 2) were both amazing, with so many golden and wooden Buddhas stowed in every corner of the dark caves (we got an early start and had the caves to ourselves which definitely made the experience much more peaceful). The caves were definitely worth the 35km bike ride!
Another highlight of the day was the 2 elephants we biked past on our way to get to the caves. Hearts raced as we biked past, within a couple of feet of the giants. It was exhilarating to say the least. One cannot truly appreciate the enormous size of these creatures until you are right next to one realizing it could crush you in one move. It was a fitting experience for Laos, which is also known as “the land of 1000,000 elephants.” While we were pumped to see the elephants so close, the local guy riding and leading them was texting and looked extremely bored… just another distracted driver on a boring commute to work.
Our second notable excursion from Luand Prabang was to the Kuang Si waterfall, another 70km bike ride day but in the opposite direction, North along the Mekong River. Again, setting off early was key, and we got to explore the turquoise-green pools and waterfalls almost all to ourselves. It truly felt like a tropical paradise with the lush jungle greenery and opaque water cascading over the many levels of the falls (you definitely cannot miss this place is you are ever in Luang Prabang). There was also an Asian black bear rescue centre within the park where you can watch the bears wrestle, laze around, and just do what bears do.
We opted to do a 6km hike to see the source of the falls and some more caves. The cave was unexpectedly huge! It went back through a narrow passageway for almost 1km into the mountain. It was pitch black and super humid and creepy at the back, and though Steve seemed quite comfortable, Jenn was pretty anxious to get out of there. After the cave we checked out the source of the Kuang Si, which is simply an enormous freshwater spring. It was very strange indeed to see a river appearing out of the side of a rocky mountain. And when you are there, of course, you have to jump in for a refreshing swim!
After heading back to town that evening, Steve headed out to the Music for Everyone School, a free music school, to teach a guitar clinic to some of the locals. You can read more about it on their Blog.
The next morning it was time to say goodbye to Laos as our 1 month travel visa for Vietnam was starting. After China Laos had been a wonderful country to visit – a treat of Western pleasures (like pizza, bread, English-speakers, and actual signs to point you in the right direction). This combined with dense jungle, simple villages, and friendly people. The overall vibe is very laid back and relaxed – a big change from the fast pace of Chinese mega-cities. Laos – it was swell and we hope to see you again!