Laos: hiking in the jungle
Luang Namtha, a walk in the primary forest of Nam Ha
When I think back to my trip in Laos, there’s a place that makes its way through my memories, a picture that emerges stronger and sharper than the others. More than a place is a long span of time, with soft borders that blend with dream. Even as I lived that moment I knew it was unique. It ‘s an image that moves : I remember the fireworks at dusk , the peaceful flow of the river Nam Ha, the simple life of the Khmu village that flowed around us according to an ancient rhythm, almost indifferent to our presence. And then there were the stars that were beginning to appear in the sky as I massaged sore legs after the tiring hours spent in the jungl , that same dark tangle of plants that now embraced us from all sides and had stopped making me feel uneasy. I know that my legs were hurting, but fatigue, tiredness, vanish in my recollection, they are silent: there is only the purity of that moment , in that village on stilts that knows no roads .
The night in the village, a short video
In Luang Namtha
We arrived in Luang Namtha because he wanted to go on one of the best hikes of Laos, in the protected area of Nam Ha. There isn’t much else to do in this dusty town close to the Chinese border: it’s just a few guesthouses and restaurants along an avenue, they serve the many backpackers that arrive here following the banana pancake trail. Behind there are concrete blocks with some houses and some commercial activities for the locals: tire dealers, hardware stores, some strange restaurants and other places incomprehensible to us. There is also – surprise – a baker making excellent banana muffins. The interesting places to me and Letizia seem just two.
There is the night market, where you can dine with street food and also try some weird, if not scary, food: there are insects and fried silkworms and for a moment, just for a moment, I think about looking for the red ant eggs dish that the italian writer Tiziano Terzani liked. Most backpackers go for easier tastes, like the reassuring roasted chickens and ducks. But if you want them warm, you’ll have to ask. Here the temperature of the food is of little importance (this doesn’t apply to drinks, though, always served with plenty of ice).
And then there’s the Bamboo lounge, a restaurant and bar that, as strange as it may seem, serves delicious pizza . It’s a place for tourists and backpackers, like everything here, but with a nice story: here work young people from the villages who want to learn English, and the products are all local. The cocktails are made with the local strong spirit Lao Lao and the pizzas are made with Laotian cheese and vegetables from the area. Eating western food when travelling seems often wrong: eating local food is one way to get in touch with the culture and one of the pleasures of a trip. But after days of sticky rice I needed a break. And let’s not forget that South-East Asia attracts travelers who are often on the road for months. And after months of Asian food a western meal has a different flavor: it smacks of home
To go alone in the forest is unthinkable here, you need a guide. We have already booked a two-day hike with the agency Green Discovery (thanks to Silvia’s post). But the agencies offering guided hikes here are many, and each one has slates out with their planned tours and the number of people registered. The more you are the less you pay, of course, although it seems that somebody got smart: apparently there is always somebody who quits at the same minute, making the rate increase. Our tour is a two days walk, with a night spent at a village in the jungle. The brochure marks it as ‘easy to moderate ‘, but reading a bit on the web I discovered it was quite a hard hike, so I am mentally prepared. We try to keep to a minimum the weight of our backpacks, but it’s not easy. We need a change of clothes, some essentials for the night out (toothbrush, some medicines), insect repellent, a frontal flashlight, a rain jacket,a towel. And then the slr camera. I have also brought hiking boots with me, although they were really not needed: in normal weather lighter outdoor shoes would have been just fine. The backpack feels right, but our plans are ruined when we realize that we have to take with us three liters of water per person. And I take one of Letizia’s bottles too. Eventually my backpack is probably around nine kilo (19 pounds).
Hiking in the jungle
We get off the minibus and leave behind the gentle, reassuring light green slopes, entering a dark and unknown world. Here the light does not arrive, can’t pass the dense canopies of the trees. Each plant is trying desperately to overwhelm the others, trying to grow a few centimetres higher, getting a bit of light which is like air to us. The forest is constantly changing, transforming. Dry trees become support for climbing plants , fallen ones are surrounded by shrubs , roots , lianas. This is a struggle for survival, It’s an unforgiving world , but not an evil one: here life and death mingle and follow one another continuously.
But I don’t understand this world. It’s just a trail in the woods, but I feel smell, sounds, vibrations that I don’t recognize. I keep asking Kip, our guide, some explanation on noises, plants, insects I see and he answers with simple, yet effective words. He seems to have seen, handled, tasted everything. But while talking I can’t take my eyes off his thin feet. I wonder how much they have walked, how many miles. Like many Laotians he is wearing only a pair of rubber flip-flops, but he seems to always find the perfect place to lay his feet on this rugged track. My boots are sinking in mud, while his slippers are still incredibly clean. Maybe, if he could afford it, he would buy real shoes, says one of our companions in the hike. But he doesn’t really need them. He seems as comfortable as he would be at home. And at home you wear slippers.
Then comes the climb, or I should say, the climbs. I expected them, because around us there were only steep hills close together, looming over narrow valleys. The knee-breaking climb is almost vertical at times.
The stifling humidity soaks my clothes that become one gelatinous thing with my skim. Someone ends up with leeches attached to his legs, mosquitoes and gnats surrounded me every time I stop to rest for a few seconds. My backpack is too heavy and, although I consider myself quite fit, I have to stop often, breaking the rhythm of the group which, for reasons I am not able to grasp, seems to climb steadily and almost effortlessly. I don’t know why my legs feel so heavy. Maybe they’re just too careful in this place I have never seen, and the tension I feel is wasting my energies. Then we stop for lunch: papaya salad, spicy meat and sticky rice that we eat sitting on the floor, with a large banana leaf as a table.
The village in the forest
Then the forest opens abruptly, after a steep descent. We see a women, then we see the first huts among green rice fields. Then comes the sound of animals: dogs, pigs, chickens. There’s a village and I feel an unexpected sense of relief, as if I had been away for weeks. Maybe it’s just fatigue, I feel that I could not walk much longer. But we will have a walk a bit more, as we haven’t yet arrived. This is a Yuan village, an ethnic group which is originally from China. Women dress in simple traditional clothes and have different features from the Lao and Khmu people (the two main groups in the country) we have seen so far. Some sell for little money hand sewn bracelets and the price is shown on a sheet of paper full of chinese characters.
Our village, a Khmu one, is only a short walk from here and, although it is the most remote, is the most well-kept we have seen. There is no electricity (except for what looks like a car battery that provides light for a single house), there are no roads, the animals roam free under the huts on stilts. But there is a harmony that we have not experienced in other villages . It is no secret that our agency works with ethnic minorities, who are compensated to accommodate tourists and prepare dinner , and it shows. We are greeted with a bit of fear and curiosity and some wide smiles, but t our arrival doesn’t disrupt village life that goes on, indifferent to us. I feel happy. But it’s only when I dive in the cold and incredibly clear waters of the Nam Ha river to wash away the dirt and the sweat, that thoughts eventually lighten, the burden of fatigue lifts from the eyes and I begin to relax, and I am able to really see.
Luang Namtha can be reached by bus from Huai Xay (Thai border): it’s four hours by bus on decent roads. From Luang Prabang is eight hours (a night bus is available) on dreadful roads. Or you can arrive from Luang Prabang combining boat and bus (from Udomxai).
Other posts about Laos
All the texts are by Patrick Stephen Colgan. All pictures by me, when not otherwise specified, are licensed under the Creative Commons licence by-nc-sa. For commercial uses please contact me. This post has been translated from my italian blog, Orizzonti.
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