There are a lot of trekking agencies to choose from on Luang Namtha’s main street, they all have a very similar offer. We stopped in almost every single one of them to chose the best option for a 3 days trek in the Nam Ha national protected area and set our choice on Forest Retreat Laos: It is one of the most expensive agencies but also the most trustworthy we read. They were very transparent and detailed on the program when we meet them and were sold for a 3 days trekking in the jungle, 1 night sleeping in a local village among a Khmu community, the second night spent in a jungle camp. Unfortunately there was no group formed yet for the day we wanted to start the trek so we created one in the hope that more people would join to lower the individual price.
The following day, we rented a motorbike for the day and took a trip driving to Muang Sing. I think people have mixed opinions about this town. For us, we found the road was pretty although quite bad to drive with a lot of holes and bumps. We passed a few villages where the kids always waved us “Sabaidee!!”. The town of Muang Sing itself we thought was not that interesting and there is now many Chinese people living there due to the close border. However on the way back we stopped at the monastery up the hill, just before the town’s entrance. There, an old Buddhist monk welcomed us and engaged conversation about travels and Buddhism. We spent one hour chatting with him…. well, he was doing most of the talking actually, he was very enthusiastic. We didn’t always understand all he said but most of it while he explained some interesting concepts of Buddhism.
It was a nice moment we spend with him before we headed back to Luang Namtha, hoping more people would have joined our trek for the following day. It was a good news we got when we returned to Forest Retreat’s office: 4 more people had signed in. We were now 6, bringing the individual price to 73 euros. The bad news for our guide was that we were all French!
We all met the next day at 8am for breakfast and briefing on the program, then jumped in a mini van that drove us first to the local market for some grocery shopping for our lunch and dinner, then we drove about an hour out-of-town.
We were dropped off on the side of the road where our guide, Pahn, introduced us to another local guide (whom we didn’t catch the name) who would walk with us until lunch. And so we started our trek and quickly found ourselves into the green jungle… About 20 minutes after we started, Pahn stopped us for a break. The local guide light up a cigarette while the rest of us enjoyed the green surroundings. We started walking again, this time up the mountain. 20 minutes later, we stopped for another break. The local guide light up another cigarette. We were quite amused by this rhythm that reflects just so typically the very laid back way of Laos people, everything works at a much slower path here. “Yulala” as they like to say! (which would be equivalent to “Tranquilo” in Spanish…)
We had lunch once we reached the top of the mountain. Pahn started to cut down bamboos with his machete and quickly improvised plates for the food that we ate with our hands. It was incredible to each out of fresh bamboo in the middle of the jungle! We made a fire to warm ourselves up; a cool air was coming from the south of China and since the early morning it was much colder.
We walked for the rest of the afternoon, mostly down hill and arrived to the Khmut village around 4pm. Pahn explained that a wedding was taking place the next day so the locals were quite busy with preparations. We would usually have a choice between sleeping in a family’s house or a lodge that has been constructed for tourists, but since there was the wedding Pahn recommended we slept in the lodge. The lodge was a very basic wooden house, 4 walls, a roof and 6 very thin mattress laid out 2 by 2 on the floor (for the 3 couples we were). There was a Turkish style toilet outside for us to use and no shower since the people of the village bath in the river. It was cold so we all spiked the shower that day!
At this moment, Pahn sort of abandoned us there and disappeared for the next hour leaving us no instructions. We hung out outside, watching quite amazed how people were living their own life: some were bravely taking a shower in the river while others were washing their clothes and others cleaning vegetables…
Suddenly, we heard the screams of an animal… A pig! It was so loud we all turned around and saw a few men pulling on a rope. At the end of the rope was a massive pig being dragged to the river on his belly. It was scared and kept screaming. We all thought “Oh no… let this please not be what we think is going to happen…”, and sure enough, a man attached the pig to a tree and started sharpening a knife. The villagers looked very proud and happy a bunch of tourists was there for this event so we felt uneasy turning around or leaving… We will spare the details of what happened in the next 30 minutes but lets just say that the sound of a pig being sacrificed is the most horrible thing and haunting sound we’ve ever witnessed… After the pig died, a lot of work was involved: removing the animal’s hair, burning the skin, washing, cutting etc… while they worked, the men shared and ate the pig’s blood that had started coagulating. They smiled at us with their mouth full of blood and some even proposed us to try but we all shook our heads no!
Pahn came back after what seemed a really long time and proposed us to walk around the village with him. The village didn’t have any electricity, only a generator they used not for lights but to play music on big stereos which we found quite funny. We joined one of the families outside their home by the fire and enjoyed the warmth of it. We had dinner right by our Lodge and afterwards, Pahn was unclear but we understood that he wanted to go back to the village. He didn’t really invite us but we decided to follow him anyway. We found a few men drinking who invited us to join their table so we did. They were happy to have new friends to drink with. Meanwhile Pahn disappeared again, we were alone with people who didn’t speak a word of English but somehow we managed to understand each other and all had a good laugh. About 45 minutes later he reappeared with little eyes and was a bit unclear when he spoke. We’re not sure if he had drunk or smoked something but he seemed pretty tired all at once and kept saying that it was cold and he wanted find a girl to be warm at night… After saying goodnight we all went back to our lodge.
We fell asleep quiet easily but were all woken up at 4am by a sound that was now familiar… a screaming pig. It was 30 minutes of torture during which all of us were awake but none of us made a move or sound, we just waited patiently until it was over. Then the music started….
It was a tough night but the next morning we all set off to walk at 10am. Pahn was in a very good mood and confessed to us later that he’d found a girl to sleep with the night before… During the morning we walked through 3 villages. The first and second one were nice, we were greeted by a few kids but the villages were almost empty as most people were attending the wedding. The third village though was a little strange: We quickly were surrounded by ladies who tried to sell us handicrafts. Most people looked unwell, either very skinny or with handicaps, most of the kids seemed to have eyes infections… Pahn just told us that we would take a 15 minutes break here and disappeared again. We all felt very uncomfortable, surrounded by locals who looked at us intensively and with little communication possible. The 15 minutes turned out to 40 at which point we were all annoyed by the situation… Pahn eventually reappeared with a new local guide who would be staying with us overnight at the jungle camp. We walked only 40 more minutes before our lunch break. During the break, Pahn hardly spoke to us… It was now clear that he had a bit of a lunatic personality, swinging from good mood to bad mood every now and then…
Just like the previous day, we asked if we could help preparing the lunch but he refused and wanted to handle everything himself… We ate sitting on the ground by the river out of a big palm leave.
After a post lunch rock throwing activity, we set off again walking for 3 hours before we reached the jungle camp where we meet our third local guide who had been transporting food, blankets and water supply by canoe along the river. The settlement was even more basic than the previous night: a little hut with palm leaves for rooftop and bamboo and plastic made of beds that looked more like emergency stretcher for Asian sized bodies…
There was no escaping a shower this time, so we changed into our bathing suits and headed to the river which was very cold!! It was not so warm outside any more so it was a quick dip in the water, but with a fun feeling to be washing in the river in the middle of the jungle!
We were told there would be some fishing activity as well but the surprise was that it was spare fishing gun and not a fishing line! Also there was only one gun for the 6 of us. Pahn took it and started to play around while we watched. Quickly none of us felt like fishing any more (which involved swimming in the cold water anyway…)
Back to the camp we warmed up around the beautiful fire. Despite our multiple request to help cooking dinner, Pahn insisted he wanted to do it all by himself, letting us understand that it was easier for him than explaining what to do… The two other guides who didn’t speak English let us help them with a few minor tasks though. Pahn did a good job by himself, dinner was delicious!! We all sat down to the same table to enjoy food in the darkness of the jungle with our headlights on. After dinner, Pahn told us that he and the other guides were going fishing (night-time being the best), but again we felt like it wasn’t an invitation and more of a statement, which was okay… None of us felt like going back into the cold water at night anyway. We had beer, we had a cards and a going fire! The 3 of them walked away in their undies, and came back one hour later with 7 or 8 fishes!!
The night in our stretchers was tough! It was the most uncomfortable bed we’d had. Sleeping on the floor would probably have been better! We were greeted by Pahn in the morning who told us that him and the other guides had been freezing because they had only one blanket each (we had 2 each as agreed when we booked the tour). It made us feel pretty bad and guilty but at the same time we though it was strange they weren’t more prepare if they knew how cold it could be at night… Pahn almost didn’t speak to us the whole morning while he was preparing breakfast and lunch. Maybe it was because he didn’t sleep well, or maybe it was because some hunter had come around the camp at night and stole half of their fishes, 2 packs of noodles and drank half of the whisky bottle… (although between us, we are not really sure if the hunter story was true or something they told us to cover up the fact they had an early breakfast before we woke up…) Anyhow, when we left the camp crossing the river, leaving our boatman and local guide behind, his good mood returned!
The third day was by far the most challenging trekking day and also the one we preferred. We went up and down the high mountains of Nam Ha, walking through amazing bamboo forests with little breaks. We walked all in all for about 6 hours which was tough given the little sleep we had had in the last two nights. The more we approached the end of the trek, the happier Pahn seemed to be… He was singing, joking, playing games with us. The last bit of walking was through deep vegetation and down a dried out river. Our knees were a little shaky at this point but finally we reached the larger river again and on the other side was the road! It was one final boat crossing, 2 by 2, before we jumped in the tuk tuk that brought us back to Luang Namtha.
The shower we had back at the hotel could have felt like heaven if it hadn’t been cold!! (it was a solar shower but there had been no sun in the last two days!). The 6 of us all met again that evening to have dinner together, a well deserved pizza, and we had a good laugh thinking back on our experience. The next day, we were all heading to Thailand so we decided to meet in the morning and make the journey together.
All in all, it is a bit of a mixed feeling we have of this jungle experience. The agency did a great job coordinating everything (water supplies, blankets (expect for the guides)…), food was very good every time (although by the third day all we could think of was to eat something different from sticky rice) and the landscape was beautiful as promised. Unfortunately we were all a little affected by the mood swings of our guide and his attitude toward us, and the reluctance in helping us connect with the local villagers. But we were a solid group which helped us get through it and have a laugh about most situation!