Trip Start Jun 16, 2011
69Trip End Nov 10, 2011
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Where I stayed
In the jungle, in a tree
As I said earlier in the blog, I visited Green Discovery in Luang Prabang to see what I could do with them in Pakse. I then visited them in Pakse to see if there were open bookings for some activities. This is low season in Laos right now because of all the rain that is pouring on us... So there's not much planned ! The thing is, with Green Discovery, you can go on a trip with them on your own, but it's very expensive. So I gave him some options of trips I'd like to take, saying I would not go if he couldn't find at least two other people.
The good news is... He called me the same evening to say he had found two other people for the Tree Top Experience (www.treetoplaos.com). I said I'd go for it. Departure planned Wednesday morning. What to take with you miss ? Clothes to get wet, clothes to be dry in the evening, lamp, mosquito repellent, sunscreen. Check, check, check.
On Wednesday morning, a very cute young man picks me up from my now favorite breakfast place (Bolaven Cafe). His name is Home and he'll be our tour leader for three days. He's 23 and he's going to prove himself absolutely fantastic throughout the trip. Home, you are the man !
We meet the rest of the people at Green Discovery. Three people are joining the trip : a young Dutch couple (Jasper and Anna) and a Polish guy, Piotr. There is also Phan (pronounce Pan) who is a trainee guide and who will prove equally adorable as Home, although, of course, less experienced.
At around 9 am, we hit the road. There is a one hour drive on the main asphalt road followed by a 40-minute dirt road to the village. When we get there we meet our tree top local guides from the village : Ton and Zom (whom I will soon rename Bruce Lee and I am afraid this new nickname will stay with him for ever and ever now...)
They give us our equipment : harness, pulley, the stuff that I don't know the name of (carabiner linked to big elastic ropes, attached to the harness) and explain to us how to wear it. And off we go. It's around 11:00 am.
The first stage is smooth : a nice 30 minute hike in the countryside from the village to reach the jungle. There is no brutal transition : the coffee plantations slowly become more crowded with other kinds of trees and suddenly the jungle is here or let's rather say we are in it. As soon as we departed, they warned us about leeches. They do not have water leeches but land ones, small leeches but quick and tenacious :-) I don't bother too much and start walking. Hahaha. Poor me.
After we reach the jungle, we begin trekking in it, for more or less an hour. Here the difficulties start - a bit - for me. It's not a smooth mostly flat walk through the plantations anymore. Now we are talking steep, wet and narrow paths inside the jungle, going above fallen trees, avoiding roots and branches (we wear a helmet and very soon I knew why...).
Then we stop for lunch by a lovely river and around an open area. Lovely. I take out my sandals because both my sandals and my feet are already full of mud and... HAAAAAA ! I have three leeches on me. Two on my right foot (including a HUGE one, even the guides go "wow, big one !") and one on my left leg, a bit above the ankle. YUK ! The immediate reflex is to take them out with your hands but then you think and remember you shouldn't do that... Home takes mosquito repellent and sprays them. Immediately they let go, fall down (and die) and loads of blood start to pour from the wound. I am not joking : loads of blood. And it won't stop dripping for two hours (on the big one). Indeed, leeches inject an anti-coagulant chemical into you so that the blood doesn't stop running... Yummy. Have a nice lunch now everyone :-) I still cannot believe that you actually feel NOTHING. Not when they jump on you, not when they bite and not when they eat you alive. You feel absolutely nothing ! Not even an itch. Oh well. Leeches will soon be the least of my concerns.
Indeed, right after lunch we start walking again. Another two hour hike through the jungle maze and, when I am already starting to suffer (just a bit), I can see our local guides walking in poor condition "converse" shoes and jump all over like I am walking a Paris street, while we, foreigners, have those anti-slippery shoes with which we still slip... Yeah, I know, they were born here, but still !!
After that nice afternoon walk (!!!) - keep in mind I am as fit as a bear in captivity after hibernation, maybe even less - we reach our first zipline (tyrolienne). There I think : "Nadege, why the hell did you pick this trip ? Are you crazy ??". Even though the first zipline is tiny (20 meters long), I am shitting myself. Basically you attach your pulley to the cable and throw yourself into the air. Then you zip along the cable to the other platform... I know those cable are super solid, I know the pulley and your harness are designed to carry up to 3 tons. But still. It's the same kind of stupid thing as bungee jumping or skydiving that I said I would never never ever do, even if you paid me... So why am I here ? Don't ask me, I don't know. I didn't think forward when I booked. That's it.
First zipline then. I am letting everyone go before me... I am the last to leave, before the last guide, Home, who is here to reassure me and tell me how easy and fun it is. And you know what ? It actually is. Went like a dream.
Second zipline right after, 80m. Great. Third, fourth, fifth, sixth ! 250m ! Wow ! And you don't know what we zip through : in front of giant and magnificent waterfalls surrounded by the amazing jungle, view of the Mekong far away. Wow, wow, wow ! Not even in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would be so excited, smiling, HAPPY to be in such a wet, tough environment and loving every second of it ! I am doing all of this for the first time in my life and it is fantastic !
Oh. Did I mention the abseiling (descente en rappel) ? No, I didn't think so. Indeed, some of the platforms are high up in the trees and we need to get down with abseiling... Scaryyyyyyy ! That's the scariest part for me, even though it's in no way real abseiling since they basically get you down there. They handle the ropes not you. Two guides down and two up with you. They do abseiling, not you :-) but it is still scary to know you are going down 30 meters along a rope and you control nothing.
After 8 ziplines we reach camp. Now wow again. The camp is located near this huge waterfall (from which they get electricity), everything is built in the trees, from the trees. A bit of furniture and a FRIDGE have been brought by the same guys who are accompanying us, by foot. Yes. Now you understand the price of the trip better (I paid 240 USD for three days. It's worth every dime). In the middle of the main building, a fireplace. Along the main building, the waterfall view. Wow. I am thrilled. They show us our tree houses. Yes. We sleep in tree houses, like Tarzan. And you know what ? There are TOILETS in the houses. And you know something else ? You cannot climb in the tree, you take a small zipline to get there :-)))) The showers are in another location, shared by everyone.
We are all as dirty as it gets so we take showers, only for me to notice that my trousers are full of blood at thigh level on the right leg... Yup, a leech managed to reach my upper thigh and had a fest on my blood without me noticing. When it had enough, it left and I bled, again without noticing, my trousers already being wet with mud and water... Welcome to the jungle ! :-)
Water is cold in the showers... It comes directly from the waterfall ! But it feels great and I am feeling a bit sore, a bit everywhere... Oh well.
We all end up around the fire, commenting this first day and soon after our dinner is ready. We have a delicious meal. The surroundings are magic : a big waterfall very close to us which creates not only noise but also a constant cloud of moist, the fire in the middle of the room, some lights and therefore the visit of all kinds of insects :-))) ooh, now I see the faces of some of you... Yes, spiders, giant night butterflies, crickets, millipedes, you name it !
At around 9 pm, we all go to bed, slightly tired. I share a treehouse with Piotr. We have a simple mattress (but quite Ok actually !) on the floor, a sleeping bag (you need it, it's not that hot close to the waterfall...) and a mosquito net (you also need it... And not so much for the mosquitoes... Many other insects like to visit, including some very nice meaty spiders). We fall asleep quite rapidly...
In the morning, the first thing I notice is... My body hurts everywhere !! Ouch ! How am I going to hike and zipline today ?? And then the first thing I need to do is actually jump into my harness to zipline to camp... Oh my god. I can tell you that doing this first thing in the morning is not that obvious. I remember clearly saying "I am way too old for that shit !!"... But I still did it.
Good breakfast and off we go, despite my muscles screaming. I was offered the relax option for the day, which I took, unlike my three other friends. They went for the full Monty : three hours of additional trekking when I would rather relax by another waterfall. I am glad I did. The day was difficult for me. And this is an understatement : it was VERY difficult. We walked for an hour in the jungle (meaning ups and downs all the time) before we reached the first zipline. Then a second, if I remember well and... The biggest zipline in South East Asia : 450 meters ! It was awesome !!! After all this, when my friends went hiking up and down in the jungle again, I headed for the waterfall, which was still at least half an hour away. Bear in mind it did not stop raining for the whole day ! By that stage, I was completely soaked. When we reached the waterfall, we took cover under a huge rock and waited... Waited... Waited. I couldn't even go swimming because the waterfall was too strong, way too strong !
We had lunch there... Oh yes, I loved this : when Phan asked me if we should eat, I saw the guys were just freezing cold and hungry (it was 20 something so obviously very cold for Lao people, hehehe). So when I said yes (I was not hungry at all...), he said something to Bruce Lee who got up and headed for the jungle. Before i could realize what he was going to do, I saw him pick up some big banana leaves ! Yes ! He was actually picking up the tablecloth :-))) during that picnic I managed to taste this edible furnace that I had seen on the markets in Laos. It's excellent ! I had seen Bruce Lee pick some up I the jungle on one of my numerous breaks to catch my breath... I had no idea this was going to be part of our lunch :-)
After an hour or so, we begin our way back to the camp. And there, honestly, I was completely exhausted. It took us two and a half hours to get back. At some stage I sat down in the jungle and started crying : I could not go any further. My two Lao guys were looking at me with such sad faces ! They knew I did what I could, they knew I was completely dead and there was nothing they could do for me. And there it hit me : what am I going to do ? Sleep here ? No Nadege, you don't have a choice... You need to get back to camp ! THERE IS NO OTHER CHOICE. Wow. So i got up. One step after the other. Again. One more. I am screaming inside myself : IT IS RIDICULOUS HOW UNFIT YOU ARE ! SHAME ON YOU ! I was furious after myself. I could not believe that I was actually suffering that much and at the same time I could not believe that I was still walking. At that stage, every step was painful. Painful for my body first, clearly, I could not feel my legs, they were shaking with exhaustion, I was soaked, the rain would not stop. But also so painful for my mind. An internal fight was going on. A part of me was shouting at the other, insulting it, telling it how ridiculous I was, how ashamed of myself I should be, how much of a wake up call that was, how all this physical condition needed to change. And it went on like this, step after step, shaking like a leaf, soaking wet.
I reached camp, changed my clothes and sat by the fire. At that stage, seating and getting up is excruciating. Walking brings tears to my eyes, lifting my arms is impossible and my lower back hurts like hell. After a good shower, an equally good dinner and a cigarette, I go to bed at ... 7 pm !! Taking this last zipline to go to the treehouse and the action of getting into my sleeping bag actually makes me cry it hurts so much. Now I am really worried. The thing is, I don't know if I will be able to WALK the next day... And the problem is... There is no other way out of this jungle than by walking. And the program of the next day is quite heavy. I try and sleep. And I do. Until 8 the next morning... The only thing is I woke up around 20 times in the night : every time I moved, the pain of the movement woke me up...
The next morning, getting out of bed makes me believe I am in hell. I can barely walk. Getting on the zipline hurts my back, my legs and my arms. When I reach camp for breakfast, I am walking like a zombie. Despite this, I can still walk and therefore I am less in a panic than the night before. I get dressed, in my dirty clothes I have been already wearing for two days and which are barely dry from the day before... Imagine the smell :-)
At around 10, we leave. My guides, who are really feeling sorry for me, carry my backpack ! And there we go again : one hour of hiking up in the steep path in the jungle. My legs start shaking again after 5 minutes. I have to stop every 2 minutes to let them relax a bit. Bruce Lee and Phan are so patient, so lovely, so smiling and supportive, it's amazing. How many times did i hear "Nanou ? You want to relax for a minute ? Take your time !". How many times did i actually say : "Kop Tchai lay lay" (thank you very much) for their help only to hear back, with a beautiful smile "Bo peniang !". They held my hands to help me every step of the way. Honestly, had this been in Vietnam, they would have left me there or just laughed at me. In Laos, those people are the nicest I have met so far. Absolutely adorable, genuinely caring. Amazing.
After this steep walk, we get to... the Via Ferrata. Check google to find out what is is. So yes, I climbed against that huge rock, going up around 30 meters, shit scared but managing... Once up there, I fell into tears. Tears of exhaustion. Tears of joy too : I did it !! I know i still have another three hours of walking to do but this was my biggest fear. Slowly, little by little, step by step, I eventually made it back to the village where the minivan was waiting for us. I arrived last, about 10 minutes after the main group and they welcomed me with applause. Jasper told me that he was equally worried the night before, afraid I might not be able to do it, considering the state of fatigue I was in.
In the minivan I fell asleep nearly immediately. My body was pain personified. I was exhausted but happy, so happy ! I still cannot believe I did it ! Again, this would be, for some of you, a nice activity for three days, not suffering much. For me, it was the most difficult expedition of my life.
Wake up call. I have to get fit. I have to do some sports and lose some weight. No more excuses... I went beyond my limits, fighting my perverse mind which was feeding me with discouragement all the way. The fact that I couldn't go back or just give up was key to succeeding this. Honestly, if I could have stopped, I would have. But now I am so happy I did it...
And again, I am so grateful towards the whole Lao team. These people are amazing. Sweet as it gets, always smiling, making sure you are having a great time. When i ran out of cigarettes, one of them actually gave me a pack. He wouldn't hear anything about money... He looked even a bit vexed that I asked him how much it was ! I am going to miss these people.
I booked myself into a very nice hotel where I could get a hot bath. I went to bed early, appreciating the soft sheets, the comfort of the room. Wow. What an experience. Next is the purchase of real hiking shoes and looking for nice treks to do in Thailand. Thanks to Kami I have some leads... More soon !