Exhausting Luang Nam Tha

Trip Start Jan 03, 2012
Trip End May 02, 2013

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Where I stayed
Khamking Guesthouse

Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Tuesday, March 27, 2012

We took the same style boat downriver from Muang Ngoi Neua to Nong Khiaw, followed by a sawngthaew to the bus station and arrived half an hour late for our connection to Luang Nam Tha. There was no need to worry though because in Lao time the bus doesn't leave until it's full and it can't be full until the tourist transportation arrives.  We hopped on what was probably the oldest and most uncomfortable minibus yet, but we were glad we got on early because the last couple of seats had hard backs and even less legroom.  The locals had stuffed bags full of goods under most of the seats.  If that wasn't enough, the first few hours of the journey covered the most brutal road we'd been on yet.  The pace was unbelievably slow as we snaked along avoiding huge potholes and precipitous drop-offs.

Somehow we made it to Udomxai in reasonably good time, unloaded and went to the ticket window to book the onward bus. The ticket lady went outside to chat with our previous driver, and then he asked us to pay more than the posted price for him to take us through to Luang Nam Tha.  After some short but tense negotiations Jason talked him down to half way between the asking and posted rate for the whole busload.  We were glad we didn't have to spend the night in Udomxai because it is a town without much to see or do, mainly inhabited by Chinese road workers building highways in northern Lao.

Not surprisingly then, phase two was a fast, winding and perfectly paved road, better than most two-lane highways back home.  The shocking part is that the Lao people can handle bumps, but not speed, as became evident from them alternating vomiting out both sides of the minibus on that segment of the journey.  We came within 20 km of the Chinese border and a mere 50 km from the mystique of Myanmar.

We arrived at the bus station outside of town earlier than expected, but still in the dark with surprisingly no tuk-tuks around.  A brand new Hyundai minivan came out of nowhere and offered to take us into town. We quickly found a good guesthouse and unloaded our gear.  We had a wonderful family-style Lao meal with another Canadian couple from the same bus.

The next morning we lounged for a while before venturing out to find an adventure company that had what we wanted.  We found one called Forest Retreat Laos co-run by a couple from New Zealand (Karen and Andrej) and their Lao tour guide partner Thong.  We also patronized their restaurant and had a decidedly delectable mushroom basil risotto and pasta carbonara.  After lunch we signed up for a one day trekking and one day kayaking tour with the overnight to be spent in a jungle camp.  These tours tend to be pricey so we hoped more people would join to cut the costs.

In the afternoon we rented mountain bikes and rode out toward a waterfall that we knew would have very little water in the dry season.  We passed through a few villages along the way and were once again amazed by how simply some people live and in such close proximity to animals.  We saw a freshly slaughtered pig being cleaned in the same river where women were making paper and children bathed.  An elder Canadian on a motorbike (also named Jason) asked Jason to take a few photos of him in some gear Eddie Bauer had given him.  We have met more fellow Canadians in Lao than anywhere else so far but this was the strangest encounter to date.

The path split into four with one leading to the waterfall, one up a steep slope, one up a gentler slope but strewn with sharp rocks and one leading out to the rice fields.  We chose the single track to the rice fields and rode only a short way before encountering too many obstacles and a farmer coming the other way with water buffalo and cattle in tow.

We cycled back to a paved road and then on to another village connected to town by a bamboo bridge.  Locals on motorbikes crossed with ease but neither one of us was brave enough to bike over the many holes so we walked.  An odd-looking four-wheeled vehicle (called a tak-tak) came by and being too big for the bridge simply forded the river.  On the way back through town we saw the tour operator who gave us the good news that others had joined our group.

We had cheap and tasty noodle soup for dinner in the night market and perused the shoe shop run by a couple of lady boys.  Jason crashed while Sylvia stayed up to check a few lingering internet items off of her list.

Our first trekking day began with meeting our group of six over breakfast.  Besides us there was a French couple and a German couple.  As soon as we drove off, the skies opened up and the rain began to fall. We'd discussed bringing our rain gear and foolishly agreed not to... how could it rain in the dry season?  It fell harder, then tapered off slightly as we arrived at the village where our trek would truly begin.

The rain stopped just before we crossed the Nam Ha River by Lao canoe and officially entered the National Protected Area bearing the same name.  Holding nothing back, the trail immediately climbed steeply up a slippery slope and the altimeter on Jason's watch measured the ascent in hundreds of metres.  We hiked through primarily bamboo forest and many tall trees forming the canopy.  Our guides showed us cardamom plants and fed us galangal and rattan.  Unfortunately there was no wildlife to be seen and only the sound of birds.  In a small clearing near the top our guides spread some giant ferns and banana leaves for us to sit and dine on.  Lunch consisted of bananas, omelettes, sticky rice, tomato stew and green beans with chicken, all eaten communally with our hands.  It went down well after all our hard work.

Shortly after restarting we came to a fork in the trail and were given the option of a short or long afternoon hike.  As a group we chose the shorter trail and descended to the camp.  After a quick break on a bamboo bench we descended further to a bamboo shower beside a small waterfall.  Sylvia dipped her feet and Jason put his head under the cool deluge.

Back at the camp our guides began preparing dinner.  They had carried in fairly small packs so it was amazing to see all the food they'd brought.  Sylvia helped out by chopping garlic and vegetables.  A banana tree was felled for its coveted flower and a big bamboo stalk was retrieved to make a soup pot and serving dish.  The meal slowly came together over three open fires and included sticky rice, chicken with herbs, stewed tomatoes and eggplant, rattan and banana flower soup.  We lapped it up on a bamboo thatch mat outside as daylight darkened into night.

While the guides cleaned up, Sylvia collected bamboo to burn and Jason tended the fire.  Then it was time for some lao lao (rice whiskey).  We downed a few shots from a bamboo 'glass' and it kicked in promptly.  We went to bed early, two at a time, eight of us in the same room.  Falling asleep proved to be a challenge as we listened to the sounds of nature and unfamiliar breathing patterns.  In the middle of the night the forest fell silent.  It was the calm before the storm as shortly thereafter a brief but powerful thunderstorm rumbled overhead.  Raindrops fell but were unable to penetrate our home for the night.

Our guides rose early to prepare breakfast.  They made bamboo mugs for our tea and we enjoyed omelettes with sticky rice.  On the hike down to the river we parted ways with one of the guides.  At the confluence of the Nam Ha and Nam Tha Rivers our inflatable kayak awaited.  Being less stable than their hard-body cousins, it took some getting used to but we eventually got the hang of it.  We kept pace with the French while the inexperienced Germans, unable to keep their boat straight and frequently getting moored on exposed rocks, lagged behind. 

Two stops at different ethnic minority villages broke up the journey downriver.  We had brought along children's books and shampoo which we gave to the chiefs to share.  One lady who was weaving told our guide that she thought Sylvia looked Laotian.

Between villages we also paused for lunch on the riverbank.  It was prepared by our guides at breakfast time and similar to the previous day we ate family-style on banana leaves.  As afternoon wore on and Jason's body ached we wondered how much longer we would be on the water.  Our guide told us it would take about four hours to paddle the 17 km route but the Canadian boat finished first in just under six.  As the minivan was loaded we watched a tiny market in action, selling all the fixings for Lao meals including barbecued rats and squirrels.  The sign near the van read 41 km back to Luang Nam Tha.

About 15 km in we encountered roadwork that we could not get through.  They told us it would be a two to three hour wait.  Darkness came on quickly and the Lao radio music had no chance of dampening our frustration.  Still wet from paddling we all sat in the van tired, hungry and smelly.

As time dragged on, the Lao music continued to amplify our silent aggravation.  Jason seized an opportunity to shut it off when the driver and guide went out for another update on the road closure.  He also managed to change clothes in the van to get dry things on.  After three hours had passed the driver fired up the engine and we lurched forward over the new roughly packed dirt road.  We stopped again in under a minute amid a few sighs of displeasure.  This happened two more times and after sitting at the third stop for a few minutes the minivan door slid open and the Lao tour operator and a few of his staff stood outside with bananas, baguettes and water for all of us.  Our rescue had become a reality.

The road was still blocked for a short distance ahead so they suggested that we walk to their minivan on the other side of the closure.  Guided by the bright lights from the workers' trucks, we trudged through the loose soil in our wet sandals.  We had to backtrack when the backhoe came toward us to smooth the path.  Bruno the Frenchman commented that it was like a science fiction movie and it certainly felt like we were in one.

Finally reaching the rescue van we got in and one of the staff made a feeble attempt to teach us a Lao love song.  The main man Thong called the New Zealand couple and Sylvia let them know that we were all okay.  Apparently they'd been worrying about us all evening but with no cell phone reception where we were they had no way of communicating with our guide.  They offered to make us dinner and we all accepted.  Beer, spaghetti and knowing we would sleep in a bed instead of a minibus lifted our spirits.  Resigned to the fact that we'd be spending an extra day in Lao, it was well past midnight by the time we tucked ourselves in.

We slept in late to catch up and recuperate.  Our afternoon stroll took us to another market where we saw all sorts of live, dead and cooked animals on display.  Across town we climbed a freshly laid gravel road to the shiny and new That Luang Nam Tha stupa.  One last trip to the night market and we were ready, though somewhat sad, to leave Lao for Thailand the next morning.
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Roz on

loved your photos..really awesome

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