Ron Perrier, a Canadian who is travelling the world, recently made his way to Luang Namtha in northern Laos, the starting point for the “trekking mecca of Southeast Asia”.
The border crossing from Chiang Khong, Thailand into Laos changed on the day I crossed. Instead of crossing the Mekong River by boat, the route changed to the New Bridge several kilometers south. After paying the $42 fee (Canadians pay more than any other country), I ended up in a money-exchange line full of 30 people belonging to a travel group. I’ve never quite figured out why anyone would want to travel in this way, but I guess they don’t mind paying significantly more to have their entire trip completely organized. It certainly removes the adventure and uncertainty from ones trip.
I made it to the bus depot in Huay Xai in time to catch the bus northeast to Luang Namtha to do some trekking. Trekking in the Nam Ha National Protected Area in northern Laos has almost mythical status with the backpacker crowd.
Instead of the usual 4 hours, our crazy driver had a death wish and made it in three on the windy, mountainous road. Fortunately the road was excellent as China has spent considerable money improving transportation infrastructure in Laos.
Many trekking companies line the main drag in Luang Namtha and I found it difficult to judge the offerings. Each company has its own trail offering one to three-day walking options with jungle camping, homestays and the possibility of kayaking mixed in.
As a single, I needed to find a group to join and finally found a three-day trek with two others. The first day was auspiciously Friday the thirteenth. I don’t believe in superstitions like this, but was wondering how things would turn out after it rained heavily all night.
The trail had several trees fallen across it and the downhill sections were incredibly treacherous with no cut steps. We all fell several times, getting covered with mud and I wrenched different parts of my body. Amazingly the guides with their simple plastic shoes and no socks seemed to have no problems.
After crossing a small creek several times, we finally reached our jungle camp, which was a simple lean-to with a banana leaf roof and floor. The guide cut down a small forest of banana trees to get leaves to completely reinforce the roof and floor. And this was supposed to be an ecotrek!
It was dark at 5:30pm and raining. We had supper and were in our sleeping bags by seven. With no ground sheet, little pools of water started to collect under me and I put my rain jacket under my sleeping bag to try to keep dry.
The rain was incessantly heavy and while the roof worked, the floor didn’t. By 2:00am my sleeping bag was soaked because of the never-ending stream of water. Down loses most of its insulating value when wet and I was cold by 4:00am. It was the most uncomfortable sleeping experience of my life and it could have been prevented with a simple sheet of plastic.
In the morning the guide was able to get a fire going for a hot breakfast of sticky rice and scrambled eggs. The three of us had a difficult time convincing him that the trek had to be abandoned as everything we had was wet. We basically returned the way we came, now wading through the swollen, chocolate brown creek. The rain had stopped and we able to rinse all the mud from our packs and shoes in a stream at the end of the walking.
The saving graces of the trip were the excellent guide, who prepared superb meals and was able to start a fire miraculously with all the wet wood, and my two hiking companions, a lovely Australian/Dutch couple. One of the draws to a jungle trek is the possibility of seeing wildlife. We saw none other than a fresh water crab the guide let loose in our sleeping area not to be found again, and fireflies.
Back in Luang Namtha, it was sunny and I was able to hang all my wet gear to dry before sending it to the laundry (they charge by weight and it would have cost a fortune). No money was refunded for the trek and I was unable to convince the tour operator about his negligence in at least advising us to bring a groundsheet of some kind. He did take my sleeping bag home to put in his drier.
After sleeping a full 12 hours that night, an unheard of amount for me, I took the whole day off to read, watch TV and write my blog. It rained cats and dogs all day.
The next day I met a Spanish couple that had done this trip in reverse. After a night in a dry hut in a village, they spent their next night in our jungle camp with an identical experience. Unbelievably, they had a worse time than us. We were to meet them on the trail between the jungle camp and village and give them our pot to cook with. Besides getting completely soaked, they had no warm food other than some frogs and a crayfish that were cooked directly over the fire. We had a good laugh. These unbelievably bad travel adventures are the ones you always remember and are often the ones you talk about with other travelers.
Luang Namtha has a pack of old, very short women dressed in traditional garb of some ethnic group. They accost every tourist at every opportunity, trying to sell jewelry, and don’t take “no thank you” for an answer. They also sell opium and marijuana. They hang around forever and can be incredible pests. This may sound rude, but the only effective way to deal with them is to simply ignore them. They also hang around the night market and mooch food from tourists. They will even take your chicken bones and pick them clean!
As I had no desire to trek again (and there is little else to do in Luang Namtha), I caught the public day bus south to my next destination Luang Prabang. The bus left an hour and half late, and after changing tires and getting gas, we were guaranteed to arrive in the dark after the 10-hour ride. The entire trip was through mountainous terrain. The initial road was as good as any at home (due to the Chinese influence in the north), but soon lost its shoulders. Eventually it narrowed to less than two lanes and then there was more dirt than pavement, but not many potholes. We went over a mountain pass and eventually on the way down, full pavement returned.
Most of the forest was logged. Tiny collections of farmhouses butt right on the road. Built of wood with often thatch roofs, many are raised off the ground on stilts. They show the abject poverty of rural Laos. Backed by steep ravines, the kids play next to the road – I saw a three-year-old girl standing right next to the pavement playing with a small machete. Again it was cold and I wore a long sleeve top, light fleece and jacket to be comfortable. We stopped occasionally for food. The open-air food stands often sold meat on wood skewers but I can’t imagine stuff less appetizing. Almost everyone settled for fruit and junk food.
Ron Perrier’s blog (www.ronperrier.net) has been edited and is published on “Riding the buses” with his permission.