Walking in a not so well protected area

Our minibus to Luang Namtha was full but not crowded and actually left 10min early. The van was in good nick but the driver was definitely in the wrong vehicle. He whizzed around corners and other vehicles as if he was on a scooter or in a ralley car. He did not seem to understand the concept of breaking early before bends and waiting with the accelleration until the end of a bend. The fact that once we hit the mountains there was never more than 300m of straight road in one piece made everybody on board stop their conversation and stare out the window trying not to get sick. Matthias with his motion sickness failed first; about one hour into the journey and then a second time another hour later. He was not the only one though. At least the driver had a pack of plastic bags handy. We wonder why….

When the bus finally pulled into the bus station 9km south of Luang Namtha center we all breathed a big sigh of relief and jumped out. Getting into town by tuk-tuk costs 10,000 Kip if there are a few people sharing. In the center we found a decent enough room a conveniently located hotel and went on to booking a trekking tour. Our friend Christina had recommended a company called The Hiker. We had also shortlisted Green Discovery based on their offerings and quality of web content. Just as we sat to talk about the tour option with The Hiker some of our bus companions turned up and enquired about the same. With our names on the waiting list we went for dinner to calm down our recovering stomachs. Afterwards we returned to finalise the booking. It turned out the others wanted to do the same tour as us and one solo traveler had joimed us making it a nice group six which meant cheaper prices all round.

The next morning we all met at the tour office at 9am where we met our guides and left unnecessary luggage. Our first stop was the morning market for our guides to buy provisions for the three day trek. We strolled around the market trying to guess the name of vegetables, mentally re-assembling animals in the butchers’ section and seeing chicken being slowly strangled to death on a pole instead of being killed quickly. One of us reconned this made more blood go into the feet, which are common on BBQ stalls but all definitely knew was the lack of animal welfare.

After a half an hour drive we stopped in a small village. First things first we had to back six liters of water and two sleeping bags. Reinforced by a local guide who helped carrying our lunch we set out walking through rice paddies. Our guide explained to us the slash-and-burn agriculture used for the rice fields on hills and the near-slavery like rubber production which we had noticed along the way. First the Chinese built a rubber plant and invested money in local communities getting people to start planting rubber trees. Once everything was going well, they reduced the prices and now people get only 5000 Kip per kilo. For comparison: a goat fetches around 800,000.

A nice and flat walk through rice paddies

It was not long before we hit the first incline and things became hot and sweaty and we slowed down quite a bit. After roughly one hour of climbing we reached our lunch spot on top of a hill. It came with a sheltered table and a great view. Our guide set to work immediately chopping down banana leaves as table cloth and bamboo sticks for barbequing the fish they had bought in the market. Beside the fish we shared cooked beans, courgettes and a big bag of sticky rice. It was all very tasty and we were all really full at the end.

Most of the remaining walk of the afternoon was downhill and under trees which made it nicer than the open climbing in the morning. Our guide had told us about the hunting practise of the locals but we were still surprised and shocked by the regularity of gun shots in the forest. Basically the locals are still allowed to hunt (only for eating; not for selling) because that is what they did before the area was declared a national protected area although the possession of guns is illegal. Due to the size of the area and the forest the police is incapable of controlling it properly. We also saw black nets between posts to catch birds and bats (which is also illegal) and came across quite a few cold fire spots were people had grilled whatever they had shot. We enjoyed our walk through the always changing vegetation of the forest and the singing of birds but unsurprisingly we did not see any.

Our camp for the night was located in a clearing next to a stream and boasted two shelters for sleeping and a toilet hut (which turned out to be overflowing and unusable). We really enjoyed our jungle shower (a pipe in the stream creating a small waterfall) spent the remaining daylight hours chatting, relaxing and chopping up food for dinner. We had to wait quite a while but in the end our rumbling stomachs were rewarded for their endurance with a delicious tomato sauce, fried vegetables and fried pork plus of course sticky rice. There was loads and it was all yummy everyone was well satisfied when we sat around the fire. At this point our guide pulled out a bottle of lao lao, the ubiquious and infamous rice wine (or Lao whisky) and some barbequed buffalo fat. The lao lao was strong but without much flavour and the crunchy fat had a taste that required some getting used to. We had a good time telling stories, which kept getting interrupted by gunshots from the pitch black jungle. According to our guides they were hunting squirrels and rats, but we found it crazy that locals could see let alone kill an animal with hardly any light. Our guide never stopped joking about tiger hunting, but that became boring very quickly.

Joint chopping in the jungle

Eventually we all fell asleep with the sounds of the jungle tucked into our sleeping mats and protected by mosquito nets. Somewhat disappointingly our promised inflatable mattresses had been missed out somewhere, so our bedding consisted only of a layer of banana leaves on a raised wooden platform.

Our small jungle camp hidden in the forest

We were all quite stiff the next morning. After a breakfast of scrambled eggs (some smoked pork and beans for some) and sticky rice we got ready and marched on. Our guides had overslept a little so we ended up leaving an hour later than planned.

Todays’ path was very undulating and led us a over and around hills. It was quite narrow which made walking along hillsides a bit tricky. At least everything was dry so nobody slipped or fell. One stretch led us up a stream over what would be a fairly sizeable cascade during rainy season. We all made it safely to the top where we stopped for lunch. We loved the fried beans with the smoked pork. Our second guide had made bamboo chopsticks for all of us, but we found it easier to eat with our fingers mainly because the sticky rice was too sticky to break it up with sticks.

Safety in numbers

We had another two hours to walk including some more steep inclines and descends but we managed them all well. One of the Belgians was a bit slow up the hills but always caught up soon after and we always waited at the top. One problem with walking in a forest of any type is that you hardly find a spot to look out over it. Just before our last descend into the village, our guide showed us one such spot to give us a better feel for the size of the jungle. Our last descend was on a small road/pretty wide path and therefore the easiest part of the walk so far. We could hear the village before we could see it. Somebody had a party and the music was pretty loud. It turned out to be part of a wedding celebration. The parents of the groom had come to pay for the bride and it seemed as if half the village was drunk before dinner time.

Our picturesque village for the night

At the edge our guide gave us a brief introduction about the village. He gave us two option in terms of accommodation: we could stay with a family, experience the real village life first hand but we would have to get up early. With this all the money would go to this family. The second option was the village’s eco-lodge/guest house. In there we might have to share with other tourists, but could sleep longer and the money would go to the village fund which is accessible by all 45 families (only 17 offer homestays). People use this money as interest free credit in cases like paying medical bills or buying school uniforms. We all preferred the guest house, the idea of spreading our money and the prospect of longer sleep. As soon as this was settled and we had moved in we got changed and walked into the river to wash and refresh. There was a shallow entry but the opposite side was too deep for Matthias to stand. We washed of today’s sweat and played around practicing ditching stones. Afternoon was also bathing and washing time for the villagers and so we were joined by children and some women doing their washing. Our fellow hikers bought some beer in the shop and as soon as the river had cooled it down to a drinkable temperature we retired to our wooden hut overlooking the river. Later we helped again with dinner preparation. We were treated to another delicious candle light dinner with tomato sauce, fried vegetable and pumpkin soup. Oh, I almost forgot the sticky rice :). It was great to have a guide who was also a very good chef.

Enjoying thecommunal kitchen … and a cold beer

As the evening cooled down we relocated to our platform again around the fire and discussed travelling, travel plans and life in general.

On our last morning there was a bit of a disappointment for the non-egg eating among us. The fried bamboo was quite bitter and mixed with chopped up bits of chicken still with bones in them. Begrudgingly they were left with dry sticky rice. Thankfully two dogs were less picky and wolfed it all down in seconds. A local guide from the village lead us up the river through rice paddies, passion fruit fields and forest up the valley. During this walk we also had our first animal sighting when we watched a bussard-like bird slowly circle above the edge of the trees. It always kept a good safety distance just in case we would attempt to shoot it. It was another hot and very humid day so we walked slower and sweated more. Thankfully the steep ascends were shaded by trees and thus manageable.

Ted joint us for lunch

Our last lunch together among the trees was also our least exciting. More bitter bamboo and bony chicken, cooked and mashed up banana flowers and deep fried pork skin (imagine crackling). Most of the chicken and bamboo ended up between the bushes and soon we were on our feet again. All were happy though that the food sacrifices before every meal (apart from breakfast; even spirits seem to need lie-ins) seemed to have calmed the spirits of the forest and they let us pass safely.

One of two very impressive trees

From then we only walked downhill. Along the path we found the biggest and most impressive trees to date which started an imprompto photo shooting. In some places locals had cleared young trees and planted cardamom. Growing spices seemed to be quite profitable with prices of 80,000 Kip/kilo but also very hard work. Following a little stream down the bottom of the valley we were forced to be more vigilant and careful while walking through mud and over slippery rocks. Zoë slipped once but only got muddy trousers. Much quicker than expected we left the forest and found a minivan waiting for us on the road. The driver welcomed us with freezing cold water from the ice box and soon hushed us inside for our drive back to Luang Namtha.

By this point we could not wait to step under a hot shower and put on some clean clothes. Relaxed and refreshed we crossed the road to the small night market in search for anything but rice. This national stable is fine, but after three days we definitely fancied a change.

We enjoyed our three day ‘Wild thrills trek’, but not quite as much as we thought we would. We had hoped for a more original jungle and less of a managed-looking forest. Most of it is not really managed, but there is too much going on the forest for it to be real jungle (like banana or cardamom fields). Same applies to wildlife. Thanks to all the hunting and traffic (walkers) in the forest animals have become rather shy. There is definitely a reason why all the animal photos we saw on posters were taken by camera traps.

The company was good, apart from the lack of the promised air mattresses. We appreciated the information about how much of our money actually goes to the communities and local projects. Food was plenty and most of it delicious. Our guides looked after us well and told us a lot of things about the local people and the area. We missed the promised tour around the village which ended up being a brief stop next to the school building on the way out. Maybe that was due to our delayed start but an actual tour would have been appreciated. Those of us who had run out of water had to buy new bottles in the village instead of receiving boiled water from our guides as we were told in the office. Be it laziness or trying to give the locals some business we don’t know but it is not what you expect when it says water is included. Would we recommend it? Yes, but be realistic with your expectations.

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