To anyone heading to Laos I would highly recommend paying a visit to the small town of Luang Namtha, whisking yourself down to the Green Discovery office at the end of the road and booking yourself a three day trek through the jungle.
It was three of the best days of my entire trip, and the relief I felt to be away from the hoards of day-drinking British tourists is quite indescribable.
I was terrified before my trek. It was perhaps my first time doing anything truly alone, Plus, as much as I hate to admit it, I don’t actually really like walking.
But, like most fears, once you face them,they generally work out alright, and, aside from our guide asking me whilst in our two person kayak if I would like to share a hotel room with him that night, those three days were incredible and it’s hard to write about it now without desperately searching the web to find the next available flight to Vientiane.
Our first meal sat on the jungle floor consisted of pigs liver, fish heads, sticky rice and green vegetables. It was one of those ‘lay out a bamboo leaf, dump all the food on it and use your fingers’ jobs which took a while to get used to, but after 3 days of trekking I wasn’t bothered. Even now my standards for food hygiene are a lot lower (the 10 second rule has definitely increased to 30). Needless to say, Clara, Pen and I all avoided the fish heads and pigs liver (it was day 1 and I had a good breakfast) but our guide (whose name was Air) didn’t seem to mind and so ate it all himself.
We carried on trekking through the jungle until we reached the minority village we were staying in that night. Each minority village has it’s own language, so my crash course in Lao the night before was pointless. It was great to walk around the village and see the kids playing and the chickens and pigs wandering around. They are entirely self sufficient, which, as cliche as it sounds, made me realise that I probably don’t actually need 3 pairs of topshop ankle boots, and I should probably put my money towards better things.
Pretty much as soon as we arrived in the village (I wish I could remember the name of it), we were followed around by the women and children who were trying to sell us their bracelets. We tried to do it systematically, so that we bought something from each of them, but there were a lot of women and children and only 3 of us, but between us I think we managed, ‘I’ll buy this bracelet for my sister, this one for my third cousin twice removed, I’ll mail these ones over to Cananda for my relatives tbere’ etc.
That evening we went for a lovely swim in the most peaceful river I’ve ever been in. I’m going to hunt down some photos, but I remember even as I took it thinking ‘I’m never going to capture how perfect this is’. So you will just have to take my word for it, it was perfect.
Air cooked us a lovely dinner, I can’t remember what it was exactly but I know it involved, like all our jungle meals, a mountain of sticky rice each. Now I love sticky rice, but having an enormous lump of it 3 times a day for 3 days does get a bit much, for our last meal in the jungle I passed on the sticky rice, fearing it would clump together in my stomach and never ever leave.
The next day or the trek was both the best and the worst. We had a breakfast of sticky rice and omelette, played with some of the village kids, and then set off once again into the jungle. Unfortunately there was a bit of an issue with water. For some reason the office hadn’t delivered us any bottled water, so the villagers very kindly took some water from the river, boiled it (and did something else with it to purify) then gave it to us in plastic bottles. The result of this was brown water which tasted like smoke. Actual smoke. It was probably the least hydrating thing I have ever drank. I’m sure I would have gotten used to it eventually, but when you’re trekking through the jungle and through rice paddies in 40 degree heat, it’s quite difficult to force down water which is not only warm, but also tastes like smoke, which is also warm.
The result of this was, I didn’t drink. I mean I drank some but not nearly enough. So, by the time we reached the village we were staying at for the night, I felt so ill I could barely walk. Unfortunately Pen felt the same so when Air introduced us to the family we were staying with (who were lovely) and told us to head upstairs to put our stuff down, we could barely even make it up the stairs. I know I do tend to exaggerate but as I collapsed down on the wooden floor unable to do anything I did genuinely think to myself ‘is this what death feels like? This is worse than the worst of all hangovers’. Air then suggested we go for a swim down in the river, to which I looked at Clara and Pen in horror. I wasn’t even capable of taking off my shirt to put on my swimming costume, let alone walking down to the river and actually swimming in it, ‘I’ll 100% drown if I have to go in that river’. But I figured I could do with a cool off, so after changing clothes, I dragged myself down the hill to the river and heaved myself into the lake.
I’m pretty sure Clara, Pen and I lay on our backs in about 8 inches of water for about 45 minutes without saying a word to each other. Air came down at the river and looked as us in surprise, ‘you should go to the deeper part where you can swim’. We tried to explain that we were physically incapable of supporting ourselves even in water. After about an hour of submerging ourselves in cold water and not moving, we felt well enough to walk back up the hill to our home stay where we sat and played cards.
Air came in a few minutes later to tell us that the office had delivered a tank of water for us, and woopee our near death experience was over! We all hugged eachother and laughed and cheered like crazy people. I think I might have actually shed a few happiness tears.
After filling our water bottles and rehydrating we explored the village, saying hello to all the locals, trying (and failing) to make the village dog like us, and sitting down to an amazing dinner of soup, vegetables and sticky rice with the family we were staying with, talking (via Air) about our life back home. It was honestly perfect and the villagers were just so friendly. I promise to never take anything for granted again, as most of them didn’t even have electricity let alone the stupid things I feel I need, such as a blowdryer or 4 Mac lipsticks.
That night we all slept amazingly, bar waking up a couple of times to hear Clara sleep talk in a combination of English and Danish. The next day was kayaking! This was probably the best day, mainly because I was a bit sick of walking. We had a huge breakfast of sticky rice and omelette, said goodbye to all the lovely villagers, triple checked we had enough water for the day, then set off in our kayaks! Clara and Pen went together which was both hilarious, as they couldn’t keep up and shouted at eachother a lot in Danish, and also an absolute disaster as it meant I was in a kayak with Air, quite far in front. This was bad for two reasons, firstly he took a LOT of breaks. I was sitting in front so he thought I wouldn’t notice. I did notice. Secondly he decided floating down the river in a kayak would be a good time to hit on me. This was most definitely not a good time to hit on me, and when I told him that I actually had a boyfriend back home in England, Air very kindly told me that my boyfriend would find a new English girl with white skin, not dark skin like mine (I was pretty tanned at this point, after 3 weeks of lying on a beach in Thailand), as English boys hate girls who are brown like me.
So that was a bit of a low point, but other than that he was an amazing guide, pointing out all the flowers and animals in the jungle, whilst also being our combined translator and chef. I know it sounds ridiculous that I’m saying all this, but honestly it was great, positive vibes and all that.
After having an amazing lunch with a local family on their farm (we gave the family our sticky rice and vegetables and they gave us some watermelon), we carried on kayaking for another hour and then we were done! I felt mainly relief to be out of the kayak but I really loved the trek and would honestly do it again in an instant.
So, we were all finished. Only thing left to do was pop up the hill and meet the van at the top, which Air assured us was an easy 2 minute walk, and said he would meet us up there.
This turned out to be the hardest part of the ENTIRE trek. The easy two minute walk turned out to be a sheer and muddy cliff face. We were drenched, covered in mud, sunburnt and exhausted. We heaved ourselves up the cliff, clutching our flip flops in one hand, our bags in the other, whilst desperately trying not to plunge to our death.
We finally reached the top, miraculously in one piece, where Air looked at us in surprise. It turns out we had gone the wrong way. Of course we had.
All in all, the trek was absolutely incredible and I wouldn’t change a thing (maybe a couple). I cannot recommend it enough, the villagers were so welcoming and it was incredible to see how they all lived. I don’t even like walking that much and I still loved it. Then it was back to Luang Namtha via the bumpiest road in the world, where I had one of the best sleeps of my life and a breakfast which thankfully didn’t include sticky rice.