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Published: December 4th 2010
I arrived in Louang Namtha on Dec 1 around 2 pm. I was hot, tired and a little stresed by my experience on the bus from Jinghong. I went to the bank, exchanged $80 US for 643,000 kip, found a hotel, had a long shower, walked to a restaurant, had a Lao chicken salad dish (quite tasty) and crashed.
It was later that eve that I started to try to arrange for a kayak trip of 2 or 3 days into the Luang Namtha NBCA, a national park, at the local guide shops. You can travel alone, but need a permit and some Lao to get around. Unfortunately, not alot of people are arranging kayak trips - the rivers are all exceptionally low - they say it is the dry season but the rough guide says that the rivers are being damed in Laos to sell electricity to China, lowering the water level. Some guide shops are not selling kayak trips because the water is so low that the kayak botoms are being destroyed by rocks!
I ended up joining 3 others, Beck from Australia, Fredrick and Rosalina from Belgium, and Deang, our guide, on a 2 day trek
to a kama (sp) village, "Nampete", up in the hills of the NBCA (they are allowed to live in the park as long as they practice rotating agriculture). Because there were only 4 of us, it cost $66 US each for the guided trek. We drove for about an hour out of Louang Namtha, to a khmu village, _____. This was our starting point. A local guide, a woman from the village, lead us and carried our lunch. She wore only flipflops and carried our heavy lunch and water bottles off a head strap. She was also very quick - difficult to keep up with. We crossed several small streams (may have been the same stream, we just zigzaged along it) and climbed several hundred metres. Finally we broke for lunch beside the river.
Lunch was sticky rice, a hot tomato based dip, fried beans and greens and fried stips of chicken, and apples all laid out on large banana tree leaves. The Lao eat with their hands, first taking a lump of sticky rice and rolling it into a ball, then using the ball and their fingers to pick up peices from the other dishes. I had read
that the Lao only eat with their right hand, I asked our guide if I could eat with my left. He said better to eat with my right hand. So I ended up the messiest eater!
The local guide left us at the river and we continued on. We gained and lost several hundred metres in elevation, the trail was rough - I didn't take many pictures because I needed both hands for balance and I was struggling to keep up with my younger asthma free travel companions. I did take a picture of a trap to catch wildlife, rats, monkeys, pigs, etc. It is set up so the animal runs along the fence, stops at the tempting tidbit in the trap and is struck in the head when the trap is triggered. Deang stopped several times to collect food for our dinner (roots of various plants), cardomon for a tea, or point out medicinal plants.
We reached Nampe around 5.30 pm, just as it was getting dark. The villagers had started their outdoor cooking fires. We were directed to a house that had been built to house trekkers. A one room shack built with bamboo stilts and
woven bamboo walls and bamboo bark shingles. The floor is about 4-6 feet off the ground to keep out the rats. and Deang took us to the river to clean up and then began preping our dinner. Dinner took 2 hours to prepare over a open flame! We had a dip made with green peppers and a local plum grilled in the embers, fish fried in oil and ginger, fried mixed vegtables and the sticky rice. Food was prepared outside the Locals came by to watch the meal being prepared and eaten.
While dinner was being prepared and eaten, several locals also came in and set up our sleeping mats, blankets, pillows and mosquito nets. Several locals also brought in a large rough pottery vase filled with fermenting rice wine. After dinner we were encouraged to sip the wine through a narrow tube. The wine is between 35 and 45 proof, the stronger, the better from the local's perspective. We sat on the floor or short stools for several hours conversing with the locals as they got more and more drunk. After the first couple of sips I avoided further offers of the wine - as a woman I
can get away with that. The sitting was tough though, my legs kept cramping. I got the usual questions, they wanted to know my age, occupation and reason for being there, but no-one asked my name.
I went to bed (around 11pm) while several locals were still siping at the wine, smoking, and conversing. They were still there several hours later! The five of us slept in row on the mats. We were at a higher elevation and the night was quite cool. Our blankets were made for shorter Lao people, we all suffered from either cold feet or cold shoulders.
The next morning I got up around 6.30 am and explored the village. I was also looking for a discrete place to go to the bathroom - we were told that there were no toilets, we were just to go out into the surrounding jungle. Even though the village only had about 50 families, I managed to get lost! All the houses looked similar and there was no grid system to their layout. I think I passed our house several times before identifying it.
We had breakfast, sticky rice, a spicy green dip, mixed vegetables (carrots,
califlower were identified) and left over fish and local bananas. We again washed in the river with the locals (our dishes were washed there as well). Then we visited the school and offered some seeds, books, and pencils as gifts to the children. They were doing a math lesson (multiplication for the older children, maybe 6 years old, and lessons in greater than, less than and equals for the younger class). They were taught in the same room. The little boys avoided me but I helped the girls do one of their math problem, 357 x 78. I think the math was a bit beyond them, the girls only got their answer right because I helped them. What distressed me was that the teacher got one of the math problems wrong too! It would have damaged his reputation to point out the error, but I wonder about the level of education for teachers here.
We walked out after a last visit to a third village, _______. The route out was much easier and quicker. Turns out the trail of the previous day was built for tourists! I sort of understand the logic, it was a beautiful if challenging trail,
with several steep climbs and descents, a lot of debris across the path. I was just happy to be back in Louang Namtha and a long shower.
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