Waist deep in water in the middle of the jungle


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Asia » Laos » North » Luang Namtha
July 15th 2015
Published: September 22nd 2015
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Once again we say goodbye to one country and hello to another. See you again China.

Crossing the border into Laos was fairly straight forward as the trip went. The time it took to leave Chinese immegration took much longer for us than the other travellers and locals crossing the border. We had the whole bus waiting for us getting irritable due to the extra processes needed to check whether our passports were genuine.

Many people were being let through and we were told to stand aside like we had done something wrong. After waiting patiently for 10 minutes after we should have been let through we asked the duty manager if something was wrong with our passports (calmly may I add) and got shouted at agressively and told to step back.

Chris told P to bite her tongue and wait patiently amd so we did.The long wait however was unecessary. We were panicked our bus would eventually drive off.

A good while after he'd finished his thorough checks and his collegues came over too (magnifying glass and all) we were able to go through and get back on our bus. P has no kind words to say about that man.

As soon as we crossed the border we knew immediately we were no longer in China. The location looked similar to the area near the border; lush moutainous areas, rice paddies, quaint litttle villages etc but it all lacked that Chinese feel. And then we spotted elephants. If there ever was a sign that your in SE Asia - it's seeing elephants.

The further we drove to our destination the differences became more apparent; the roofs weren't 'Chinese', there wasn't any huge cranes constructing new housing and there were more roadside wooden shacks than actual mortar and cement buildings. A new chapter begins.

Getting off our bus in the small town of Luang Namtha, it didn't take us long to find a double room in a nearby hostel right on the main road. Like we mentioned, the town was small. There wasn't much to it at all, just a few tour agencies (all offering the same tours), some small convenience shops selling essentials and a handful of eateries.

It felt a bit weird arriving in Laos straight from our jam packed China adventure. We hadn't had time to prepare ourselves properly for Laos. We were greeted by the friendly locals with "Sabadi" - an unfamiliar word. We automatically wanted to respond with "Ni hao".

So what's there to do in such a small border town?

The main selling point are the tours: they range from 1-3 day jungle trekking, visiting local villages, cycling and kayaking. We'll get onto the tours later though.

Other than that you can hire a pedal bike to explore the town, the villages in the surrounding area or even the buddhist temple on the hill. We decided to do all 3. Starting in the afternoon the following day we got ourselves a bike each and set off down the road to explore the local villages a few miles outside of town. As we turned onto the main road we could see a storm fast approching.

We could actually see its shadow swallowing up the road ahead. Before we could even turn our bikes around it was on us. We peddled as fast as our legs could to get back to our hostel. We got back to the hostel and took a seat as the rain poured down on the town. It did eventually stop but it was just too late in the afternoon for our trip to the villages. Instead we decided to visit the temple about 10mins away by bike once the rain had clearer.

The hill up to the temple was pretty steep so we had to push our bikes up. At the top was a golden stupa, with a reclining Buddha inside although we didn't bother going in. We walked around it for around 3 mins before P spotted another storm approaching. Not wanting to be caught in the rain a 2nd time we rushed to our bikes and flew down the hill into the town. We didn't stand a chance. We got soaked. The torrential rain kind of put an end to our day of exploring. Indefinitely.

That evening we did visit the local night market (it was directly across the road). It was quite a modest market with only a few stalls in the main court and a seating area in the middle selling roast chicken/duck, kebab sticks & fried noodle/rice. Just off the main court was a long row of tables with locals selling well presented yet unidentifiable foods. We walked to the end and opted to try the noodle soup. It was nice but didn't compare with what we'd tried in Lijiang. Still a bit hungry Chris also tried a buffalo kebab stick which he enjoyed.

We'd read in our guide book that there are these insistant ladies from nearby tribes that come here to sell handmade products to tourists. P was approached by one lady trying to sell her a belt, a braclet and a bag. She did end up buying a bag (she needed one) but these woman do not take "no" as an answer and will sometimes sit at your table staring in your face until you cave in. Our initial contact with one was just outside of the night market when P was approached and asked if she wanted to buy any "Ganja". Which took us by surprise, although more shockingly fellow travellers said they were offered opium from one of these small old ladies!

What was even more saddening was witnessing them go around the dining area of the market collecting plates and finishing peoples leftovers - if the cats or dogs didn't get it first.

Along with the night market there were a handful of other eateries but to our surprise they all catered to westerners and weren't as cheap to eat at as we'd expected. Even the local dishes at these places costed the same as western meals. When we did go in search for small local places they only sold noodle soup. We guessed Laotians dont really have a dining out culture.

The following day we browsed the local tour offices comparing treks and prices before opting for the most interesting, plus it was cheap! We were doing the 2 day jungle trek staying overnight in a local village. We couldn't wait.

The next morning following checkout we met at the office at the specified time and met with our guide/cook, 2 french girls and an Israeli lady also on the trek. First stop was the market, for our guide 'Ping' to pick up some food for our meals. Joining him in the market we all split up and had a wander around. There was the usual marketplace offerings like vegetables, fruit and meat.

We walked further into the market and came across a strange selection of meats: Lizard/reptile arm, a thick snakes midriff, roasted rat and something that looked like a big bald mole. We were stunned. We just stood there staring at this odd selection in front of us. We did ask the lady if we could take a picture but she said no. We just really wanted to know what the big bald mole thing was.

We started our trek an hour drive outside of the town. As soon as we stepped on the truck the rain started. Luckily we had our cheap rain anoraks we purchased in Zhangjiajie, China. Unfortunately for Chris the arms on his had come off, giving his a more boutique look haha.

The trek as we mentioned was a jungle trek which is where we spent most of our time for the duration and it rained the whole time! Sometimes lightly other times extremely heavily. Ping sometimes had to use a banana leaf as an umbrella.



We also had to cross a number of streams, attempting to hop from rock to rock to avoid getting our feet wet. It didn't last long however as there wasnt enough rocks to stand on so in the end we just had to wade through ankle deep water. Walking in wet squeshy shoes up and down steep paths was not nice and despite trying to avoid we we all fell at least once.

Mosquito's and leeches were a problem and trying to apply insect repellant to already wet/sweaty skin is not nice at all.

Walking behind Chris P found a juicey leech happily sucking away on the back of Chris's neck. It had some how found its way through a tear in the back of his raincoat. Yuck!

The trek through the overgrown forest was really slippy in places, a wrong foot and you could slip down a small hill. The rain didnt make anything easy at all; the mud, the leaves, tree roots and the rocks were all slippy. Our guide chopped us some bamboo walking sticks that helped, especially the steep bits.

Despite our cheaply purchased diaposable raincoats were soaked through and through by the rain but also due to sweating profusely. By the time we stopped for lunch under a little palm leaf covered hut, we were thankful for the rest - our guide barely stopped for a breather at all apart for a brief moment to chop down a large leaf to keep 'dry' during heavy downpours.

Lunch was really good, we had sticky rice, boiled bamboo, thin spicy bamboo with noodles, some green veggies (callaloo/cabbage), a donut thing with taro inside and a banana. All served on freshly cut banana leaf. It was very filling. Just what we needed. On the way Ping kept picking up snails and poking inside the shell with a twig until the snails 'juices' bubbled out. Absolutely diagusting.

He pocketed them saying "for bbq later" We all hoped not!

We had been trekking 2.5hrs to get to our lunch spot and we had another 2.5hrs to go through. The rain had stopped and we all hoped there was no more to come. We were all soaked from head to toe. The rest of the way to village wasn't much different from the first in terms of the foresy scenery and it sadly it continued to rain.

Finally we made it to the village. A small village by the name of Namkone with only a few families. There were children playing, locals either working or relaxing and animals everywhere. There were dogs, cats, chickens, ducks & piglets all running around in what seemed like perfect harmony. We were greeted by our homestay family who'd kindly let us stay in their house for the night. The house was big but very basic. It stood on tall stilts and only had one room with nothing in it, save for our thin mattresses, pillows and mosquito nets. Due to an accident on a previous day the Israeli lady was only doing the 1st day trek and not the overnight stay so had the uncomfortable ride on the back of a motorbike back to Luang Namtha via the unpaved roads. Waving her off we desperately got out of our wet clothes and went to explore the village whilst being briefly informed by our guide.

We learned that the way to tell if a woman was married or not here (not that Chris was looking lol) was to look at her eyebrows. Married women shave their eyebrows, a practice associated only with this tribe. They had a mini zoo (a small fenced off area) that housed wild animals caught in the forest including a huge owl. We visited the school although it was closed due to the summer holidays and also shockingly learned that the tribe eat their dogs!!

The people were really friendly & welcoming and the children were all intrigued. They waited for us on our veranda when we returned off our tour of the village. They loved swiping through the pictures on our phones and taking pictures with our cameras but were actually camera shy themselves. We noticed 2 siblings with a frog attached to a piece of string and a small stick like a leash. It was slightly disturbing to watch how they heavy handedly squeezed the frog all over till - what we believe was a defense mechanism - the poor frog inflated to double its size. It was almost like a toy for them. The more you tried to stop them the more they would excitedly 'play' with it. This frog didnt have a chance even though the frog eventually returned to its normal size.



Dinner time again (luckily no snails), we were treated to another tasty meal put together by Ping and the host family. After dinner we chatted for a while before getting beat at cards by Ping (who'd just learnt the game). As the evening wore on, tiredness kicked in and we went bed snuggling in our warm sheets provided.

A late start following a breakfast of rice (again) with tuna in a tomato sauce and some veggies, we donned our undried clothes, said fairwell and thank you to our hosts and set off again our trek. For the first half we were joined by a local older lady and her grandson both in possesion of a machete. They led the way out the village, through the jungle and up some hills. We're pretty sure Ping said it was just downhill today.

So far we had been lucky it hadn't rained at all since we'd left out. It felt good not to be drenched. The local lady also stopped at appropriate times for everyome to catch their breath and drink some water unlike Ping the previous day. Can't blame him though, we just wanted to get to the village as soon as possible and out of the rain too. Lunch, again contained sticky rice, scrambled egg and some veg which was quickly stuffed down using chopsticks made by Ping during one of our earlier rests.

Our temporary guides returned to the village and Ping continued leading the trek. After a while you get kind of sick of walking through the jungle, seeing nothing but trees and plants. We'd hoped today would have been more scenic but it was pretty much the same minus the rain. One of the french girls we were with must have slipped about 6 times on our way through the jungle. Slap, whoosh, bang we would here and turned around to see her flat on her bum.

At one point she nearly fell down the side of the high trail clung onto Ping who dragged her back up.

To be honest it still was really slippy and steep in some places due to the rain. Too dangerous at some points guven how slippy the trail was that we had to climb or descend. Eventually we came to a clearing and could see Luang Namtha in the distance. The view was impressive with the sea of green before us, we just wished there were more chances on the trek to appreciate the views like this, especially being so high up.

After making it out of the jungle we passed through a rubber tree plantation. Locals are actually deforesting areas of the jungle to plant these as there used to be a demand for rubber. Unfortunately that demand has died down yet still a lot of deforestation continues.

Coming to what looked like a fast moving river, Chris asked Ping whether there a boat or a raft coming. Ping replied with "I dont know..maybe we walk". Everyone thought he was joking.

He could not be serious we thought!

Ping went in first, the river above his knees as he waded into the middle river. Just as the french girls were getting ready to go in, we spotted 2 young boys on a bike coming down a hill at speed on the other side of the river. We watched them go straight down the hill, crashing into the river with the bike and emerge laughing their heads off. We thought if the kids are fine then we must be. Saying that, the current was still pretty strong as we moved sluggishly to the other side trying not to get swept over by the river. Yes! We all made it. Not just to the other side of the river but up the short hill and onto the main road into the awaiting truck to take us back to Luang Namtha. We were all soaked P even waist high. What an adventure.

On the way back our driver who had been waiting for us since 1.30pm (it was now 4pm) was still happy to pull over and let us take some quick pictures of the bright green rice fields on our way back. After pictures it was straight back to our hostel to get out these flipping wet clothes and let our wringled wet skin finally dry.

On a whole we enjoyed the village stay but did not fully enjoy the 6 hours trekking on either day in the wet damp humid forest with no views apart from tree upon tree.

We think if it were dry season and maybe included some areas where you could appreciate the opennings as well as the rest we may have enjoyed it a little more. We definately did not appreciate walking through a waist deep river too.

Our shoes, took a good few days to dry (as after the trek we were on the move) and given all the treeking we have done it was safe to say that the damp smell was rotten.


Additional photos below
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22nd September 2015

Another amazing adventure that brought back memories...
of my time hiking to the top of Doi Inthanon, highest mountain in Thailand, through Karen tribal villages, poppy fields, and jungle. BTW, sabadi is what you say when someone asks you how you are feeling and you are feeling good. Gunja, or its many slight variations across Asia, is marijuana, although you can also be offered opium!
24th September 2015

Luang Namtha
Thank you, we're happy our blog was able to bring back memories for you. Lol. Yes we quickly learnt what Sabadi meant. It was just unfamiliar using this term after using mandarin, having to switch from 'ni hoa' to 'sabadi'. We also were familiar with being offered marijuana and opium although it was just unfamiliar being offered it by the tribal women in the town. Normally its men who are far more discrete in their attempts to sell.
24th September 2015

Looks wet!
Before I read your blog, I skimmed through the photos, and my first thought was 'leeches'! But seems like you got off lightly... Glad the rapid river crossing ended well :)
24th September 2015

Looks wet
Yes we were very prepared fpr the leeches. We covered ourselves with insect repellant (which apparently deters them) and put our pants in our socks. Seemed to do the job mostly 😊

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