Trekking & Lao Lao Go Hand in Hand

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September 20th 2010
Published: October 7th 2010
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With 5 days to kill before I could enter Vietnam I bravely boarded the slow boat from Muong Ngoi to Muong Khua hoping to find something to do in the tiny Lao town to pass the time. My travel companions were a lovely couple from New York, Diego & Claudia and an aussie doctor from Melb, Paul. Diego assured me that a tour leader in Luang Prabang had assured him that there were trekking options from Muong Khua and that's what he and Claudia were hoping to find. I figured trekking was as good way to pass the time as anything else so decided to tag along with them.

Its funny how a completely unplanned side trip can turn out to be the highlight of your trip. You see the reason I had so much time to kill was because originally I had planned to go west and do the Gibbon Experience, which is a 3 day adventure into the jungle, sleeping in tree houses and flying around on zip lines. The GE is very expensive, which I didn't mind but I was a little put off by the fact that it was the rainy season and therefore the itinerary was limited. According to the research I did, there seemed to be alot more walking than anyone anticipated and due to the rain this involved being wet, muddy and covered in leaches alot of the time. Harden up I hear you shout! Well you see I really do still want to do the experience but I just didn't want to ruin it by doing it at the wrong time of year and hating every minute. Therefore I decided to head further north east and spend my time up there instead. This turned out to be the best decision I could have made!

So the 4 of us headed off on our boat up river, once again passing amazing scenery the whole way. We arrived in sleepy Muong Khua in the late arvo and quickly found somewhere to stay. Unfortunately the Tourist Office was already closed but one of the locals assured us that if we went there first thing in the morning we could organise a trek to start that day. Sure enough after seeing Paul off on his bus, Diego, Claudia and I found Keo at the Tourist Office and quickly arranged to start a 3 day trek within the hour. Our trek would take us to 3 different Hilltribe Villages and we would stay in the home of one of the village families on each night. I will admit I was slightly scared at the prospect of 3 days trekking, up until now I had only done a day here or there, never overnight. It didn't help that Diego & Claudia seemed reasonably fit compared to my travelling, beer swilling self! But I thought no, you need to buck up and get outta your comfort zone so I boldly paid my 450,000 kip (about USD 55) and suited up.

By 9.30am we were on the road and after a 40 minute drive, all up hill of course, we were dropped off at what looked to be a goat track on the side of the hill. Then each of us were issued with 6 bottles of water, to be carried in a plastic bag - this was interesting! That first 2 hours we trekked up, up, up and it was a fairly steep incline, my cardio fitness level was exposed for what it is - terrible! I really did struggle but with little rests when I needed them I did indeed survive.

We made it to the first Akha (type of hilltribe) village where we had lunch. One of the really old women in the village stared at me and touched my arm, she was admiring how white I was. It was amazing to see how facinated they were with me being so white. Claudia, being Mexican had a very similar colour to them so they weren't so amazed with her but still quite curious. We enjoyed a great picnic lunch that Keo had brought of bamboo salad, Buffalo jerky, noodles & sticky rice. It was the first time in my life I had tried jerky, it was nice enough but I don't think it's something I would make a habit of consuming.

After lunch it was packs on and off we go again. This afternoon walk was about 3 hrs and although still challenging, it was no where near as hard as the morning, except that is for the walk through native slicing plants! We had been walking for a couple of hours when Keo stopped us and told us we should put our rain jackets on as we had to walk through dense scrub with lots of these leaves that cut. Obediently we donned out jackets ready to self sauna ourselves in the intense heat. Essentially we walked most of the time with our heads down and arms up protecting ourselves. It was hardest for Diego as he was so tall and kept getting caught on everything. The funniest thing was when we finally got to the end and sat down. I noticed a rather fat leech on the ground between Claudia & I. Wow we remarked on how fat he was, when we stood up I noticed a piece of bark with a large pool of blood on it. "Well" I said "the leech has feasted on someone!" Claudi and I were laughing at this when she exclaimed "its you!" Sure enough I had a bleeding wound on my left ankle, little bugger! It's a good thing leeches don't hurt because by the look of how much blood he got out of me it was a serious bite.

It was about 4.30pm when we arrived in the Akha village, Sbor where we were to spend the night. The reception we got was amazing. There were kids staring as though it was the first time they had EVER seen a Falang (white person), which was the case for some of them. They became our entourage as they followed us everywhere, staring, whispering & giggling. Then we got the cameras out, well you should have seen them! They were completely facinated by it but they didn't want to be in any pictures. It was hilarious trying to get any shots. I was definitely the hit of the show though with my white skin and blue eyes.

Our accommodation for the night was of a higher standard than any of us expected. Admittedly there was no toilet, as in NO toilet therefore out you go into the fields. However I was thinking we would have a rattan mat and maybe a bamboo pillow but we each had a roll out mat with sheet and a real pillow. I mean they weren't the cleanest but we all had a sleeping bag liners so it was no worries. Once our beds were sorted it was time to shower before it got dark. This entailed borrowing Claudia's sarong and standing outside throwing buckets of water over my head. If felt so good after all that walking though, you'd think it was a hot shower! The next challenge was getting changed out of a wet sarong into dry clothes without a household of people watching!

For dinner Keo cooked us a feast of broiled chicken, eggplant stirfry and sticky rice. The eggplant was amazing! I was really expecting very very basic food but Keo is a fantastic cook & everything was full of flavour. Over dinner the father of the house served us Lao Lao aplenty (local rice whiskey), the Laotians like to infuse their whiskey with all sorts of poisionous creatures and this one was Bumble Bees! He also managed to surprise us all by demonstrating a very good understanding of US politics and their position in the Middle East. He has a radio and it seems he follows world news closely. He even suggested that Bush had invaded Iraq because of the oil there - hmmm what a theory??? It was hilarious, Diego said the guy had more idea about what the US is doing than a lot of Americans! After more that a couple of Lao Lao's it was time for bed.

I awoke early to roosters crowing (more than one and several times each) and the ubiquitious hocking/spitting from the family. Claudia decided there and then that she would not go barefoot anywhere for the rest of her time in Lao! Our morning began with our entourage watching us have a wash and brush our teeth before they all headed off to school. After breakfast we were off on a much more comfortable 3hr journey to the next village of Nam Bon, where the people are of the Thai Dam tribe. The walk there took us to top of rice covered mountains. I am running out of words to describe the scenery but once again it was breathtaking. The most striking thing was the contrast of the vibrant green rice fields and the blackened stumps and tree remnants left after slash and burn clearing.

Nam Bon is more advanced than Sbor so we were able to have a shower from a running faucet, although still outside and communal. The big plus was the outhouse, they had a real squat toilet and it was very clean & well kept. The house we stayed in was also lovely, quite large stilt home with plenty of space for visitors. Omelette and wild pig soup were on the menu for lunch, the wild pig was cured and tasted ok, if a little chewy. It amazes me that these villagers are totally ok with 3 strange falang just lobbing into their home and sitting themselves down, not to mention start using their kitchen to cook our lunch!

The highlight of the trek for me was the dinner we had that night and not only because of the food! Keo promised us a Duck Laap and he even took us through the many steps involved in preparing the dish. Laap is a traditional Lao dish of minced meat (fish, chicken, beef, whatever) and a combination of many herbs and spices, eaten with sticky rice. Its very hard to explain if you have never experienced it but trust me its delicious and the sticky rice in the villages was yummier because it was less processed and more like brown rice. Anyway this meal was probably the freshest and most organic meal I have ever consumed! Keo killed the duck in the afternoon and all the vegetables and herbs were picked direct from the family garden. It was a feast!

The owners of the home sat down to eat with us and we gorged ourselves, I have never eaten so much with my hands! Also throughout the meal we were served Lao Lao upon Lao Lao. It was a really great night, through Keo we were able to ask the family questions and they us. When they discovered I was single, to the amusement of all, they suggested I hook up with Keo - nice even in Lao my singledom is the topic of conversation! After who knows how many shots of Lao Lao we were well and truly ready for bed and a good nights sleep.

After a late breakfast, which unfortunately again involved Lao Lao! Yes hard liquor at 10am before 3hrs trekking is apparently a good idea in Laos. Lucky for Claudia and I we as women could wimp out after 2 shots, poor Diego was made to drink 6! Somehow we made it out of the jungle in one piece and celebrated with a very cold Beer Lao whilst we waited for our driver.

I am so glad that I happened upon Diego & Claudia in that restaurant in Muong Ngoi and they convinced me to go to Muong Khua. The trek has been my highlight of the whole trip so far, it was just so far off the regular tourist trail, in fact Muon Khua doesn't even get a mention in my Lonely Planet so I'm pretty happy with visiting a place outside of the guidebook. This is why I love travel so much, you meet people and opportunities just come up to do things you would never have imagined. Amazing.


15th October 2010

Hi Lisa I've been trying to email you for the last couple of weeks but can't seem to get around to it. These damn tourists keep coming in. I love reading your emails. Your trip is amazing. I don't think I would be brave enough to do it myself, especially the leech part (yuk !!). You will probably find it hard getting back into the hum drum of life when you come home. You will have to start saving for the next one. I have just returned from Victoria where I did a textile art course for five days. I had the best time. I wish I could do that sort of thing everyday of the week. My sister has been diagnosed with breast cancer and had the cancer removed. She has to have radiation therapy for six weeks but is improving very quickly. So the moral to that story is 'make the most of everyday', just like you are doing. It's a shame about having to cancel your Gibbon experience but sounds like you made the right decision. Things aren't the same without you and Mel here. Looking forward to seeing you when you get back. Take care, have fun. Love from Jane xx

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