Well-rested and full of steam, we left the tranquility of the river villages and headed to NE Laos in search of some trekking adventures. We booked a bus to the charmless city of Udomoxai in hopes of catching an afternoon bus out of the city and avoiding a night in the industrial Chinese trade city. However, when we reached the bus station we heard words from the ticket booth that we did not think were in the Laos vocabulary, "Bus full"????? We have been on buses with people sitting on rice bags in the aisles, people on top of the bus, and people standing on the bumper while the driver would stop for more people. Surprised and devastated, we put much effort into hiring a car to get us out of town that afternoon, but it was Sunday and the locals weren't interested. So we stayed the night.
"Speaking" Lao with some local children using our phrasebook.
An early morning alarm, a quick breakfast, a 6-hour crammed bus ride, a re-welded rim, and a spare tire later we made it to Luang Nam Tha in the early afternoon.
One of our bus passengers, a rooster on a string.
Every seat full including the "seats" in the aisles.
Changing the tire took way over 8 minutes.
The bridge made of bamboo baskets in Luang Nam Tha.
Luang Nam Tha's big draw is the surrounding Nam Ha protected area, so we hooked up with three other travelers that we met on the bus north and signed up for a three-day trek with the joint Laos/New Zealand government's Eco-Tourism group.
The next morning, with the 2 Belgians and one Kiwi, and two fairly good English-speaking guides, we headed out into the jungle for a few days. We drove out of the city a little ways before making our first stop at a village where we would begin our hike. We also gained a local guide, who carried our lunch, and we headed up (straight up) into the mountains. After a couple hours of exhausting hiking, we made it to a small bamboo shade structure where we had lunch and a much needed break.
Being followed by the village kids.
After lunch, the trail leveled out a bit and we got under the canopy of the forest and into the shade.
Our first night we stayed at the Saam Ngord village where we had a fine little structure shaded by the largest mango tree we have ever seen. As soon as we arrived, villagers made their way to us to check us out and bring us a refreshing papaya to munch on while dinner was prepared. We noticed one villager carrying a chicken upside down to the small kitchen in our hut. Low and behold, a few clucks from the bird and a little cleaning from the chef and we were eating (well, not Amber) Chicken Laab, a very typical minced meat dish in Laos (made with basil, green onion, garlic, chili, and mint). The town chief came to talk to us after dinner and we had a nice question and answer session with the help of our guides translating. They managed to rustle up a few beer Laos for us to enjoy and out came the cards and our guides now know how to play Shithead (quite well actually).
The village shower/watering hole/laundry/dishwasher, etc.
Some curious village kids.
Feeding time for the pigs.
The small village school.
Inside our hut.
Day two we hiked along the ridge tops for 5-6 hours with stunning views of the forest below. Again we had a local guide come along with us carrying our lunch. At lunch we discovered why we heard a pig making a heck of a racket the following evening. Yep, we got pork stir-fry for lunch (well, Justin did). At one point the local guide stopped, apparently, in the spot where a month ago he had seen a tiger. Maybe a set up to get a tip, well it worked.
The second evening we stayed at the Nam Khone village, again in a pleasant little hut. This village was blessed with a small creek so once again, Justin bathed with the locals, but he needed it.
That night we got to meet this village's second chief, which happened to be an attractive woman 48 years of age. She was pleasant to speak with, again through our guides and we were invited to come see her house in the morning. After the 2nd chief left, the beer Laos and cards were busted out as our guides wanted revenge for the whooping they took the previous night.
Our dinner - who knew ferns and garlic would be so tasty.
The next morning we went to see the second chief at her house and got a quick tour of her house where she, her husband, 8 kids, and 1 grandchild lived. She was adorably shy to have us in her modest house. We also got to check out the village and to see the village school in session, however, we distracted them from whatever they were supposed to be learning.
Interesting poster at the school depicting one of the problems kids are faced with here.
A shy village kid.
After breakfast we were off to make our way down through the beautiful jungle for a 5-6 hour hike. The hike took us through many lush bamboo valleys, up over peaks and back down to small river streams. It was very beautiful, the only downfall was that we had to keep checking ourselves for leeches, which all of us had hitch-hiking on our shoes at one point and time.
Our 3rd lunch consisting of sticky rice, bamboo shoots and rattan mixed with garlic.
Our guide Xeng and Amber.
Our local guide smoking the traditional way.
"And then I said 'Hi' like a spider to a fly"
After a pleasant day we made it back to town in the early evening. That evening, after some much needed showers, we met our guides for dinner and came up with a plan to rent motorbikes the following day and go to Muang Xing, a small town about 2 hours north of Lunag Nam Tha. We were pleased to have one of our trekking guides, Xeng, coming along. Either he thought we were really great people, or he had a crush on the single blonde New Zealand girl that was with us?
The next morning we hopped on some motorbikes and headed north. We rode another beautiful protected area, taking occasional breaks to stop and rest our bums and take in the scenery.
Xeng and Leah.
Some village girls wearing our helmets.
Don't ask me how he tied this bird to his stick, but it didn't seem to mind.
Muang Xing is about 10 km from the Chinese border, so the town is quite influenced by Chinese culture, food, etc. We found the town with more charm than Luang Nam Tha and definitely less touristy. Amber and I decided to stay the night just outside of Muang Xing at a small lodge overlooking the rice fields, so we said goodbye to our friends and relaxed with our nice view from our balcony.
The Muang Xing nightclub, unfortunately we didn't get to go back and check it out, but I'm sure it would have been hopping.