Walking through northern Laos
by Stephanie Choate
The town of Luang Nam Tha in northern Laos is perched along the fringes of Nam Ha National Protected Area—2,224 square kilometers of rolling jungle-clad mountains. Many companies offer guided treks through the jungle, and though we had avoided the more popular trekking scene in Thailand, we wanted to get further into this amazingly beautiful countryside.
We settled on Jungle Eco-Guide Services, which employs local Lao and Khmu guides and invests a large chunk of the proceeds back into the villages and conservation of Nam Ha. The three-day more challenging trek took us across about 25 kilometers of jungle. Four guides came with us and three other trekkers—two guys from England and another from Sweden.
Banmi, our exuberant 24-year-old lead guide, kept us thoroughly entertained with hilarious exclamations and questions about whether we had certain plants and animals in our countries. This was his last trek before getting married next week, and he often referred to “my darling.” Gang, one of the founders of the company, has been leading treks for 10 years, and was quick to find edible plants, hack down low-hanging branches and give beaming smiles. Kahm, one of the local villagers, was extremely curious in what we were doing and his wife, Pung, probably carried more weight slung across her forehead than anyone else. (Sidenote: I have no idea how they would spell their names, this is my best guess!)
The trail started at Kahm’s and Pung’s Khmu village, passing shy children, countless chickens, and vibrant green rice fields before entering the forest.
We hiked for about six hours each day, up and down hills, across fallen logs, through dense patches of vines. Throughout the three days, we caught glimpses of Nam Ha’s rolling blue-green hills through the dense jungle branches. Ignoring the foreground, the layers of faraway mountains looked remarkably like Vermont, or perhaps somewhere in the southern Appalachians. It was a bit surreal to see a small slice of home on the other side of the world.
Far from the basic hiking fare we had expected, every meal brought an elaborate spread of tasty Lao dishes, arranged across a banana leaf table. We dipped small balls of sticky rice into fried young morning glory, garlicky tomatoes, mixed vegetables infused with ginger, eggplant and chilies, and buffalo meat bought from the morning market. In particular, dinner on the second night consisted mostly of food our guides had collected as we hiked through the jungle—banana flower, young ferns, bitter eggplant, greens. Everything was delicious, and not just because we had been hiking for hours!
After a full day’s walk on the second day, we reached camp in a small valley next to a river, and everyone enjoyed a much-needed swim. At night, we all sat by the campfire after the guides, who rose and slept with the sun, had gone to bed. The full moon crept above the forest and illuminated the camp, almost eliminating the need for a flashlight.
Early the next morning, mist filled the valley and shrouded the mountains, until the sun cleared the tallest peaks and melted it all away. Soon, the sun blazed down on us as we made our way through a more open section near the end of the trail. We followed the river, crossing it in our flip-flops again and again.
The trek finished at a village on banks of the wide and deep Nam Tha (meaning Green River). Our bags were ferried across while we swam— very welcome after the long, hot third day. Nearly a dozen village kids swam too, barreling down the hill and leaping into the river as recklessly as they could, with plenty of yelling.
Aside from three leeches (me, gross), two ticks (me as well), an incident with a bare foot and a huge, fresh buffalo patty (Banmi), and some very sore legs, the trek was a definite success.