Two Days Jungle Trekking in Luang Namtha
Luang Namtha offers access to Nam Ha National Protected Area, great for jungle trekking and visiting various ethnic tribes. It is currently less visited than other areas of Laos by tourists, so we were keen to get there. We were torn initially, as this meant missing the two day slow boat from the Thai/Laos border to Luang Prabang. But having read more into it, we found that the boat trip is less authentic than it used to be, amongst other things. So, we decided to head straight to Luang Namtha instead.
Getting to Luang Namtha from Chiang Rai
TIP: There are now a few direct buses a week from Chiang Rai to Luang Namtha. We went to bus terminal 2 to get a ticket costing 500 baht each. The journey took 9 hours, including a relatively uneventful border crossing (aside from the 10,000 kip ‘overtime fee’, and the fact they almost didn’t take the only cash we had on us for our visas as it was slightly creased!). Maybe be a bit more prepared than us, and take some extra cash instead (they accept baht, USD, kip, euros).
We went to Luang Namtha purely to do some trekking to visit different ethnic tribes. We’d looked into some companies which offer this, and did lots of research to try to choose a socially responsible one. Most companies offer similar experiences ranging from 1-7 day treks, some you can add kayaking in too, and different companies offer visits to different tribes. There are many tribes in the area (approx 17), all with different languages and cultures.
Booking a Tour
We chose to go with Discovering Laos for a two day trek with a homestay. The three day one sounded really good too, but we were feeling a bit knackered as we’ve packed a lot in recently, and wanted to save some pennies!
The price is cheaper the more people who book on, so it’s good if you could get a group together! Or just ask the company which day has bookings if you’re flexible on dates (bear in mind many don’t book until the night before).
We actually ended up rearranging ours for the following day as I was sick, and they did this at no extra charge (definite customer service points here!). They’d quoted us $71 each for two days including all food, a guide, and accommodation as there were two other people (four in total) booked on. Even though we rearranged, and no one else had booked that day, they still gave us the price for four people (even more points!).
The Jungle Trek from Luang Namtha
We set off into the jungle with our guide Toua. We would hike to a village belonging to the Khmu tribe, where we would spend the night. Our guide was Khmu himself, so spoke Khmu, Laos, Thai and English! He told us stories about his own life, and stopped to show us different plants and animals in the jungle, from medicinal plants to bear claws on a tree. Along the way, Toua would pick nuts for us to try, collect herbs for lunch, and chopped down some rattan to include in our lunch. I’d never seen it before, but it’s a huge spiky tree that looked tough to cut branches from as he hacked at it with his machete.
We came to a beautiful opening in the dense jungle. Toua made a fire and started to prepare lunch. He made it only using things from the jungle, without even a pot – he used bamboo to cook soup! BAMBOO! He told us his dad taught him to cook in the jungle, and that most people from the villages, could come into the jungle for a week or two and survive just off the jungle!
The villagers often hunt in the jungle, and he had fond memories of running around with his brother and a slingshot. People also farm rice despite the difficult land in the jungle. They have to be very careful as to where they farm though. The Khmu people have animist beliefs, and believe in nats (spirits). If someone disturbs or harms a King tree (a very important tree thought to house a spirit), they will become sick. He told us many stories where this had happened in his village. People sought medical help, but were only cured when the shaman was called upon and appeased the spirits with a ceremony and a sacrifice.
Lunch in the Jungle
He wandered off to wash the chicken in the stream, and came back having placed it on a stick, and tied it with a leaf to secure it, to barbecue over the fire. I must admit all my mum’s uni cooking tips came screaming back to me, and I was a bit dubious. But there were no pink bits in sight after he grilled it! (I swear, Mum!)
He kindly blessed our food, and asked the nats for protection for the rest of the hike. He served it on banana leaves, no plates in sight! We ate the sticky rice with our hands as per Laos tradition, and Toua made us banana leaf spoons for the soup. The food was truly delicious, and the whole experience of it was just something else!
Khmu Tribe Village Homestay
We continued to hike until we reached the village. Unlike other homestays we’ve done, you don’t actually stay in the family’s home in this village. Instead you’re next to it, in a house, still built in the traditional way. Most houses were built from a mixture of bamboo, and rattan. They were raised for relief from the heat, and to stop chickens and pigs wandering into their homes!
These animals roamed freely round until someone got hungry basically! The more animals a family had, the more meat they could sell to other villagers. Sometimes we came across a concrete house with wooden doors and windows. These people were wealthier, so perhaps had sold more animals or land.
The village has a nearby stream, which they use to wash themselves, and their clothes. There is only one refrigerator in the village, but mainly they dry out meat by smoking it over a fire, and then this lasts for up to 2 months!
Most had a modest bamboo house, and a small patch of land behind used for farming. Families rely on farming to feed their families, so often don’t have a lot of actual money spare. The children can go to the village primary school for free, but pencils and paper are expensive for families. We asked Discovering Laos if we could take something for the village, and they suggested stationery for this reason. We took some coloured pencils we bought from the local market in the town to the school. It was nice as they had a globe, so we showed the children where we are from.
Back to Luang Namtha
For day two, there were two options. A 3 hour hike through another Khmu village, or a 6 hour much steeper one through a Lanten tribe village. Usually, we’d have taken option 2, but I still wasn’t 100% from my illness. So we opted for number 1, and got to hear more of Toua’s fascinating stories about the Khmu people before arriving back in Luang Namtha. Day 2 was equally as beautiful as day 1, and it wasn’t without drama when a snake was found rustling in the leaves just a matter of feet away from us!
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