Alright, after a very long hiatus we’re finally getting back to blogging. Only 2+ months behind…so lots to catch up on!
Six months may seem like a long enough time to see and do everything you could ever want in your travels, but we actually have struggled with how to fit it all in. Knowing that we like to travel relatively slowly, we quickly realized that if we tried to hit up all the top spots in every country we wanted to visit, we would definitely run out of time. So we needed to figure out a way to prioritize without always feeling like we were missing out. Finally time to apply some of my optimization skills from my work to my personal life!
I made Jes and I do a prioritization matrix exercise about a month into our trip to help us figure out how we’d decide how long we should roughly stay in each city or country. Essentially it came down to identifying the things we wanted to get out of our trip in terms of characteristics (amazing food, cool cities, beautiful beaches, fantastic trekking, different cultures, “must see” places, etc.) and then prioritize our time per country based on where those things were supposed to be the best. For example, pretty much every country in SE Asia has a beautiful trekking. But which country offered us the best opportunities? We knew Sapa, Vietnam could combine beautiful trekking with cultural experiences so we chose there over trekking in Chiang Rai, Thailand…where I’m sure it’s also awesome. But we didn’t need to do it twice. In the end, what the exercise accomplished for us was not a detailed plan or schedule, but rather a clearer picture of what we wanted in our trip and from where. And when we came to a crossroads about whether we should change course or stay shorter or longer in a place, we always referred back to what we wanted out of the country. Was what we were doing or where we were going unique or the best? Had we already done something similar somewhere else?
So when it came to Laos, we knew we weren’t here for big cities or stunning beaches. We’d experience those elsewhere. In Laos we wanted to get to see some untouched nature. Rivers and jungle were at the top of that list, so our next stop in Laos would be Luang Namtha which offered us both.
From Nong Khiow we walked to the bus station where we knew we had to catch a bus to Oudomxai and transfer to another to get to Luang Namtha. The first and only minibus was scheduled to leave at 11 but didn’t depart until it had a full load of passengers which happened around 11:45. The route we took was through the mountains and had really wonderful views but the road itself was just terrible and definitely had most people in it feeling a bit of queasiness. Since it left late, we also had a feeling we were going to miss the last connecting bus in Oudomxai which turned out to be true as we saw it pulling out just as we pulled in. Somehow through dumb luck and a super nice Lao lady who spoke excellent English, we discovered that our original minibus driver was also on his way to Luang Namtha so we could just conveniently stay on the same bus we were on! Perfect! All the other tourist passengers on the bus started getting to know one another and we shared our travel stories together to pass the time.
Thankfully the road on the second half of our journey was much, much smoother and we were making great time until suddenly one of the back tires of the minibus blew. The driver got out, grabbed his toolkit from the back and began to loosen the bolts on the tire in order to change it. Meanwhile, some of the other Lao men on the bus started breaking branches off of nearby trees and laying them in little piles about 10-15 feet apart, back down the road. As it was getting quite dark out (and we were on an unlit, winding, single-lane highway) the oncoming cars or trucks would easily see these branches in their headlights and slow down before they saw our minibus. So smart! One of the tourists grabbed his headlamp and gave it to the driver to help him see. Everything was going smoothly until one bolt on the tire just wouldn’t come off. I guess the driver didn’t actually have the right sized wrench in his kit or something and although the other bolts came off with ease this one was stuck. Many other trucks and vans stopped to help out (that’s one of those things I love about Southeast Asian cultures is how perfect strangers are always willing to stop, have a chat and help out) but unfortunately nobody had the right sized tool. The driver tried a variety of things, including bending different tools and banging on them with a hammer but it just would budge. Probably an hour had passed before one of the first minivans that had stopped to help out returned to us with the correct wrench! Hurray! Within a few minutes, we were back on our way.
We arrived in Luang Namtha quite late as a result and every recommended guesthouse we went to seemed to be full. So we had to settle for a slightly dank one that had less than ideal conditions (stained pillows and sheets, smelly washroom and a few too many bugs) and figured we’d find something better in the morning. We walked out into town only to find out that pretty much every restaurant was closed. We bought an ice cream bar at the only convenience store still open and called it dinner. On our way back though we noticed a sign for one of the trekking companies we had planned to check out the next day. They still seemed to be open (office is also attached to a restaurant/bar and probably the last customers were just paying up). Anyway we walked in and found out that there was a 3 day kayak + jungle trek group leaving the next morning. Five other people had already signed up, so if we did too then we’d get a better price. We took a few minutes to mull it over but we quickly just decided “why not?” and signed up. The trek offered everything we were looking for, and we didn’t feel like staying any longer in our current guesthouse anyway. Seemed like this was the perfect solution!
The next morning we met our travel companions for the next 3 days – Lynn & Erik from Holland, Amelia from England, Kieran from Thornton, ON and Mikel also from Holland. Everyone seemed super nice and it felt like it would be a great mix of people. We also had a young English-speaking guide named Tien and our local guide named Soone. After a quick stop at the morning market to pick up some produce for the next few days, we drove to our starting point which was a village along the Nam Ha river. The guides set up our kayaks, handed out our paddles and pretty much just let us loose. The river was pretty shallow and had relatively slow current so at first it was a pretty low key event. We did eventually encounter several short sections of tricky rapids where Jes and I managed to get stuck a few times. Luckily when it was tough the local guide would get out of his solo kayak and actually stand in the water to push or direct us back in the right direction. So impressive. Everyone was having a ball in the kayaks, singing (mostly Erik & Kieran) and laughing and crashing into each other. Poor Amelia was kayaking with Tien who sang her several love songs in Lao, coupled with many a Gangham-style interlude. It started to rain half way through the 6 hour trip and continued on and off for the remainder but it didn’t really matter. We were already soaked and still having a ball. The setting was beautiful and peaceful, and our company was a blast. Didn’t think we could ask for a better time.
We stopped off at a village half way through to have lunch. It was still raining then so we took shelter under a little roofed platform. Soone and Tien layed out some massive banana leaves and the handed is each a little packet of sticky rice. We were served long beans and omelette. It all tasted great after all that paddling.
The rain eventually let up and we walked through the village for a few minutes. We thought Tien would give us a little information about the village itself (e.g. the name, the type of people living there, anything unique or distinct about it!) but he sort of just led us down the street without saying a word. At some point we passed by a Pétanque field, so he did show us how to play. That was fun, but overall the village stop was very odd. This theme would continue throughout the remainder of our tour.
We continued on in the kayaks and eventually made it to our village homestay. It was Women’s Day, so a big party was ensuing and beer and rice wine was flowing among the locals. This was actually the first time we’d seen women drinking too, which was sort of fun. I guess the party had started much earlier in the day because most of the people were pretty sloshed by the time we got there. We were all handed some beer to drink as soon as we got off the boats, but I think what we really wanted was to just settle in first. I definitely wanted to change into dry clothes. After a little confusion from Tien not explaining where to go, we did eventually find our homestay. Our group would be split up into two homes, but we would eat together in one for dinner. Jes and I had started to play with some of the children of the family we were staying with (rolling an old bicycle wheel frame back and forth to each other) but then Tien again insisted we go for a walk. He sort of told us in broken English about little huts where each family stores their rice for the year but I don’t think we caught much else. If the company of the other trekkers hadn’t been so great, I’d probably have been pretty miserable with the “guiding” we were getting.
We had a delicious dinner that night at our homestay, which Soone and the host family made for us. More sticky rice with accompanying dishes, including my favourite which was tasty tomato stew/dip which had a nice kick to it. We were presented with friendship bracelets and little shoulder bag gifts from the host family as well which was a touching gesture. After dinner, we sat around a beautiful fire outside the house with a few of the children around the village and enjoyed the relaxing setting before finally heading to sleep.
The next morning we awoke to yet another sticky rice breakfast meal (the initial charm was beginning to wear off) and to find that our wet clothes from the day before were still very much wet. Oh well! We got our stuff together, said our goodbyes with the host family and headed off into the jungle. We were also joined by a few local porters from the village who we eventually learned were carrying our food and cooking implements for our next 2 days. The initial part of the trek had us crossing back and forth along a little stream with some slippery rocks where I almost lost my footing right off the bat! Luckily, our local guide Soone quickly made us each a bamboo walking stick (thank god!), which we would all rely on heavily over the next 2 days. Then we finally reached the jungle and were met with an immediate, unforgiving and extremely muddy steep uphill climb. This was not an easy way to begin, and was only a taste of what would be one of the most challenging treks we’d ever done. Interestingly, the “difficulty rating” for this trek was supposed to be a “6/10” which is the easiest one the company offered. I honestly cannot imagine what anything harder would have been like! At some points during our hike, Soone would actually take out a little shovel and cut out grooves into the side of the hill for us to jam our toes into because it was so slick and there was nothing to hold onto. Crazy! We learned that the trail is fairly new (only a few months old), so I guess it’s not as well worn as some of the others. Though covered from the sun, the jungle was still quite humid and so we were drenched in sweat within a few minutes of starting. We essentially spent the whole day climbing up and down through the forest, wading through a mixture of different types of forests and vegetation. Tien didn’t really explain anything about the surrounding jungle or landscape to us, unfortunately, so I don’t have much insight to provide on the area we were trekking through! I can tell you it was quite dense and vast, but also not the most picturesque for photos since there were absolutely no lookout points or viewpoints throughout our entire time. Thankfully we continued to be thoroughly entertained by our awesome new group of friends who would sing and laugh and poke fun at each other to help the time pass. When we finally stopped for lunch, Soone and the porters impressed us with their ability to carve just about any type of eating utensil out of bamboo that they found in the forest. Serving platters, chopsticks and shot glasses were all quickly carved out and handed to us to enjoy yet another sticky rice based meal. So impressive!
A few hours later, we hit a part of the trek where we had to make our way along a super narrow path that hugged the slope of a rather steep mountain. It was slippery and difficult to maneuver (I remember saying a lot of “holy f***!”s in my head and out loud as I tried not to lose my bearings and fall helplessly down the slope), but it eventually gave way to a little valley where we could see the jungle hut that we’d be staying the night. It still took us a little while to finally get down (steep downhills are never my favourite) but when we did arrive, I was thrilled to see a little stream with cold refreshing water running out in front. I jumped into my bathing suit and got right in. I desperately needed a bath or shower, and this cool stream in the middle of the jungle felt amazing! Everyone eventually followed suit, and we had a great time bathing in a stream that barely had even enough room for one person. Didn’t matter, we couldn’t have cared less. Our guides and porters cooked up yet another multi-course meal for us (including soups made with the mushrooms and roots they’d picked in the forest) sided by yet another massive serving of sticky rice. This time Soone also cranked out a nice big bottle of his homemade “lao lao” rice whiskey and forced everyone to gulp down far too many shots of this moonshine drink (unfortunately that meant Jesse had to take my shots as well until we managed to hide the bamboo shotglass from Soone and he stopped pouring me in on the rounds). Another trekking group had actually joined us for the evening at the hut, and their guide offered to take the group to catch crabs a little ways upstream so most of the group went out but Jesse, Mikel and I decided to just hang out by the beautiful campfire and relax at the hut instead. A little while later, we were treated to buckets filled with tiny crabs caught by the crew which the guides roasted right on the fire as a midnight treat. A little more charred shell than I usually like in my crab, but I’m not complaining!
We awoke the next morning, ate our obligatory sticky rice meal and then headed out again to for our final day of hiking. We had a nice long ascent to the top of yet another peak where Soone clapped for each of us when we finally reached the top, but of course there was still no viewpoint to impart any sense of accomplishment. Soon after reaching the summit, we started back on the path down and pretty much slid our way down again to the end. Our final task was to cross a river which they offered to take us in pairs across by kayak, but because we were all already so dirty and sweaty we decided to cross the river by foot instead. We couldn’t wait to jump in. The river was cool and refreshing, but the current was unexpectedly strong and we really needed to jam our feet into the rocks at the bottom of the river in order to not get swept away downstream. Some of the group had a highly entertaining rock skipping competition, but mostly we just took our sweet time to cross the river, letting ourselves cool off in the water and savour our last few minutes of the trek together. Despite its flaws, we had had an awesome time over the last 3 days and were so happy we signed up.
Ironically, once we did finally pull ourselves out of the river and made the climb up the last hill to meet the van that would drive us back to Luang Namtha, we ran into some unexpected road construction and got delayed from not being able to pass for over an hour! So out came the frisbee and card games to pass the time a little more. Eventually the construction let us through and we made our way back.
Our plan had always been to stay one more day in Luang Namtha after the trek and rent a motorbike to tour around the surrounding areas. As luck would have it, the rest of our trekking group also decided that they would rent motorbikes (Kieran actually owned his and has been traveling solo across SE Asia on his bike) and do a 3 day loop together. So we decided to tag along with them for the first day, but still return back as we wanted to make our way back to Northern Thailand in good time. After getting off to a bit of late start the next morning, we eventually hit the road. It was a beautiful day to be touring around, and we really enjoyed the company of being with a group. It was nice to have different people take the lead and to have folks to chat with when you stop for a break. After missing the initial turn off, we eventually backtracked and found the waterfall that we had planned to stop at together. A short walk later we found ourselves at a surprisingly powerful and extremely cold waterfall. The men all decided to take the plunge in, but the gals opted to watch on the sidelines instead. We took some fun photos of our group together one last time before Jes and I headed back towards Luang Namtha and the rest of the group continued on their loop. We were so happy to be able to spend another day with all our newfound friends.
When we arrived back in town, we headed straight for the Night Market where Mikel had told us he’d had the most incredible grilled duck for dinner the night before the trek. He was right – the duck was amazing – perfectly crispy, fatty skin and juicy tender meat. It totally blew our minds with every bite and still stands as one of the best meals of our trip yet. Finally a meal to write home about! It was a great way to end our stay in Laos. The next morning we hopped on another bus to Huay Xai where hopped on a boat to cross over the border back. to Thailand.
Actual travel dates in Luang Namtha: March 7 – 11, 2013