The area of Luang Namtha is famous for the hiking opportunities and the different minortiy villages in that area where you can have real homestays. And like so many other parts in Laos it is not run over by tourists, which means the minority villages have not become like Disneyland (some travellers have use that comparison with homestay in northern Thailand as in some villages they only use their local cloth for show for tourist). So when in the area it is a must-do. Every agency in the town is offering several treks with various level of qualities. And the cheapest one are not always the best. When choosing one agency consider if the village you visit will benefit from it. Forest Retreat was recommended, and it seems they do not just visit the same village all the same time, but supporting a number of villages – even when not bringing tourists there. They also provide job opportunities for younger people from the village in their cafe. The price for a trek is higher than from other agency – but the quality of the gear for kayaking was great and the guide I had spoke good English. They offer different treks withs various levels of difficulties. So check what treks are available.
I decided to do a day-trek, staying in a minority village for the night, and do a kayaking trip during the second day. The price for the 2 day trip was 750.000 Kip, including 2x lunch, 1x dinner, 1 breakfast, drinking water and a bed. The final price depends on the number of people in the group, and I managed to find another person who stayed in the village. A Czech couple joined us for the trek, but they decided to spend the night in the jungle.
The trip starts in the morning, meeting point was the Forest Retreat office, and a breif visit of the local markets to buy some supply. Being able to stroll through the market was actually fun and a nice way to start the day.
With their minibus we headed then to the the east part of the Nam Ha National Park. It was only a 30 minute drive, going off the main road onto a dirt road where minority villages are lined along the Nam Tha river. We stopped between two villages where our trek started.
Straight at the start of the trek you are thwon into the deep water – literally. We had to cross the river – with no bridge or boat in sight. Instead you walk carefully through the river. You either walk bare feet, or if you are lucky, you can use your flip flops. It makes a bit more comfortable for the crossing. After finishing the main part, crossing another little arm of the Nam Tha river was easy.
After the wet start the real trek started. There are no paved path or antyhing like that – you walk through the jungle, though the walk was cleared. Still you had to walk over fallen trees. Considering the terraine it would be advisebale to have propler walking shoes or boots with you. In addition of protecting you ankle it also helps to protect against leeches – which you will encounter during the hike. The guides keep an eye on your legs to spot any leeches on the way towards the feet, and remove them before they bite. If you get bitten, they will remove them carefully (with a lighter). Surprisinlgy, it is not painful when they bite, so you might not even realise you are bitten, but after removing them the wound can bleed quite a bit.
The beginning of the trek was the easiest part – just flat terraine trhough the forest – however, you feel the humidity very quickly. The trees were already quite impressive, and the guides started soon to show us some little animals, or rather insects, whenever they spotted one. There are larger mammals in that area, but it is not very likely you will see them during a trek.
Soon the ascents and descents started, climbing up rocks. Due to the rain of the previious day it was not that easy. I didn’t even realsie that we walked up the highest point in that area – until it was too late and we started a very steep ascend. It was tough – and I wouldn’t call that stretch meidum difficuly. The reward of the painful climb was a great view of the surrounding area, and getting comfortabloe on the top of the hill for lunch.
Our guides carried the food for all of us, and served on banana leaves while sitting on the floor. Here I realised the big advantage of sticky rice – no need for cutlery. Overall the food was lovely, and it was nice to sit down for a while to enjoy the scenery.
After lunch it was time to climb down the hill through the now familair setting of massive trees while sufferig from the high humidity. Later that afternoon we arrived at a little house withing the jungle – the accomodation for those preferring staying a night in the jungle. It is very basic, with a big room to sleep on the floor, a fireplace outside to cook and a outdoor toilet.
After saying bye to half of our group the walk continued, thankfully it was now on flat terraine again. On the way we pased some trees with fresh mushrooms, which we collected for dinner.
After reaching the river again our worry that we have to walk through the river was gone straight away as a boat was waiting for us to bring us to the other side, where your minibus was waiting with cold water, and drove us to the minority village for our overnight stay.
The minority village had maybe around 30-40 houses located near the river and the little road. They do not have houses for tourists, instead you wil sleep in the house of the village’s chief – on the floor. While you can use their normal toilets outside, at least they installed a western style toilet as well. Washing facility was either the river or a little open air shower without provacy. It really was very basic – which I think is great. Food is prepared in the chief’s house, where you can watch the guide and the locals preparing the food. It was very basic, but delicious. In addition of some vegetarian curry it also included the mushrooms, snails and chillies collected by us during the hike. Sitting in the chief’s house and having dinner with his family was a great experience.
You have also time to explore the village a bit. The children there were very curious about the two foreigner. By using many different villages for homestays Forest Retreat ensures that having tourists there was still something special – and you could feel it. Seeing my camera kids were posing, or trying to impress me by climbing onto a tree and jumping down – while giggling the whole time. Playing a little bit football helped to bond as well. The parents enjoyed watching the spectacle unfolding. For these iteractions it really is worthwhile to stay in a village instead of the jungle. It is a great experience. In the evening we were siting with some of the younger adults, chatting a bit, and having one or two beer we were able to buy in the local shop. Here I learned that the kids go to school for a few years, but often they have to stop, instead they have to work to support the family. Unfortunately this means most children here have no chance to really improve the situation of their family. This is why the work opportunities provided by Forest Retreat is so important. But this make me think, andput the whole epxerience I had here into perspective.
On day two it was time for kayaking after breakfast and more time to walk around the village. You might get up a bit earlier, as everyone else in the village starts getting ready for work from 4am onwards, with the added noise. So no chance for a late lay in. For the kayaking two inflatable kayaks were ready for us. Our guide was in one baot, while the two tourists shared the second – with a briefing provided by our guide. As I had some experience I was sitting in the back, and after our first little rapid my fellow kayak partner understood it would be a good idea to listen to me.
The kayaking trip took around 2-3 hours. The water level in the river was rather low, so the rapids were mainly very easy to navigate. It was actually nice to see the scnerey passing by – trees, villages, farms, and more trees. Overall I would have rated the difficulty level fo kayaking low. At some points it was more important to navigate through some rocks and not to ground the kayak.
The destination of our kayaking trip was another little village. As this village focused on weaving it was more wealthy, as you could see by the houses. It was interesting watching locals working at homes and also to walk through the village where kids were very keen to get pictures taken after seeing the camera – they just didn’t let you go. Like in the other village it felt so nice here – so untouristy. No one tried to sell you something – just plain curiosity of us and the locals. These were moments you will hardly ever forget and were probably the highlight of this two day trip.
The return trip up the river towards Luang Namtha was done by boat – our kayaks stored onto the board. Due to the low water level the guy in the front of the boat had to use a paddle to get the boat arund some rocks. Fascinating to watch it. it was an relaxing end of a two day adventure.
Trekking is really an activity that should be done in Luang Namtha. Make sure you clarify the difficulty level before booking. I booked a medium one, but thought it was harder than that. Due to the humidity I would now choose a route that not just goes through the jungle, but maybe through some farmlands as well. I also would always choose to stay in a minority village, even though the sound of a house in the jungle sounds appealing. Experiencing the real village life is just something that sould not be missed – and I would recommend using Forest Retreat for treks in this area. But do not expect any luxury stay – it is very basic, and to be honest, I am glad it was that basic.
Whatever agency you choose, make sure you have the right shoes with you. I would not use open shoes in the jungle, especially during the rainy season. leeches are no fun things to have. Also bring decent mosquito spray with you – otherwise you will be eaten alive.