Martin Chambers

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Trekking in northern Laos

First published West Australian travel, April 2009.

Laos is the most undeveloped and least populated country in Southeast Asia and as most of the population and tourism is in the south, a trekking holiday in the north is a real opportunity to get away from it all. Much of the area near the border with China, between Vietnam and Burma, is reserved as National Protected Area. A few small towns service hundreds of semi substance villages that are nestled in the forest and along the rivers. 

Our first trek was in an area about 50km northeast of Luang Namtha. Treks are limited to a maximum of eight, with a guide and a local cook. The paths are narrow, a network of single file walking tracks connecting one stream crossing to the next, or winding a steep way to yet another ridge or crest for views of subtropical rainforest and verdant green valleys. Without a guide you would easily get lost and standing on a ridge with a magnificent view of the prehistoric past we got the sense that there are probably dinosaurs still lost out there. Why is it that a view without any sign of human activity lifts the soul so much? We stayed in bamboo huts each night with basic sleeping bags, matt beds and mosquito nets supplied, so although described as a camping trek there was no need to carry tents or camping gear. This made for lightweight walking with only a change of clothes required. We were surprised at how cool it was at night so if you are there in the dry season, take warm clothes. Our second trek was in an area southwest of Namtha, staying in villages, usually in the house of the chief. Each village had some permanent fields for farming depending on the terrain, but mostly they rotate crops in cleared areas of forest over a seven year cycle. This requires an area of about 50 hectares that is mostly regrowth jungle. Again, the path was narrow and steep, with frequent creek crossings and hilltop views across the valley to patchwork habitations a mere 5000 years old. 

These are ethnic minority villages. We stayed with Lantan, H’mong, Khamu and Akha peoples so costume, religion, house designs and village layout were subtly different, as were the craftworks offered for sale. Children would gather around us, playing games and singing. Learn some songs before you go. Although the official language is Lao, ethnic minorities speak their own languages and few can speak Lao. This made for interesting communications. After the evening meal and a ritualistic passing around of Laolao, a potent local rice wine than tasted of buffalo and straw, our guide invited us to ask the chief questions. We asked in English, he translated to Lao for the local guide who asked the chief in local language, then the answer came back to us. It was an unwieldy but good humored conversation. 

We asked why most of the edible foods in the forest seemed to be medicinal for ‘sore tummy,’ and why one, called ‘happy mushroom’ was eaten by old men and made them smile. Why only old men, we asked? Was this a form of Viagra? But the only answer we could get was, ‘Old men happy, yes’, to much laughter and another round of Laoao. Think of Laolao as ‘unviagra’. Then when we asked how many children he had, the answer came as ‘enough.’ We tried to clarify this, he answered, ‘as many as I need.’ This village was lucky enough to have its own school, but when children are in school they are not available for work. To the chief, what matters is that there are enough people to do the work. Although there is no doubt that schooling will equip children with skills for the modern world, it will put pressure on traditional life. It is also likely to be the demise of minority languages as all schooling is conducted in Lao. While I was contemplating the parallel to the history of Australia and the extinction of our own indigenous languages, a Swiss couple in our group lamented the poverty of those villages without a school. Are traditional ways doomed anyway or does education cause it? This is a ‘chicken and egg’ question. I am sure the chief would answer, ‘It does not matter if the chicken or the egg came first, so long as you have enough.’ This is why we travel, to see these things and to think and discuss and broaden our minds. With no power, no running water and little money; with families living in single room bamboo houses with plenty of food and hard work, there are more smiles and laughter in a village of 200 than I see everyday lunchtime along St Georges Terrace. What is poverty? 

Back in Namtha we hired mountain bikes for $5 a day and rode 60 km across the range to Muang Sing, just 12 km from China. Muang Sing is famous as the former site of the largest opium market in the world. Now it is a rough but friendly frontier town, not too used to western tourists but well acquainted to the concept of trade. Here you can buy Chinese clothes, tractors and women. The clothes, cheap; the tractor, ingenious; and the women, well, that was just what we were told.

All trekking is strictly controlled, you cannot trek without a local guide and a portion of all trekking fees go to the village. To spread the benefit around the treks stop in different villages and never in the same village two nights running. This keeps the reception fresh and we often felt as if we were the first to ever visit and as each company treks in a different area you will never meet other groups. Most popular treks are two or three days but longer treks are available.

We ended our month with a three day inflatable kayak trip on the Nam Ha river, grade two rapids every few hundred metres; easy and warm and lots of fun. We again overnighted in villages and near the confluence with the Mekong joined a long boat for a trip up to Huay Xai on the border with Thailand.

If kayaking is not your thing, a longboat ride is a must. In fact if you visit in the wet it may well be the only access to some places. These are traditional boats, scaled up canoes with a Toyota car engine mounted in the back. The skipper sits atop the engine steering, while his two crew perch in the bow with paddles, madly pushing the bow away from rocks and guiding the 13 metre boat down rapids. You get to share this exhilarating ride with goats or chooks or bags of rice.

Overall northern Lao is fairly primitive but I was disappointed while sitting with a cup of Loa coffee, strong coffee with sweetened condensed milk, to hear another guest complaining that there were no hot showers. Most of the people here wash in the river (unheated) and have to push the pigs away when they squat on the toilet. It is a fascinating area with lovely people, but don’t expect luxury. 

Getting there. Fly Air Asia from Kuala Lumpur to Vientiane and Lao airlines to Luang Namtha, or take the bonerattling bus ride from Vientiane. You can also cross into Lao from Thailand at Huay Xai and take the longboat upriver to Luang Namtha.

Trekking: several companies operate out of Luang Namtha and a few in Muang Sing. Green Discovery has a good website at www.greendiscoverylaos.com . Prices for treks are based on how many are on the trek, so book ahead and they can fill the trek with others. These same companies offer mountain bikes, kayaks and longboats.

Money: Lao Kip is the official currency but for larger transactions American dollars are accepted. ATM’s in Vientiane will issue up to 2million kip a day from savings or credit cards. 

Language: English will get you by in most places, and a Lao phrasebook will help at the markets. A picture book is a good idea. 

When to go: peak season is in the dry, December to Feb.