After transiting from Myanmar through north Thailand, we finally arrived in Laos! We had been looking forward to visiting the country of 6.5 million people, where the low population density (compared to its neighbors) and relatively low tourist numbers sounded very appealing. Our first stop after an overly convoluted border crossing at Chiang Khong (bus from Chiang Rai to a road in Chiang Khong, tuk tuk from the road to a bridge, stamp out of Thailand, bus across the bridge, stamp into Laos, tuk tuk to a bus station, bus onward) was the small trekking town of Luang Namtha. Luang Namtha is the largest town in northern Laos, but at 28,000 people it’s pleasantly small and quiet.
Organizing a trek in town is easy since the dozen or so operators have shops on the main street with boards outside showing how many people have signed up for which route. As with many other places, the more people signed up for the trek, the lower the price per person, so these boards can help you determine where to go and which company to use. Setting up a couple days of trekking for the following morning is easily done without booking in advance at any of the companies. We noticed a pretty big price difference between some companies, with the big ones charging 1.5x as much as some of the smaller ones. Elephant Trail Travel Company was our choice, mainly due to the low price (compared to the others, none of it was overly cheap) and glowing reviews written by hand and plastered throughout the office. The old saying that you get what you pay for was about to prove itself true for us!
We met our guide and the one other hiker that had signed up with us for the three day/two night trek to Elephant Mountain ($98pp for 1-3 people) early the following morning. The trek was in the Nam Ha Protected Area, going up Elephant Mountain to peer into nearby China, and to swim in a waterfall, staying in homestays on the way. Our guide, Mee, was a jovial local who had lived in the jungle his whole life. Every other sentence he said was a joke and he always had a reason to laugh. Mee was absolutely the highlight of our trek, which unfortunately wouldn’t go as positively as his happy-go-lucky attitude. A songthaew drove us a half hour to a local market, which was very different from any other market we had been to over our past months in Asia.
Pig intestines sat next to noodles, dead civets laid near the exotic fruits, and a monkey with half of its head missing was being cut up for its meat near the greens. Toads jumped in their baskets, buffalo hooves were stacked high, and chicken feet were just waiting for a hungry shopper to take them home. Prior to this visit we thought seeing roasted scorpions and fried crickets was something, but this market had absolutely changed our weird-meter forever. Mee gleefully ran about and grabbed small bags of meat and vegetables, hooking them onto our arms, keeping us somewhat useful as we stared at our surroundings in a bit of shock. A half hour later we were back on the road, for another half hour drive to our starting point.
A few local children were incredibly amused by our presence. Mee told us they might have trekkers in that area once a week in high season, and these kids hardly ever see westerners. We checked our GPS app to see where we were, since our trek was supposed to be inside of the Nam Ha Protected Area, but we appeared to be outside of it. We were told that we’d be walking into it, but first we’d stop at a local village. The village was in sight from where we stopped, and when we walked through we were surrounded by smiling children and a strangely large number of pigs. Kids ran to pull on our arm hairs (many Lao people don’t have much body hair) and pigs scurried out of the way as we walked through.
Past the village we came across a patch of jungle, which opened up to a hill of trees that had been cut down and covered the ground. Mee climbed up on top of the thick blanket of dead trees and told us this had only happened in the last week. One of the local tribes used to cut down the jungle and burn it to clear the way for new rice terraces, but were forbidden from doing so any longer by the government. Since the smoke from the fires would signal to the police that they were continuing to cut in protected areas, they just cut the jungle down and left it to rot instead. We climbed on top of dead branches and trunks, our legs getting cut every few steps from thick vines full of thorns. Even Mee struggled in places, tripping from time to time and getting caught by thorns.
45 minutes later, we were out of the death and decay of the fallen trees and into the living jungle. Mee began grabbing every other plant we passed and showing us how he would use it while in the jungle. He hacked a banana flower from a tree with his machete, bamboo shoots off the side of the path, and leaves from various trees as we walked. The hiking was easy, with small inclines and declines, but we were pouring sweat from the humidity of the jungle. At lunch time Mee hacked down a few more banana leaves and laid them on the ground as a table. He made spoons from smaller leaves and some bamboo toothpicks he carved, and handed us leaf-bowls filled with food. Our jungle lunch was delicious, and was a mix of things he had hacked down on the hike and a few things he bought in the market earlier. When we had finished up, he threw our leaf table, leaf bowls, and leaf spoons back to the jungle.
Mee had something to tell us about virtually every plant we came across, and when we stopped to stare at a squirrel high up a tall tree, he asked if we wanted to climb up to see it. We told him we obviously couldn’t climb the tall, smooth tree, and as soon as he heard that, he dropped his backpack and began his ascent up the trunk!
Climbing a relatively long but gradual hill, Mee showed us another of his tricks by building a trap to catch an animal for food. He hacked away at some bamboo trees and cut a branch off another tree with ease, and began fashioning these into a very interesting trap. After balancing a piece of bamboo on top of another few pieces sticking from the ground, he showed how his trap would catch a snake or rodent that passed by. With a stick he tapped the trigger where the animal would pass through, and THWACK, his trap snapped down with incredible force.
A good seven hours of hiking through the jungle, we finally emerged at a village with Mee still joking and hacking at whatever we came close to. The village was semi-remote, with locals starting fires near the dirt road to cook food and keep warm, however there was basic power in each house and the dirt roads led to a paved one that connected back to Luang Namtha, so it wasn’t as remote as it may have looked at first glimpse. According to our GPS app we had never entered the Nam Ha Protected Area, but the jungle was nice anyway and Mee showed us some really interesting things in the jungle, so we were happy. Our dinner was another collection of market and jungle food combined, and Mee taught us the proper way of drinking lao Lao, or local rice whisky. He taught us by making us try over and over until we remembered the proper way to cheers in Lao and the correct number of shots to take, getting us very drunk in the process. Our beds were some blankets on the floor which we had become accustomed to while trekking in Myanmar, and were plenty comfortable, especially after the Lao Lao.
The next day we were off, with the intention of climbing up the mountain and seeing China on the other side, descending to a waterfall, and getting to the next village just before sunset. We climbed up a mountain for a few hours, but at the top we didn’t have much of a view, partially due to the seasonal haze, and partially because we were facing away from China and a few hundred meters below the height we should have been at. Mee was relying on a villager to guide us, which seemed odd to have a guide guiding our guide, but we went with it. During our second jungle lunch Mee showed us how to use a piece of bamboo as a pot to boil our meat, banana leaves, rattan, and bamboo shoots before setting another leaf table.
After lunch we noticed we were descending the mountain pretty fast, and we heard some kids off in the distance. I asked about the kids since we hadn’t heard anyone else during our time in the jungle, and it wasn’t even 2pm, we shouldn’t have been near anyone else. Mee shrugged and suggested some kids were trekking as well, but a few minutes later we emerged from the jungle and found a village. Checking our GPS we saw that we again had not entered the Nam Ha area, and Mee told us we had missed the waterfall and were at our second night’s stop.
When we asked about getting to the top of the mountain or the waterfall, he said he thought the mountain we went to was the right one, but maybe not, and the villager had forgotten the correct path to the waterfall. Pretty unhappy with our situation, missing the highlights of the trek we signed up for, and being in a rural village at 2pm without much to do until we slept at 10pm, I asked if we had much to see the following day during the six hour trek back that was specified by the sales office. He responded that the following day would be a two hour maximum walk back to the road where a songthaew would drive us back to Luang Namtha. That was the last straw for us, and we asked which way the road was, and walked the two hours that day, leaving Mee and our other companion in the village.
Our protest of the misrepresentation of the trek once we reached the office was decently well received, but didn’t seem to surprise the salesman that had helped us the day prior. He apologized and offered us a free bus ticket to Luang Prabang, which is where we had planned to visit next. Although we paid almost $200 between the two of us for three days and two nights on a specific itinerary and only had two days and one night, the $15 concession was as good as it was going to get, so we took it and left Luang Namtha with a similar story to many others. It’s pretty common with the lower priced companies to be sold on a trip that won’t happen the way it’s sold, with countless tales of the same thing happening online. Luang Namtha is a beautiful area with some really interesting things to learn in the jungle, but if you’re after cheap trekking you may not find it, and if you’re excited to go where the sales office says you’re paying for, be ready for a change of plans with no notice (and no admission of fault).