Northern Lao, where countries collide like tectonic plates culturally subducting with names like Akha, Hmong, Yunan, Kamu, Shan, Burmese, Chin, Kachin, Karen, Mon, Kmer and Zou.
After arriving in Houay Xai, we decided to stay the night at Daauw Home. I wanted to stay here because all profits go to their Woman Empowerment Activities for the Ethnic Minorities in the Mountains of Laos. There are only three wooden bungalows and fortunately one was vacant. They are basic but have mosquito net, shower and toilet inside and a porch. I am sorry we ate dinner earlier in town because the attached restaurant has a relaxing terrace overlooking the Mekong River. They were making pizzas in their wood fired oven that looked very tasty and there is also organic chicken on the menu.
The following morning we took a mini bus to Luang Namtha. The four hour trip was rough. The little bus was packed and it swayed from side to side going over the mountain “highway.” No AC but the windows did provide some breeze. I had two monks dozing next to me and they would roll onto me during the curves. That was rather fun. When they were awake they were all smiles and talking in Lao language to Anna (yes she speaks Lao too).
After that I decided we needed a nice place to rest up before booking a trek. The Dokchampa Hotel is large and modern. I booked a VIP room based on word of mouth and was glad I did. It is large and has a nice bathtub! The advertised satellite TV does not work anywhere in the hotel and they could not explain why. Not a big deal but it would have been fun for a change.
It is next door to Forest Retreat the best and only trekking company in town. The numerous others, many located within a block or two of the hotel, are just agencies.
We had a nice farang dinner in their eco-friendly establishment and booked a one day trek for the following day into the Nam Ha Protected Area. They have arrangements with some of the local hill tribe villages and part of the fees go directly there.
The following morning it was crisp as we walked next door and met our guide. Anna and I were the only ones on this trek so we basically had a private guide. He spoke English to me and Lao to Anna. We left town and turned onto a dirt road heading into the mountains. Twenty kilometers later we stopped at a small village where we picked up our two local woman guides. Three guides, two customers, one driver!
Another 10 minutes and we stopped by the roadside. An inflatable kayak was brought down from the top of the large songtao truck and we all scrambled down the bank to the river. In groups of two we paddled across the river.
The next 20 minutes was the hardest of the day as we climbed very steeply up through dense jungle using toeholds, vines, knuckles and anything else to help. It was hot and rough and I was dripping wet in no time at all.
From there we continued mostly uphill for another two hours or so. I had no timepiece so I am approximating. Along the way we stopped to forage for wild mushrooms, young bamboo shoots and tubers which would supplement our lunch.
The jungle was dense and the trails were unmarked. We saw no other people the entire day, nor did we see a single piece of trash or even a cigarette butt!. We got fairly deep in the National Protected Area for a one day trek. The multi-day treks naturally get deeper.
Sadly there is still prevalence of illegal slash and burn deforestation which the government seems intent on ignoring. I suppose since the Chinese are building dams, hospitals and schools in the region, it is hard to refuse their hard currency for timber.
We arrived at a summit of sorts where large leaves were cut and laid into a tabletop on the ground where lunch was laid out, including sautéed pumpkin, sticky rice, mushrooms and young bamboo shoots. We washed our hands, sat on the ground and ate with our fingers. It was a wonderful meal!
We trekked up and down for several more hours, stopping to rest and hydrate. It was hard work and dense going but unique among my many lifetime hiking experiences. Anna, who had never trekked, did very well. She is strong and fit; but we both tired especially during the later hours.
The last hour or so was down a creek bed with many large banyan trees. Finally, we magically arrived back at the river crossing where our kayak and driver were waiting to transport us across to the truck and home to a waiting bathtub.
Minibus ride 30,000 kip each. If you can find a large VIP bus then take it.
Dokchampa Hotel—VIP room 160,000 kip/night (US$20). Standard room 80,000 kip/night.
Forest Retreat Trekking Company. Supports local tribal villages. One day or multi-day trips. Customized trips available. They cost a bit more than the agencies, but you get what you pay for. Our trek was 900,000 kip for us both (About US$100) including transportation, lunch, water and three guides. It would have been the same for one person. Additional people and the price slides down. Tip: If you are traveling solo, try and find another person to go on your trek. It will cut your per person cost in half.