The Jungles of Luang Namtha

Not everyone makes it to Northern Laos; it’s remote, sparsely populated, and out of the way of many travel routes. Up in Luang Namtha, we were close to the borders of both Myanmar as well as South Central China. The mountainous jungles that surrounded us are one of the few places left in the world that are home to wild tigers, although most avoid human contact, having long figured out that we are more dangerous than we are delicious.

The drive up was nauseating, to say the least. I don’t know how Teresa and I made it without puking in the back seat of the rickety old van we caught a lift in from Huay Xi, but the moment it stopped and we stepped out into the warm air, the sickness instantly vanished and we were struck once again with excitement and awe. Luang Namtha is completely embedded in mountains. The town tiers upwards, dotted with colonial style buildings and a large golden Buddhist temple overlooking it all. Cloud cover is maximal and the roads are ridiculously wide for the little traffic that traverses them. Guess what: the food is effing awesome.

We came to Luang Namtha for the jungle trekking. A little operation across the street from our guesthouse is run by a New Zealand couple who offer a wide array of trekking options as well as a random stone oven they use to make all kinds of pizza. This was the first time we caved and ate “Western” food, about 3 weeks into the trip.

We browsed through a catalogue of adventure tours and we happened to select what was described as the most challenging trek available, ranked 9-10 out of 10 in terms of difficulty. We waited with fingers crossed to see if anyone else signed up for the same hike, but alas, we were the only two out of the scarce number of travelers in town who opted for this particular package (although it was just a day trek, not an overnighter).

Our guide’s name was Joi, and that he was; a student learning to speak English and doing an amazing job of it, he was just as excited for the trek as we were. We were driven to a remote village where we met up with Sai, another guide who spoke little English, but knew a bit of Vietnamese from his time as a soldier in the 1970s, and thus could converse with Teresa a little better. This man literally created the trail that we signed up for, hacking away at the elevating brush with a machete as Joi collected roots from the jungle that would be used for our midday lunch at the summit of one of the mountains.

We saw scores of monkeys swinging through the trees in large, loud groups, massive spiders hanging out in one of the overnight shacks that we would have stayed in had we opted for the overnighter, and a slew of other flora and fauna that kept our adrenaline going and the excitement ample.

We were sweating buckets and luckily Joi brought a backpack full of large water bottles which we greedily lapped up as he explained to us his way of life in Northern Laos, his desire to one day travel beyond the borders of his country and see the rest of the world. The man was younger than both Teresa and myself, but had a mature, adult air about him coupled with the youthful ambition one often sees in a person working towards a highly sought-after future that’s just out of reach, yet still attainable. He was an absolute pleasure (not corny enough to say “joy”) to be around.

Our lunch was phenomenal. Sai’s wife prepared us some sautéed beans and beef, baskets of sticky rice and huge banana leafs that we used as both plates and sitting mats to enjoy this delicious meal. And of course, the jungle roots (I have no clue what the name of them are) added a refreshing bite to a savory cuisine. The sticky rice was our cutlery, the lush mountains our scenic backdrop, the whooping call of the monkey’s our ambient soundtrack. Butterflies landed on my shoulder, hanging out with us as we dined. Good times.

The entire first half of the trek was on an incline. The second half? You guessed it: down, down, down. So much so that my toes became sore from being forced into the front of my shoes as we rapidly descended. The lush green transformed into fields of tall bamboo, thatched together so that we had to work our way around its intricately laid out networks. (By the way, Sai had to head back after lunch, and since the driver took off with the canoe that we crossed the village-side river with, the man had to swim back to his stilted hut, machete in his mouth and backpack hovering precariously on his back, so I imagine).

After two more hours, out of a total of six, we finally emerged into a massive rice field being tended to by four farmers, two women and two men, all at least in their 50s.

luang namtha rice field

They graciously allowed us to trek through their fields. We had to gingerly avoid the emerging rice paddies, many of which were only visible upon close inspection, having been planted that recently. We finally made it to a tributary of the river we first crossed, and there was our driver, a smiling, heavyset gentleman who canoed us across and back to the truck he drove us in. As we reached the rocky bank, I pulled up my pant legs which had been tucked into my socks; somehow, a leech or two managed to penetrate my clothing and latch on to me for the ride. My pants and leg were soaked with blood, which I washed away in the river, revealing two perfect puncture holes that made it look like a rookie vampire went for my ankle instead of my neck. Teresa was the same, only with one wound instead of two. We had just finished a massive, exhilarating trek; these little leech holes were laughable at this point. Just another souvenir of yet another awesome, fulfilling adventure.

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