Luang Nam tha, Laos – Jungle boogie

1,300,000 kip or around $160 aus in Luang Nam tha will get you two local guides, incredible food, ok lodging and many lessons on jungle medicine.

Early the following morning, with jet lag still failing to catch Jette we meet our guide for the jungle trek. Kong is in his mid twenties, a short Lao man from the Khmu group. He is incredibly fit and has the quietly apologetic air common to rural Asians. It is almost as if Kong wishes he was more transparent, less real than he is. He is so softly spoken that throughout our trek Jette and I find ourselves constantly asking him to repeat himself. Each time he does though, he becomes more softly spoken, apologetic and harder to understand. Kong, however is comfortable in the jungle, his father took him on regular treks through the jungle and passed on his knowledge. Kong’s parents are farmers and have nine children, no doubt they were hoping that at least one would stay and help with the farm, none did.

After a forty-five minute drive, the minivan drops us beside a small bamboo town, ever present curious children peek at us in their grubby clothes. Kong runs off to find an assistant for the trek. He returns with a tiny lady in tow who is wearing a printed t-shirt and a long traditional dress. She maintains shy eye contact with her green thongs throughout introductions. We bundle our respective loads onto our backs and set off through rice paddies. It takes four hours to walk from 500 meters to 1,600 meters in the heat, all the way we battle humidity, spiky vines, bugs, leeches and sticky red mud which fill our shoe treads and render them useless.

On the trail Kong shows us many types of plants, both medicinal and tasty. Ginger, one tree used to treat diarrhoea, one for nausea, one to bring on labour, one for toothache. Kong also helped his assistant to collect various vegetables and spices on the way to use for tonights dinner. I am starting to feel like the lead actor in Avatar as Kong displays his impressive knowledge and connection with the jungle. I would not have been surprised if he had pulled out a tendril and plugged himself into a tree or fern, that would have got awkward.

Hot, sweaty, dirty and tired we finally arrive at our jungle camp, a basic platform set in the saddle of two mountains. Kong disappears with the assistant to cook dinner, leaving us to pull out torn, musty mattresses to read and snooze. The buzzing of crickets and cicadas fills the hot, still air.

As night falls we wander to the other hut where dinner is being cooked in a bamboo tube propped in a small fire. I cannot for the life of me figure out how the bamboo does not burn through as we cook. Kong busily throws in the various spices and exotic plants collected on the trek into the tube, along with some buffalo, chili and rice. Sometime later he determines that dinner is ready and pours the contents out onto a palm leaf, also gathered that day. The food tastes incredible. Slightly spicy with just a hint of muddy bamboo flavor and tender beef. I cannot believe it had been glooped out of a bamboo tube and cooked on an open fire. Over dinner I ask Kong about unexploded ordinances left behind after the war. He says that we could feel safe walking down the right hand side of the hill but not up to the left, that way has a risk of mines and possibly unexploded bombs. Mental note!

With dinner finished, the washing up done (by means of throwing the palm leaf into the shrub) we set out on a night walk to find some animals. Two hours later, still stumbling through the dark sharing a single torch we have not seen a thing except a lone millipede carefully navigating a fallen tree. Myriad insect noises and vague rustling comes from the darkness, teasing us as we bumble past. Kong takes us past a tree with four parallel lines cut into it. He tries to tell us that a panther recently must have climbed this tree. Neither Jette or I fall for this. It is clearly a fallback, a consolation prize, shown to people when the animals do not cooperate.

Finally back at the sleeping platform we tuck in our slightly ripped mosquito net and lie down to sleep. Jette does not sleep very well. The night for her is one long torture as she imagines large bugs creeping under the net and into her sleeping bag. The sounds of the insects surrounding us is magnified by the pitch black darkness. The bugs fall silent and allow Jette some sleep in the early morning hours when rain washes away their song and cools the air.

The walk out is much more agreeable than the walk in was. An early start before the heat, combined with about eighty percent downhill sees us happily and muddily sliding back to a second village and our pickup. On the descent Jette and I are slipping and sliding quite a bit in the fresh mud. Surprisingly Kong’s assistant, in her plastic thongs, only slips once.

A bouncy bumpy minivan ride finishes back at Luang Namtha depositing two sweat and mud streaked trekkers onto the main road. We wander to the same hotel due to its locality and set about quarantining our dirty trekking clothes until we are able to find a laundry.

Tomorrow we head south, we are going to bus our way south through Laos and into Cambodia. To maintain a respectable budget we have allowed ourselves one flight only from this point onwards, this means that tomorrow will be a long bus day.

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