The following post has been provided by my friend, Lynsay Beavers. Lynsay and I have known each other since we were teenagers in 4-H. We both attended the University of Guelph, and now Lynsay works in the dairy industry. She currently lives in Guelph with her husband and loves dreaming of creative ways to use her three weeks’ vacation. Lynsay lives and breathes all things related to agriculture, travel and the outdoors and is a believer of collecting memories instead of things. Stay tuned for more posts from Lynsay in the future!
One way to take the road less traveled: Go somewhere there aren’t any roads!
Luang Namtha, Laos isn’t the easiest place to get to, but the best hiking locations generally aren’t. It was the Nam Ha National Protected Area (NPA) that drew my husband Matt and I to this part of the country. This mostly forested NPA is over 2000 km2 in size and is not only home to 19 different ethnic minority tribes, but also to some of the only remaining wild tigers, elephants and clouded leopards in South East Asia.
Our two-day kayaking and hiking excursion with the company Green Discovery started on a positive note when we met our enthusiastic guide, “Pon” and the Dutch and Austrian couples that would be joining us. People can make or break an experience like this, and we lucked out with an outstanding group!
Day one involved 22km of kayaking with several stops along the way. Our Austrian counterparts had never kayaked before, but got the hang of it quickly with only one spill in shallow water – no big deal! The kayaking was relatively easy. Rapids were not as much an issue as the fallen trees or man-made bridges we’d come across on the river. While river conditions are highly dependent on the proximity to the rainy season, we were travelling just as dry season was approaching.
The first kayaking break was to cook and eat a shore lunch of fish, veggies and sticky rice picked up from the market that morning. My fisherman-husband was infatuated with the fish-cleaning and cooking methods used. Lunch was served on banana leaves and our utensils were our hands.
It was mid-afternoon when we arrived to the first village by kayak. Over the course of two days we’d be visiting three villages, all of which were only accessible by river or a three-hour walk, at minimum, to the closest road. This village, as well as the one we’d stay at that night were home to people of the Khmu tribe. Upon arrival, it seemed eerily quiet and our group was quick to ask Pon where everyone was.
“Rice harvesting season,” he stated, noting any able-bodied adults and children were in the fields in the surrounding mountains and until the harvest was finished, would only return to the village to sleep. Sometimes they’d even sleep at the field in order to save the few hours walk from field, to home, to field again the next morning.
Of course, the village wasn’t entirely deserted. There were free-roaming cows, buffalo, pigs, chickens and dogs galore, the latter considered livestock in this part of the world. However, I was more interested in the handful of people the harvest had left behind – small children and the elderly. One particular young boy, no more than eight years old, approached our group, proud to show us what he was carrying. In a scarf slung around his sounder was a newborn baby. Pon explained to us that this little guy was in charge of caring for the baby while mom and dad were harvesting. Talk about responsibility.
After exploring the village, it was back to the water to finish kayaking to our sleeping destination before dark. Our host villagers cooked us an excellent dinner and passed around Lao-Lao, a rice whisky, giggling at our shudders post-sips. We slept in a bamboo hut designated for guests traveling with Green Discovery. While tourists often want the authentic experience of a home-stay, Pon explained this can be disruptive to families, their homes and routine. We didn’t feel shorted an authentic experience in the slightest though, especially when the roosters, and subsequently, the village, came alive at 4 am!
The next day was trekking day, or “hiking,” as us Canadians would call it. Over the course of several hours, we trekked along the river, beside rice fields mid-harvest, and through old growth, primary rainforest. We spotted some gigantic trees and Pon constantly pointed out plants, fruit, birds and animal signs. The man knew the forest inside out! But it was the Dutch fellow in our group that came across the most extraordinary bug – one Pon had never seen in his extensive forest experience. Granted, this was a bug that was hard to miss!
The last few hours of our trek was through the rainforest. You know how some people have a “thing” about spiders or snakes? Well, I have exactly that with leeches. Little did any of us know that rainforest hiking can mean dodging leeches that stand on end, flailing in the air in attempt to attach themselves onto your hiking boots as you pass. Once they’ve made it onto your shoes, they squirm their way up your socks and onto your legs, upon which they feast. Long socks and sporadic leech checks allowed me to complete the trek despite a major case of the heebe-geebees! Pon, on the other hand, trekked the entire time in flip-flops and didn’t bat an eye when he had a leech.
Late afternoon, we arrived to the third and final village, home to an ethnic minority of Chinese descent. The group, called “Lethen,” specialized in growing cotton, spinning it and creating all of their own clothing, most of which is dyed indigo blue. We crouched down to watch children playing a game on the ground where they attempted to blow two stacked plastic disks as far away from each other as possible. Next thing I knew, they were “rock, paper, scissoring” with Matt, and he was the hilarious, tall man they couldn’t make lose their game enough.
Back in town that night, the three couples reassembled after checking into guest houses and getting cleaned up. We ate together and reminisced, agreeing that Pon was one of the best parts of the adventure. Earlier that day, one of the Austrians had asked Pon if he had ever travelled outside of Laos and where he’d most like to go.
His answers were “no” and “anywhere.” Living in a communist, poor country makes it nearly impossible for Laotians to travel outside of their country. But wow, was this man excited to show us his! The six of us all took home a page out of Pon’s book: be infectiously proud of where you’re from. I’ll be leaving the page about hiking through leach infested forest in flip-flops though, thanks.