Laos is probably one of the most scenic countries I have ever visited – second to Scotland, of course – so during our short 8 day trip there, we decided to get off the beaten track and get up those mountains, and boy were we glad we did.
We did a lot of research prior to beginning our hike as is our tendency, and decided we were going to mosey on up to Nong Khiaw and do a two day trek with a local home-stay included. There are a few companies who do these treks, so make sure you have all the info you need. While we had a positive experience, there were some factors about our journey which took us by surprise.
The day started at a local restaurant – 45 minutes later my muesli finally arrived and I wolfed it down to head off to the office to get started. We were introduced to our lovely young guide, Peng. ‘It means expensive in English, you call me expensive’ he repeated over and over again. This young man was certainly full of energy, and we were able to ask him a lot of questions about Laotian culture and traditions which we would perhaps not have felt comfortable asking an older person.
Off we wandered down to the river’s edge, and hopped into a narrow, really rather rocky boat. I cannot explain to you how beautiful the scenery was, meandering down the Nam Ou river between rugged green mountains on either side. Along our little journey we watched young monk novices playing in the river while the elder monks bathed, families paddling by on their boats and local fishermen trying to catch that night’s supper. We also saw the heartbreaking pollution as plastic bags and tetra-packs floated down the river alongside us getting tangled in the tree roots at the river’s edge- completely unavoidable in South-East Asia, no matter how remote you think you are. Little reminder to say no to unnecessary plastic while travelling – does your take-away coffee really require a carrier bag?
Our boat pulled up on the banks and were greeted by a tiny village where we sat and had a cold drink before beginning our trek up the 100 waterfalls. Joined by a lovely french couple, we were impressed as their tour guide seamlessly switched from English, French and Laotian. Here we were greeted by a local guide who joined us on our trek, bringing up the rear of the group to make sure everyone got up all right. As we walked along Peng and the local guide (I’m afraid I don’t remember his name!) picked bits and pieces to supplement our lunches, including banana leaves to use as plates, and a strange berry that we all thought was disgusting but they were delighted by.
The hike was lovely, we got to climb up and through the waterfalls clinging onto a rope at some points. For the relatively fit, this hike is no bother at all and only took a couple of hours. For the less fit, the French couple were certainly older, probably about 50/60 and they took the walk at a more leisurely pace, supported by walking sticks their guide scavenged for them among the fallen branches. They also took an alternative route to climbing through the waterfall. Unfortunately going in wet season meant that there were leeches aplenty, and as I decided the clever idea was to wear my hiking sandals so that I could see them if they latched on, rather than closed toe shoes, meant that I was the lucky recipient of a wiley leech who hid himself under the strap of my sandal for a good 20 minutes. Thankfully after 30 seconds of me screaming like a little girl, Peng came to the rescue and flicked it off nonchalantly with a stick. Not my best “strong independent female” moment.
At the top of the waterfall we stopped for a lovely home cooked lunch which could have fed a small army. Huge portions of rice carefully wrapped in banana leaves to keep them warm and clean gave us sustenance for the (significantly easier) walk down. We hopped back into the boat to visit local caves where the Laotian people hid during a relatively recent war. Unfortunately Peng did not have many details for us on what the war was about or who was involved, but we did see the remnants of old war bullets and parts of bombs, as well as hundreds of bats swooping around the ceiling.
In the evening we had a lovely meal with our host family – trés spicy but delicious despite my tongue wanting to fall off – and wandered into a local wedding. This was absolutely hysterical, we lost our guide and were gestured to sit among benches of villagers who had started the drinking a few hours previously… we were then brought inside and got to give money bracelets to the happy couple. In Laotian tradition when a couple get married you tie string bracelets on their wrists and tuck a few notes inside to get them started. The couple then proceeded to keep filling up our cups with beer, then, as always, one person broke out the lao-lao whiskey – a distilled rice spirit of questionable and highly varying percentage – which kept getting passed around. I had a very strange exchange with a lovely older man who was intent on explaining every detail of the traditions to me, despite not having a word of English but not wanting to pause for Peng to translate, or allow me to look at him begging for help! And, not unsimilar to western weddings, we left as the groom vomited down a gap in the bamboo slats of the house. Some traditions really don’t understand land or sea borders!
We dragged ourselves out of bed the next day to recommence our trek through other tribal villages where we were greeted by more local children who dropped everything to guide us to the waterfalls. This was a huge culture shock for us – 5 children, between about 4 and 10 years old just ran off on a two hour hike without any word to their parents. It just reminds us the level of bubble-wrapping that goes on with western children – sometimes with good reason as you can’t just trust the random foreign strangers who walk into your village in the UK, but it’s a sad fact that we can’t. As Peng explained “The children here, they raise themselves.” These kids hopped into the waterfall to play, and sped off home as soon as they heard the distant rumble of thunder, squabbling the whole way down. I can honestly say the return trip on the boat was less than enjoyable as we got thoroughly soaked to the skin as the heavens opened. Well, I got soaked to the skin. I got off the boat to find my two travel companions had been quietly handed ponchos while I was sat breaking the rain in the front seat…
This trek was a fantastic experience, and although the second day was mainly trekking along dirt-roads as opposed to through the mountains, we were told this was to avoid the tangle of leeches found on those paths at this time of year. We got a lovely insight into the local tribes and their way of life, as well as a bit of a reality check – while we’re off travelling the world, taking out 2,000,000 laotian kip to last us 5 days in Laos, there are families in the villages earning 5,000,000 kip a year, as a good wage. Despite the obvious discomfort and white-privilege guilt that presents, is this not what travelling is about, expanding our knowledge and giving us opportunities to re-frame our thinking?
What do you think the purpose of travel is? What can we do to travel respectfully and support local communities? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!