Trekking and Rafting in the Lao Jungle

TrekRaft - 10

Heading into the Nam Ha National Protected Area

We are sitting on the banks of the Nam Ha River in northern Lao thinking life doesn’t get much better than this. We are in the tiny village of Nalan Neua surrounded by rain forest in the middle of the Nam Ha Protected Area. To get here we’ve had a day’s trekking with our guide Toua through the rain forest up and over a steep hill and down to a small creek which we then followed for another hour to the village. We arrived sore, sweaty and tired but a rest and a swim in the cool river have helped a lot and a Beer Lao while we sit on the banks with our feet in the river is fixing the rest.

On the way here Toua cooked our lunch at a clearing in the forest at the top of the hill. The table and benches are totally constructed from materials that were gathered there and Toua made a pot from bamboo to cook a mushroom and herb soup to accompany pork barbecued in split bamboo and sticky rice, lettuce and pork salad bought in the market in Luang Namtha this morning. The soup was simple with a couple of different types of mushroom, some wild greens and a bit of mint, water, two types of salt, a few whole cloves of garlic and a couple of whole chillis for luck. Toua is a member of the Khmu people who follow an animist religion and, once the meal is served, he takes a small ball of sticky rice, touches it to the different foods saying a quiet invocation to the spirits and tosses it into the forest then repeats the process tossing the second ball in the opposite direction. We aren’t sure if the blessing made any difference but the food sure tasted delicious, it is certainly one of the best meals we have had in our whole trip.

The beginning of the trek, when we left the road behind was very steep but fortunately the steep section was not too long and the track settled into a gentle climb and we could gather our breath and enjoy the scenery on the way up to our lunch stop pausing a few times along the way to enjoy the forest. The trek down the hill was much longer and very steep all the way, pretty hard on our old joints even with the bamboo walking sticks that Toua cut for us, so it was lovely to get down to the pretty creek. Our progress was slowed by numerous rocky creek crossings we had to negotiate and photo stops to enjoy the beauty of our surroundings.

Nalan Neua has a population of over 200 Khmu people in 30 families. The Khmu people migrated from northern Cambodia 2,000 years ago. Each family has two or three elevated huts. One is used for sleeping and for guests, another for cooking, and if they have a third it is used for storage. We are here in the dry season so much of the cooking is done outside on small communal fires so they can socialise while they prepare their meals.

A road into the village was completed a year ago. Before that the only way in was to follow a walking track or travel upriver by boat. New Zealand provided financial aid to build a primary school for the children, pipe drinking water from a stream high on the hill opposite the village and bought small hydro electric units to supply each family with a limited amount of power. The large school building has three rooms but only two are used at present and there are two teachers for the five year levels. Children attending Secondary School in Luang Namtha stay in a dormitory in town during the week then return to the village Friday afternoon. During the weekend they gather food to take back for the following week and they return to town on Sunday afternoon.

Soule, our second guide for the next day of our trip, was waiting for us in the village when we arrived. He’d come in with a raft which we are going to use on our way down river. After our relaxing swim and beers, and a quick nap for some, Toua takes us for a walk around the village explaining different aspects of lifestyle and culture while Soule begins organising our evening meal with the help of one of the local women. When the meal is ready she joins us together with Toua and Soule. We eat by candle light with our fingers and spoons from the dishes which are served on a large banana leaf. Sticky rice is eaten at every meal and is formed into balls and dipped into dishes. Sure cuts out the washing up! After our meal we sit around a fire while Soule goes frog hunting but it’s an early night for us after an energetic day.

Paul has an early start with more photography.

Breakfast of sticky rice and an omelette cooked with tomatoes, garlic and herbs is complemented with some barbecue frogs. They are tiny with soft bones and eaten whole. Guess what, they taste like chicken.

Barbecue frogs for breakfast, Nalan Neua

Stomachs full with sticky rice yet again we stuff our gear into dry bags and hop onto the inflatable raft for our trip down the Nam Ha River. Soule is on the front, Toua at the back and Paul and I have a side each. We all paddle but Soule has the trickiest task of getting us over the rocks in the numerous small rapids. It is fairly late in the dry season and most tour companies have stopped rafting or canoeing on this river but with only four of us in the raft plus skillful guidance by Soule and energetic paddling by all of us we bump our way through most of the numerous small rapids scraping the bottom of the raft on the rocks as we go. The few times we get hung up on the rocks Soule hops off the front and drags us through. The only time we all need to get out is when a fallen tree blocks the river and we all need to get out and lift the raft over a large branch. It’s lucky the inflatable raft is strong enough to handle this rough treatment but it still needed to have the air topped up before we started rafting in the morning and after our lunch break and we had a small amount of water sloshing around our feet, just enough to keep them cool.

The trekking yesterday was great but this is even better as we drift and paddle through pristine rain forest. The forest comes right down to the river and at times we have to duck to dodge overhanging branches. Strands of bamboo appear amongst the tall trees and hundreds of shades of green delight our eyes. We hear quite a few birds and see a few but the flying creatures we see most are brilliant butterflies providing splashes of colour. As we float along Toua and Soule are softly singing traditional Khmu tunes, a perfect soundtrack for the voyage.

 

The only people we see while we’re in the Nam Ha Protected Area are in two other villages. The first is another Khmu village very similar to the one we stayed at last night. The next, NamKoy, has people from a different tribe, who are originally from China and their huts, language and way of life are quite different. Huts are not elevated and have no windows, just a front door used for most purposes and a back door to let the evil spirits out. The general level of health and vitality appears less although we don’t stay long enough to really know.

We stop along the way for lunch, not a barbecue this time but some delicious dishes including sticky rice, a couple of types of pork and vegetables, bamboo shoots and a chili dip. These were prepared in the village before we left and we eat with our fingers from a banana leaf. The river shore we landed upon had dozens of butterflies with colours of yellow, green, blue, black, gold and more.

More wonderful scenery follows our lunch break and by mid afternoon we reach the end of the Nam Ha River where it joins the Nam Tha River. This is the boundary of the NPA and one side of the river is covered in plantations and the trip is far less enchanting. Most of the tour companies are only kayaking and rafting down the Nam Tha, we are sure glad we found the one to take us deep into the forest.

We drift down to the next village where a songthaew meets us and transports us back to town. We have sore muscles for the next couple of days but we are taking away memories that we will treasure.

 

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