Probably not a bird table.
Oh, the difference a border makes! The only cars that honk at us in Laos are the ones with Chinese number plates; ornate, gilded birdtables prettify the lowliest locations (OK, I suspect they’re little Buddhist shrines, but they don’t half look like fancy birdtables); and all of a sudden we’re absolutely NOT the only Westerners in town.
Our final morning in China was spent speeding along the dull but not-too-hilly highway for the 50km from Mengla to the China/Laos border at Mohan where Keith was asked to explain to the Chinese border guard (who was already unconvinced that the hirsute Keith standing in front of him was in fact the same Keith as the smooth-cheeked, short-haired version in the passport photo) why exactly the photograph that should have been taken at Shanghai airport when we entered China was not on their computer system. I’d already my exit papers stamped (whilst Keith was outside the building guarding the tandem) and had explained my partner would be coming through next and we were riding a tandem bicycle, and perhaps that helped with Keith’s explanation that we were two innocent travellers who had no idea why one of us had been photographed at Shanghai and one of us hadn’t. Anyhow, thankfully it wasn’t long before Keith got the requisite stamps too and we were free to toddle over the border to Laos, where we filled in a couple of forms, handed over 37 US dollars each and were granted our Laos visas. 3km further along the road (after passing through the town of Boten) we were waved through the Laos customs check and that was us done. A nice straightforward crossing.
The difference from China was immediate. Thatched wooden and bamboo houses on stilts dotted the roadside, BeerLao was advertised (in English) at the frequent roadside bars, drivers didn’t honk their horns (unless they were Chinese) and the humid air enveloped us, soothing our China-strained nerves and relaxing our tensed muscles. With no particular visa pressures (for 30 days at any rate) we stopped for a beer and then rolled gently along to camp about 30km before the town of Luang Namtha. Humid nights aren’t very nice in a tent, but ours has a door at each end (both full mesh)and the vestibules can be rolled away completely to let the breeze in, so as far as camping in the heat goes it wasn’t too bad at all.
Luang Namtha itself is a small town on the edge of the Nam Ha National Protected Area, and a popular place for tourists, particularly those wanting to do a bit of trekking. After finding ourselves most definitely in the minority in China it came as something of a shock to the system to see so many other Western faces (specifically white faces….where are all the black tourists???). We knew we’d see more Westerners in Southeast Asia, and had been looking forwards to meeting other travellers, but the reality turned out to be a bit overwhelming. But we relaxed into it soon enough and enjoyed a couple of lovely evenings with fellow-cyclists Charles and Jen who were travelling from Thailand to China – a perfect opportunity for us each to offload unwanted maps and guidebooks. Our first couple of days in Luang Namtha were spent catching up on admin (working out what bike parts we need, putting in an order to JD Tandems, and trying to work out the most reliable way to get a parcel to us without it getting caught up in customs) and pottering around the town (getting soaked by enthusiastic teenagers celebrating Songkran – Laos New Year – who delighted in dousing us with buckets of water that had some sort of white powder floating in it in order to bring us good luck for the coming year).
Bringing luck to all and sundry for the Lao New Year.
Then, admin completed we treated ourselves to a three day trekking/kayaking adventure, booked through Forest Retreat Laos.
The itinerary was:
Day one: a quick visit to Luang Namtha market to pick up supplies then a 6hr trek to a jungle-camp where we’d spend the night
Day two: a short stroll to a Khmu village (a local people who have an animist faith – ie worship a variety of spirits, from ancestors to the spirit of the house), before kayaking down the Nam Tha river (stopping at a second, slightly larger Khmu village along the way) and finishing at a Tai Lue village (who are Buddhists) where we’d spend the night.
Day three: another day of trekking before returning to the Tai Lue village to join in their celebrations as our visit coincided with their ‘rocket festival’ with which they bring in the New Year.
We’re going to tell the story of our trek as a photo-blog – apologies to those of you who usually print out the blog, but we have so many pictures it seems the best way to do it.
The market is full of villagers selling bush-meat (wild animals). The trails we’d be trekking on are the ones the villagers use and we knew there’d be little chance of seeing any vertebrate wildlife as most of the animals have learnt to stay out of the way – the ones that don’t learn are the ones at the market.
The jungle we’d be walking through is swathed over steeply sloped hillsides and “Up, up, up!” quickly became our catchphrase.
There were 8 of us in the group, plus two local guides. It was a very international affair with representation from the United States, Chile, France, Switzerland, Belgium, Russia and of course, Northern Ireland and England. Here are the other 6 making their way down to the wooden canoes that would take us across the river to the trailhead.
Up, up, up! Through a bamboo forest.
Lunch in the jungle proved to be a gourmet affair of spiced pumpkin, omelet and sticky rice, served on banana leaves that our guide had collected earlier in the walk.
Our guide trimming banana leaves to be used as a table at lunchtime.
The forest changed from large areas of mostly bamboo, to a tangled mix of vines and other trees, including some absolute monsters.
Same large tree viewed from the other side
The forest ‘Hilton’
Dinner being prepared at the ‘Hilton’ by our guides.
Freshly picked banana flowers being prepped.
Our guides picked a number of plants en-route – mostly for our meal, but also for amusement.
The ‘Hilton’ was very well appointed , with comfortable mats, blankets and mosquito nets….and best of all, in a group of 8 of us not one person snored.
A most civilized jungle breakfast, including coffee in a bamboo mug.
Kayaking gently down the Nam Tha river.
Messing around whilst our guides cook lunch.
Sky-diver Ruud shows off his best moves on the liana swing.
The larger of the two Khmu villages.
The school was empty as it was the holidays, but our guide was able to show us around.
Local teenagers were busy celebrating the New Year and shared their LaoLao (local rice whisky) and coke with us.
The cutest little piggy in the village.
24 – On first appearance the Tai Lue village looked very similar to the Khmu villages.
On first appearance the Tai Lue village looked very similar to the Khmu villages.
Despite only having had electricity for the last three years the villagers are using it to good effect for their New Year celebrations with these massive speakers blasting out on the high street.
Our guides cooked us another excellent dinner and the Village Hilton proved just as comfortable as the Forest Hilton.
This cicada was determined to join us at dinner and returned time and again to clatter around the candles. Unlike crickets and grasshoppers, which produce their distinctive chirrup by stridulating (rubbing their legs against their wing cases), the (male) cicadas have two sound plates called tymbals under their abdomen – these are the two creamy coloured areas you can see in the picture. Special muscles contract and deform the stiff tymbals to produce a click. When the muscle relaxes the tymbals spring back to their original shape with another click…and thus endeth your zoology lesson for the day.
As we prepared for our second day of trekking the villagers prepared for their rocket festival, sadly we didn’t get to see the rockets as we had to leave to go trekking.
The Buddhist nature of the Tai Lue people became apparent in their celebrations when the monks paraded through the village.
Our second day of trekking was just as exciting as the first, with more dense bamboo to weave our way through…
…and just as much “Up, up, up!” as day one.
Texan Garrett decides whether or not he likes freshly cut rattan shoots whilst our guide finishes laying the table for lunch.
Two women from the village accompanied us on the second trek. In the morning they carried our lunch and in the afternoon they picked leaves and mushrooms to take back to the village. Despite the steep terrain, leaf-strewn, muddy trails and treacherously slick rocks along the riverbed they trotted along agilely in ill-fitting flip-flops. How on earth do they do that?
This broad, shiny leaf has a sweet, sharp, lemony taste.
Our guide told us this was a cobra. One of the women saw it first, draped over a log we were about to cross. It slipped out of sight and our guide went to check it wasn’t hiding on the other side of the log – it wasn’t – and so we proceeded quite happily. (If you haven’t spotted its tail yet look just left of centre below the green leaves.)
Oriane, Garrett and Keith admiring a beautiful rhinoceros beetle that one of our guides found.
Isn’t he magnificent? He can even haul that bulk into the air and fly when he puts his mind to it.
These huge seed pods helicopter down to the ground. I felt I should be wearing a helmet after a near-miss with one.
For the final river crossing we had a choice of being ferried in a boat or wading. I decided to wade and stripped my trousers off to the apparent horror of the local women. This confused me at first as the other female trekkers were already in their bikinis….and then I realised…despite wearing long trousers two leeches had attached themselves in quite inconvenient locations. I’d flicked them off in disgust before thinking of taking a photo of them, but this was the aftermath…and trust me when I say you really don’t want to know where the second leech had lodged itself!
At the end of the walk the villagers gave us friendship bracelets and little woven shoulder-bags.
The International Trekking and Kayaking group.
L-R Back row: Northern Ireland, England, United States, Laos, Belgium, Laos, Laos, Russia.
L-R Front row: Switzerland, France, Chile, Laos.