Jungle Trekking Nam Tha

After a couple days ride into the heart of Laos and Luang Prabang, we decided to get a taste for a more primitive, rural side of Laos and leave the upscale, sleepy city.  Our motorbike gang had once again reached the magic number of three, picking up a German named Jan keen to do some trekking.  So we made the long journey over the horrible, bumpy road once again to Luang Namtha, then onto Muang Sing.  We booked a jungle trek through the primary forests of NamTha National Park, one of the few areas in Laos to have undisturbed jungle still intact.

After booking the tour at the local tourist office, we followed the agent Tong to the house of Oung, who would be leading our trek.  As we arrived, Oung was packing rockets full of black powder and furiously whittling holes in bamboo to create room for the fuses.  It turns out Oung attended monk school from the ages of 9-19, where he mastered the art of hand-making rockets.  We shared some Beerlao with both our new Laos friends and then congregated in the nearby field for a little launch party.

Oung attached the rocket to a long bamboo spear that he thrust in the ground.  Then he lit the long fuse and we waited expectantly as Tong ran for cover.  Once the flame hit the powder, the reaction was immediate and the rocket shot straight upwards, disappearing from view in less than two seconds.  Oung told us that a small rocket like this one would reach over 25km in the air.  Pretty amazing power packed into a foot long tube.  I wonder how fast it falls, and if any nearby farmers have walked outside to find a water buffalo with a brand new horn sticking out if it.

Afterwards, Oung’s wife brought out a three course meal that we picked at greedily.  A mint and wasabi based sauce completely overwhelmed our taste buds and sent fire through our noses.  Laos food is by far the spiciest food I have tried so far, easily beating out Thai and Indian dishes.  With the sun starting to go down, we bid farewell to get some rest for the next day’s trek (apparently Oung and Tong got pissed off another case of beer, delaying our departure the next day so Oung could nurse his hangover).

Trekking through the primary forests was a welcome difference to being on a bike all day.  Within minutes, I had already started sweating through my shirt and quickly unzipped the bottom of my pants to get some relief from the heat.  The hiking was not impossible but it certainly was challenging at times, with inclines that extended with no summit in view for long stretches.

Every so often, Oung would stop to show us some of the indigenous vegetation.  Huge forests of chestnuts trees extending towards the sky filled the valleys between mountains.  When the chestnut is split open, the most pleasant natural wooden aroma permeates from beneath the bark.  The plants used to make Tiger Balm are also common throughout the forest.  Every so often we picked what appeared to be small, unripened green tomatoes.  In actuality, they were a type of eggplant that is commonly used in papaya salad and have an extremely fresh taste within their crunchy exteriors.

The primary forest.

The primary forest.

Speaking of food, Tong whipped out our lunch wrapped in large banana leafs.  We feasted on the best omelet I’ve had all trip, complete with meat that tastes like sausage and plenty of onions and spices.  Sticky rice and a vegetable medley were topped of with bananas to keep our energy up, which we would definitely need to reach the remote village where we would stay for the night.

Bon apetite on a banana leaf.

Bon apetite on a banana leaf.

As we strode into the village about two hours before sundown, we were immediately challenged by many small packs of territorial dogs.  We made it to the house of the chief without incident and went exploring the tiny village.  The village consists of 23 families and 136 people, all living in very basic conditions.  We were the first white people to visit the village in over six months, and it definitely showed.  Small children peered out around corners at us, running away when we greeted them or walked too close.  This lasted for about 15 minutes with us slowly closing the distance and the more curious of the kids no longer running but merely staring at us uncertainly.

So how to relate to these kids and get them to interact with us?  I thought of myself as a kid and the one thing I couldn’t resist: video games.  So I ran to the chief’s house, grabbed my kindle, and sat down in the village to play Angry Birds.  Drawn to the Kindle like moths to the flame, I immediately had a swarm of nearly 15 children of all ages jostling to get a look at the screen.  I let each one have a turn (as best I could trying to fend off the greedy fingers that couldn’t wait and kept shooting the birds backwards) and was astonished at how quickly they picked up the concept of the game.  It’s not exactly rocket science, but I can barely operate a smart phone and the touch screen gave me trouble for weeks.

No child can resist video games.

No child can resist video games.

Eventually some of the kids ran off to grab their friends and we soon had all of the children in the village interacting with us.  As we snapped their pictures, they immediately ran over to see their faces smiling back at them and giddily ran back to their friends to pose again.  As inevitably happens, a huge mock battle erupted with all the kids pretending to karate kick one another, pausing only to check out the video footage.  The result was a lot of laughter, some fantastic pictures, and a feeling of acceptance into the tribe.  Being able to interact with children who live in a world that could not be more different from mine growing up was an extremely enriching experience.  Watching one boy no older than six run around with his baby brother secured in a sling on his back, it’s easy to see how family is such an integral role of village life.

Brotherly love.  The comraderie is amazing.

Brotherly love. The comraderie is amazing.

The next day we trekked out of the town as many of the children ran after us, furiously waving us goodbye.  It would have been great to spend more time in the village, but we had to get back to Muang Sing to reach Luang Prabang in time for Songkran, the Laos New Year and the world’s biggest water festival.