Exploring Nam Ha National Protected Area

Nothing is close in Laos. We spent an entire day in a minibus to get from Luang Prabang to Luang Namtha. The views were glorious if you had the stomach to look out of the window. The roads were not glorious.

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We’d done a fair bit of research about trekking and kayaking options before reaching Luang Namtha, but we’d left booking until we could go in to the agencies and talk to people. We knew which agencies we wanted to speak to and after falling out of the bus and dumping our stuff at the hotel we walked along the main street in town to find them. We ended up at Discovering Laos where the man in the office was really friendly, answered all of our questions and wanted to work with us to come up with a plan that suited us. Our advice would be to do some research online, but go and talk to people and see what trips they have going as more people means lower costs.

There are plenty of two day trips in to the jungle where you hike, spend the night either in a makeshift camp or a homestay and then kayak the next day. We had read horror stories of being flooded out and rats in the lodges and we just really didn’t fancy a night in the jungle.  We opted instead for two separate days, one hiking and one kayaking, and we would come back to town, our hotel, a hot shower and a proper bed in between. We are sure the jungle camping is a great experience, it just wasn’t one that we wanted to have. Also, by doing it this way we actually spent longer both hiking and kayaking than we would have done on the two day trip. As far as we were concerned it was a win-win.

So, on to the trek. We got to the office at 8:30 and met with our guide Varth who would be leading the way for the next two days. We jumped in to the tuk tuk and made for the local market to pick up the food for the day.

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Luang Namtha morning market is quite an experience; they sell quite a lot of gross stuff there. In amongst the regular fruit and veg were bamboo worms, rats, bats, crickets and the ever-present eels and frogs. We’re pretty sure we saw a domestic cat at one point. Varth picked up some bits and pieces from the more palatable looking options and purchased three live fish which were thrown casually in to a plastic bag, still flapping around. As we made our way out of the market two women set down their morning’s shopping, four geese in a laundry basket.

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Fully provisioned, we set out for the park, picking up a local guide, Sow (spelling uncertain), on the way. We aren’t sure if the local guides are compulsory or if it’s just the agencies’ way of putting a little bit of money back in to the community. About 30 minutes out of town we were deposited on the side of the road and began the uphill trudge up a steep but thankfully dry path.

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We had read plenty about people hiking in Nam Ha in the rain and it sounded like Caro’s worst nightmare of slippery slopes and twisted ankles. We reached the top of the hill in about an hour and trekked for another 30 minutes or so before coming to an open area used by hunters. It is also a picnic spot but as it wasn’t yet 11 o’clock we weren’t really ready for lunch. We took a water break and ate some rambutan, a strange tentacled fruit that Varth had picked up in the market.

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Sow hadn’t really contributed much up to this point, short of carrying some of the food for lunch. Mostly he walked or sat a short distance from us, minding his own business. That’s him sat at the back, looking delighted with our company. He left shortly after this.

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We continued along the top of the hill and down the other side towards the river bed. As we walked Varth pointed out different plants to us, breaking them off and stripping them down so that we could taste them: cardamom, galangal, rhubarb, bamboo and an intensely bitter fruit that is a favourite of rats. We didn’t catch the name so we just called it rat fruit from then on. Raw, almost everything tasted decidedly unpleasant. Varth also showed us holes where locals had been digging for bamboo rats and snakes and he stripped off some bark from a tiger balm tree for us to smell. He showed us an example of a hunter’s trap and told us tales of bamboo foraging trips in to the jungle with his grandmother in his youth, homemade shotguns, spirit trees, and a woman who had had her face clawed by a bear.

We reached the bottom of the hill and a creek that ran along the valley. This was perhaps our favourite part of the walk. It was beautiful. The area around the creek bed had been cleared of smaller trees, to make room for cardamom plantations but this had enhanced rather than detracted. The larger trees remained and green light filtered through between the enormous trunks.

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Varth pointed out which trees were just trees and which were spirit trees, even with his explanations we couldn’t tell the difference. Varth and his family are animists, they used to be Christian, but that’s not legal in Laos anymore, so they changed to animism. He told us this very matter-of-factly, without any trace of displeasure or criticism, it’s just the way things are.

We had checked on the leech situation before heading out; It was low season for leeches and we’d been told that we would have to be unlucky to encounter them and then only on the riverbed, which we’d only be on for half an hour or so. You know where this is going of course.

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Caro surprised herself and James by keeping completely cool, even stopping Varth from flicking it off so that we could get a picture first.

We continued along the riverbed, crossing makeshift bridges and trudging through towering cardamom plants.

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We came to a slope and climbed out of the valley. This particular walk isn’t big on views but for the next 10 minutes we had marvellous views out over the Nam Ha river and to the hills and fields on the other side.

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A few minutes later we arrived in Nalan Neua, a village of the Khmu, the same minority as Varth. We strolled through the stilted houses amongst the ducks, chickens and occasional piglet and set ourselves up in a seating area near the river.

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Varth proceeded to prepare lunch, taking the fish down to the river to gut before crafting a grill from bamboo and expertly perching the fish over the flames.

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We had half an hour to wait and we passed the time watching village life creep by around us. Three women came down to the river to wash, hanging their long black hair in the water before combing it through and twisting it in to knots on the top of their heads. Occasionally one of the men would come over to chat to Varth and oversee the cooking operation; it seems that lingering around barbeques is a universal habit of men, regardless of circumstance. The dogs which had initially been wary started to inch closer to where we sat, encouraged silently by Caro. Varth told us that every animal that we could see (and there were a lot) was being raised to be eaten, or sold and then eaten, including the dogs. We could have lived without that piece of information; we know it happens of course, but you don’t want to come face to face with the living, breathing creature. The story had done nothing to kill our appetites and we sat down to an excellent meal of barbequed tilapia, beef lap, bamboo and sticky rice. It was delicious and Caro in particular ate far too much rice and suffered on the extensive hill climb post lunch.

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We were doing two days’ walking in one and lunch had taken longer to produce than intended, so we didn’t and set off back through the village leaving a flurry of animals licking, pecking and snuffling the bamboo leaves clean. Once we emerged on the other side of the village the hill started and didn’t stop for the next two hours. The sun had come out, the forest was dense and the number of insects seemed to have quadrupled. We just kept climbing.

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The intensity of the climb lessened after two hours and after another hour we had hit the downhill and the home stretch. If we are being totally honest, the last two hours of the hike did drag a little bit and we just wanted to make it to the end. By 5pm we had made it back to the road and had another 30 minute rattling tuk tuk journey back to town and much needed hot showers.

We were so glad that we had chosen not to camp in the jungle when we woke the next morning with 6 hours of kayaking ahead of us. We presented ourselves at the office again and met with Paul, who had joined our group and brought the price down enough that it was nearly the same as if we had done the two day trip, which was a bit of a win. We also had another guide with us but we never learnt his name, so we’ll call him Tim for the purposes of the blog. The shopping had already been done so we hopped in to a tuk tuk for about an hour this time, until we reached our launching point. Unfortunately someone had used the same spot to spread out the stomach contents of a slaughtered buffalo so we didn’t want to linger too long.

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We geared up, looking sensational as ever.

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Paul, Varth and Tim were to be in one kayak and we would take the second, without a guide, on the basis of our “previous kayaking experience”. Varth’s briefing lasted all of 20 seconds before we were pushing off and paddling downstream. Given the time of year the river was doing a lot of the work for us and for the first little while all we had to do was give some general direction.

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We soon approached some rapids and James put in some superb driving skills, leading us safely around the rocks. A bit of success led to a lot of complacency and on a sharp bend we found ourselves paddling frantically under some very low hanging trees. James had perched on the back to give him more control but this also meant less balance, and leaning out of the way of some branches he toppled over the side and in to the river, Caro still madly paddling in front to bring the kayak clear of the trees. Unfortunately, Caro was more concerned about getting James back into the kayak and completely failed to take a picture of him scrabbling around in the water. At this point Varth must have realised that he hadn’t actually given us a safety briefing and made up for it by saying afterwards: “you did the right thing”. Well, that was comforting to know.

The view from the river was wonderful with forest towering up on either side of us and precarious bamboo bridges slung across abyss looking like they would collapse like toothpicks in to the water the second you set foot on them.

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Save for a few locals washing or fishing, we didn’t see another soul. We pulled up on a river bank to collect some rattan and bamboo. Varth had said there was another 30 minutes paddling until our lunch stop so Caro decided to take advantage of the break and use the jungle facilities. With the grace of a ballerina she attempted to climb over James, did a mini pirouette and fell arse first over the side of the kayak and in to the river. Everyone found this highly entertaining and James felt vindicated by the fact that we had at least been moving when he fell in. Fortunately, we had no further incidents before pulling up on our own stretch of sand for lunch.

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We have refrained from calling too many places paradise on this trip but our lunch spot was pretty bloody close. Caro paddled in the river and sunbathed whilst Varth and Tim set about building a fire and prepping lunch; James and Paul both occupied the role of man-watching-BBQ.

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We know that they do this every day, but we were still impressed by what the two guys were capable of conjuring up with jungle apparatus and even some foraged ingredients. Soup made from wild rattan, mushroom, eggplant and myriad of spices was boiled up in bamboo tubes. The pork was heavily salted and set over the fire to cook to perfection. Varth and Tim upturned a kayak and spread banana leaf over the top for a table, the second kayak made for chairs and spoons were fashioned from leaves. With the addition of some veg and sticky rice from the market, we had an absolute feast and it was delicious.

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Post-lunch Caro tried her hand at steering and after a couple of hiccups really seemed to be getting the hang of it. James was also doing very well at not panicking and letting her get on with it. It was all going so well until Caro steered the kayak in to a fairly sturdy river plant and we had to yank ourselves free.

We stopped at the same village as we had visited the day before, there were more people around but it was pretty much the same experience. The incident with the tree had left Caro a bit scarred and she decided to leave the steering to James and return to the safety of the front of the kayak.

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The second village that we visited was a different minority and as we strolled around children came running from the houses bearing woven trays of bracelets and bags. We aren’t big fans of village visits, precisely because of the selling and feeling as though we are being intrusive, so we were glad when we could escape back to the kayaks. On our way back to the river we passed a skeletally thin man crouched on the floor. Varth pointed to him, “that man is so thin because he smokes opium”. We were taken aback, and downright stunned when he told us that 60% of the community is addicted to opium. We asked if they knew that it was bad for them and Varth didn’t seem sure, it was just a fact of life here.

We had another hour or so of rapids before the end of the day’s paddling. One memorable moment came when we managed to get wedged on top of a rock and had to use our bodyweight to scooch ourselves back off it. In the meantime, the kayak was rapidly filling with water and Caro spent the next 10 minutes frantically bailing out with a sawn in half water bottle. By the time we reached the docking point we had kayaked for 6 hours and were absolutely exhausted. It had been a brilliant day and even the hour bouncing back to town seemed to go really quickly.

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Looking back, Nam Ha was one of the highlights of our Laos trip; beautiful surroundings and just enough exercise to justify eating mountains of marvellous food.

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