Laos’s reputation for being the most chilled country in South East Asia was cemented by our border crossing experience; just a short boat ride over the river from Thailand, a hassle free visa-on-arrival purchase, and a stop at the it-could-have-been-a-lemonade-stand passport control kiosk (where the offical had a booming side-trade selling ciggies), and we were in. The border town of Huay Xai was a surprisingly good spot to spend a night, and it was made even better by our first bottles of the cheap and legendary Beer Lao, and the delectable veggie curries served up at Bar How.
Most people go directly to Luang Prabang by slow boat from Huay Xai, but we really wanted to see more of the North before heading down, so we caught the bus to the trekking centre of Luang Nam Tha. While the town of Luang Nam Tha is nothing to rave about, it was a great base for organising our trek and we felt right at home in our beautiful room at Zuela’s. After a bit of walking around, we booked a three day, two night kayaking trek into the Nam Ha National Protected Area with Forest Retreat Laos – a vibrant young outfit with some very passionate individuals at the helm.
The following morning, after meeting our friendly guides and the other two couples we would be spending the next three days with, we set off on a bumpy tuk-tuk ride upriver and launched into the warm water in our very comfortable, banana-looking, inflatable yellow kayaks. Although we started outside of the NPA, we were soon coccooned by the lush green of Laos’ Protected forest, and our surroundings became increasingly breathtaking as we paddled on.
The river conditions were perfect and there was a good amount of water to rocket us through some thrillingly turbulent rapids. However, it didn’t take long to realise that teaming up in a kayak with (supposedly) one person in charge of steering, when there are jagged rocks, fallen trees, strong currents and hairpin bends to navigate, is the ultimate relationship-tester. Luckily, whatever silent power-sharing agreement we made worked, and we made it through without tipping, or puncturing our banana, or causing eachother any grievous bodily harm. In between these little adrenalin shots, we stopped at a couple of villages on the way, and were greeted with very mixed reactions.
Many of the older villagers seemed either indifferent or amused by our presence as our guides walked us through, explaining the different cultural practices, the histories of the people, and how they came to settle in Laos. Many of the children were petrified of us, but also intrigued, so they would follow at a distance, whispering and giggling as they pushed one another closer to our group. Every time one of us turned around to address them, it triggered off fits of hysteria and they would scatter in all directions, laughing and screaming. Our stop at the Khmu village was particularly memorable, as we arrived just as the local school was finishing for the day, and as soon as the children saw us, they were lining up on the banks, pointing and giggling nervously, watching our every move. Once again, they followed us at distance through the village until we reached their school, where Libby and Eric (two of our fellow trekkers) got permission from the headmaster to play some games to break the ice. All other attempts had failed – largely because our guide had jokingly spread the rumour that we had come to take some children away with us – and we were caught in a bit of a we-watch-you-watch-us kind of stand off. So after a very well received rendition of ‘head, shoulders, kneees and toes’, an almighty game of stop-go errupted on their field. The impression we got was that for adults to ‘play’ like children, or behave childishly was something they were not used to, so they found the fact that we were willing to do strange actions and voices endlessly amusing. Still somewhat reluctant to get too close, they followed us down to the river at a distance again, but promptly started a water fight as soon we were getting back into the bananas. Some games are truly universal.
The water fight continued as we paddled down river and around the corner into our next set of rapids, the biggest of the day; a real gushing vortex of whitewater that lasted for at least 300metres. By the end of our day we had covered about 28km, and although the rapids and the currents had made go quite quickly, we were happy to reach our first night’s camp, a forest ‘retreat’ at the river confluence, that was built and rented out by the villagers up the river. It was very simple large bamboo hut on stilts, but the villagers went out of their way to make it comfortable by supplying mattresses, blankets and mozzie nets. We were joined that evening by the village chief and some of his fishing partners, who had set up camp near the river.
They welcomed us to join them around their fire and let us sample some of their fish, smoked to perfection in banana leaves with lemongrass, and eaten with the ubiquitous Lao staples of sticky rice and roasted chillies. But with the fish came our first encounter with Lao-Lao, the infamous Loatian home-brewed rice whiskey. There’s really no explaining it – it takes your breathe away like vodka, makes your chest burn like tequila, makes your eyes water like stroh rum, and tastes only mildly whiskey-ish, with a bit of a heartier nutty aftertaste. This batch also had a minty green tinge, which made us think there may have been some petrol in the mix too – it certainly tasted like it! The thing is, no matter how vile the stuff is, saying no to it is incredibly difficult because they don’t really take no for an answer. The only way to successfully refuse is to say something to the effect of, “I’m am drunk and about to lose face,” but all attempts to learn these phrases failed dismally.
Whether it was the Lao-Lao or the full day of paddling, we had a great night’s sleep at the forest retreat, and woke up to a substantial breakfast of sticky rice, Laotian omellete and tomatoes – just what we needed for another day of paddling. The second day pushed us further into the jungle and we saw fewer and fewer villages as we continued. Instead we were surrounded by enormous mountains of every shade of green imaginable, with trees hanging right out over the river, offering much needed patches of shade in the blaring sun. With the rapids thinning out, we had to put in a little more affort with the paddling, but we hardly noticed, and before we knew it, we were at our next stop, a large Khmu village between the river and the Park’s service road.
On our way up to the chief’s house, we gained our usual tail of children, who would dare eachother to get closer, but run away screaming as soon as one of us turned and advanced in their direction. This quickly became a game that kept us busy until our guide had negotiated the terms of our stay with the Chief. We were invited to stay with him and his family and became his official guests for the evening, which meant his wife and mother (-in-law?) prepared the meal and we ate with him. At first it was a little uncomfortable, as we were sitting around his table with him, but none of the other people or family members were allowed to join us. They simply sat against the walls, or outside the door, and watched what was going on. Our guide explained that it was simply their custom, and it should not make us feel awkward, as they would all eat when we were done. And then the Lao-Lao came out, so after a couple of rounds we were all feeling much more relaxed. And after a few more rounds, we were onto a second bottle, and although this brew was much more palatable than the previous nights’, there were some very green looking faces at the table. Eventually, after the rest of us managed to convince our merry host that we could not posssibly have had any more without seriously jeopardising the good names of our families, he picked Joff as his last man standing and insisted that they finish the bottle. Let’s just say that Joff didn’t have any trouble getting to bed that evening, and woke up with the taste of Lao-Lao imprinted on his tastebuds, and it’s burn searing his chest. The following morning, we had some drama when we tried to leave, as the chief’s eight-year-old son had been under the impression that we were going to leave one of our kayaks as a gift for him. His realisation that this was not the case triggered a kick-up of epic proportions, and the result was that he was allowed to skip school and do the last leg with us.
Our final day involved much more paddling, and the 18km we covered actually felt something like it, so we kept ourselves going by taking regular dips in the gently flowing river, trying out different combinations and paddling techniques, and drenching eachother in sporadic water battles. Our stowaway found this all very unnerving at first, but quickly got into the spirit of things and was soon devising ways of luring us closer to his (our guide’s) boat so that he could splash us. As we were nearing our final stretch, we rounded the corner to see a long boat packed with about twenty oarswomen, all dressed in blue, and all paddling like machines in perfect unison, to the rythm of a cox’s whistle. It was only when they drew up next to us and challenged us to a race that we realised how very rapid they actually were. They must have dropped us in about two seconds flat. Our guides explained that the women were training for the famous annual dragon boat races, which were happening in two days time. Excited to see this, we decided to stay a couple more days. Imagine our delight, then, when we turned the next corner to see some monks assembling a large ornamental boat, decorated with flowers and money, and learned that this was in preparation for the annual lantern festival, which was happening the following day! So with a full agenda of festivals planned for the following days, we pulled our bananas up for the last time, exhausted, but incredibly chuffed with our incredible trekking experience.
After doing a little research, we found out that the Awk Phansa festival is held to mark the end of Buddhist lent and the end of the rainy season. The custom is to build ornate boats and rafts, in which candles are lit and then floated down stream – these are representative of one’s bad luck and wrongdoings, so sending them downstream is a cleansing ritual of sorts.Following this, many people light lanterns with their wishes and hopes for the future inscribed upon them, letting them float up to the heavens where they will hopefully be gracefully received. The river was a hub of festivity when we arrived, with people on both banks setting their little rafts afloat, and letting their lanterns off. The lanterns really do take on amystical quality when released and we really enjoyed watching families and couples letting their wishes go.
A little later, the mood became more energetic, as villagers from all the surrounding areas arrived with their floats, and accompanied them to the water with chanting, drumming, bells, cheering and singing. Some overzealous villagers actually managed to burn their boat before even making it to water, much to the merriment of the onlookers. The celebrations ended with a literal bang, as an enormous firework sent a volcano of sparks up into the air (and down again on some unsuspecting bystanders), and we all made our way back to town, thrilled at having taken part in such a magical evening.
The next day we were back at the river, just a little out of town, for the famous Dragon Boat Races, or Bun Nam, the River Festival. Teams from all over the province were competing and the racing was fierce. The river banks were jam-packed with stalls and excited spectators, but due to the heat, all we saw on arrival was a sea of umbreallas. After a bit of exploring, we found a good vantage point on the bank and watched the races begin, and the drama unfold. If we had any doubt that this was a serious undertaking for the teams involved, we were quickly set straight, as boats capsized around corners, bad loosers threw their paddles into the river, and spectators went crazy on the banks. Even though we did not know anything about the teams or how the races were actually set up, it was great watching the different styles of racing and the really good teams were truly impressive.
Eventually, the sun just got the better of us and we retreated to the shady cool of one of the many great restaurants in town. We were really lucky with our timing in Luang Nam Tha, as we had no idea that all these events were on, but even if that hadn’t been the case, we would have loved it just the same. It’s everything that is good about leaving the well-trodden backpacker trail; welcoming, quiet, cheap, friendly and totally surprising. We really loved our time there.