Jungle

Laos: Jungle Juice, Waterfalls And Facing Fears In Nong Khiaw

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Chewing The Fat

When you’re travelling you have a lot of time to chew the fat so we have spent many hours discussing silly made up scenarios such as: how much we would be willing to spend on our favourite takeaway from home, especially when we've been eating pot noodles for days and long for a Yardsale. Or to lift the spirit on a tiring walk, we create challenges such as how would we spend 10k in cash in the next hour in that very place? Just imagine spending 10k in the jungle... there's only so much bamboo you can buy for 10k! One day our discussions turned to fears, namely our biggest fears, where Ali divulged her worse scenario is being left out in the middle of the ocean. Mark's nightmare is being lost inside a cave.

The tropical paradise of Nong Khiaw

The tropical paradise of Nong Khiaw

A few days before Christmas we booked a tour from Nong Khiaw to a famous local attraction called the 100 waterfalls. The day included boat rides, trekking, lunch on a mountain, chilling in a village and then back to town. A fun filled afternoon that would be a pleasure rather than a chore. Indeed, much of the day was pretty pedestrian but in the last few hours.... fears were faced.

“Do something everyday that scares you”

An Australian we met proclaimed this well known phrase and it does hold some truth. Why live life in a protective bubble? Much of world survives pretty easily in places where safety is rarely considered, climate and environment temperamental and meat is left out in the sun for days. No one but the tourists seem to get ill from the meat in these countries! Asians have stomachs of steel conditioned to all the germs, dirt and the occasional nibbles of rats (we’ve lost count of the amount of rats spotted around the restaurants we eat it in).  

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100 Waterfalls

The 100 waterfalls was a pretty memorable experience as we clambered up the hundred mini waterfalls in our trainers, sun glistening through the trees. Later we climbed to the top of the waterfall via the track to the side and dined on sticky rice with vegetables gazing down at the landscape below. Our guide then took us back to the boat passing grazing buffalos in a field, wow these beast are huge. Upon entering the village our boat was docked and the villages chief beckoned us across to sit in a circle on rickety wooden stools. A slight nod was made to our village guide who brandished a clear unlabelled bottle filled with what looked like water, a nagging feeling told us it probably wasn’t! The guide took a swig and passed it to me, “Laos Laos” he said. Historically we’ve been game for a day drink and we knew the tour was over so what harm would an afternoon tipple do? Laos Laos is home-brewed whisky made from rice and the Laotions can be seen drinking it everywhere, it’s taste can only be described as a strong tasting vodka.

Climbing one of the 100 waterfalls

Climbing one of the 100 waterfalls

Jungle Juice

The next 30 minutes passed and the 5 tourists, guides and the chief take turns to knock back the jungle juice, which is becoming more sickly with every sip. The booze combined with the hot sun is making everyone a little drunk, tired and giggly, these jungle villages definitely know how to have a good time. Gradually the people in the circle start to decline the Laos Laos until its just the chief, our guide and Mark still drinking. Bottle finished we start to wobble our way down to boat and enjoy a pleasant voyage in the afternoon sun. You can see how relaxed Mark was in this photograph:

This is what you'll look like after an afternoon drinking Laos Laos

This is what you'll look like after an afternoon drinking Laos Laos

The Surprise

In the midst of heady daydreaming, the boat driver pulls in at a random restaurant and we are all handed head torches. What are we doing now? We are drunk, sleepy and we’ve been handed a head torch, Mark begins to expect the worst and best of all there aren’t enough head torches for him. The guide leads us up to a huge opening to a cave (oh no!), this is the first mention of a cave all day! We start to enter the dark opening and quickly the light fades, Mark has to share Ali’s head torch beam. The cave is quite large to start with but soon starts to taper and eventually bottlenecks. What's more, as the space gets smaller it gets hotter and we all start to sweat out the boozy Laos Laos from the village. Mark finds himself drunk, sweating profusely, without a headlight heading into his worse fear.

 
A massive cave near Nong Khiaw

A massive cave near Nong Khiaw

 

The Belly Of The Beast

During the Vietnam war the cave was used as a hideaway and there are still artefacts from the 1960s in the cave like vintage 50 year old tin packaging and the remnants of fire pits. Trying to remember that people once lived here, we ventured in for a few minutes until we reached a tiny bottleneck where the guide decides to squeezes himself through with the promise of a huge open space on the other side. We deliberate, our German friend Daniel doesn’t fancy it and turns back whilst the French and other German guys decide to squeeze themselves through (they're both just over 5ft) Ali can just about fit too. Drunk and whoozy from the heat, Mark decides to face his fear and squeeze through the impossible space which he just about does but with cuts and grazes on his legs. On the other side it’s hotter still and the ceiling lower, the guide says we need to crawl now so we are down on our hands and feet in press-up position physically pulling ourselves forward. The experience is more like pot holing and the sound of 5 people in the cave echoing causes Mark to hit breaking point. Brought on by the sweaty jungle juice induced agoraphobia, Mark decides he must leave. He’s faced his fear and crawls back through the tiny hole scraping up his legs again as he pulls himself out back to freedom.

This is the hole we had to squeeze through...

This is the hole we had to squeeze through...

Life is is for living and doing something everyday that scares you might help you to do new things.  But remember you might need to get inadvertently drunk on jungle juice to do so!

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VIDEO

Why not watch our travel video from Nong Khiaw?

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Laos - Jungle Juice, Waterfalls And Facing Fears In Nong Khiaw, By Studio Mali
 

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Laos: 3 Wild Days In The Nam Ha Jungle

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Nam Ha - At A Glance

  • Tours can be booked from Luang Namtha, there are many firms to book with so make sure you ask questions about which part of the park you'll visit, food, drink, sleeping, mosquito net etc.
  • Be wary of the cheaper tours because we read many poor reviews from groups who weren't even taken into the national park, even though they had paid to.
  • Prices range depend on how long you wish to tour for and with how many people, as a rough guide we paid 956,242 kip (£90) pp on a 6 person tour for 3 days, with the highest rated tour operator in town!
  • Make sure you pack sunscreen, insect repellent, sun hat, warm clothes, swimwear, sandals and walking (or bamboo) poles for the muddy paths.
  • No showers over the three days but you can wash in the rivers, bring a quick dry towel.
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VIDEO

Watch the highlights of our 3 day tour where we trekked, kayaked and frog munched our way through the Nam Ha national park in Laos.

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Tropical Un-paradise 

Upon reaching the tropical paradise of Laos we were surprised to find that it wasn’t that tropical nor a paradise. Our arrival into the underwhelming capital of Vientiane greeted us with the rubbish covered Mekong River, more tourists than locals and a dirty hazy environment.  We weren’t impressed. Vowing to escape this Vientiane for some nature, we hedged our bets on the Nam Ha National Park near Luang Namtha, in the very north of the country.  It took two days to get there and we hoped the extensive travel would be worth it. It cost 135,000kip (£12) pp for a sleeper minibus from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. Next, a 130,000kip (£11.5) pp minibus for 8 winding hours ride from Luang Prabang to Luang Namtha. The upside down stomach and mild hangover was only partly to blame for the travel sickness, the rest lies with the driver (who drove like Damon Hill!)

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Booking A Tour Into Nam Ha

We had emailed the company Laos Forest Retreats based on their great reviews to discuss the different tours they offered and they sounded very organised. In contrast, one of their competitors took a tour group to the edge of the park, not even in it, and walked them in a circle with no views. So do some research before booking! We signed up for the next morning and luckily 4 others grabbed the bait too, which brought the price down considerably to around 956,242 kip (£90) pp for three days of trekking, kayaking, food, accommodation and a range of guides for different activities. Accommodation at Luang Namtha was cheap too, we were told 80,000 kip (£7.2) pp for double room but got another 2,000 kip off with no real haggling. Always ask if they can do a better deal. We hit the Luang Namtha night market for noodles and pancakes before resting up for the trek ahead.

Trekking through the jungle in the Nam Ha national park near Luang Prabang, Laos. by Studio Mali

Every Shade Of Green

The Forest Retreat tour company beckoned us across for an eggy breakfast and coffees at 8am so we could chat with our fellow explorers. We had a solid crew with a Dutch contingent in Sebastian, Evelyn and Evie, and Australian Mark all of which were super friendly and wanted to vacate the busy cities of Laos too. Breakfast devoured, we hit the road for an hour before jumping out the tuk tuk at an army checkpoint, we think they were checking locals for poaching from the park. A small path off the road is our starting point and before us stands a huge lush jungle that is so green we could hardly see which way the path goes. It’s wet too, for the first few minutes we slip around on the muddy ground before adjusting. Everyone knows this will be quite an adventure!

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Bugs, Caterpillars And Chickens 

Jungles are incredible places. The Nam Ha national park has incredible eco systems with trees hijacking and killing other trees, snakes shedding their skins, frogs, stick insect, flying crickets, goats, monkeys, ducks, dogs, cats, the biggest spiders we’ve ever seen, leeches and oh so many chickens. For facebook sharing small animal lovers they might have found heaven with abundance of tiny piglets. Our guide told us scare stories of poisonous caterpillars that would leave you numbed for weeks if it touches you, wolf packs also roam in the park and you might be lucky enough to find huge snakes that only feed 4 times a year! We were never scared as long as Pengh our guide and Australian Mark were happy, nothing seemed to spook them. Although Mark did find the scary furry caterpillar on his towel on the last day, by this point he was as jungle savvy as Bear Grylls and hit it off with a bamboo stick!

Mark, Sebastian, Evelyn, Ali, Evie and Mark 

Mark, Sebastian, Evelyn, Ali, Evie and Mark 

Walking On Clay

Our first day of trekking consisted of 5 slippery hours on an undulating path that sank deep into wet jungle clay and up into the arid mountains peaks. Although finding a view on the peaks with such an overgrown expanse of green was not so easy. The jungle has huge palm, banana and elephant leaves and long jungle vines that our guide could climb easily. The day passes in a sweaty montage and we reach the Khmu village of Ban Nalan where every cabin is made from bamboo, on stilts above the ground. In days long past, families kept livestock under their houses which made malaria far more of a menace. Now their animals are kept miles away as a precaution. It’s a simple existence here where families sit around fires and children run by with no shoes, playing with bamboo toys. A family sets up beds for us in their lodge and prepare dinner, whilst we bath in the freezing river that the village relies on. Fire is lit and beers are drunk before squeezing into a mosquito net for the night, the villagers were all asleep by 8pm as it’s unusually cold for the time of year.

Village life

Village life

Old lady smoking tobacco by a fire.  They say the smoke keeps the mozzies away.

Old lady smoking tobacco by a fire.  They say the smoke keeps the mozzies away.

The Village People

Here are some of the rules of the village. People get married at 16 by trying to find partners from theirs or other villages but sometimes they marry family. One of the villages are inhabited by the Khmu people, once married they still live with their parents until family gets too big. The man must provides for his wedding and look after his family financially, saving lots of money to invite as many as 2000 people to their special day. Children attend a tiny school where all ages are taught by just one teacher and the school is one of the biggest buildings in the village. All the folk wash themselves and their clothes in the river, it looks a bit like a herbal essences advert when the young women wash their hair together in the evenings. We try and spend some money in each village by buying some of their handicrafts, hand sewn bracelets and bags, not forgetting their warm beer Lao.

Nam Ha Rapids With Bamboo Spiders

An old chap with 3 inflatable kayaks turns up the next morning, he inflates them as we dine on noodle soup made by Pengh. The rapids we are about to tackle are quite fast, advice is given on the technique needed for some of the big turns. The strongest person should sit in the rear to direct the steering, luckily for Ali, Mark sits in the back in a pool of water and has a wet bum. We are warned about hitting the bamboo plants at the rivers edge as they hold families of spiders. As you can imagine our fellow travellers pass the bends with textbook ease but we speed directly into a spiders nest, apparently ignoring the warning 5 minutes before! We make a quick recovery turning the boat around into the downstream current. It looked like we had escaped until we notice the refugees! 20 spiders about the size of large coins! We grapple with ejecting the imposters while trying to chart a straight course, luckily the buggers don’t bite. Eventually we brush off the last one and we manage the rest of the day with no more disasters, visiting two ethnic villages on the way. Although our counterparts did face some danger, Sebastian, Evelyn, Evie and Australian Mark all got knocked out of their kayaks by hitting trees and rocks. The guides were laughing a lot at this.

A jungle dinner.... fresh foods served on banana leaves during our jungle trek through the Nam Ha national park in Laos. by Studio Mali

Dining Off Banana Leaves

It should be noted just how good the jungle food was. At every meal time our guide would cut down huge banana leaves and spread them across the floor to create a natural table cloth. Our food was then poured onto the leaves where we would grab mouthfuls of freshly prepared food with our hands. These were some of the things we dined on over the 3 days: sticky rice, banana, morning glory, squash, courgette, chicken, stink bugs with chilli garlic and ginger, green beans, frogs, sour fruits, scrambled egg with tomato and parsley, fruit, noodle soup, fried egg and baguette. Check the photos. Our guide also spotted nuts and sour fruits that he found in jungle whilst trekking. You’ll need to be a bit open minded to enjoy the food on a trek like this. One of the frogs was full of frogspawn, which didn’t taste so good.

The moody villager

The moody villager

The Only Way Is Up

Our guide with the kayaks waves us goodbye as he takes the river down to the last camp, we’ll meet him later. We would climb a mountain with the best view point of the tour. It was a sunny day and a sweaty climb but the view at the top was pretty special. A vista of jungle that stretched as far as we could see, we spend some time taking it in. Next it’s navigating the jungle down to the fisherman’s village where we will camp. It’s a secluded spot where frogs sing loudly all night. We have a dip in the river and enjoy a night around the fire that our Dutch friends started earlier. Everything in this camp is built from bamboo: cups, tables, seats, steaming apparatus. A piece is left on the fire which sounds like a shotgun when it explodes from the heat, we think we are being attacked by the Viet Cong when one blows!

A view from the top of the jungle

A view from the top of the jungle

8 Hour Exit

Day 3 of the tour is a simple but lengthy trek out of the Nam Ha Park to our tuk tuk driver.  The walk could be broken down into three parts; a steep and slippery first climb, a short flat plateau and a mild climb at the end. The higher you get the drier it becomes and as result the climb is easier. The view at the top is not as clear as the previous days, and weather is generally poorer too, but being in the jungle is always interesting. Australian Mark knows lots about the different trees and explains how they grow extra vines to support their weight at higher altitudes, nature’s engineering is impressive. We run into the super poisonous caterpillars three times on the way down, one is at hand height on an easily grabbed branch. Luckily Pengh spots this and warns us, even he seems a bit concerned about it. We finish with a final bit of kayaking down some rapids to meet our driver and then 45 mins back to Luang Namtha.  I wish we’d changed out of our wet swim trunks because we were freezing in the open windy tuk tuk. Our 3 days in the jungle will be remembered; great friends, amazing scenery and the jungle is, truly, massive!

We booked with Forest Retreat Laos who were great, run by a really helpful Dutch chap called Sandor. We would definitely recommend paying a bit more for a well organised tour.

http://forestretreatlaos.com/3-day-jungle-treks-laos/

 

Why Not Pin It?

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Laos - 3 Wild Days In The Nam Ha Jungle, by Studio Mali
 

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