Laos

Video: Ali Walking The World

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Here is 10 months of travel condensed into just a few minutes. We recorded little moments of walking, trekking or hiking (they're all the same thing right?) from across the globe that took us to the following countries: Slovenia, Slovakia, Russia, Mongolia, China, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Jordan, Armenia and Georgia.

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Laos: The Ultimate 2 Week Travel Itinerary For Backpackers

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Laos, the popular backpackers destination in South East Asia, well trodden since the late 90s.  A country of mountainous jungles, locals in traditional dress and cities so chilled out you may never want to leave.  The country is landlocked, making it slightly more expensive than its neighbours, but it’s still a great place to travel to if you are on a budget. 

Laos

We spent 3 weeks there, covering the 2 main cities Luang Prabang and Vientiane, and then moving onto the hilly countryside in the trekking capital Luang Namtha, the jungles of the Nam Ha National Park, the mountainous Nong Khiaw and Muang Ngoi village.  We have put this itinerary together for a 2 week trip, but if you have more time then you can definitely space it out over a 3 week trip like we did.  We hope you enjoy our itinerary and let us know if you use it! We would love to hear how it went.

 

Day 1-2

Vientiane 

It’s likely that your flight will come into Vientiane as it’s the capital of Laos.  However, we wouldn’t recommend spending much time there, especially if you are planning to head to Luang Prabang which is a lot more scenic.  Vientiane is known as one of the most chilled out and least populated capital cities in Southeast Asia, and that it is, but it’s also pretty unloved, very touristy and we didn’t find it particularly interesting.  

One of the nicer bits!

One of the nicer bits!

Get your hostel to book your sleeper bus to Luang Prabang on the evening of day 2 so you arrive in the morning of day 3.  Tickets cost around 180,000 kip (£15.50) per person for a VIP bus which is a lot comfier than the regular bus.  There's no point in slumming it when you can go VIP for a couple of pounds more!

 

What To Do There

We have written up the bits that we did enjoy in the article below in case you do find yourself mooching round Vientiane…..

Laos: Top Things To Do In Vientiane

Our favourite things were learning to weave in the Houey Hong Vocational Centre For Women, drinking the delicious Laotian coffee, and exploring the city on bikes.  There are quite a few markets you can visit, with the most famous one for tourists being set up every evening by the Mekong river.  The Mekong River is also known for its stunning sunsets, so make sure you get down there one evening with a beer in hand.

Mark learning to weave at the Houey Hong Vocational Centre For Women

Mark learning to weave at the Houey Hong Vocational Centre For Women

 

Where To Stay

We stayed in Ali Backpackers which was perfectly fine, basic and very cheap compared to other hostels.  The location was where most of the touristy cafes and bars are situated.  It cost 133,000 kip (£11.40) per night with breakfast included.  The staff are friendly and can arrange your onward journey but boat or bus.  It wasn't the most inspiring of hostels, but a cheap find in the capital.

 

Where To Eat

We ate in Phakhao restaurant which specialises in traditional Laotian and Thai food.  All dishes were really tasty and actually the stand-out one was a cooked Laotian sausage served with raw garlic, chilli and ginger slices!  We would never munch on raw garlic at home but when teamed with sausage it really was a dream. There are loads of French-style bakeries to grab a coffee and fresh croissant in, and we stopped off in Le Banneton which did delicious pastries.  For true Laotian coffee, just look out for the condensed milk cans stacked up on the street vendors stalls and you will find yourself a punch-packing cup of sweetened coffee.

Croissants in Le Banneton French cafe

Croissants in Le Banneton French cafe

 

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Day 3

Luang Prabang

Take an overnight sleeper bus from Vientiane to Luang Prabang on day 2 so you arrive in the morning of day 3.  The overnight bus takes around 10-12 hours.  The journey is pretty tough for those prone to travel sickness, the roads are incredibly windy and we had a driver that was heavy on the accelerator and break pedals.  If you opt for the VIP bus then you get your own sleeping chair/pod and it’s 3 people spaced out across the width of the bus.  Check out the neon lights on this bus!

The jazzy VIP sleeper bus from Vientiane to Luang Prabang

The jazzy VIP sleeper bus from Vientiane to Luang Prabang

Have a hostel booked for when you arrive in Luang Prabang so you can head straight there early in the morning.  There are lots of tuk tuks outside of the bus station ferrying people into town, but we decided to walk because it was only a few kilometres away from our hostel.  Remember to haggle if you choose to catch a ride.  Before you leave the bus station, try to book a minibus for the next morning going to Luang Namtha.

Luang Prabang is a really popular city with expats and tourists and it’s easy to see why.  It’s chilled out vibe and location next to the scenic Mekong river is a clear pull for lots of travellers, and it has something for everyone.  Those wanting to enjoy a bucket or two will find lots of cool hang-out bars tucked away in the side streets, and for the more adventurous it’s possible to trek straight into the jungle from the city.  Although we thought Luang Prabang had a nice feel to it, we found it very touristy and in places it was difficult to see any local culture because it’s so developed with western-style bars.  We would still recommend going though, and it’s a much nicer place to be over it’s ugly sister city Vientiane.  For now just spend one night in Luang Prabang because you will be coming back here at the end of the trip.  If you weren’t able to book a mini van to Luang Namtha whilst you were at the bus station then get your hostel to book it for you. They will take a bit of a commission but a tuk tuk will be included to get you to the bus station.

View of Luang Prabang

View of Luang Prabang

 

What To Do

There are loads of things to do in and around Luang Prabang depending on what your interests are and how much time you have.  We were happy not to do much when we were there other than to just soak up the atmosphere and wonder around a bit.  You can do jungle trekking from here on organised tours, trips down the Mekong river by kayak or boat, cookery classes, visit numerous exquisite Buddhist temples, mountain biking, a trip over the rickety bamboo bridge, visiting the handicraft night market.  You could easily spend a week there exploring what it has to offer and relaxing.  There is also the nearby Kuang Si waterfalls which is a lovely trip for a morning or afternoon.  The turquoise coloured waters are absolutely stunning and if you bring your costume you can go for a dip!  Again your hostel should be able to arrange transport for you, expect to pay around 40,000 kip (£3.40) for a minivan return journey.  Entry to the waterfall is an additional 20,000 kip (£1.70).

The stunning Kuang Si waterfalls

The stunning Kuang Si waterfalls

 

Where To Stay

We stayed in ThaViSouk hostel which was ok.  The staff are really friendly and helpful, but our dorm room wasn’t the most comfortable because it was baking hot at night.  It cost 54,000 kip (£4.65) for a dorm bed per person per night, and that seemed to be the cheapest we could find online, and double rooms in Luang Prabang were generally much more expensive.  When we came back to Luang Prabang later on in the trip, we opted to splash out for a few nights over Christmas in a place called Frangipani.  This guesthouse is wonderful, the staff are really sweet and the room we stayed in was very pimping with its own balcony and view of the Mekong.  This set us back 332,000 kip (£28.50) per night, but that was an inflated price over the festive period.  We would 100% recommend staying there!

 

Where to Eat

There is honestly hundreds of restaurants and cafes you can eat in, so choosing a good one would not be so difficult.  We opted for quite a few meals in local Laotian noodles kitchens, and other outdoor eateries where you can pick up a Thai curry with rice for as little as 25,000 kip (£2.15).  At the west end of the night market, there are lots of food stalls selling pre-plated dishes for the bargain price of 10,000 kip (85p) each, and you can choose from fried rice, noodles, spring rolls and also bbq’ed goods on sticks which cost a bit more.  There are lots of fresh juice and smoothy stalls for 10,000 kip (85p) a drink, and the Redbull Bar (sports bar) offers 2 draught beers for 15,000 kip (£1.50) which was the cheapest we saw.  Our favourite cheap eat however was a Chinese noodle kitchen we found on Khem Khonsu road at the Kitsalat road crossover where you could get a delicious tasting bowl of noodles, meat and fresh vegetables for only 20,000 kip (£1.70).  We must say that the Chinese noodles are a lot tastier than the Laotian equivalent! For a bit of a splash out meal, we would recommend the local Riverside BBQ Restaurant on Khem Khong road which is an all you can eat buffet and cook it yourself restaurant.  The food was incredibly fresh and you could opt for a whole array of ingredients from fresh prawns to 4 types of mushroom. It was 65,000 kip £5.60 per person which is an amazing price when you think about it!

All you can eat BBQ for 65,000 kyat!

All you can eat BBQ for 65,000 kyat!

 

Day 4

Luang Namtha

On the morning of day 4 take a minibus out of Luang Prabang and head for Luang Namtha, the trekking capital of Laos.  Again the roads are pretty tough, winding round hills and the surface can be pretty bad.  It takes approx 8 hours with a fast driver and costs 130,000 kip (£11.15) when booked through a hostel.

Luang Namtha has just one main strip of shops, hotels and tour operators, so when you arrive late afternoon just head to one of the tour operators to look into treks. 

 

What To Do

Luang Namtha itself isn’t anything special, but it is the gateway to jungle treks in the stunning Nam Ha National Park and lots of other outdoorsy activities such as kayaking, zip lining, mountain biking etc.  Depending on how many days you want to trek for and what your budget is, you will be able to find a tour that suits you.  After doing some research online we heard that you really get what you pay for and it’s not worth going dirt cheap.  We chose to do a 3 day tour with Laos Forest Retreat because their reviews were the best on Trip Advisor and we would say from experience that they did deliver.  On signing up for the tour, we didn’t know if anyone else would be joining us, but luckily another 3 people signed on and we were ready to go the next morning with 5 people.  It cost $105 each for 3 days including everything from food to kayaking, to guides and accommodation.  There are definitely tours cheaper than this available with other companies, and the more people that sign up the cheaper it is.  A good thing to do is to visit each of the operators and find out what tours people have already signed up for.

Jungle trekking in the Nam Ha National Park

Jungle trekking in the Nam Ha National Park

 

Where To Stay

There are loads of places to stay in Luang Namtha and we would advise just turning up and booking it there and then for the best deal.  Prices of rooms can be negotiated down and we managed to get a double room with our own bathroom and aircon for 60,000 kip (£5.15) per night down from the first price of 80,000 kip (£6.85).

 

Where To Eat

The best place we found to eat for budget travellers was at the night market, where you can find a bowl of Laotian noodles for 10,000 kip (85p).  The eateries at the front closest by the entrance seem to be the most expensive and the cheaper ones are at the back.  They also have stalls for bbq’ed banana with coconut inside and crepes, but we found both of them dry and a bit disappointing!  The food however on the jungle trek was so amazing, fresh and tasty.  It was probably some of the best food we ate in Laos!

Jungle food on our 3 day trek

Jungle food on our 3 day trek

Hand-crafted pieces, delivered to your door… 

Day 5-8

Nam Ha National Park

We opted for a 3 day trek through the national park with a morning of kayaking through one of the rivers.  On the morning of day 5, we headed to our tour operators office first thing for breakfast and then they drove us an hour out to start our trek in the national park. Trekking in the jungle is amazing and is very different to all the other treks we have done previously in mountainous regions and countryside.  It feels really wild and is a lot of fun! 

Day 1 one of the tour was mostly trekking and eating some delicious food our guides had prepared.  That night we stayed in a homestay at a village in the middle of the jungle and got a glimpse into jungle life.  

Day 2 of the tour was a morning of kayaking down a river, tackling a few rapids and stopping off at some remote villages along the way.  We would thoroughly recommend a bit of kayaking in your tour package.  The afternoon was spent trekking up to a viewpoint and then back down to our next village for a nights rest. We watched the guides cook some food on the fire including frogs they had caught from the river! 

A froggy breakfast in the Nam Ha National Park

A froggy breakfast in the Nam Ha National Park

Day 3 was the most challenging of treks and we walked for quite a few hours until we got to picked up and taken back to Luang Namtha by our guides.  We have written up our experience of the jungle which you may helpful...

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

When you get back from the tour, spend one more night in Luang Namtha before heading to Nong Khiaw the next morning.  You can book your minibus ticket to Nong Khiaw from one of the tour operators on the high street.  It costs around 65,000 kip (£5.60) per person with a transfer to the bus station included.

Kayaking in the Nam Ha National Park

Kayaking in the Nam Ha National Park

 

Day 9-10

Nong Khiaw

On day 9, take a minibus early to Nong Khiaw which is 6 hours drive away.  Nong Khiaw is a beautiful sleepy town set on the Nam Ou River with the backdrop of the lusciously green limestone mountains.  It is the perfect place to unwind for a few days, with the option of exploring the area by boat or foot.  It doesn’t feel as touristy as Luang Prabang or Vientiane, but there are enough small restaurants and cafes that cater to western tastes.

The relaxing Nong Khiaw

The relaxing Nong Khiaw

 

What To Do

There are many organised treks that you can do from here including the popular 100 Waterfalls Trek which is a day trip.  We booked this through Tiger Trail for 200,000 kip (£17.20) per person and there was 6 people in our group.  We had a fun time doing the 100 Waterfalls trek, and ended up facing some fears after getting a bit piddled on jungle juice.  Read about our experience here...

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

Our personal highlight in Nong Khiaw was climbing up to the 360 degree viewpoint which overlooks the town and landscape.  It’s a 40 minute accent if you are fit and used to trekking, and we would highly recommend heading there for sunset.  We heard that the steam room and massage place on the way to the viewpoint was good, but unfortunately we didn’t have time to visit, maybe next time!  You can also do a trip out by boat to another small town called Muang Ngoi which we will chat about later.

The viewpoint in Nong Khiaw

The viewpoint in Nong Khiaw

 

Where To Stay

There is loads of accommodation in Nong Khiaw and some can be found at very good prices.  We would say just turn up and find something there and then.  We chose to stay about a ten minute walk from the station in our first guesthouse which was nice because we got a river view bamboo hut overlooking the town on the other side of the water.  The hut had its own balcony which caught the afternoon rays. The second place we stayed at was on the other side of the bridge, again close to the water but the view wasn’t quite as good and it didn’t get the afternoon sun.  Both rooms cost 60,000 kip (£5.15) per night and were basic bamboo huts with WiFi and a hot shower.

 

Where To Eat

You must eat at Delilah’s for breakfast.  They have an incredible menu to choose from of pancakes, porridge, cooked breakfasts, baguettes, granola and nearly everything is homemade including the bread.  Breakfast range from 20,000 kip (£1.70) to 35,000 kip (£3.00).  They also have some very tasty homemade cakes that are served all day till 11pm including apple crumble with coconut ice cream and banoffee pie.  For dinner, we would recommend eating at Coco’s, the food is fresh and tasty and the setting is nice.  We opted for river weed, river fish and yellow curry all of which were very good, but the stand out dishes were the papaya salad and mango coconut sticky rice for pudding.  There is also a tasty Indian restaurant on the other side of the bridge on the left hand side which is worth a visit.  

A Delilah's breakfast - porridge with banana, milk, maple syrup, sugar and cinnamon

A Delilah's breakfast - porridge with banana, milk, maple syrup, sugar and cinnamon

 

Day 11

Muang Ngoi

Catch the 10.30am boat to Muang Ngoi from Nong Khiaw boat station.  The trip takes about 1 hour 20 mins on a local boat and costs 25,000 kip (£2.15).  The boat ride isn’t so comfortable, but the views make up for it.  Mango Ngoi is a scenic little town further along the river, and is much less developed than Nong Khiaw.  There aren’t any cars there, only bikes, and so it’s a very peaceful place to walk around.  Again, it’s set against the backdrop of the stunning limestone cliffs, and the dirt roads running through the village make you feel as though you’re stepping back in time.  We stayed for only one night here, but really it is probably better to stay for 2, because you only really get a half day to explore the surrounding area.  When you awake the next morning, you need to get down to the boat station for 8am sharp to make sure you book your tickets that morning for the return boat to Nong Khiaw.  It was really busy at 8am when it opens and you don’t want to risk getting stuck in Muang Ngoi.  The boat leaves at 9.30am, and is 1 hour 20 mins back to Nong Khiaw.

Muang Ngoi

Muang Ngoi

 

What To Do

There are plenty of walks to do from the village.  A popular one is to head towards Tham Kang Cave which takes 40 minutes, and then onto a much more remote village called Bana where you will be greeted by smiling locals (a further 30 minutes).  The walk takes around 3 hours total there and back with some time spent in the cave and village, so will take up most of the afternoon.  There is a viewpoint you can ascend which is a sweaty 1.5 hours up, we didn’t get a chance to do it but we heard it was a stunner.  You can also hire bikes to explore more of the surrounding villages, including Bana, Huay Bo and Huay Sen.  Muang Ngoi is a quiet village, but there are plenty of restaurants and bars catering to westerners, so if you are happy to relax in a bar for a few hows enjoying the sunshine then you will have a great time here.  The locals are a little unfriendly but hey, you can’t have everything!

 

Where To Sleep

As soon as you get off the boat you will be approached by many locals trying to offer you a room for the night.  You can either follow one of them, or you can continue walking straight ahead into town to try and find your own place to stay.  We weren’t really that fussed where we were sleeping (as long as it was cheap) so we followed one of the local ladies to Aloune Guesthouse where we stayed in a wooden bungalow for 60,000 kip (£5.15) per night with a river view.  You can’t get much better than that!  We also read online that if you are after an even cheaper room for the night then if you ask around to the owners of restaurants then sometimes you can bag yourself a double room for 20,000 kip (£1.70). When looking for a room, you just need to find out if they have hot showers, electricity, a mosquito net and wifi if you want it.

Chilling in a hammock at Aloune Guesthouse

Chilling in a hammock at Aloune Guesthouse

 

Where To Eat

The Bee Tree Restaurant at the very end of the highstreet does amazing food and cocktails, and every day from 5pm they do a happy hour.  The setting is really lovely, they have a cool hang out space in the garden and they get a fire going later on when it gets a bit chilly.  We opted for the Laos Laos Sours, which were 2 for 25,000 kip (£2.15), and a few hours down the line we had gotten through 5 each, recorded a Christmas quiz for our friends at home, and had munched on some Laotian curries which went done a bit too well!  We wish every town had a Bee Tree restaurant.  We also saw a place on the main strip that did wood fired pizzas but it wasn’t open that evening for whatever reason.  Breakfast in Riverside Bar and Restaurant was also nice, we opted for a fruit porridge made of rice, pineapple, banana and coconut, and we think condensed milk because it tasted so naughty!  We saw there was an all you can eat breakfast for 20,000 kip (£1.83) if you book the night before just on the main strip, but didn’t get a chance to visit.

 

 

Unique designs, that you can’t find on the highstreet….

Day 12

Nong Khiaw 

Take the 9.30am boat back to Nong Khiaw which will take around 1 hour 20 mins.  Enjoy the last boat ride down the very scenic Nam Ou river, it’s very James Bond in places.  If you want to at this point, you can head straight to the bus station and take a minivan or tuk tuk back to Luang Prabang, but we chose to stay another day in the chilled out Nong Khiaw.

Mark chilling on a boat ride from Nong Khiaw

Mark chilling on a boat ride from Nong Khiaw

 

Day 13-14

Luang Prabang

First thing in the morning, make your way over to the bus station in Nong Khiaw.  Your options are to either get a 4 hour ride crammed in a tuk tuk back to Luang Prabang (which sounds like our idea of hell), or to get one of the mini vans which take only 3 hours in much more comfortable seats.  The first minivan starts at around 7.30am, and everything gets booked up pretty fast! As soon as a tuk tuk or van gets filled, it will just leave regardless of what time it was scheduled in for.  So the last minivan for the day was scheduled in for 1.30pm, but actually it left at 11.30am!  Both cost between 40,000/50,000 kip (£3.66-£4.57) and sometimes they may make you pay for empty seats if you want to leave earlier then the scheduled time.  

Whatever you fancy doing on your last couple of days in Laos you will be able to find it in the chilled out traveller haven of Luang Prabang.  

A Luang Prabang sunset

A Luang Prabang sunset

 

Other Things To Note:

Chilly Nights

It can get really cold in Laos at night times, especially out in the countryside, so make sure you take some warm clothing and maybe a sleeping bag if you tend to get very cold at night.  Many nights it was around 3 degrees when we were sleeping in bamboo huts and in the jungle, so make sure you aren’t freezing like we were!

 

Land Mines

Laos is surprisingly the most bombed country in the world and there are still thousands of unexploded land mines scattered across the landscape.  It’s not necessarily something to worry about but something that you should be aware of.  Just make sure that you always stick to the trekking paths and always go with a local guide.

It's fine to trek, just always make sure you are with a local guide

It's fine to trek, just always make sure you are with a local guide

 

Grub

We wouldn’t say that the Laotian food is the tastiest ever but there are plenty of authentic Thai dishes to choose from at tourists restaurants.  You can’t go wrong with a Thai curry!

 

Tourist Central

If you are looking for somewhere to travel to that is quiet of tourists then this isn’t the place for you.  There is such a traveller hub in the cities that sometimes it can be hard to see the local way of life.  Although we liked Laos and thought that the countryside was very stunning, we have preferred travelling around other neighbouring countries such as China and Thailand. It sometimes feels as though the Laotian way of life has stopped for the tourists, which is a bit sad.  

 

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Laos - The Ultimate 2 Week Travel Itinerary For Backpackers, by Studio Mali
 

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Video: Vientiane, Luang Prabang & Nong Khiaw

We only spent two weeks speeding around these jungle havens but as you can see there is a lot to do. From jungle trekking and kayaking in Nam Ha through to the continental eateries of Luang Prabang. Not to mention an extremely beautiful sunset on the Mekong river for Christmas Day,  we were pretty lucky with that one.

We hope you enjoy our video and feel inspired to come visit someday.

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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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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/

 

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

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