Nick and I took the sleeper bus to Luang Nam Tha and arrived at 1am. As we still had a week before our Laos visa expired and were doing well on budget we decided to do a 2 day jungle trek and kayak trip. Nick did a great job researching tour agencies and discovered that of the 10 tour agencies in town there were only 3 owners. Of the 3, only 1 was owned by a local villager who actually practiced eco tourism and was transparent about where exactly our money was going. Thus, it was easy to decide we’d book with Forest Retreat Laos.
Rant: Nick and I are spending our life savings on this trip and keep track of every yen, tughrik, dong and kip spent. We are traveling as low to the ground as possible. We cook oatmeal and ramen some days and buying shampoo or conditioner is a real treat. With that being said, it is so important to spend your money wisely. Backpacks are often discussing costs and budgets and forget the importance of ensuring that your travels have a positive impact on the local economy. While not getting ripped off is important, it’s surely more important to make sure the money you spend doesn’t lead to locals getting underpaid. If you can’t tip a guide, then don’t take a tour. Do your research and pay a few extra dollars for a company that gives money back to the community in which you are traveling. If an entire village is asking you to buy a 50 cent bracelet, buy the 50 cent bracelet, because at the end of the day, it’s the right thing to do. End rant.
On the first day of our tour, we hiked and bush whacked about 10 miles through the Nam Ha Protected Area. This protected area is home to tigers, clouded leopards, barking deer and snakes. The lush jungle has been the most remote we’ve seen thus far in SE Asia. It was more of an adventure than expected as our guide got lost about half way through the trek and we didn’t return to the trail until dusk. We saw a variety of interesting insects, spiders and hornets (of course, nick got stung), however as usual in Southeast Asia jungles there was a lack of larger wildlife . Our guide has seen wild pigs, pythons and 1 tiger print in his 16 years of guiding. We arrived to a local village at dark and helped prepare dinner (pumpkin, mustard greens and sticky rice) over an open fire.
The next morning Nick and I explored Ban Nalan Village which insists of 200 Khmu residents. The bamboo houses on stilts and thatched roofs were simple. We watched a group of older women roast rats over a fire, visited the village school and played with piglets and puppies. The women’s teeth were stained black from chewing beetle nuts which provides a similar buz to chewing tobacco.
Later, we pile into deflating kayaks and began to paddle down the Nam Ha River. We stopped a second village, Namkoy , which was a Chinese minority group. The women wore handmade indigo dyed dresses. As we arrived, they were making bamboo paper for the school by pouring bamboo pulp onto large flat bamboo trays to dry. We watched a pet monkey entertain himself while being leashed to a villager’s home.
We continued paddling down river through easy but exciting “rapids”. While paddling, we began to smell something terrible, then we saw a “barking deer” carcus floating in the water. Although illegal to hunt in the protected area this animal was shot and ran to the river before dying. Our guide schlepted the deer onto the back of his kayak and continued to paddle. When we stopped for lunch we returned to the kayaks to a skinned deer, broken down into plastic bags.
We returned to Luang Nam Tha and enjoyed dinner at the night market with our new French friends. We kindly declined the many opium offers we received and packed as we’d enter Thailand the next day!