I arrive into Luang Namtha from Jinhong – and despite numerous stories and misinformation central from the useless hostels in Xichuanbana – its easy and painless. I share another (my last for now) Chinese bus with only a couple of other Lau Weis – and some women eating sticky rice in pandan leaves. The feathering bamboo forests and bright lime green of the rice paddies gives way to huge dark green undulating mountains, broad leafed banana plants and tropical palm trees. There is a Japanese guy on the bus and I ask him how it is bearing in mind the troubles (all over China angry mobs have been attacking Japanese tourists over the dispute with their islands)
“Uncomfortable” he says. He has been refused accommodation in China because of his nationality.
Dai- the Japanese student from Shangrila has emailed me. He is scared he will be attacked. He ends dramatically with "I must be care for my safety" Marco has told me about a shop sign he hs seen in Shangri la – saying “We don't serve Japanese, pigs or dogs” which he has had to translate for Dai. Akward. Later Dai gets back in touch to say he's decided to change from studying the sciences to journalism. I can see why when you have to experience first hand the hatred of a mob whipped up by the power of mass media.
I get into Luang Namtha and stop at Zoula Guesthouse – with its dark wooden walls. The sun is bright and hot, the little town is very flat with hills rising in the background. I get out my silver umbrella to shade me and think i'm a true traveller now – I don't even care about a tan I just want to stay out of the sun! On the roadside are little old ladies selling grapefruits. There is a night market where the locals eat – you can get a traditional Laos dish - papaya salad (thin spicy slivers in a fishy sauce), bbqd pork, duck or chicken and here its sticky rice all the way. A different grain to other rice – it also contains more sugar. The traditional way to eat a Laos meal is with your hands - you roll up the sticky rice into little balls the size of walnuts and then use it to mop up the rest of the food.
For 5000 kip about 30p you can also get a Lao dessert. A bowl filled with coconut milk, tapioca balls and slivers of mango and sweet potato. Its delicious.
Luang Namtha is making a name for itself with its Eco treks – hikes into the NPA – National Protected with companies promising sustainable green tourism. I've met an Australian couple who run a litte cafe called Forest Retreat. They were obviously travellers themselves and know exactly what kind of foods “falangs” (foreigners) are craving after a couple of months on the road in Asia. On the menu they have Bircher Muesli served with fresh milk (very hard to find in Asia), Cheese on toast (imported all the way from New Zealand) baked beans and a bonafide coffee machine serving an authentic Flat White. I know where i'm going for breakfast. They run tours from here and I can imagine going on one of their treks would be a sensible choice as they are well reputed and know what westerners are looking for in service. However the only one they have going is leaving the next day and involves a day kayaking. It doesn't really appeal – i've never kayaked before and although my philosophy is usually “give everything a go once” I would just like to do some proper trekking and to learn about the plants and fruits of the forest. I don't think i'll get that by joinging a rowdy bunch of Australians.
I find another company which is doing a jungle trek led by a Khmu guide (one of the native tribes of Laos) and one other person who has signed up – a gentle gangling giraffe of an American (Zac) with quietly contemplative air. We agree to go the day after tomorrow so I can recover from the all day bus journey. The more people you can get to accomany you on tour the cheaper it becomes – as there is only two of use it costs around 45 pounds each for a two day hike with an overnight stay in the jungle.
I finish the day at a local cafe eating Laos noodle soup. I have another of the specialities on my first night – noodle broth with sweet minced beef – mint, coriander and spring onion. Its fragrant, light and a welcome relief to all the deep fried oily goodies of China.
It comes with a serving dish of d basil leaves, bean sprouts and green beans that you tear up and chuck in along with an assortment of bottles from the table to help you adjust the taste to your liking– a savoury sauce, hot chilli paste and sugar.
The next day we meet our guides – a young shy 21 year old called Aer who has opted to do his first guided trek in flip flops (common amongst the locals) and a cheeky outgoing 26 year old called Gong – both are from the Black Tai Dum ethnic tribes. Our Guide is from the Khmu tribe and is called San (which means 100,000) and has skin the colour of dried leather and he speaks no English. There are 29 ethnic tribes in Luang Namtha who have gradually migrated from surrounding border lands of Myanmar, Vietnam and Yunnan in China. We stop at the daily market in Luang Namtha first so that they can pick up our lunch.
The women sit on the floor shaded by large red and blue parasols their goods laid out in front of them...lots of fresh fruit and green leaves, bright bunches of coriander,
the yellow stars of banana flowers, different coloured chilli peppers, dragon fruit and mangoes. In the indoor section is food to take away – large bowls of scrabbling big black water beetles, thick chunks of hexagonal bee's hive with the bee larvae still wriggling inside each cell (apparently they eat them raw and alive or smoked -the latter tasting a little like oysters according to Zac) silk worms and bamboo boring lavae as well as bunches of live frogs tied up in string or deep fried if you don't feel like plunging them into hot oil yourself. All of this wildlife is foraged from the water of the rice paddy fields and the surrounding jungle. There are also slighty more palatable looking grilled fish and split chicken on bamboo skewers and mountains of sticky rice.
We pick up our guide San from his village (he is normally a paddy field farmer) and set off for the jungle. The trek (which has been described as easy to moderate...) starts at a shallow river crossing where I discover...we have to take off our shoes and socks and wade on through. There are two little nut brown naked children waist deep in the water banging thick globs of dark green algae against stones. Villagers deep fry the algae and eat it but these kids are just playing with it. I'm worried about leeches – they are everywhere apparently and I am NOT good with slimy wriggling things. But apparently leeches don't live in fast moving water they live on the river bank and on the ground (something I didn't know.) Poor Zac is more at risk as he already has a nasty bloody puncture on his lower leg from a dog that bit him at a temple he was visiting – our guide wriggles his finger to mime a leech and laughes with a toothless grin – yes the leeches will have a field day.
I'm a little taken aback we have to just wade through water – no one prepared us but we get to the other side and start again – walking through the bright lime green of the rice paddies and through the fragrant cardamom bushes and galangal trees. We learn how the villagers use the cotton from the Kapok trees and harvest and scrape green bark from some treets to use as diarrhoea medicine (may come in handy later). We are trekking in the jungle of the NPA – (National Protected area.) The jungles of Luang Namtha are still very undeveloped but are now being reduced in size through logging and to a lesser extent the “slash and burn” farming techniques fo the locals. Unlike Thailand or surrounding Asian countries –30% of the jungles are virgin primary forest – and the local villagers live off the land from both this and the secondary growth.
There are no pristine hiking trails here, both Gong and San have machetes strapped to their waists to cut through the foliage of the paths. But this will change in the not too distant future. The Chinese come and encourage the locals to cut down the trees and grow rubber trees for money. Now all the trees are cut down and the weather is hotter – complains Gong – and the rubber trees have lessened in value because everyone does it. The government has made villages like San to be near roads – although this provides them with better easier access to healthcare and education it has also reduced the amount of land they can farm and given them less access to the forest for their resources. I feel lucky in some ways I've got to experience this now.
We stop for lunch in a shelter in a rice paddy. I am trekking in leggings tucked into socks to try and evade leeches but in 40 degree heat its hard going. Lunch is laid out on big flat banana leaves along the route and consists of grilled Tilapia fish, Laap a paste made with minced pork meat, salad made with garlic, chilli and a dark green local stringy weed and grilled duck chopped up with the bone still in it. Its delicious. As we are eating the heavens open. Its still rainy season and we can see enormous drops splatter the earth. After sheltering ourselves and our backpacks as best we can with waterproofs we set off again through fields thick with lemon grass, wild mint, coriander and chilli peppers. As we go the guides cut bunches of the fresh herbs to use in our dinner. The trek is strenuous and at least an hour and half is steep and up hill. I'm in pretty good shape but if I wasn't i'd feel missold from the information given!
Here the guides tend to just head off – hacking through the large spiny rattan plants and thick fronds of the bamboo without stopping to help and aren't proactive with the information – Zac and I have to extract it from them which is disappointing. Going steeply downhill is just as precarious on the muddy slopes and the guide hacks off bamboo canes to make walking sticks for us. However once it levels out I can start to enjoy the walk. The intense heat of midday and the thick rain have subsided leaving a more pleasant sunshine shaded by the jungle canopy and a chance to appreciate the environment – the thick grey green trunks of the strangler and Kapok trees, the huge tarzan esque vines that wrap their way around branches and hang from the trees, the broad flat leaves of banana trees.
Gong cuts up some of the large concertined leaves of the Palm and fashions them into fans for us - and they work at keeping the sticky humid heat at bay.
We arrive at the bamboo camp where we will stay the night. Apparently they haven't done this trek for 3 months because of the rainy season and when we arrive there is rubbish in one of the rooms, someone has kicked through the dried leaves of the window and (apparently) stolen the mattresses and mosquito nets. Brilliant – this means I will be “sleeping” in a sleeping bag on banana leaves laid out onto a hard wooden floor. I am exceptionally bony – I know I will not be getting any sleep at all.
Otherwise the bamboo camp is a sweet little baba yaga esque (but not hopping around on one chicken foot) thatched hut on stilts right by the rushing cocoa brown river. The guides set about making a fire whilst Zac and I regard the wildlife. There is a little spider inside what looks like a white horned mask with two black antlers weaving a great web. Its not clear whether he just has two legs or little legs under this “mask” I google him later and realise he's a similar type to Professor X I saw in Fujian at the martial arts school. They are called St Andrew spiders and weave zig zag Xs into their webs before drawing their legs into pairs and sitting in the middle. He is spinning his web furiously.
Once the fire has been built San strips down to his underpants and disappears off into the jungle to hack down some thick bamboo branches as thick as my ankle. He then sets about fashioning some steamers out of them which the sticky rice and water are poured into and then positioned into the fire. They have brought a chicken with them that spit and then roast – then another bamboo branch is cut open and cared into a soup serving bowl. The fresh herbs and chillie that were picked earlier en route are added to some stock to make Or Lam - a traditional Laos Chicken stew. Rattan branches (the same Rattan used to make furniture) have been cut and shaved of their thorns and are now being roasted in the fire. Once cooked the hard outer layers of the stem are peeled away and the thick white flesh inside becomes our vegetable accompaniment.
Conversation after dinner turns to Gong's religious beliefs. Like a lot of the ethnic tribes in Laos he is not Buddhist but believes in Animism – a complicated worship centred around making rituals and offerings to spirits of natural elements such as mountains and lakes as well as to the ghosts of ancestors past. They have ghost stories that scare – one ghost who walks around with its entrails out and eats only the intestines of pigs...another where if you eat after midnight and don't make an offering the ghosts of the ancestors come to the dinner and stand around you. They build a fire in one room that Zac and I sleep in but I can't help feel that Gong would be happier near the fire as well.
For breakfast San has made some spoons out banana leaves again and we have chicken and noodles with a Jeow (traditional Laos chilli sauce) made out of chilli, garlic and fruit. We set off again and they are joking about the river crossing that we will have to do where the water comes to chest level. Oh no – I should have known – they aren't joking. I strip off to exercise shorts and vest top and take off shoes and socks again. The water is muddy and deep and the current is strong. The guides take my bag and I start to stumble slowly across the coffee coloured water rushing around me. Aer comes to help me with a stick but its slow work – by the time I get to the centre of the river San the guide comes out and puts forward his bamboo cane. I grab the end of it and just swim my way across to the other side which is easier – then try and get clothed and shoed before the leeches get me.
I have had four so far found wriggling on the rubber laces part of my sneakers. Everytime I see one I can't help it – I squeal and one of the guides has to come and pick it off. I feel like such a girl. However Zac has been trekking in shorter trousers and sure enough the dog bite has attracted them – he has been bitten three times by the leeches – the blood from the wounds smearing his skin. The only good news about leeches is that unlike mosquitos – their bite is harmless as they do not carry malaria or any other diseases. But they are gross!
We continue on our way and Gong kneels down to cut into a round shaped root revealing a fleshy pink interior – this is used by locals grated instead of rice and for lunch we have another soup made with fresh mushrooms picked along the way. The final descent comes out of the jungle and down a very steep hill through wild mint – the rolling hills of Laos stretching out below. There is just one final water crossing into a rice paddy and we are done – waiting hot, tired and very dirty for our lift back to town. Once there Zac and I sit down and have a beer with our guides – I really can't decide whether the whole trek has been brilliantly awful or awfully brilliant. The food and learning about the medicines and wildlife was fantastic, the leeches and sleeping on hard floors less so. But it has certainly been memorable...and i've eaten some of the best and authentic food on my travels.