Trekking in Luang Namtha – Northern Laos

August, 2014

Luang Namtha is the gateway for wonderful treks to hill tribe villages and spectacular rice-bowl valleys surrounded by mountainous vistas from every periphery!Booked the trek up to the Lahu Village (about 1300 metres high), through the Zuela Guest House in Luang Namtha (Namtha). The actual company at Zuela is the Nature Life Tour and think the owner is related to the guest house somehow. The trek lasts 2-days, with an overnight stay in the village.

On booking, there was supposed to be 4 of us but 2 people pulled out (the more people on a tour, the cheaper the price). Luckily, the tour company’s owner still honoured the 4-people price (200,000K each) for only 2 of us but the other 2 people lost their deposit.

Children of the Lahu Village

Lahu Village Trek

The tour started at 9:30 with a visit to the local market for the trek’s food. I found this trip to the market much more fascinating with our guide (Kong) than doing this on your own, as he explains any questions you have about the food offered in any stalls.

The Songthaew then drove an hour (South-east) to Ban Sing village, the start of the trek. From here, we picked up 2 porters; one of which only stayed with us until lunch then walked back down the mountain. A quick split of all the supplies and we were off on our trek through some fluorescent green rice fields draped by high mountains, which steadily became a steep climb that never seemed to get any easier or shorter…we are out of condition! Remember the village is 1,300 mts up so it was never going to be an easy trek.

The guide and porters are amazing – they don’t even break into a sweat although my clothes were ringing wet! The impossibly high rice fields ascend all the way up the mountain and small thatched huts are dotted around. Naively thinking that these are where the workers live or stay overnight when working the fields at this height, Kong advised otherwise. Workers trek up the 1,300 mts each day then back down to their homes in the village for the night. The huts are only for lunch breaks or rest spots during the hottest part of the day!

Rest hut and lunch stop, about half-way up the mountain

Our brilliant and funny guide – Kong

We finally arrived at the Lahu Village about 14:30 and the view from the top was nothing short of spectacular!

Spectacular vistas!

The ever-changing view

Surrounded by even higher mountains, the ever-changing panoramic vista is awe-inspiring. The village site is quite dusty and cleared of trees and grass (even though it’s the wet season). There’s no running water, no electricity, no school, no hospital, no shop, or much food – it’s very isolated and basic. However, the huts do have small solar panels for night power (puts Australia to shame!). The village was moved here by the government 16 years’ ago and about 114 people live here in 16 thatched huts with dirt floors. The children don’t go to school. Rice is still pounded manually to separate the husks. This is done by women using a huge heavy piece of solid wood onto a stone pedestal – this village is like stepping back in time 100 years or more. There are a lot of babies, children, piglets, puppies, kittens, roosters, and chicks running around – everything here seems to be breeding.

Part of the Lahu Village

Spectacular scenery!

As suspected, we were the novelty in the village. The “Lodge” so aptly named by Kong and purposely built for tourists, is ‘rustic’ to say the least. The thatched hut is one large room that sleeps up to 10 people (8 tourists and 2 guides) and includes a table that doubles for food preparation, a dining table, and bed area. Cooking over a fire is done on the dirt floor inside the hut so it gets a little smoky. Food preparation is also on banana leaves on the bamboo raised area that doubles later as the sleeping area.

The Lodge – a little leaky in the rain!

Dining area, food preparation, and our bed on the right!

Bedding and mosquito nets are provided but as there are loads of animals in and out of this hut including cats, the bedding comes with fleas at no extra charge! A squat toilet was built-in a side hut close by but this hasn’t seen a scrubbing-brush or cleaner in years, so, nature is your only choice…oh, and beware of the pigs, nothing goes to waste!

The kitchen and cooking area, next to the bed area

Cheeky visitor!

During our stay, many locals visited our hut, mainly looking at what the guides had brought with them and whether any scraps of food (oil, garlic, leftovers) could be scrounged. I started to feel very guilty as everyone in the village is very sinewy. Had I known, I would have insisted on buying extras at the market for the village; a harder trek up the mountain with the extra supplies though.


Pretending to sleep and playing with the village children

Frequent adorable visitors

Gorgeous sunset…

Apart from lunch on the first day, vegetarian food was cooked by Kong and our porter, every meal is delicious. Both guys are excellent cooks, and with a sense of humour! Kong speaks English very well but the porter couldn’t and I can’t remember how he spells his name…not good; he was super keen to learn and also wanted to become a guide, better money.

Lahu Village Drinking session
That night, there was a celebration on in one of the huts. Kong said it was because the village had sold us a chicken to eat – weird as we never ate any chicken whilst at the village. Anyway, the locals bought some Lao Lao (whisky) from the town below and we were invited.

Feeling a little awkward, we entered the dimly lit ‘party’ hut, which was very smoky. The men were sitting on tiny foot stools around a short table, drinking shots and eating. We were offered some food from the middle of the table, which was very kind but as we’d just eaten, there was no need. Some local music was playing in the background and then we were offered Lao whisky, which tasted awful but drank it smiling anyway as not to appear rude.

Archaic way of pounding sun-dried sticky rice for hours to crack the hull – women seem to do all the work in this village

A few guys were sprawled out on a bed and looked out of it but not from alcohol. The women were sitting in one corner of the hut not participating but watching everything as was the village Elder – it seemed that the women’s job was to replenish the men’s table with sticky rice and soup, as required . We only stayed for about an hour as wanted the villagers to enjoy the spoils on their own – slim pickings really. Such a bizarre experience but it was very kind of them to invite us and to share their scarce food and alcohol.

I still can’t believe someone trekked down the mountain and back for a 5 litre bottle of alcohol but I don’t think any food was bought. We learnt from Kong that if it rains here, the villagers just sit indoors not venturing out much to forage for food or anything else until the rain stops. There’s a supply of rice pounded and kept in the huts so locals don’t need to trek up and down the mountain daily – I’d go crazy!

Trek down
The next day, the torrential rain throughout the night (it is the wet season) didn’t clear by the time the trek started after breakfast – the hut did leak but not too much.

The trek back down the mountain seemed harder. Perhaps this was aided by the fact that every step you took ended in either ankle-deep mud or helping to slide down the track even further – everything was very slippery. As it was raining so much, Kong took another route but it seemed that this was less traversed and we walked through thick undergrowth where the occasional hacking with machetes was required or thorn-like branches would catch and tear a part of your body or limb.

After about 3 hours, we arrived at Bang Tapong where we stopped for a lovely lunch of sticky rice, garlic stir-fried broccoli, and stir fried Morning Glory with ginger. The meal was all pre-made by Kong and our porter at breakfast time then carried down the mountain; rice was purchased from locals in the village – these guides are amazing!

Tapong Village local

After lunch, Kong took us around the village and explained what the locals were working on. Very different mentality to the Lahu Village where if it rained, the locals stayed indoors until the rain stopped; they didn’t even venture out looking or collecting food – they’d rather kill a chicken and stay indoors. Tapong is a much larger village, which also has a Primary school but the locals were actually busy working, whether it was weaving, blacksmithing or otherwise. However, Kong advised that the government assists this village but can’t assist the Lahu village as it’s too high up on the mountain, so they’re on their own.

The Songthaew picked us up for the cold and wet ride back to Namtha but not before we did a loop around the rice fields to absorb the breath-taking scenery…what a fantastic experience and well worth the price!

As it’s the wet season and pretty much had torrential rain whilst trekking, I think the 2 days was definitely enough and lucky we brought along our super warm sleeping bags (no fleas in these either). A longer trek would be better in the dry season; depending on the tour, I believe you trek to more villages or further into the jungle.

Visit my Nilla’s Photography Laos gallery for more images. More blogs on Laos.

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