So we booked a three day trek with Jewel Travel Laos to trek around Nong Khiaw starting from Ban (Village) Houy Khong, through Ban Vieg Hinh and Ban Payong and down to the river where we would catch a boat back to Nong Khiaw. As we had met up with the Aussie couple from Sapa, Sarah and Scott, we decided to do a trek together.
Day 1 was pretty crazy. We walked through some rice paddies, up through the jungle and then came to a waterfall where we assumed we would eat lunch and have a swim. How wrong we were. Turns out our path WAS the waterfall. Upstream.
For the next 2 kms the five of us navigated our way up the waterfall. Our guide, a very awesome Khmou by the name of Tong (or Tong Cruise as we called him), told us that the usual path had been washed away during the wet season. At times he looked a bit worried/perplexed/scared for our safety as he looked up at the oncoming powerful current and made up the pathway on the spot!
We went really slowly and carefully. Tong told us where to put our feet and where to hold. We would walk through the waterfall, get to the other side, climb up a few trees, over logs, then up the waterfall to the otherside. It was amazingly crazy and I just concentrated on following Tong’s exact footsteps, taking his hand occasionally and never looking back down. Lionel was at the back of the group taking photos so at times he had to make his own way up. Now that we talk about it we can’t believe we made our way up without any ropes or safety equipment. If someone had slipped or fallen off a rock, the current would have just thrown them off the edge. Looking down at the water around our legs would make us so dizzy because it was gushing so quickly. It was so surreal and one of the most amazing things I’ve done in my life. Climbing UP a waterfall!
The last hour or two was difficult as the mountain was very steep and at times I struggled to breathe. We passed a group of men heading in the opposite direction and Tong told us that these were some men in the village who were going hunting for meat – they would then likely return back to the village in the dark around 10pm, or even the next day depending on whether they caught anything! Finally we made it and around 5.30pm we got to a village. I was deliriously happy, but then Tong told us this wasn’t the village we were staying at. Urgh! Luckily the village we were to stay at that night was only up the dirt road because I didn’t think I could go any further!
We got to a house on stilts and Tong told us this was our home for the night. Inside was one large room where the five of us would sleep. It was very clean, rustic, simple and welcoming. We met the family who were hosting us and despite the language barrier they were incredibly gracious and friendly. We then checked out the toilet and bathroom. The toilet was a shack a bit further away, and I found the bamboo door was on the floor. After a while I figured out that the door had to be propped up. It was pretty heavy. The shower was equally interesting. It was in the middle of the village, just a tap with a rough looking fence around it. But not the whole way around of course. And it only came up to your underarms. We observed some people having a shower, they were dressed in a sarong and would scrub themselves under the sarong since you were in full view of the village. We decided to shower in our bathers and had a few curious observers!
Then we handed out some lollies to the children who had gathered around us. We blew up some balloons we had brought and took a ton of photos. At this point Lionel was vomiting in the communal squat toilet due to a bout of sunstroke! Then we realized the second bag of balloons we had bought were actually water balloons! We quickly got changed back into our dirty, wet clothes and using the communal shower tap (where some locals were none too pleased that we were using their shower time) we decided to have an impromptu water balloon fight! At first the kids didn’t know what to do with the water balloons that we gave them. It was so adorable watching the younger children save their balloons and cradle them in their arms. Then we started throwing them at each other and the children. Soon they got right into it and were targeting us! One older boy, with a fake gun in his pants, would even take the younger kids’ balloons and use them on us! We, and the younger children, got him back though. It was super fun and watching the children laugh as the balloons exploded made the hard first day trek worthwhile.
It got dark and we settled back into the house to relax. The village didn’t have electricity so we hung out by candlelight. Suddenly we noticed a few eyes staring at us from the door, then more eyes. Some of the children had come to watch us! We invited them in and they sat by the door. Slowly more and more eyes popped up and before we knew it, we had most of the village children in the little house with us!
When the adults came, the children scattered to the back of the room, and it was so eerie but cute knowing we were surrounded by curious children. The adults had brought with them a metal tray, some biscuits, some string and a few bottles of whiskey. What were we in for?
The next hour was a blur. An amazing blur. We learnt from Tong that the village elders had come to welcome us to their village and that they were grateful that we had brought so much happiness and joy to their children and village. We all put our hands on the large tray and the elders chanted, the oldest then poured some whiskey, dipped some cotton string in it and then wiped it on the backs of our hands. He then lit that string and placed it back into the glass with the whiskey. Then the five elders each tied a cotton bracelet around our wrists, each chanting something different. It was so cool, and weird and nothing I had ever experienced. Tong told us we just had to keep them on for a minimum of three days but a week later and none of us are in any hurry to take these blessed string bracelets off!
During dinner more people started to come into the small house and sit around us and behind us as we ate. Suddenly we were given shots of Lao Lao – a Laotian rice whiskey. In turns, along with the elders, we took shots. It was customary for the drinker to turn to each person in the circle and nod/toast to them. Then we were given cups of BeerLao to toast with too! After a few shots of whiskey and a few cups of BeerLao, I asked Tong to give me smaller shots – it was definitely starting to catch up with me. Everyone was very welcoming though and despite the burn of the whiskey I was really enjoying myself. Someone then switched on the generator and one of the only two TVs in the village flickered to life in our house. Suddenly everyone’s eyes were glued to the Thai action movie that was playing, us included! Young children, adults, really old people, everyone found a spot in that small room. After the movie ended, the adults woke their children and carried them home, our host made out beds; some mattresses on the floor and hung up the mosquito nets. This was home for the night.
Had a pretty good sleep despite the billions of roosters crowing early in the morning. We had some eggs and fried grasshoppers for breakfast and Tong told us he had a surprise. He took us under the house and showed us a small bamboo trap that the village men had caught the night before. Inside were three or four bamboo rats! They looked like hamsters or guinea pigs, pretty cute and apparently, quite the expensive delicacy!
We set off for our Day 2 hike, the longest day with 17kms to cover. I won’t go into too much detail but I will say that I nearly cried, slipped in the mud several times, twisted both ankles falling in the very steep mud, got mad at Lionel, got mad at the trek, got mad at the world, and got mad at myself for deciding to do this trek! We were also all attacked by the stupid leeches that were determined to get into our shoes, and suck all of our blood. It was pretty disgusting, at one point the whole back of my right pant leg was covered in blood from one sneaky sucker who had crawled up my leg and bit into the back of my knee!
It was a difficult day as we were covering quite a distance, plus we were going up, and then down the mountain, very quickly. It was so steep and everyone of us fell down, not helped by the meters of sticky mud on the way. A highlight was the Aussie couple yelling at us to ‘Come quickly, quickly!’ as I had fallen behind. We quickly ran over to find our guide, Tong, holding a dead snake. Turns out the snake was near Scott and Tong had asked him, ‘Do you want to eat snake?’ to which Scott just shrugged. Tong then grabbed the end of the snake and whacked its head back and forth on the ground, killing it. There was dinner!
We finally made it to the next village, where they were a bit more accustomed to trekkers. The general store that we were staying at even had four rooms, similar to a motel. Again we had a bit of a water balloon fight with the local children, Sarah even tried to hit some teenagers who were watching. They were holding machetes.
We wouldn’t call the second place a ‘homestay’ as the owners barely acknowledged our existence and they didn’t have dinner with us or really make us feel welcome. It rained all night and our room, and then our bags got flooded, so it wasn’t the best night either. It rained very heavily all night and into the morning, so much so, that the four of us conspired to ask Tong if a car could pick us up from the village. He laughed and said that no way can a car get to the village. Damn!
After a leisurely breakfast, highlight being the ‘riverweed’ very similar to fried seaweed, we set off around 10.30. Luckily the storm had lifted, so we just walked on very muddy, slippery land, rather than in the rain. Today was the shortest day, Tong told us about four hours. Amazingly enough though we must have walked fairly fast because it definitely felt shorter than four hours, thank god. Leeches still got us though.
Got to the riverbank where a boat was going to pick us up and take us back to Nong Khiaw, some 50 minutes downstream. We waited for about an hour and a half were we ate lunch, entertained ourselves with flicking flies and sunbaking. A very relaxed day compared to Day 2.
Finally the boat arrived, complete with comfortable car seats fitted in, and we made our way back to the town. It was an amazing three days, possibly my favourite from the trip, because of the personal struggle I endured. I have never walked 17kms in one day up and down through mountains and jungle. I have never trekked to the point where I just wanted to lay down in a fetal position and let the bugs, leeches, and elements finish me off. I have never felt my legs feel as if they were on fire, despite the meter high mud dragging me down. And to be honest, it was incredible. I loved it. I can’t believe I did it! It was a great feeling knowing we walked through a pretty remote area of Laos (the office told us they had a busy last month with nine tourists doing the trek!), and it was very special experiencing that first homestay with the chanting, the blessing and the Lao-Lao whiskey!