Our visa was running up. It was time to leave China behind. Reminding us just how massive the country is, we had to endure a 20-hour train ride followed by a 15-hour miserable bus ride just to get us to the nearest border. Leaving behind overwhelming and often brusque China, we were delighted to find pure, green, untouched Laos awaiting us.
Laos is a forgotten land. Like most, I didn’t know much about it before setting foot in the country. I knew it was at one time French occupied and that it usually earns a fleeting spot on many Southeast Asia travelers’ itineraries. I could tell, however, within the first moments of entering the country that is was a special place that would soon earn a top spot on my list.
On the drive from the border I was awestruck by the natural beauty of the country. Lush forests blanket rolling hills dotted with stilted bamboo huts. Thick jungles tower over muddy rivers where hill tribe villagers call home. Pools of water reflect a vibrant blue sky in endless fields of palm-fringed rice paddies.
Dubbed the “Jewel of the Mekong,” we were soon discovering Laos was in fact one of the great jewels of Asia. Our first stop in Luang Nam Tha confirmed the notion.
Luang Nam Tha is a small town based at the foothills of the jungle-covered mountains. It’s considered the most ethnically diverse area in all of Laos based on the countless number of ethnic minorities inhabiting the surrounding mountains. The combination of a privileged geographic location and strong ties to its tribal heritage has helped Luang Nam Tha become the ecotourism destination of the country.
The whole town is set along one paved road. It has a nice selection of cafes and restaurants to choose from as well as a lively night market serving up some of Laos’ spicy favorites. It was here we were introduced to the laid-back SE Asia vibe, discovered the gentle, innocent charm of the Laos people and celebrated the fact that some French traditions – strong coffee and fresh baguettes – still live on.
The real adventure of Luang Nam Tha, however, lies along the paths in the hills beyond. We embarked on a one day, guided trek through the mountains. Our day began on the back of tuk-tuk (the name given to rickshaws all over Asia due to the sound of their churning motors), which dropped us off at a village along a river. From here we met our guide and other members of our group – an Israeli and two Japanese guys. We crossed the river in a small boat and were then lead straight up the mountain.
The trek was certainly intense and gave me new-found admiration for the soldiers who fought in similar topography, not far from here, in the Vietnam War. Words can’t describe how thick and dense these jungles are. Vines, branches, prickly leaves, monster-size ants and all kinds of creepy crawlers cover your body the moment you enter the jungle. The heat is stifling. It’s so dense you don’t know where to plant your feet and when you do the mountains are so steep you find yourself falling down more than standing up.
At the top of the mountain it was time to reward ourselves. Here our guide prepared a feast. On the floor of the jungle, he built a fire to cook pieces of buffalo meat attached to bamboo sticks he’d picked up along the way. On the dirt floor, he laid out a palm leaf to serve as our lunch table. He put out eggs and bean sprouts and spread dollops of green chili paste on the green palm leaf. When the meat was ready it was time to chow. He handed out what looked like tightly-wrapped presents, but what turned out to be sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves. We were told to open them up, use our hands and dig in. It was a true jungle experience.
With our tummies full of tough buffalo meat and spicy chilies, we made our way down the mountain to the river’s edge. Here we came upon a group of village children taking their daily bath in the river. As the sun began to set, we too dunked ourselves in for a swim. It was an idyllic way to end a memorable day in the pristine, feral jungle.