Thursday, June 20, 2013

Luang Prabang Trekking - The great outdoor side of the ancient city

 By BARRY

Northern Laos is famous for its natural beauty: rolling green hills and mountains interspersed with rice fields and countless water buffalo. From the moment we arrived in South East Asia, a trekking adventure through the countryside and staying with a local tribe family was top of our list of things to do. Once we arrived in Luang Prabang, we knew this was the place to do it.

Luang prabang, Laos
 Luang Prabang sits at the intersection of two mighty rivers: the Mekong (which we sailed down for two days) and the Khan, providing the lifeblood to this quaint, french colonial town. Luang Prabang also nestles itself within a range of lush green hills and mountains, surrounding the town and its twin rivers.

 We had heard that there were villages and tribes in the mountains surrounding Luang Prabang, and we decided on a two day trek with an overnight stay with a local Khumu family. What followed were two of the hottest and sweatiest days we have experienced yet, with hours of ascending (and then descending) a mountain, fighting off wild horses and pot bellied pigs, and seeing some of the most incredible views of Northern Laos. The highlight of our trip so far was about to begin.


 After a hearty breakfast of banana pancake and fresh fruit, we packed a day bag loaded with high factor sunscreen & mosquito repellent and set off on our adventure. As it later transpired, we had our own personal guide ‘Cha’. We jumped into a boat, and sped up the river towards the beginning of our trek.


 The first part of the trek took us through pristine rice fields, where we spoke with local farmers as they harvested their crop. It was one of those jaw dropping moments, hundreds of rice paddies melting away into the distance as rolling hills and mountains filled the skyline. We stood and marvelled for only a few minutes, but we’ll never forget it. It was one of the best moments of our trip so far.

Rice field in Luang Prabang
After an hour or so we stopped at the first of three villages on our trek. It was a small village of 10 families, but with the school holidays in full swing, we were excitedly greeted by shouts of ‘falang falang’ by many curious children. They were far more curious of us than we were of them, and followed us round for the short time we were there. We were sad to leave them, even after a brief stay! 

Children in Luang Prabang
 The village was of basic construction as you may expect, but it had a calm and serene feeling as villagers went about their daily lives of planting and harvesting the rice crops. 

 After leaving our new friends behind, we walked for an hour through more rice paddies and jungle, arriving at another small village of 4 families and a beautiful lake for lunch. Afterwards, we would begin the assault on our everest. 

 And so came our attack on the summit. The backpack was tightened. All talking ceased, the fun was over for now. Upwards we went, sometimes quite literally as we clambered over boulders, under fallen trees and along precipices and ravines. Three hours later after the darkness of the jungle, we started to see the sun again, the vegetation began to clear, we reached the top and had our reward. 


We stood in awe at the miles of rolling green mountains and ravines. We would have sat and marvelled but the track we were walking along wasn’t wide enough even to perch on. After a few fleeting moments, our time to descend came. We were already tired from the ascent, but what followed was a further two hours of gruelling trekking, descending and ascending in blistering heat. On came the factor 50 cream, hats and long sleeves top to protect us from the intense sun. That day the thermostat peaked at 40 degrees, it was hot.

Trekking Luang Prabang
Two hours later we completed our descent, we’d made it! Our guide told us the village was on the other side of a field. In the UK that means perhaps 10 minutes or so across a well cultivated field. In Laos, it roughly translates as ‘an hour through 10 foot high jungle with only the faintest hints of a track to follow’. 

At this point the sweat was running down our faces and backs, reeds and plants were constantly hitting us in the face, arms and legs and we were almost out of water. We assume this was the point where Laura accumulated over 20 mosquito and bug bites on her legs (lesson learned to wear trousers next time!).

And then finally, a clearing, and civilisation. We could hear children playing in the distance, and as we got closer hear cries of falang falang drifted on the breeze. We had made it, and boy were we glad. 

 We were staying with a Khumu tribe for the evening. The village itself was home to about 400 people, and we were again blown away by it. Bamboo huts on stilts, dried dirt throughout the village, and an assortment of hens, chickens and pigs wandered around as the villagers went about their daily business.

The local families welcomed us with a nod and smile, with the children in particular intrigued by our pasty white skin and long noses (their words not ours!). Our mother for the evening made our dinner, and as usual with our experiences of homestays, she cooked up some of the best food we’ve had in Asia: Pumpkin soup, followed by cabbage and spinach stew and sticky rice. Delicious; we wolfed it down after our arduous journey. 

 Over the two days we visited three villages, all of which seemed authentic despite our concerns of over tourism. We saw no tourists on our trek and homestays, no one tried to sell us anything whilst there, and aside from children running around us shouting ‘Falang’! Falang’! (their term for tourist), we were left to our own devices. 

Almost all of the villagers were universal in their greeting to us…a smile and a ‘sabaidee’. Our impression was they didn’t mind us coming to stay for a night, and seemed more curious, intrigued and slightly amused by us. The village also receive a donation for our stay, ensuring they are compensated for our experience. 

We booked through ACTIVETRAVEL ASIA(ATA), who offers a wide selection of Laos adventure tours, including hiking and trekking, kayaking, biking, motorcycling, overland touring and family travel packages. ATA’s packages and custom itineraries will take you through exotic destinations to really experience the culture, history and nature of Laos. Outdoor enthusiasts will enjoy an unforgettable active vacation. And we’d happily recommend them!

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