Saturday, January 5, 2008

Three Days in the 'Nam Tha with a Tazmanian Devil

One of the now habitual things about this trip is the tendency to change plans. But arriving in Luang Nam Tha, Laos was the culmination of about six different changes. We couldn't decide whether to do a slow-boat trip down the Mekong or head into Northern Lao near the Chinese border. For days we went back and forth until our Scottish-and slightly inebriated- guest house owner in Chang Mai told us that we should float the Mekong further south and go to Northern Laos. Sometimes it just takes a little nudge.

After our rocking New Years, we hopped a bus to Luang Nam Tha where we met Paula, an Tazmanian (not an Aussie) with a wonderful ability to pick up useful pieces of the Lao language: Examples such as "I love you, do you love me?," "I don't eat meat, I only eat tuk tuks," and "You insult me, that price is too high." So we didn't get to use the first two, but the last one comes in quite handy. After a fun bus trip chatting about our travels and being welcomed at a roadside bus stop by a group of old Lao men encouraging us to take a drink of their home-brewed Lau Lau (rice whiskey, many claim), we walked the small town of Luang Nam Tha in search of a place to sleep. We ended up looking at 6-7 different places and thankfully ending up at the single best place we have stayed since we left the US. A series of small bungalows (with hot-ish showers!) and a great little restaurant made the packing around town well worth it. The manger of the guest house, Tuey, welcomed us so warmly and talked into the night with Kristi, Paula and I. It was great to get some insight into the country, to just swap stories, and learn a few new "useful" phrases.

The next morning we set out to book a low-impact eco tour in the Nam Tha National Protected Area and bike the surrounding areas. The biking was incredible and included a visit to a stupa that had been bombed in World War 2 "staffed" by a group of firecracker-wielding, chain-smoking kids demanding a fee for visiting. Their numbers and weaponry made us relent--leaving us out about 9 cents. Spend wisely, you little hooligans. After the stupa we rode through rivers and up hills a little too steep to complete and also failed in an attempt to visit a waterfall that was either 2 km or 12 km outside of town. But a days biking was just the warm up...

We awoke early the next day to do our trek--a little sore from biking, but ready. Our guide, Pon, explained that day one would be about 6 hours of hiking to get to the Akha Hill tribe's village where we would be staying. He outlined the hike by saying that it was a little uphill and a little downhill. I spent the day gawking at the amazing scenery and wondering when the downhill parts were coming. Pon lied to us. But he and the other two guides made up for it by preparing an amazing lunch--which would be followed by 4 more fantastic meals including our first taste of Rattan Soup, and Banana Flower, both collected in the forest as we trekked). If the guide thing doesn't work out, the three of them could definitely make a mint with a restaurant!

Even still, the work was worth it. When we reached the hill tribe we were greeted by a bunch of the village children yelling the one Lao word that they all know, "Sabade." Nothing like having 20 kids yelling hello at you at the end of a hike. Once we settled in, we did a tour of the village and were invited into a family's home for a ceremonial meal. The experience was incredibly moving and the food amazing. After meeting the chief and being asked to partake in a few "samples" of the local rice whiskey/rotgut Lau Lau we were easily able to sleep for the night.

Pon woke us early with a quick breakdown of our 2nd day hike. He promised that there was only one small hill and the rest was more rolling forest lands. I didn't believe him. But it seemed he wanted to redeem himself. The hike was a bit easier and took us through hardwood forests at the ridge-line, tropical forests filled with bamboo stands and finally rice paddies. The hike was also not as filled with narrow-logged bridges called (by Pon) "dancing bridges" for their tendency to be very unstable. With the exception of smelling a little ripe, the three of us returned to our home-away-from-home quite happy.


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