Trekking in the Luang Nam Tha Protected Area
This morning’s breakfast before the trek consisted of scrambled eggs, coffee Laos (a thick and sweet brew) and a French baguette. The baguette was a nice change. At least the French did some good in the region. Baguettes are certainly better than UXO (Unexploded Ordnances) that the Americans left behind. We left in a pick up truck around 10am. Along the way, the overcast sky cleared revealing that sun does exist in Laos. Our trek began at the Lanten hill tribe village of Lam Leu. Just like some of the villages in Thailand, these hill tribes also use clever contraptions to assist in the labor intensive village life. We saw a tiny hydroelectric generator in a small stream that looked like a car alternator connected by a shaft to a small fan that turned in the stream’s current. A small wire connected the plant to the village to provide a dim light at night.
Children ran up to us laughing and smiling as women watched us through the windows of their wooden and bamboo homes. No one begged for money, chocolate, or pens. Our hike out of the village was steep and quickly afforded us good views of the valley below. After an hour we were walking in the Luang Nam Tha Protected Area, 2224 sq kms of monsoon forest containing 96% primary forest, rare mammal and bird species, and 20 hill tribe villages that still maintain their traditional life styles. The trail through the forest followed streams that meander below massive strangler figs, teak, and tall dipterocarp trees. Shafts of light occasionally broke through the thick canopy exposing decaying masses of vegetation covered with tiny pink and yellow winged butterflies. We descended a steep and muddy trail where some in our group had their backsides redesigned with brown and red streaks. We had lunch on banana leaves where a spread of omelets, tofu, dried beef, cooked lettuce, peanuts, and sticky rice was offered. We continued walking for another hour following a stream until we were greeted by barking dogs and naked children with bulbous bellies at the entrance to the Lanten village of Nam Koi.
The village is idyllically located in a valley below monsoon forest covered mountains next to a cold and clear river. The 30 or so bamboo and palm thatch houses were not stilted like those in Thailand but were dug into the ground with channels around them to divert water. Our falang (westerner) hut was of similar construction except for the covered bamboo deck overlooking the river. Once we got settled into our new abode we just relaxed and watched the village life. Children fished in the river with crudely constructed bamboo spear guns. Water buffalo casually crossed the river seeking the vegetation that must have seemed more palatable on the other side. Nearly every woman had a baby strapped to their back while they carried on performing their chores. Even small girls carried babies and sowed clothing while they wondered around. The mothers looked more like grandmothers but they were probably only in the twenties or thirties. The hill tribe women wear black dresses with red trim and white cloth around their lower legs. They wear their hair parted in the front and wrapped around the back with the rest of their hair straight back in a bun. They also have no eyebrows and we were told that they pluck them out because they think this is beautiful. We watched from our bamboo deck the remains of the day. As the sun cast golden rays across the valley and the river gently slipped by, a wonderful serenity and calmness surrounded us.
Laos from Top to Bottom, Part I: Luang Nam Tha