October 11: Today we started our two day trekking trip in the Nam Ha area. We left from the Boat Landing Guesthouse after breakfast. My group was doing the Nam Ha Valley Trek. We drove 15 minutes by songtao to the village of Ban Nam Lue where we started our trek. We hiked for about 3 hours, mostly uphill, to the ridge dividing the two villages land. Some parts of the trail were pretty muddy but overall not bad. We met a local woman along the trail with a huge bag of supplies carried in a sack on her head and a mesh bag with 2 kittens in it! They were to help keep the village free of rats - not for eating thank goodness! We headed downhill a short ways to a bamboo picnic table with benches where our guides laid out an impressive spread of local Laos delicacies served in banana leaf bowls. After lunch we continued downhill for about another 1-2 hours to the semi-abandoned village of Ban Na Lan Tai where we rested and played the "vegetable game." We continued about 40 minutes along the river to the new village of Ban Nam Koy - the government made the villagers relocate to be closer to outside resources. We left our bags in the visitor's hut and headed down to the river for a quick dunk to clean up. We spent the afternoon playing with the local children and watching the villagers prepare our dinner. The village is divided into two sections - one is Lanten, the other is Kahu (sorry on the spellings) - they have different belief systems but live alongside peacefully. There were tons of dogs, chickens, pigs, and cows milling about everywhere. We set out the mattresses, pillows, and mosquito nets on the raised bamboo sleeping platform and played cards then ate a dinner of sticky rice, tomato based joewl (Laos chili paste with spices), meat, veggies, and of course Lao-Lao (rice whiskey).
Trekking Day 2: We got up at about 8 am after an awesome 12 hours of sleep! We ate breakfast and filled our water bottles with "river tea" (boiled river water flavored with cardamom which tasted like smoked sausage - yuck!). We started trekking around 9 am and hiked along the river for several hours passing through an area infested with leeches! They were crawling all over our shoes and inside our socks - almost everyone had at least 1 bite. Leeches are creepy but pretty darn awesome. We reached the river with the bamboo raft around 11:30 am and swam, hung out, and ate a leisurely 3 hour lunch before crossing. After crossing we hiked another 3 hours through the jungle and rice paddies and creeks (by the end we had given up on rock hopping and just walked straight through the creeks). We reached the large river around 4 pm and were taken across in open wooden boats by young boys with long poles. We swam and drank tons of tasty regular bottled water (no more river tea! Yay!). We walked up the short bank to the waiting songtaos and the village children all waved goodbye. It was about an hour drive back to Luang Nam Tha along a dirt road cut into the hill high above the river. The road was VERY muddy with enormous ruts - I can't believe we made it through without getting stuck! We were dropped off at the Boat Landing Guesthouse where we showered, ate dinner, and had a short meeting about our 3 days of river travel before heading to bed.
River Journey Day 1: We had a lazy morning getting up, packing, eating breakfast, and exploring the street market. We loaded up our 3 open wooden boats around 10 am. I was in a boat with Zac, Bobby, Jenn, V, and Lea. We lay out our sleeping pads on the bottom/sides of the boat and made ourselves comfy for a day on the river. We passed countless villages filled with smiling, waving children (and others who did neither, simply stared silently at us passing by). We stopped at a small beach for lunch before continuing on to the village of Ban Khone Kham where we were staying the night with the family of our respective boat drivers. We dropped off our bags and were instantly surrounded by women selling sarongs in every shape, size, and color. We went down to the river for a quick swim in the gasoline/mud/sewage - ah, refreshing! We spent the rest of the afternoon playing with the children on the beach (duck duck goose, relay races, painting nails, etc). We had a simple dinner prepared by our boat driver's family and played cards for a couple of hours before squeezing into our 5 person sleeping area (there were 6 of us).
River Journey Day 2 (Oct 14): We got up at 5:15 am, packed up, and ate breakfast before leaving around 6:30 am. We spent the next 7 hours heading further down the Nam Tha River, stopping at what seemed like every village enroute for a minute or two to say hi or drop off items. We arrived at the confluence with the Mekong River around 1 pm. We switched to our large riverboat (coomplete with airline style seats that reclined fully, snacks, and a bathroom!) and cruised down the Mekong until we reach Pakbeng around 5:30 pm. Mels and Glen ran off to arrange accomodation and we guarded our bags fromt he locals eager to make some extra money by carrying them up the small hill to town. We lucked out and found space at the nice guesthouse. We showered and headed to the Indian restaurant next door for dinner. It took forever to get our food - over 2 hours but, hey, there were 16 of us - but it was really good!
River Journey Day 3: We left around 8:30 am after yoga and breakfast. We cruised down the Mekong all day sleeping/reading/listening to music/playing cards. We reached the Pak Ou caves around 3 pm. The two caves set into a limestone cliff along the river are jam packed with a wide variety of Buddha images/icons (over 4,000 at last count). We explored then continued the 25 km downriver to Laung Prabang, arriving just after 4 pm. We walked 10 minutes to the Xien Mouen Guesthouse and dropped off our bags plus had a quick briefing on the plans for the next few days. I spent the afternoon doing internet, researching Bali flights, and exploring the Hmong night market. For dinner we walked down to the riverfront. We ate at the Riverside Cafe. Today was the last day of Bun Awk Phansa - the End of the Rainy Season Festival and the end of Buddhist Lent - one of the two major holidays in Laos. All of the Wats were decorated with candles, streamers, incense, and paper lanterns. The streets were teeming with people eating, laughing, setting off fireworks, and generally enjoying themselves. Locals built large bamboo dragon shaped boats adorned with candles which they lit and floated down the river. Every street vendor sold Lai Heua Fai - hat sized paper/candle/flower boats. These were also lit and floated down the Mekong by the thousand. Truly an amazing sight! After dinner, we all stopped by the Hive for a drink, one of the two bars in town and done up quite swanky.
Luang Prabang- FREE DAY! I got up at 8 am and immediately headed out to the internet cafe where I booked Bali flights, called people at home on Skype, typed a massive email/blog post, etc. Lauren, Bobby, Shira, and I got all of our flights booked - now we just need to book a guesthouse in Kuta and one in Ubud. After internet, I went and got ice cream with Bobby, Lauren, and Jenn. They left to go bike riding to a local village with some of the others and I went across the street to Nazim Indian for some lunch. I then went to the Lotus Du Lao Herbal Spa and Massage for a 1 hour aromatherapy massage ($8!). I returned to the guesthouse and journalled/read until 5 pm when we all met up to go to the Wat Xien Thong, built in 1560 by King Setthathirat. We walked around the temple grounds and saw the tree of life mosaic and royal funeral chapel with 12 m high funeral chariot. Mels gave us a 30 minute talk on Buddhism (the monks were doing their sundown prayers inside the chapel - great ambience for our talk!). We all walked back into the main part of town to the Hmong Night Market - absolutely massive, at least 200 stalls selling t-shirts, textiles, jewellry, paper lanters, wood carvings, cobra whiskey, clothing, etc. I ate dinner at a vegetarian street buffet for 5,000 kip (about 50 cents).
That's all for now, folks. We are heading to the waterfall in a bit then we fly off to Vietnam tomorrow for some trekking and our Halong Bay trip before spending a view days in Hanoi recovering. Hope everything is well in your respective corners of the world!