A walk in the woods: trekking in Nam Ha NPA

Just back from a one-night, two-day trek run by Green Discovery into the Nam Ha National Protected Area (NPA). The two-day trek was described as difficult and that two of our group of seven dropped out after the first day supports that this was quite a difficult trek. It was overall a bit of a mixed experience.

Nam Ha NPA

The trek involved around 31km walking in total over the two days with an overnight stay at the Akha village of Ban Nam Lai. It took us through primary forest, secondary forest and through vast tracts of the NPA that are being exploited by the villagers who live within the park’s confines.

For the group of seven it cost US$51 a head and that was pretty much all inclusive (except for a couple of warmish BeerLao upon arrival at Ban Nam Lai). As anyone who has been to Luang Nam Tha before will attest, there are no shortage of tour operators to choose from — all of whom offer variations upon the same base tours (albeit to different areas of the park).

Cost varies considerably and Green Discovery is one of the more expensive. I opted to go with them because they came very highly recommended but also because they had the biggest group already signed up (thus making the cost lower than two other groups that left the same day with four and five people respectively).

Crossing a log bridge, Nam Ha NPA

The trekking scene is set up in a manner not unlike that in Thailand. Many of the guides are freelancers (so may work for more than one company) and companies are not allowed to trek into the same areas, nor use the same trail networks as one another. This means it is very unlikely you will come across another group during your trip. On the downside, this means that you have a bunch of operators, all offering quite similar services, but struggling to get enough people to make the trip financially viable. There are a lot of stories of travellers, with their heart set on a particular tour, waiting for days and days for enough to sign up for the trip to be viable. So if time is short, be prepared to compromise a bit on what trip you’ll actually do.

Also, be prepared for your trip to vary considerably (without any explanation) from what you were actually promised. In our case, the order of the trip was jumbled, some services (eg Akha bird calling) never appeared and some people’s requests (“no fish please”) were ignored.

First rest stop in the Nam Ha NPA

Most importantly, just because you’re told you’ll be trekking through a NPA, don’t expect to spend the majority of your time in primary forest — you won’t. Of the roughly 12 hours of trekking, we had perhaps four hours in total in primary or very old secondary forest. The majority of the time we were either walking through exploited areas or along dirt roads and rice paddie. The walking was very strenuous.

Even taking that into consideration, I’d say it is worth doing, for the period in the primary forest is simply tremendous.

Lunch on day one of Nam Ha trek

You will not see animal life and while you may hear a lot of birds, you’ll see few — to be fair it doesn’t help when you have seven people tramping through the forest chattering away. Our guide said he’s cross his fingers for a pheasant. We lucked out.

But it isn’t about the critters, rather it is about the forest — and it is a pretty mixed scorecard in that regard.

View back up a watershed, Nam Ha NPA

The Nam Ha NPA tries to meet the needs of both protection and development. It strives to protect the interests — and lifestyles — of the villagers that have moved around in the region for hundreds of years — way before the term “National Protected Area” was ever coined. Villagers are permitted to conduct slash and burn agriculture in areas of secondary growth, but where in the past the land would be left fallow, only to be returned to in years later to be slashed and burned again, today other cashcrops go in. These are long-term crops with yields spanning into decades meaning that the park may well end up as a patch work quilt of primary forest and extractive industries.

Waterfall Nam Ha NPA

In order to try and tap down logging, villagers are permitted to use fallen timber solely for firewood and construction — they are not permitted to sell it (though I assume that still goes on illegally to an extent). What this means is when secondary forest is cleared the lumber is left where it fell. The resulting impression to the casual onlooker is vandalism. That exploited parcels of land directly abut untouched forest makes the impression seem all the starker. To leave the trees there, while I understand the thinking behind it, seems wasteful in the extreme.

Cleared forest, Nam Ha NPA

Villagers are ostensibly only permitted to clear secondary forest. Once cleared, sticky rice goes in and when the rice fails another cashcrop — we saw expansive cardarmon and rubber plots — goes in. Thicket used for brooms goes for 5,000 kip per kilo, dried cardarmon 45,000 kip — all of it pegged for export to China.

Another log bridge crossing

Competing with this, you have revenue from tourism. A per person fee is paid to the NPA and the village we stayed at also derives revenue from our stay, but this revenue must be chump change when compared to that derived from the cash crops. Tourism also employs a bunch of periphery services — we had an English-speaking Thai Lue guide and a local guide, drivers, agents in at Luang Nam Tha and so on.

Protected and not protected

The stay in the Akha village, as expected, was a bit of a human zoo-like experience. Us gawking at them and them at us. Lots of children living in grinding poverty. Our guide couldn’t speak their language so interaction and explanations was limited in both depth and value — though we did have a prolonged discussion regarding Akha love-shacks and they’re penchant for marrying very early. Some of our group decided not to visit the village at all, instead staying at our appointed accommodation a five minute walk, but still within eyeshot, of the village. With no real means of communication or interaction the visit, as with much of the hilltribe trekking in Thailand, was for many a frustrating and uncomfortable experience.

Akha Love Shacks

This could be improved on in many ways. For starters we could have been appointed an Akha-speaking guide. Perhaps with a different timing of the trek, we could have met the Akha in the fields working — and be offered the opportunity to see what they do and assist — be it clearing fields, sticking rice in the ground or cutting down the very forest we were there to admire. An hour spent interacting on this level, after which we returned to walking and saw them again at the end of the day could be a more satisfactory experience. As it was all we saw were a bunch of knackered people who appeared to have been working their arse off all day.

Akha kids hamming it up for the camera

After meal time we all got treated to an “Akha massage” by a bunch of the village girls (our guide’s “masseuse” was 11 years old) — I can say without pause an Akha massage is not worth six hours walking to reach!

We were trekking in the dry season, so some of the walking was done on dry river beds. In the wet season I’d imagine the walking to be considerably more challenging. The downward slopes were often set in a bauxite-coloured clay soil that would have been treacherous and slippery after a prolonged period of heavy rain. As it was I slipped, spraining my wrist and two dropped out after the first day because of knee problems. It was a challenging walk and while our guide said he thought it was one of the best tours — from a traveller’s perspective — he hated it because it was so much work. “I’d rather be kayaking” was how he summed it up.

Akha village Ban Nam Lai

Despite the various flaws, I’d still recommend trekking in the Nam Ha NPA because the tracks of primary forest are simply breathtaking. I wouldn’t be overly drawn to use Green Discovery again and if I was to show up in town and one of the other operators has a bigger group, I wouldn’t think twice about trying someone else.

Lunch on day two - what part of 'no fish' didn't you understand?

Some closing advice:
Check the group list to see where the other people are from and ideally meet them beforehand to see if you’ve got the same mindset.
Discuss and agree upon the pace of the trek before departure.
Ask all the questions you want. Ask how much time is in the forest, how much time is in paddie, how far by tuk tuk and so on.
If you are going to have time in a village, make sure your guide has local language skills.
If you have dietary (or any other) requirements — be very explicit.
Do your trip research as soon as you arrive and get on the list you want — the sooner you sign up, the better chance you’ll have of more people joining with you.

Just do it!

Just do it!

PS Excuse any typos – I’ve got a sprained wrist!

Antique smuggling, travel writing and a jaunt around Luang Nam Tha

Fruit for sale in Luang Nam Tha

When your day starts with a bowl of offal you just know it is going to get better and better — as mine did when I found the above fruit vendor as I choked down the last of the intestines…

I’d caught up the previous evening with a researcher for another travel publisher and had swapped notes on Laos and gossip on where the industry is headed. Against the odds, the most common complaint isn’t so much about the money as much as the time restraints — publishers are often expecting ridiculous coverage in short periods of time.

This gelled neatly with another researcher I had met the previous week in Bangkok who does a lot of work for a very well-known US travel guide publisher. Their “letter of appointment” included a line explaining that just 20% of the properties needed to be revisited — I bet they don’t brag about that on the half cover!

But jokes aside, if you’re effectively allowing someone three weeks to cover all of central Thailand (from Sangkhlaburi in the west to Ko Kut in the east — including Bangkok) then that is probably going to show in the finished product.

Back to the fun side of travel.

I lapsed and opted for the tourist minibus service over the local bus from Huay Xai north to Luang Prabang, but with only three passengers it seemed like 400B very well spent (even if it did leave an hour late). The trip, striking more or less straight north for the duration passes some scenic secondary forest and quite attractive mountain vistas — all the easier to enjoy as I wasn’t crammed into a local bus. The trip was over and done with after just three hours — a fraction of the 12 hours it took me last time.

Last time, none of the road was sealed, rather it was packed red dirt — or dust. In dry season it was one of the dustiest trips in Southeast Asia, in wet season one of the muddiest. But I was in luck. Hanging out in a cafe in Luang Nam Tha I met a Swiss aid worker who offered me a ride in his six wheeler “personnel carrier”. I jumped at the chance, all I needed to do was buy the guy a beer and I didn’t even need to pay. Afterall, he was carrying what he described as “special cargo” and I was intrigued.

The special cargo wasn’t a pound of smack but rather something ever more valuable (in my eyes anyway). An ancient frog drum and it’s Thai dealers. They’d purchased it off a minority village north of Luang Nam Tha and were sneaking it out of the country — a highly illegal activity. They’d paid the village a mere US$500 for the drum, while the middle man they’d pass it over to in Chiang Khong was paying them $1,500 for it. Final destination was perhaps Rivercity in Bangkok or a savvy private collector who’d snap it up — it was in mint condition, and you’d expect a significantly higher final value at end of sale.

Sad days indeed — a priceless artifact leaves Laos forever for essentially just $500.

Luang Nam Tha scenery

The trip took us 12 hours — I hate to think how long it was taking regular transport — but a friend who did the trip a year earlier (without six wheels) saw it take two full days — with an overnight stop in Vieng Phuka.

Why has this road improved so much? There’s a large coal mine near Vieng Phuka and as in most Lao cases the roads are built to assist the extractive industries — be it Route 3 for coal, or the eastern routes for lumber to Vietnam. Yes the road from Vientiane to Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang has improved over time, but this was always an arterial route and probably (guessing here) the first sealed long distance route in the country.

Enough of roads.

Luang Nam Tha is often put on stage as the poster child for eco tourism in Laos. This was largely kicked off by considerable efforts coming out of the Boat Landing Guesthouse and today there is a wealth of trekking activities operating out of the provincial capital.

Around Luang Nam Tha

One of the easiest things to do is hire a bicycle and ride around the outskirts of town — something I’ve just done. I have no idea how long the ride was — it felt like about 600km, but it was probably more like 20-30km and the first third of it was lovely. Lots of, dare I say, bucolic paddie scenery with the hills rising behind them, and absolutely no shortage of chatty Lao students who’ll ride along with you for an impromptu English lesson. It’s a relaxing and peaceful ride.

Tomorrow I’m going back to my backpacker roots, doing a two day trek — should be interesting. It’s a two day walk that starts only 15 minutes out of town and is run by well regarded Green Discovery Tours. Green Discovery get a bad rap from a lot of budget travellers because of their higher prices, but it seems we’ve got close to a full contingent of eight punters, so it isn’t toooo expensive.

More to come after the jungle adventure!

On Huay Xai

Wandering down to the boats at Chiang Khong

It has been quite some time (at least ten years) since I was last in Huay Xai and I was surprised by just how little it had changed — at least from a traveller’s perspective. The hilltop wat still has a bunch of monkeys — including one on a lease that the monks were getting to fight with a dog — and the main drag is still home to a gaggle of guesthouses, travel agents and hole in the wall eateries.

In comparison, the boat trip hasn’t changed one iota — costs a bit more now (30B per person and another 10B if you have luggage — dare I ask who doesn’t?) but it’s otherwise the same old one minute spin across the Mekong’s waters. Immigration is open from 08:00 to 18:00 and it is worth getting there early if you want to avoid long queues at the visa on arrival counter.

I’d neglected to get a visa beforehand and regretted it as soon as I tried to, well, get one on arrival. Despite being the first arrival of the day it still took a good 45 minutes to get that sorted out — if you can, get your Lao visa beforehand — and make sure you have the US cash (US$30 for most nationalities) as if you pay in Baht you get a very special exchange rate — special for the immigration staff — not at all special for you.

Boats at Chiang Khong

Once through I took a wander up the main drag and found a handy little soup stand just after the Lao Airlines office for a steaming morning breakfast. The lady that whipped it up was friendly enough, but she then sat opposite me for most of the meal eating chillies and baby tomatoes, while spitting on the floor and smiling at me. Odd.

I’m hanging out in Huay Xai rather than moving on as am hoping to meetup with M this afternoon fresh out of the monkey-project, so another wander up and down the drag found me some very comfortable lodgings at the Guesthouse Sabaydee. A top floor room with hot water (so they say) TV and a view over the river for 400B — certainly not the cheapest in town, but very very clean and they seem to be a friendly enough bunch. Only thing missing is the WiFi!

Down checking email I heard on the Twitter-vine that one of the slowboats from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang had sunk yesterday — furthermore all the boats were now cancelled. It seemed odd as when I wandered by earlier it appeared backpackers were being rustled up for the boats, but, after further enquiries it did appear one of the boats — a flasher offering than the standard backpacker boats — had had some issues. I asked a couple of travel agents — both said no more boats — heading north (to Xieng Kok) or south (to Pakbeng and Luang Prabang), while regarding the particular happening, one said that yes the boat had sunk, while the other just that it was “broken” — which brought to mind the thought, how does a broken boat float? A further comment on Twitter, that the boat had snapped in half, answered the question — it doesn’t.

Yummy larp

Anyway, importantly, the swirling rumour-pool suggested that while there were some injuries, there were no fatalities. Further discussions with yet another travel agent (who, by the way, happily volunteered that there is absolutely nothing to do in Huay Xai), suggested that it was still possible to do the boat trip but that a boat change at each set of rapids was required and that the trip may take “more days” — rather glad I’m heading north.

Rounding off what was a pretty eventful morning by Huay Xaian standards, I went for a great lunch at the oddly named “BarHow?” vaguely reminiscent of Angkor What? in Siem Reap but similarities aside, the food is great. My very generously-sized chicken larp and sticky rice at 30,000 kip wasn’t the cheapest in town, but was nevertheless very good. And they’ve got a winelist — difficult to fault.

So what does the afternoon hold? Not a lot. A bit more walking and from Chiang Khong there looked to be a large restaurant with a terrace down the other side of town that I’ll go search for once the heat backs off as it could be an ideal place for a couple of afternoon BeerLaos. Then an earlyish evening and off to Luang Nam Tha tomorrow.

Parting comments — don’t listen to the touts in Thailand — don’t make the mistake of buying your Lao bus or boat tickets in Thailand — they’re around 200B cheaper on this side of the border and stories of lack of availability are rubbish.

What I’m packing

I start my three week break from Travelfish HQ today, spending first a few days in Bangkok to reaquaint myself with really good Thai food (oh plus a bunch of meetings and attend the TEDxBKK event on Saturday) then I’ve got one night in Chiang Mai to catch up with friends and then on to Laos. The bulk of my time in Laos I’m spending in Phongsali and Hua Phan provinces before hop skipping and jumping back to Bangkok and onwards to Bali. It’s primarily a play trip rather than work (one of the reasons I’m so excited to be going) and so, as just for a change my pack won’t be full of notebooks, and I’ll have no kids in tow, here’s what I’m packing.

All the stuff I'm taking

Let’s get the gizmos out of the way first. My new MacBook, with which, having just switched from PC a month ago, I’m still enjoying a forceful love/hate relationship with. My iPod Touch (8g) which I absolutely love, and the cables for both of them. Camera wise I’m taking two — my Nikon D70 and a pocket sized Canon Ixus 860 — with related chargers and a USB cable to hook them up to the MacBook. My trusty Nokia 3-sumthin collector’s item and a charger. I’ll get a spare flashcard for photo backups when in Bangkok.

Books, I’m rereading “A History of Laos” by Martin Stewart Fox alongwith the rather inscrutable “If on a winter’s night a traveller” by Italo Calvino that I’ve found difficult to get into and think I’ll need a few slow days in Sam Neua to really get the gist of. My red moleskin appointment book and, dare I say diary (something I’ve eschewed since 1992 when my last diary was stolen on a French train by some scumbag lowlife who is hopefully dead in a ditch somewhere). One general notepad for mapping and further notetaking should I succumb to researching madness.

Clothes, as anyone who has met me knows, I’m no fashion horse. One pair of Levis jeans, one pair of Camel cargo pants one pair of long shorts with around 362 pockets. I wouldn’t normally mention that the cargo pants are Camel brand (Camel as in the cigarette company) but their cargo pants are excellent, with lots of pockets and very hard wearing — so I just swallow their sneaky branding exercise, foreswear the ciggies and just wear the pants. Other clothes, four tshirts, four sets of underwear, handkerchiefs, no socks (see below). I’ll also be packing a bunch of Travelfish Tshirts to give to a few bods along the way. One baseball cap (Billabong branded in case that matters).

For shoes I’m taking my new lace up canvassy Crocs they wear soooo well, are very comfortable — and cool because of airholes and the light fabric. I have slip-on ones as well but when they get wet they tend to slip off far more often than slip on, so the lace-up ones work better — you just tie the laces real tight! Best thing, no socks required.

I’n not packing any guidebooks, though I do have some printouts from the TF Laos forum that answered some specific Laos questions I had, plus prints of some helpful emails I received. Will pick up a phrasebook while in Bangkok as my Lao is pretty patchy nowadays.

Other minor stuff, a small towel and standard toiletries. My miniscule medical kit includes bandaids and plaster (for blisters) and nurofen (for Beerlao and ricewine excess — especially for the Hercules Wine in Udomxai). Mosquito repellant but no malarials.

Random stuff; a ball of string (helpful for fixing mosquito nets, and, according to a travel partner, tying up annoying children). A spare pair of glasses (if I can find them) but no sunglasses (I don’t have any). A cigarette lighter (for leeches). A dog-eared Australian passport — as a complete aside, the printer the Oz govt uses for their passports needs to be drawn and quartered — they’re a complete joke.

Then the stuff you can’t see: One Bali – Bangkok – Bali eticket, one Bangkok – Chiang Mai eticket — they’re the only flights; and one World Nomads travel insurance policy. Insurance — don’t leave home without it!

Lastly, and probably more important than any of the stuff above, an open mind and as few preconceived notions as I can manage.

Oh, and what am I stuffing all this in? My very nice 40 litre Victorinox pack. Easily fits within the requirements for carry on and is about two-thirds full with all the above (assumming Nikon is on my shoulder)

So there you go.