From Muang Ngoi Neua, we took a six-hour boat ride further up the Nam Ou river to Muang Khau. The guidebook said this was supposed to be the best part of the river, but we thought the trip from Nong Khiaw up to Muang Ngoi Neua was much nicer. If we were to do it again, we probably wouldn’t have done this section by boat since we thought it wasn’t as great as the guide book said it was. Unless you are going onwards to Phongsali, this may not be worth the extra effort. We were lucky to catch a 3:00 p.m. bus in Muang Khau to Udomaxai. We spent one night in a guesthouse near the bus station and caught an early bus to Luang Nam Tha.
When we arrived in Luang Nam Tha, Alexa was sick and needed a few days of rest. We stayed in a nice guesthouse (Zuela Guesthouse) and Jason rented a mountain bike to explore the countryside and stupas nearby. Since Alexa still needed more rest, he went on a two-day trek to the Nam Ha Protected Area (NPA) along with two other Americans from Seattle. The NPA is supposed to be a model of ‘eco-tourism’ and the funding from the treks is supposed to benefit the local communities and not the guiding companies. These treks cost twice as much for those we did in Muang Ngoi Neua. Additionally, Jason noticed that the amount of money the guide actually handed to the locals for the food and assistance we received was much less than the percentages the brochure claimed the local communities received. While the forest here is impressive with ancient trees and thicker growth, the price is very high considering the actual costs of food, labor and housing in Laos. We paid 480,000 kip ($56 US) per person here in Luang Nam Tha compared with 250,000 kip ($36 US) per person in Muang Ngoi Neua. Considering that we spend about $25 per day per person in Laos (including lodging, transport and food), this is alot of money to spend to hike all day and eat simple meals with villagers. We don’t even spend that much per day to go backpacking in the States.
Regardless, the trek was an interesting glimpse into the NPA, where they allow slash and burn dry-rice farming and extraction of timber by local people. So far, these impacts are limited, and the majority of the NPA consists of vast tracts of untouched, thick jungle with very large trees and a good amount of wildlife (compared to other areas of Laos, where almost all the wildlife has been eaten). We didn’t see much wildlife, but we did hear one squirrel who hadn’t been barbecued, yet. We saw some snakes, butterflies and a giant grasshopper, plus signs of wild boar. On the trail, we ate lunch out of bundles wrapped in banana leaves. In the village we stayed in, the house had the usual storage of pumpkins and rice, plus a few odd leftover bombs and mortars found in the fields.
Once Alexa recovered, we rented a motor scooter and took the main road through the NPA to the town of Muang Sing and spent the night there. Muang Sing is close to the Chinese border and known for the many viallges of diverse ethnic hill-tribes. We drove the scooter into the hills and through many of the villages around Muang Sing. These hills have been cleared and are used for rubber tree plantations. They also grow rice, corn and sugar cane in the valleys. We headed back to Luang Nam Tha and around the countryside since Alexa was feeling better. Next we do some kayaking and then we will head to the border with Thailand.
**click to enlarge photos***
***THE FOLLOWING SECTION IS NOT VEGETARIAN FRIENDLY***
On the trek to the NPA, we stayed overnight in a local village with more Khamu people. Like most villages, this compound had raised bamboo houses with pigs, dogs, cats, chicken, ducks and geese living on the ground below. This night, the local grandmother chased a duck around, and cornered it in the henhouse. We speculated that it might be part of the feast. Sure enough, the grandmother tied it up and took it to the kitchen. When it left the kitchen, it was diner. They used the entire duck. One dish was made of the blood and innards. A more palatable dish was duck laap (a Lao salad made of minced meat, garlic, chili, ginger, galangal, lemon grass, mint, Thai basil and lime – served with sticky rice). We also had duck in pumpkin soup and more duck for lunch the next day.