Drifting downstream: the rivers of Northern Laos

Landlocked Laos may not lie adjacent to any ocean but it more than compensates with a twisting network of rivers that crisscross the country like veins. In the rainy season, the rivers rage with wild rapids. However, visit in the drier season (I was there in March) and you’ll be rewarded with one of the jewels in the crown of Northern Laos: a slow boat trip down the Nam Ou.

From travellers I had met in Vietnam, reports of Laos did not tend to be glowing. ‘Just go for a couple of weeks,’ we were advised, with warnings that it was a bit boring. After 24 hours, we utterly disagreed. I cannot deny that Laos is hands down the most laid back place I have ever visited. Everything happens in slow motion; its languid rivers flow lazily through shallow valleys; even the dogs are more chilled out as they lounge in the shade. But I think that this is a huge part of its charm. Relax into its dreamy vibes and you’ll find yourself spending longer there than you planned.

After an exhausting journey from Vietnam, we spent the night in a guesthouse in Muang Khua which clung precariously to the sides of the riverbank, accessible only over a rickety bridge which was only sketchily nailed together. Our landlady didn’t speak a word of English but shyly smiled and showed us to our rooms. The walls were made from woven bamboo and for the first time felt homely; mosquito nets foamed down from the ceiling onto piles of blankets and from the window we could see the gentle flow of the Nam Ou. For less than £2 for a night, it was not a sore deal. Dinner was slow in coming – we would learn that everything in Laos happens in Laos time – but delicious. It was our first experience of Laos sticky rice, which generally is cooked at breakfast time and eaten with every meal.

Sticky rice is made from a specific opaque rice grain called glutinous rice and has been cultivated throughout South East Asia for over a thousand years. About 85% of all rice in Laos is of this type. It is steamed and comes in little wicker baskets with a top attached with string. Eat it with your hands, rolling it into walnut-sized balls, and dip it into whatever you choose to eat it with. Eat it all the time for every meal. It. Is. Incredible. Stay tuned on the blog for my Ode to Sticky Rice. There is an age-old debate as to whether sticky rice is traditionally Thai or Lao. Having travelled round both, I would argue that it is hands-down Lao. Sticky rice for life.

After a comfortable nights sleep, we were up bright and early for the slow boat at 8 which came at 9.30. Papaya and mango  with Lao coffee for breakfast before heading down to the stone ramp that went down to the river. We handed our backpacks down onto the boat, a long wooden riverboat painted blue with a wooden covering held down by bricks. We climbed aboard. Bags went down one end; people on the other. I folded my waterproof over to make a cushion to sit on and folded up my knees slightly to fit into the width of the boat. When everybody was on, ropes were untied and the woman driving the boat pushed off from the river bank with an oar so that we were slowly free-floating down the river.

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The scenery was beautiful as we drifted downstream. Striking karst hills carpeted in a cloak of emerald greenery flanked the Nam Ou as it wound through flat-bottomed valleys. The sky was a pale forget-me-not blue edged with wispy clouds that clung to the limestone peaks climbing upwards into jagged triangulations. The sun shone serenely through a lazy haze, warm and balmy, while a gentle breeze cooled the skin. There was an occasional spray of water as our vessel surged through rougher parts of the river.

We occasionally stopped the boat to pick people up who were waiting by the sides of the river to get a lift downstream. Sometimes they drew up alongside the boat in smaller thinner canoes, jumping nimbly across to us. After a couple of hours, a few of us desperately needed the toilet so we pulled up alongside a sand bank and disappeared into the trees, the sand burning our feet in the sun. I squatted in a bush next to some pigs who looked faintly appalled and wandered away to snuffle elsewhere. We stopped off at a riverside village called Muang Ngoi Neua, a charming place where I would recommend staying if you have the time. Although we didn’t stay here, we heard really good things about it. We grabbed lunch here and said goodbye to the people we’d met on the crossing from ‘Nam and who we’d chilled with for the last few hours on our gentle journey downstream.

It wasn’t long until we arrived in Nong Kiaw, a slightly larger town than Muang Ngoi Neua, but still a village really as it takes less than 10 minutes to walk through the whole thing. It is surrounded by the same limestone scenery that we saw from the river which we planned to explore some more the next day. Meanwhile the sun was starting to set on the river, its pinkish hue contrasting with the deep greens of the forest reflected in the slowly moving water. We ate dinner alongside the river to the last shafts of rosy sunlight which faded to a darkness punctuated by the flickering flames of the lamps on our table. We tried ‘laap’, a Lao speciality of minced meat fried with chilli, herbs, lime juice and toasted rice, accompanied by sticky rice.

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The next day was spent exploring and getting lost in the surrounding countryside, amongst the karst mountains and caves, not straying far from the road due to unexploded ordinance left in the area from the America/Vietnam War. On the way back to Nong Kiaw, we paid a visit to the Tham Pha Tok caves, which is where villagers hid out during the Second Indochina War as American bombs rained on Laos. For a time, the Luang Prabang government was also based in this cave system. Originally accessible by a rickety bamboo ladder, a new wooden staircase now rises to the cave’s entrance. Take a flashlight as you navigate the chambers of the cavern – there are a few signs about but not an awful lot of information on display. However, it is still interesting being in the caves and imagining what happened here not so long ago.

We walked back a couple of kilometres to town where we had a late lunch of Indian dosa with a Dutch girl we’d made the crossing to Vietnam with, who happened to be walking past. Stomachs full, we decided to walk up Phadeng Peak to the town’s viewpoint. In hindsight, doing it on a full stomach wasn’t the best idea. Although no Fansipan, the trek went steeply uphill in the afternoon heat. I had brought a camera rather than a bottle of water – priorities – so was dehydrated in the almost oppressive heat. We were all dripping with sweat by the time we reached the top but the 360° vista which awaited us at the summit was worth the walk. A pinkish sun wreathed in pale clouds was sinking slowly into the embrace of the jagged limestone hills, the light sparkling and enchanting the long loops of the river. We sat by a rice sack ‘flag’ blowing in the wind as the sun set, deciding to make our way down as the light became cloaked in cloud. It got darker as we made our way down and needed a flashlight to navigate the winding path before we reached the bottom.

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After showering off all our sweat, we went out to go eat more Lao food. I ordered Lao sausage, spiced win lemongrass and chill, which came with sticky rice (of course), greens, fried river weed with sesame seeds and a spicy aubergine dip (‘jeow’). It was washed down with a Beerlao, the national rice beer which comes in huge bottles and is actually really good. We went back to the hostel and cuddled with their kittens before heading to bed. We were reluctantly leaving the riverlands, travelling West to Nam Tha National Park,  the next day. We had actually looked to see whether we could travel there by river for it is possibly the most relaxed form of transport in the world. However, being the dry season, there was no chance and so it was that we changed from boat back to bus for the next leg.

 

Mount Fansipan

Dawn has not yet broken when our bus rolls into Sapa. I open an eye blearily and only see pitch darkness, a dark chasm of anonymity. We could be anywhere. Somewhere close looms Mount Fansipan, the highest mountain in Vietnam. We climb it today. I glance at my watch: it reads 4:20am. I sink back into unconsciousness.

I am woken once again at 5.30am by a flashlight being shone into the bus. I squint out into the darkness and see the bright artificial light reflecting off the windows to make out the outline of a mans face. It is, I think, our mountain guide. ‘Is that our guide?’ whispers Oscar. ‘Hope so.’ I whisper back. We wake up Roza, locate our bags in the darkness of the bus and move to get off the bus. The door is locked. Ah. There is no driver; he must have left when the bus arrived in Sapa. We fumble with the door from the inside and our supposed guide looks to see if he can open it from the outside. We stare helplessly at eachother from opposite sides of the glass. The day is not off to a good start. Why did we decide to climb Fansipan straight from the night bus? Eventually Oscar finds some mechanism of some kind, yanks it down and the cold night air takes us by surprise. We are free.

‘Sapa O’Chau?’ I ask the man. ‘Sapa O’Chau,’ he nods. I shake him by the hand; he looks a bit surprised. I introduce myself and he mumbles something back. His English is very basic. If he ever did tell us his name, I cannot remember it. He points towards a car where another man sits behind the wheel. He waves and grins. We wave back. ‘We need to get our backpacks,’ I say. Our guide looks confused. I mime ‘backpacks’ and point to the bus. Our guide looks hesitantly at his friend. The guy behind the wheel gets out of the car. I repeat myself and he understands; his English is better. Thankfully, the storage part of the bus is not locked and we are able to get our bags after, between the five of us, we work out how to open the compartment. Finally we, and our bags, are inside the vehicle and we are driving to the start of the trek, the damp cold mists parting before the car’s headlights.

Our trek started from the entrance to Hoang Lien National Park. We were given a cold baguette for breakfast (Oscar shared his with a dog; I all but force-fed Roza hers) and some snacks for the walk which we put into day bags with other provisions we had bought. We layered up against the cold and donned our walking boots. When we were ready, we set off into a mizzly dawn. To Oscar’s disappointment, the dog did not come with us.

We walked the first part of the walk pretty quickly, storming up through rocky marsh forests, up twisted tangled staircases of entwined roots, occasionally treading on a carpet of soggy pink blossoms. Although it was rainy and cold, we were working up quite a temperature until we stopped, at which point we became shivery cold. It took us about two hours to get to the first rest stop, where we sat shivering but at least out of the rain. We refuelled, before setting off again into the elements, the mist masking the way forward and any possible views we might have had.

We were going slower now and it took us about another hour to get to the second rest stop. We got chatting to a group of Americans who were on their way down – they had opted for the two-day trek. ‘You’re doing it in a day?’ they asked incredulously, watching us shiver pathetically, our breaths white and misty in the cold air. They took pity on us and gave us a candle which, in our state of desperation, we gathered round with hands outstretched, burning our fingers on the flame. I imagine it was a very sorry sight.

It had stopped raining when we moved on, but there still wasn’t a view to be seen as we clambered up a rocky path, icy droplets on the frozen foliage clacking together like wintry castanets. From there, it was about two hours to get to the top. We scrambled up scree slopes, climbed over craggy outcrops, sank into bog and slipped in thick cloying mud. At last, we found ourselves at the bottom of a set of stairs. This is the measly distance you can climb if you opt to get the cable car up. We should have been relieved at this point, but we felt demoralised as we ascended those stairs. Coming down them were a load of Asian tourists, dry, clean, happy, taking photographs of the wet, dirty, miserable British walkers. Those stairs, pathetic as it sounds, were one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. We were physically exhausted, feeling the altitude, our hearts and heads pounding and our legs weak. But together, step by step, we made it to the top, feeling triumphant and quite frankly knackered. We collapsed on eachother in a group hug. A team effort.

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While we elbowed our way through fresh, selfie-taking cable-car people, our guide prepared our lunch – sandwiches with cream cheese, pork, cucumber, tomato and herbs followed by apple and banana (or dessert sandwiches with oreos and banana, despite doubtful looks from everyone else – would thoroughly recommend).

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Although we sat down to rest our tired legs, it was impossible to stay sat down as it was just too cold, so I walked around eating my sandwich and admiring the views, such as they were. Despite the fact we couldn’t really see much, there was something wonderful and mysterious about the dark peaks rising out of the cloud. The clouds and the sky were the same shade of white-grey, the line between them indistinguishable so that if felt almost like Fansipan was floating in the sky, a rugged rocky ship sailing through an ocean of thick swirling mist.

We began our descent, which seemed to take an age. We were rewarded, however, by the sun finally making an appearance through the clouds, at which point it became quite warm and I had to take off a layer of clothing. At one point we stopped to rest and, it seemed like just for us, a curtain of cloud was drawn aside to reveal the peaks we’d just come from, the sun caramelising the clouds at the edges and revealing patches of blue sky. And as you soar above that cosmic golden valley of mist you think ‘this is why I climb mountains.’ Then the veil of cloud slowly slid down once again, as if that beautiful vision had never been, and we moved on.

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We walked considerably quicker after that point, our guide urging us on. We stumbled down the rocks while he skipped nimbly from rock to rock, carrying a red stool that he’d found on the way down. We realised that we must have blanked out large parts of the walk on the way up (or perhaps we were half asleep) as we kept walking through scraps of forest we didn’t recognise, every ten minutes thinking we were almost there and each time being disappointed. We heard the sounds of a car and thought we must be almost back at the start but it wasn’t until the arch of national park was right in front of us that we realised we were made it.

After eleven hours of walking, we had climbed and descended Mount Fansipan, the highest mountain in Vietnam. Our legs were aching but our hearts were light, exhilarated, victorious. You haven’t just conquered the mountain but you have conquered yourself. Your weariness feels worthy somehow – you know you will ‘sleep the sleep of the just’ as my mother says. The views may have been fleeting but friendship was not. You have achieved something. This is why we climb mountains.

Halong Bay

Legend tells of a mountain dragon plummeting towards Vietnam’s coastline during a great war, its thrashing tail carving out cavernous crevasses and gaping valleys from the rock. As the mighty beast tumbled into the ocean, an almighty wave engulfed the mountain landscape, leaving only the craggy crests of those ancient peaks.

The karst peaks of Halong Bay are on the front of every travel brochure on Vietnam. Google places to go in South East Asia and, chances are, Halong Bay will make top three. However, it doesn’t take an experienced traveller to realise that the beauty of the places you visit doesn’t often live up to expectations built on Lonely Planet descriptions. I was dreading fleets of tourist boats and pollution choking the much-photographed (and photoshopped) waters of the bay. Refreshingly, Halong Bay is one of the rare cases in which you feel like you’ve stepped into a painting. Even in less-than-optimum weather, Halong Bay was stunning.

That isn’t to say our whole experience was picture-perfect. It was not. The first difficulty was getting there. We mistakenly believed that we would be able to get a direct sleeper bus from Phong Nha – in fact, we had to change in Hanoi. The first forty minutes or so of the journey was spent stopping at every single hostel on Phong Nha’s one street. Why there couldn’t be just one meeting point is beyond me. Vietnam logic. The rest of the ride was uneventful; I slept all the way to Hanoi. Arriving in Hanoi at dawn, we embarked on an unanticipated trek to where we had to catch our next bus; at least it wasn’t as far as several taxi drivers claimed it was, which ranged from seventeen to seventy kilometres (it was about a kilometre). We grabbed a banh mi from a streetside stall while we waited for the second bus which didn’t drop us in Halong City as we’d been told it would.

For those wanting to do a cruise of Halong Bay, book it in Hanoi – the bus and boat will be included and you will be dropped off at the harbour prior to departure. This, I believe, is what most sensible people do. For those that are less sensible book a hostel in Halong City, find yourself at a harbour a good fifteen kilometres away from there and spend a stressful half hour arguing with taxi drivers, all of whom swear blindly that there isn’t a bus and that you must pay an extortionate fare to get to where you want to go. Of course, there is a bus and that’s how we eventually got to the city which is not much to speak of (another reason just to do a cruise).

One positive of being in Halong itself was Bai Tho or Poem Mountain which is in the heart of the city. We shared a taxi there with some French people we had met in our hostel and started the climb together (they had to go back when they realised they’d left a phone in the taxi). Despite the guy in our hostel telling us what a challenging climb the mountain was, it really was more of a hill. We stormed up it, barely breaking a sweat (something to be savoured in South East Asia) and stopped still at the sight that awaited us at the top. The whole bay was spread out beneath us, rocky forest-carpeted crags rising from the ocean, the ones in the distance fading into an ethereal mist. Birds of prey wheeled about the huge limestone mounds, surfing the currents of the winds as they hovered then dove through the rugged valleys of karst seascape. Although the day hadn’t been particularly clear, the clouds parted for a watery sunset, the sun’s pinky light shimmering hazily on the sea. We sat on a rocky outcrop and watched the water turn from green to pink to orange before descending back to the town. Some faith was restored in humanity when we discovered that the French girl had got her phone back from the taxi driver.

 

The next day we commenced our cruise of the bay. My fear of a legion of gridlocked tourist vessels rose again in my chest as we walked through the harbour to find our ship past rows and rows of boats. However, when we got out into the bay, this fear dissipated: although the occasional boat floated past, our only neighbours were the karst cliffs towering above us. We spent the day happily sailing round this mystical landscape, exploring barnacle covered coves of azure water in bamboo boats and climbing up to get to viewpoints of the bay on a couple of islands. It was on these islands that you really realised how many tourists had flocked to the bay, practically having to elbow your way up steep staircases past people who had stopped to rest in the middle of the path only to be assaulted at the top by selfie stick-wielding visitors hell-bent on getting the ‘perfect shot’.  Although the views were good, they weren’t as good as those of Poem Mountain and we were rather relieved to get back on the boat.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe other not-so-perfect part of our experience occurred towards the end of the day, when Roza realised she had lost her purse. We had had to change boats halfway through the day and she had assumed she’d left it on the first boat. However, the guy on our boat had radioed back to the first vessel: they had her purse, it was all fine. But then he started to demand money from us alleging that we had not paid for a number of the day’s activities. We had, and gave him the number of our hostel so they could confirm this. He paid no attention and started to blackmail us, stating that he would not give back the purse if we did not pay him. We got back to land, where it transpired the purse was left on the bus we’d caught to the harbour. Two things we learnt from this: firstly to keep valuables on us at all times and secondly that some people won’t hesitate to lie through their teeth if they have something to gain from you. Of course, these people are not in the majority – a number of people helped get the purse back – but it is sadly something to be aware of when travelling. I do not wish to end on this note. Halong Bay is an area of outstanding natural beauty with its emerald topped peaks amidst an cerulean ocean topped with a snaking mist. And we didn’t even see it on a sunny day. I’ll leave you with a story.

Legend tells of a mountain dragon plummeting towards Vietnam’s coastline during a great war, its thrashing tail carving out cavernous crevasses and gaping valleys from the rock. As the mighty beast tumbled into the ocean, an almighty wave engulfed the mountain landscape, leaving only the craggy crests of those ancient peaks. The story is the bay’s namesake, for ‘Halong’ literally translates as ‘where the dragon descends’. Whether the dragon ascended or will ascend once again may be lost in the mists of myth. That would certainly make an original Instagram. Alas, that wasn’t to be on my own visit. For now, the dragon may slumber submerged beneath the surface of the water, tail spikes mistaken for just another jagged pinnacle.

1. Sabah, Science & Sun bears

The date of my expedition draws closer and, in the interim, I thought I’d dedicate a few posts to the work I’ll be doing when I’m in Borneo. Raleigh expeditions consist of three phases: an environmental phase, a community phase and an adventure phase so I thought I’d write a bite-sized piece on each, starting with the environmental phase.

Some geography first. Borneo is the third largest island in the world; it is not a country but a land mass divided between the countries of Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia. Raleigh works in the North-East of the island in the state of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. The name Borneo is derived from Brunei which itself is thought to be from the Sanskrit word varun, meaning ‘ocean’. It was known by Indonesian natives as Kalamanthana, which translates as ‘burning weather island’ for the island’s hot and humid climate. It is Borneo’s burning weather that provides the conditions for one of the oldest tropical rainforests in the world. The rainforests of Borneo are estimated to be about 140 million years old. This is many times older than the not-so-humble Homo sapiens, twice as old even than the first primate. In fact 140 million years puts Borneo’s forests right back in the Cretaceous period, along with the last of the dinosaurs and the very first mammals.

In addition to their great age, the forests that cloak the island are one of Earth’s biodiversity hotspots, a hub of evolution and endemism. Not only does Borneo act as one of the last safehouses for the endangered orang-utan, but as a refuge for a whole host of species, including clouded leopards, Asian elephants and sun bears (the world’s smallest, and my favourite, species of bear). A myriad of plant species also make their home in Borneo’s vast expanses of forest, including a colossal 3000 species of tree and 15,000 flowering plants. As well as their stunning biodiversity, these rainforests also provide livelihoods, food and water for local communities and help sustain the health of our planet as a whole. Rainforests are not known as the ‘lungs of the Earth’ for nought.

However, this abundance of floral diversity proved too much for the greed of humanity. Mass industrialisation in the Sixties brought with it some of the most intensive and most destructive deforestation the world has ever seen. Huge swathes of primary rainforest were logged, burnt and cleared to make space for agricultural land and palm oil plantations. To this day, destructive, and often illegal, activities continue to threaten Borneo’s natural systems, with impacts not only on its flora and fauna but on local communities of indigenous peoples.

Conservation work in these areas is, thus, of paramount importance both for preserving vulnerable ecosystems and enabling local people to continue living in harmony with their environment. Raleigh works both with local conservation organisations and the scientific community in a mutual venture to achieve this. These environmental projects are usually based in Sabah’s major conservation areas, in some of the remotest places on the island and in some of the last stands of true virgin rainforest. Work involves building and maintaining infrastructure that facilitates better management of natural resources. For example Raleigh groups have helped to build a large suspension bridge using trees which had fallen from natural causes, giving scientists access to areas that have never before been surveyed, thus allowing the documentation of new species. This also allows rangers to patrol and combat illegal loggers and poachers more effectively. Projects can also involve helping with biological surveys, including the installation of camera traps, a conservation approach in which I’m reasonably well versed (see previous post).

The mutuality of this venture between Raleigh and a multitude of other organisations is important and something which is going to be essential if we are ever to succeed in protecting beautiful natural habitats and the creatures that reside in them. We are working against forces of greed and desperation, with a different kind of greed and desperation. A greed for life and a desperation for man to live sustainably in harmony with nature. Only together will this be achievable. Hopefully, by going on expedition with Raleigh, I’m making my contribution to this effort. Will you make yours?

#RallyForRaleigh

A sun bear slumbers in the safety, but confinement, of its enclosure in Colchester Zoo.
A sun bear slumbers in the safety, but confinement, of its enclosure in Colchester Zoo.