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.

 

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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.

Trek: an uphill climb with beautiful views

Life on trek is like living in a different world.  Although we know that the cogs of everyday life keep turning, we’re so immersed in our little bubble that it seems an odd concept that things like days of the week still exist.  We haven’t seen anyone beyond our team or guides for the last week.  Civilisation seems alien and we have left it behind us.

Our coach dropped us off, literally on the side of the road, with nothing to do except don our walking boots and heavy rucksacks and start our long walk into the waiting arms of the jungle.  It had been sunny back on the road, but underneath the dense canopy of the rainforest and with a sky rapidly clouding over it became darker and more mysterious.  Tendrils of mist snaked around the trees, like something out of a jungle fairy tale.  That very first day, we experienced our first rainstorm on trek.  It started lightly but quickly became torrential and by the time we arrived, slipping and sliding, into our first camp, we were absolutely drenched.  The first evening, after having set up the group kit and our own hammocks, was spent as a whole group, damp and cold, huddled around the fire.  But there was something nice about everyone being together, a tangle of limbs, as everybody vied to get the best spot to dry their feet as the rain hammered down on the tarp overhead.

The camps so far have been pretty variable.  One that stands out, although not necessarily for good reasons, is the infamous ‘mud camp’ which, as its name suggests, was incredibly muddy.  Walking around (if sliding can be called walking) was an absolute nightmare, especially if you were unlucky enough to have your hammock set up on a hill which, by the end of our time there, was more like a mud slide.  My rucksack cover is still covered with the mud from mud camp, lest I forget all the muddy memories.

But for every mud camp, there is a stunning camp with magnificent views or perfect trees or a beautiful river close by.  At ‘mouse deer camp’ there is a place you can walk to where you can find incredible panoramas of the surrounding scenery.  The night we arrived, there was a full moon and we all went down after dinner to have a look.  It was a sight that I don’t think any of us will ever forget.  A perfect full moon hung in the centre of the night sky, bathing all the trees in a pearly glow.  We could see the bold silhouette of Mount Kinabalu standing proudly against a velvet sky, fluffy clouds resting in the valley, glowing softly by the light of the moon.  Other clouds, pale silvery wispy things, skimmed the tops of the ridge and streaks of silver nudged the base of the mountain.  On one side, a huge threatening roll of cloud lit up occasionally with flashes of lightening from a storm, but there was no thunder to break our  semi-stunned silence.  Stars shone out from where the clouds were fewer, signs of a rainless night for our team.  The only evidence of human settlement came from three pinpricks of light; apart from that, there was only soft darkness all around.  We felt so isolated but in a good way.  It kind of felt special that we were the only ones out there in the middle of that massive expanse of Bornean rainforest.

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The rainforest itself has much to offer, which compensates for its slippery paths and huge hills for us to trek up.  We have swam in crystal clear rivers and sat underneath waterfalls, something that is blissful after a long day walking as we let our sore limbs rest in the deliciously cool water.  Rare moments of feeling clean are a definite luxury here in our trek bubble.  Luxury comes also in the form of the food that the jungle provides.  Pretty much all food on trek tastes amazing despite all coming from a can – in our trek delirium, we are all now devoted fans of chicken luncheon meat, something which definitely shows the level of jungle madness that we are all at!  But we have been lucky enough, too, to find fresh food – wild ginger, chillies, long beans – that have elevated our meals to the next level.  Our incredible guides have also cooked us some things, including jungle palm soup and sweet tapioca and milk.  Yesterday we were treated to jungle donuts, which were absolutely phenomenal – the whole team was buzzing, especially after our guide told us that we had achieved the trek record for that particular day.  We had beaten the time taken by all other teams to walk between the two camps by 11 minutes.

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The foreseeable future also looks good, especially on the food front, as we sit in one of the best camps yet alongside a beautiful river waiting for trek resupply (a visit from Fieldbase staff, with our food rations for the rest of the phase). Alpha 5 are feeling positive as we look towards the next nine days, which may be both mentally and physically challenging, but which we hope to cover with long bold strides and a spring in our step.

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Originally published by Raleigh International (02/12/15): https://raleighinternational.org/blog/borneo/trek-an-uphill-climb-with-beautiful-views/