|Luang Nam Tha, Laos
Thankful to get past the border officials, we headed into northern Laos and to the sleepy mountain town of Luang Nam Tha. There hasn't been much excitement in the town since the last Indochina War, but the area has some great natural elements. Some of the best trekking in all of Lao is rumored to be in the nearby Nam Tha National Protected Area -so off we went!
Although it was much more difficult than it should have been, we finally managed to organize a two day trek into the mountains with a marginally charming English couple. (You'll see them in a few photos, but otherwise, they don't really bare any mention.) We set off immediately (about 15 minutes after we organized the trip!) and before long we were hiking toward the mountains with a local guide named Ket. Its been a while since we hitched up the old pack and hit the backcountry, and it was great to get away from it all. The sun was intense and the scenery was stunning, but the food on the trail stole the show. When it was time for lunch, our guides just grabbed a few banana leaves for a makeshift table, and we sat right on the trail. Our first lunch was sticky rice, sauteed eggplant, a pork-ginger-bamboo dish, a pork-cauliflower lemongrass dish, roasted peanuts, and bananas for dessert. It surely hit the spot!
We pushed on into the afternoon, thankful to be under the jungle canopy. It was so steamy at times that I could barely keep my glasses de-fogged, but at least the sun wasn't beating on us. We finally reached a little cool clear waterfall and got a much needed respite from the heat. I had a great splash while the jungle leeches were nipping at Ann. Unfortunately, after our refreshing dip, we had a huge climb out of the valley floor. Just as Ann was getting a bit weary of mountain trails, we stumbled onto the small village of Nam Lai. This village is home of some Akha tribe people, and they were gracious enough to host us for the evening.
After a quick wash up (under the watchful eye of every child in the village) the circus of foreign visitors moved into the village center. Although quite different in setting, character, and people, the whole experience reminded me of being in Africa -something about a mountain village on the edge of nowhere. I was in heaven! Ann was thrilled to have so many photo opportunities. I'm not sure the foreign curiosity factor ever waned, but as night fell, we retired to our sleeping hut for another scrumptious meal. The Second Chief of the village (I couldn't believe a village this size warrented two chiefs) joined us for sticky rice, a chicken (and all its parts -many of which caused Ann some distress), and bitter bamboo shoots. This chicken mind you, was moments earlier running around outside our hut before it quickly met its demise. After a little neck wringing and some quick boiling, the feathers were off and the dicing and slicing commenced.
Even before the meal began, the Second Chief busted out a bottle of Lao-Lao -a whiskey-like rice based homebrew that will definitely put hair on your chest (as my dad used to say.) Well, when the Second Chief offers you a shot -you drink! And so I did, up to six times over the course of the evening. (Ann, being a woman, was exempt from this ritual -and thankfully so!) After dinner, the Second Chief busted out some cigarettes. Again, when the Second Chief offers you a cigarette -you smoke! (Thankfully the Second Chief didn't bust out a crack pipe!) Without much futher ado (certainly I couldn't handle much more ado) the Second Chief left us to our stupors to get some shut eye.
A bird caller from the village lead us out the next morning, and our well-worn trail took us straight to the local opium field. (I'm so glad the Second Chief didn't bust out any of that either!) It was a little surprising to see it growing in the open, so close to the village, but opium is ingrained in the Akha culture. Mostly its for the elders, but more and more the younger generation is starting to smoke it.
Our second day trail lunch was another spectacular feast! We had a chicken bamboo stew cooked in the hollow of a large bamboo stalk! Actaully the whole lunch affair revoled around bamboo -its an incredibly versatile plant. We had bamboo troughs, bamboo chopsticks, and bamboo spoons! Ann was once again slightly dismayed to pick through the lot of chicken parts, but a good piece of meat in that excellent broth was well worth it!
We had another huge climb out of the valley after lunch followed by some forest thicket so dense that it was continually whacking us in the face. Soon, we were out of the mountains following an ever widening river valley to the road. Dirty, tired, but much more in tune with Laos than when we started, we climbed into our waiting transport and back to Luang Nam Tha for a well deserved Beer Lao!