2nd April
written by Hope

While most people spend their days in southern SE Asia lying around on pristine beaches, drinking fresh fruit shakes, and snorkeling in warm ocean water, the north’s main activity is trekking, usually to hill-tribe minority villages. Multi-day treks are very popular in northern Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. We had such an amazing time on our Sapa trek, we decided to head north from Luang Prabang towards Luang Nam Tha, a small town that doesn’t seem to have much going on for it except that it makes a convenient base for exploring the nearby Nam Ha National Protected Area (NPA). LNT has been celebrated for its commitment to ecotourism principles…local tour agencies not only limit the number of trekkers in a group in order to diminish the impact on the environment, but they ensure that a large percentage of the trek fee (usually about 30%) goes towards the village, and each agency offers completely different trek routes so that money coming into the area is distributed fairly amongst the minority tribes. Sounds awesome, huh?

Well, it was and it wasn’t. From what we understand, the LNT tourism industry is still in its infancy, and there were some odd practices in place that didn’t really gel with us—namely, the pricing system. Basically, the more people that sign up for a trek, the less each individual in the group needs to pay. Basically, this means that when you sign up for a trek, you have no idea how much you will end up paying for it. You might pay US$60 each if it’s just two of you, or as little as US$25 each if 6 more people sign up after you. It’s really frustrating.

What ends up happening is that people searching for treks wander around from agency to agency, looking for a trek that already has other people signed up. And since LNT is not super heavily touristed, everyone waits and waits until another person or couple signs up before they sign up, in order to ensure that they will not pay top dollar for their tour.

So, we waited all day hoping that another person or couple would sign up for a two-day tour. At 7PM, when no one had signed up yet, we finally gave up and booked a tour. BUT, because it would have been really expensive (like US$75 each) for a two-day trek (since it was only the two of us), we decided just to do a day hike. In retrospect, we should have signed up EARLIER in the day rather than later, so that other people playing the same waiting game might have signed on to our trek.

Annoying, dontcha think?

We met our tour guide Noo (pronounced “no-oh”) in the morning, and she was very shy. Laotians in general are very reserved, extremely polite people (which is VERY different from the rest of SE Asia). Our first stop was the local market, where (we found out later) Noo was picking up our lunch.

market, luang nam tha

peppers at the market, luang nam tha

We were absolutely amazed by the market…it was clean, organized, quiet, and odor-free; quite an enormous change from the other markets we had been to in SE Asia. I mean, the produce was all organized into little piles! The butcher area had all the assorted animal parts, but there was not even a hint of smell! Even the dirt floor looked swept-clean somehow.

Even weirder: as I was wandering around the market, I saw a family selling bamboo shoots…and some small (dead) songbirds, a mouse, and what looked like a ferret or long squirrel. I took a photo and the family quickly covered the dead animals up under palm leaves (If you want to see the photo, click here, I won’t post it in case someone out there is squeamish about seeing a dead ferret/squirrel thingy). I thought maybe they had hunted these animals illegally, but Noo thought they were just embarrassed. We have seen some really, really weird stuff for sale in SE Asia markets (remember the “ba”?) and nobody has ever tried to hide anything from our cameras. This was like a Bizarro market!

After the market, we headed out to a local village to start our trek. The drive was stunning…a gorgeous landscape of rice paddies studded with bamboo shacks.

beautiful rice paddies, luang nam tha

We walked through a dusty village and headed into a dusty forest. Little did we know that the great majority of our hike would be within this dense cover. I mean, isn’t the point of a hike to see stuff? Noo did point out local fruits and bird feathers and that sort of thing, but we didn’t see much for several hours except dusty trail and trees. When we did get to a clearing, the smoke was so thick from the local slash-and-burn agriculture that we couldn’t see very far anyway.

on our trek, luang nam tha

At some point, Noo told us it was lunch time and she ran off into the forest. We were sitting there wondering what she was doing when she came back with a handful of palm leaves, which would become our lunch table.

our lunch spread, luang nam tha
Our lunch spread of roasted duck, bamboo shoots, river weed (I wasn’t crazy about this), and sticky rice.

Finally, we were out of the forest and descending into a village. Now we’re talking!

descending into the village, luang nam tha

We saw a little cutie helping her family de-kernel some corn.

village family de-kerneling corn, luang nam tha

The village was small and it only took us about 10 minutes to walk through it on our way to the local waterfall. The waterfall was cool…there were dozens of tiers ending in small pools where you could go for a swim. Noo led us all the way up to what seemed like the very furthest pool (which is good, the water is cleaner upriver). The water was really cold, so I did my usual thing of getting in really, really slowly (I know it hurts more that way, but I can’t help it). Noo surprised both me and Jeremy by yelling, “Here, let me help you!” and splashing me! This quiet, reserved girl who had said maybe 3 words on her own the entire trek was now showering me with cold water! Well, it worked, I finally got in. :)

taking a dip, luang nam tha

So, that was out experience in Luang Nam Tha. I don’t really feel like we saw much and we kinda paid a lot for it (our day trip was US$37 each, I think…for reference, we paid US$23 for two days in Sapa). Noo was sweet but she ain’t no Thuyen. :) I’m kinda glad that we didn’t end up doing a 2-day trek because I’m not sure if the scenery would have been much better. Jeremy and I both think the 2- and 3-day trekking trails probably just meander through more dusty forest (though you would get to stay in a village for the night).

I guess the lesson here is, if you ever go to LNT:

1. Sign up early in the day for the trek YOU want; someone else will probably follow.
2. Don’t go during burning season.

I think you could safely say that our experience in LNT was kind of a bust. We really admire the commitment to sustainable and fair tourism here, but let’s just hope they work out the kinks so that people who make the effort to get out to LNT can spread the word.

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