Laos: Luang Prabang and Jungle Trekking

Laos is a huge country! I’m not exactly sure how familiar any of you are with the country itself, but take a look at Google Maps just to verify how massive this place is. I’m not sure if it’s the lack of paved roads, endless mountains, or just all-around rural setting that make it seem so large, but it really takes forever to get anywhere, and anywhere in Laos could potentially be the most picturesque place there is.

View of Luang Prabang from above

Leaving Vang Vieng I continued north along the all-too-common backpacker route I’ve now found myself on. It’s funny how every person I’m meeting is either heading south along the path I just traveled, or north along the path I'm traveling now. I thankfully booked the four-hour bus ride to get up to Luang Prabang (Louangphrabang in Laos), the largest city in the north central part of the country, and I was remorseful for those who mistakenly signed up for the eight hour ride up the “other” road which for some reason all of the vans and buses don’t take (supposedly the new mountain road isn't accessible by big buses). Those longer rides were more expensive from Vang Vieng, too…

I continued traveling with my friends from New Zealand and we met up again with a few girls we’d met from the UK and Mexico upon arriving to Luang Prabang. There isn’t much to do in the city aside from chill (this is becoming a trend in Laos), go to the one bar in town, Utopia, or visit the waterfalls, elephant camps, or jungle treks around the city. Though the entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage site, I didn't find that there was really a whole lot to do in the city itself. 

I enjoyed a few days in the city with my newfound friends by visiting the massive night market in the city, eating all-you-can 15,000 Kip (~$1.85USD) buffet dinners, and hitting up Utopia and the follow-up late night bowling action before everyone began parting ways. It’s a really beautiful town with numerous monasteries and scenic views from atop the hill in town that we frequented as well in addition to our day trip to the massive waterfall twenty minutes outside of town (I continually feel like I’m just visiting waterfalls in SE Asia…).

Kuang Si waterfall

My travel buddies all departed for their next destinations on Saturday morning and I found myself alone once again. For a few days leading up to that I had been researching about some jungle trekking I could do for a week or so before heading back into Thailand the following weekend. I’d only been in Laos for nine days thus far and I wasn’t ready to start making my trek back west only to find myself wishing I’d spent more time in Laos. That my Thailand visa would only be good for sixty days upon arrival back into the country made me decide to find something for a week to pass a bit of time and get off the well-worn backpacker path for a little bit. I was starting to get tired of the same-ole routine day after day that’s so easy to get into when living in hostels in Asia.

After a bit of research I came across a company, Green Discovery Laos, which seemed to offer a few different options for something I was interested in. I was looking for something more cultural, a way to see the real Laos way of living while also getting a bit dirty for a few days and a taste of some more authentic food than just the night market fried rice with meat day after day. A quick email and a bit of cash negotiation at the office in town and I found myself signed up for a five day trek through the Luang Prabang province living with local families, hiking through the jungle, and getting a real authentic Laos experience!

I burned some time for a couple days before setting off on my five-day journey Monday morning. We’d be carrying everything we needed (aside from food) on our backs so I reorganized my big bag and packed essentials into my smaller pack that’d be more manageable trekking through the hillside and jungle.

Essentials included:

  • 2 t-shirts, 1 tank top
  • 2 pairs of underwear (day and night). The days I wore while washing in the village’s communal watering hole so they got “cleaned” daily.
  • 1 pair of zip-off pants (dorky, but practical)
  • 1 pair of shorts
  • 1 swimsuit
  • 1 long-sleeve shirt
  • 2 pairs of socks
  • 2 pair of shoes (hiking and flip-flops for around the families homes)
  • Sunglasses
  • All essential toiletries (toothbrush/paste, body wash, sunscreen, deodorant, malaria meds, toilet paper…seriously)
  • Bug spray (95% deet to be accurate which isn’t even legal in the U.S. I don’t believe). These bugs are vicious.

Typical view during our journey

All-in-all my bag weighed about twelve pounds or so, and in hindsight I actually packed perfectly for this trek. Aside from nothing ever being dry once it got wet, I was comfortable in what I packed. All my clothing was light weight and “quick dry” (which like I said never really dried because of the humidity) so it made everything pretty comfortable, and I had planned for nighttime wear which proved to be a great decision because my daytime hiking clothes were RANK and permanently wet by the end of this trip.

When I signed up for the trip there was only one other guy signed up with me which made the price roughly $45/day. That price, at the time, included food, guides, home stay accommodations, and water. Anything else we needed in the villages upon arrival we could purchase on our own (smaller snacks, souvenirs, etc.). On the day of leaving once getting to the office where we would depart from I was pleasantly surprised to see that three additional brave souls also signed up last minute (literally last minute because I paid the afternoon before leaving around 2 in the afternoon and there were still only myself and the other guy signed up). This fortunately dropped the price substantially to $178 and I felt like I was really getting an amazing deal for what I hoped to be a memorable week.

Just to put that price in perspective, $178 comes out to $35.60/day, which accounting for everything that it includes each day (paying the two guides, transportation on the first, third, and last days of the trek, three meals prepared by locals, and accommodations – modest, but still a roof over my head) the whole package probably ended up costing me only a little bit more than I would have paid for five normal days sitting on my sorry butt in Luang Prabang twiddling my thumbs, drinking coffee, and blogging. It also likely would have cost around $1,000 doing a similar trip in the U.S. or any western country.

The eight of us (five trekkers, two guides, and a driver) left Luang Prabang and drove north up one of the few paved roads in the country for about an hour. Upon arrival we hopped out of the van and literally began hiking.

No instruction. No introductions. No explanation of where we were going. Nothing.

As we began hiking out of the village we were dropped off in and into the jungle our guide eventually started explaining a bit of what was going on, things like his name (Gim), our secondary guide’s name (Touy – who spoke very little English), and our general plan for the next five days. I’d read the description online, but it was nice to hear from someone other than the website.

Typical farm huts along the way for lunch stops

Almost immediately upon beginning our hike we were introduced to some incredible views of the surrounding mountains, hillside farms, and rice terraces we found ourselves trekking through. None of these farms were even remotely accessible by any sort of machine, and as it is currently the end of harvesting season in Laos for rice and hops following the wet season, we saw numerous locals in the fields working away, slashing the rice and beating the hops off their stems.

We stopped for lunch (this first day and every day) at a hillside shelter for a local farmer in the area. There were hundreds of these scattered throughout the mountains meant to provide shelter to the farmers during the hot days of planting and tending to the crops, and they were very simple structures of an elevated bamboo mat and thatched roof to shield the sun.

Our lunches each day consisted of banana leaves (for a plate/table sort of thing to lay out all the food), noodles, sticky rice, some type of meat, steamed vegetables or fresh beans Gim picked from the fields, and a spicy paste made from some sort of vegetable. The lunches (and all the other meals) were delicious and very communal in their presentation styles. Each bag of food was dumped onto the banana leaves and dug into with our hands , grabbing a ball of sticky rice, dipping it the spicy past, adding a bit of noodles or meat to the ball, and stuffing it in our mouths. Quickly our group of seven got very comfortable with each other in terms of swapping germs (apparently not a thing when jungle trekking).

Following lunch we trekked another two or three hours uphill and passed through a couple of small villages before reaching our first home stay village of the week in a Hmong community called Mok Jung.

Mok Jung on the way into the village

This was the most simple village I’d ever seen in my life, with a total population of roughly 250 people, a three-roomed schoolhouse (with bamboo walls between each room), no electricity, two running water spouts for showering/bathing, and a small market (in the front of one of the locals homes). The seven of us stayed between two different families’ homes and had very nice accommodations (this changed the subsequent days) on our first night. We enjoyed a delicious dinner of sticky rice (every meal), vegetables, meat, etc. (similar to lunches) prepared by our guides and the family, and around 8:00 were each equally exhausted and ready for bed.

The beds during the four nights varied with our first stay providing us each our own elevated bamboo platform with a sleeping pad, blankets, and mosquito nets. The subsequent nights varied from a shared bed with one other person, a shared bed with two other people, or, as was the case on the last night, a tarp laid down on the dirt floor of the house with a blanket thrown on top of it for extra padding – modest, but authentic in every way. Day 1 proved to be a bit less than I hoped for (hiking was subpar, home stay a bit too comfortable), but I found that the subsequent days got better and better.

Day 2 of our trek we spent the better part of the morning seeing similar sights to the previous day, and worked our way into the jungle in the afternoon, treated with a delicious lunch in the middle of the jungle with coffee prepared in a Gim-made bamboo tube, enjoyed by each of us with our own Gim-made bamboo cups (which I’ll be keeping as a souvenir for as long as I can).

I found quickly that though the jungle is perpetually shaded, it traps in all the heat and humidity from the day, and I realized that I sweat significantly more than I ever thought possible. Throughout each day I completely saturated my entire shirt and bandana, and found that after the first two days of trekking, neither shirt was completely dry again until the end of the week.

Our accommodations improved in some regards (not the bed as previously mentioned) in that the second and third nights our homes had electricity and water basins of their own inside the home to take showers in. This was a nice change from having to shower in the “phalang” creekside waterspout (phalang means westerner or white person in Laos) or just taking a dip into the river due to the water only running from the spout from 4:30-5:00 each day and the locals needing to wash first.

Unfortunately throughout the week we didn’t come across any wild animals (maybe a good thing, actually) aside from the massive spiders and other insects constantly crossing our path and buzzing above my head. We did, however, get to work our way through an elephant-demolished river trail where two to three of the massive animals had previously walked and destroyed our well-worn path. It started slowly with a footprint here and there and eventually turned into a full-on war zone! For roughly a mile the path that crossed back and forth across a shallow river was completely dominated with ripped down trees and bamboo trunks. The entire path was completely covered, and we did our best to work in and around the brush, but ultimately waded in the river instead for roughly a mile. As I said, we didn't see any up close, but our guides proceeded with caution and continually warned us about noise levels and lead the way from a couple hundred feet ahead of us. 

View of the valley below before making our trek down on the fifth day of hiking

My favorite part about the trek was the evenings when we were able to spend time in the villages and see what typical Laos daily life is like. We were exhausted by the ends of the days, but generally still had enough energy to walk around the town a bit (which took no more than 20 minutes because they were very small). All-in-all night life in small Laotian villages was quite similar to back home, usually consisting of family time, a meal, and conversation. The main differences included the lack of electricity and other gadgets, and I realized that in general there was much more chatter among the people than there is in the western world. Due to the lack of smart phones and other devices constantly littering their hands, they have continued to use words to communicate with one another rather than a screen's keyboard, and it was refreshing to see that style still in use somewhere in the world. Seeing this first hand, and also witnessing the village life and how simplistic it was really helped put the way I live my life into perspective a bit. I realized how little I really needed to be happy and comfortable, and even though I m quite fond of the internet and all of my own personal gadgets I was happy to find that I could be very content without all of it as well. 

By the last day of the trek I was quite ready to be out of the jungle and back into a place a bit more comfortable. Combined with the hiking and exhaustion that came with our daily routine and the general lack of sleep over the course of four nights, I found that I was looking forward to a good nights sleep in a real bed. After a long trek uphill for three hours at the end of our fourth day, our fifth day was spent trekking downhill for about four hours back to a main road and civilization. We were treated to some amazing views on the last day as we headed down, and got picked up by the same driver who dropped us off five days later once reaching the end. From there we made our way back to Luang Prabang in a nice, air conditioned van.

Once back in town I planned to spend the next twelve hours sleeping, showering, and relaxing before shipping off on the Slow Boat up the Mekong River in the morning, making my way back towards the Thailand border. I'm planning to spend roughly two months really seeing Thailand thoroughly for my next destination, and though I'm sad to be leaving Laos, I'm excited about getting a chance to take my time working through Thailand and really experiencing each place for more than just a few days.