My first stint into South East Asia started in Laos. To be exact, it started in the city of Luang Prabang, one of the great backpacker cities of the region, and a city with a lot of possibilities for hiking and other active excursions. Even during peak monsoon season, which was when I was there, the streets were fairly crowded with backpackers and westerners. Despite this, most people seemed to have been smart enough to avoid going hiking through the tropical forests/jungles around Luang Prabang during the monsoon season, as I was alone on 2 of the 3 hikes I had signed up for beforehand.
So first of all, why go during monsoon season? Basically it comes down to failure of planning, and also just sheer necessity. I wanted to go to South East Asia badly, and to align everything with work it simply was now or never, and thus I just booked the flights, and only afterwards did it slowly dawn on me that, oh, yeah, it is also peak monsoon season during this time. Great!
But actually, going in this season might have been a gift in disguise. The tourist flow is somewhat halted, the nature is blossoming like crazy, and in general the atmosphere feels more relaxed, and the locals are happy to see just some foreigner. My worst fears regarding the actual rain was also somewhat unfounded, as it doesn’t exactly rain much during the day, it is mostly limited to late night or early morning, and even when it does rain, it doesn’t rain for long – BUT – when it does rain, it rains intensely. This means that not only is the hiking trails absolutely drenched in mud and water, landslides across many mountain roads etc. but the waterfalls which are some of the most known parts of Laos, are also overflowing and raging with amazing power. It does mean that the paradise like turquoise pools and calm waterfalls that you see on the usual tourist pictures are now replaced by raging torrents of muddy water, making swimming in the pools mostly impossible, but providing another kind of awesome nature.
And in the middle of this crazy wet, muddy scene, I now found myself, with 3 hikes in 3 consecutive days planned.
I used two local tour companies to hire a guide. For the two of the hikes I used Tiger Trail Laos, and for the last hike (on the second day) I joined a public hiking tour with Green Discovery Laos. The Tiger Trail hikes was just me and my guide, because none else signed up for these hikes, while for the Green Discovery one, we were 8 people in total (it was a hike to probably the most famous waterfall of Laos, Kuang Xi after all).
Tour 1 – Hike to Tad Sae Waterfalls and kayaking down the Nam Khan river.
The first hike was on my first full day in the country, and I was fully unprepared for what was waiting for me. I had never done a proper hike like this before, and I had no idea about the level of mud we would face on the trail. I had therefore stuck with my regular sandals for the hike, since I figured from the rain the day before that I didn’t want to soak my actual hiking shoes… While the sandals being handy for dealing with the mud and water, since they’re easy to clean, it made descending even the smallest hills a pain in the butt as my feet covered in mud would just slip constantly in the sandals. This meant I would have to move very carefully and slowly.
My lack of proper footwear wasn’t my only concern, but also the upcoming kayaking on the Nam Khan river at the end of the hike, since I’ve never kayaked before, and I had a look at the Nam Khan river the day before (it runs through Luang Prabang before joining into the Mekong river), and that river was quite a lot bigger and more powerful than I had expected. But as we shall see, I did survive in the end without much drama.
The first hike was also the easiest. It was a rather small and quick 6-8 km hike through some relatively flat trails out to the Tad Sae waterfalls, yet another one of the amazing waterfalls in Laos. Initially we crossed the Nam Khan river in a small boat, and then reached the start of the trail; Set right in the middle of a small village, where the dirt roads were full of pot-holes covered in water. I tried to dodge the water and mud at the beginning, but quickly gave up as it became obvious that the mud was only going to get worse as we progressed.
As mentioned previously, the hiking party consisted of just me and my guide from Tiger Trail Laos. We made our way through many amazing landscapes covering both rice paddies, light jungle, rubber-tree plantations, tiny settlements, and hillsides offering splendid views of the surrounding valleys and other mountainsides, showing off the awesome greenery of the place. Laos is mostly consisting of raw “untouched” nature, and it does really pay off to go hiking here, as around every bend of the road is another magnificent view. Even during a rainy day, while covered in mud, it is hard to not be in a good mood while walking around these splendid sceneries. The nature was amazing, but it was a little hard to fully appreciate it at all times because of the mud we had to walk through, and which I at this point thought was at a bad level. But oh how wrong I was.
As we approached the waterfalls, we also came past a natural pasture where elephants are kept during the night. During the day they’re transported to the Tad Sae waterfalls to provide riding services for the tourists. This also means that the last part of the trail is covered with big elephant foot-prints in the muddy ground, which was also a little interesting to observe. At one of the last down-hill bends before the actual waterfalls we ran into two guys with a re-purposed tractor that had gotten stuck in the mud. The tractor was now used to transport supplies to the restaurants and small shops at the waterfalls. The guys, despite fighting to free their vehicle seemed in a suprisingly good mood and greeted us. My guide stopped for a quick chat, but we quickly left them to their own again. It was at this point that I also realized just the amount of work that goes into supplying these far flung remote villages to which there’s no roads, with supplies. You really get a sense of your own privilege when visiting these places.
After having hiked for a couple of hours in total, in which we had a few stops to talk to a few locals, and to take in the wonders of the place, we reached the Tad Sae waterfalls. As mentioned before, this place also has elephants that tourists can ride around on, including going for a elephant ride in the waterfall pools. Not being a fan of this kind of treatment of animals, we quickly passed by the elephants and reached the actual falls. It is a multi-tiered falls in many sections, and it is a sight to behold. The raw power of the water becomes evident as some of the restaurants and viewing-platforms located next to the waterfall gets wrecked by the water at this time of year, and must be rebuild every year during the dry season. After a delicious lunch consisting of fried noodles with vegetables and chicken, provided by Tiger Trail, I set out on my own for a bit to do some photography. I played around with the shutter speed of my camera to obtain some nice waterfall photos – the first time I’ve ever seen a proper waterfall and had the chance to take these kinds of photos. It was great fun.
After taking in the waterfalls for a while, it was time to hop into the kayak and hope for the best. My first and most immediate fear was luckily dispelled right away, as it turned out that we would be going in a dual-person kayak and not have solo kayaks. So I felt somewhat safer already. The river here was also somewhat calmer than the section of the river crossing through Luang Prabang. Furthermore I was informed that the kayaking part would be shortened from the original plan as there was strong rapids further down stream. Security was priority number one, and thus it turned out to be a pleasant trip down the Nam Khan river, until we went ashore after a few kilometers and joined up with our driver who then drove us back to Luang Prabang. We were back at around 14:00, and thus an exciting first day of 6 hours touring was done.
Tour 2 – Hike to Kuang Xi falls.
The next day offered up yet another hike, this time to the famous Kuang Xi waterfalls, and it was even more exciting because I had been informed that 3 other people were signed up for this hike. It turned out to be 7 other people however! The more the merrier!
The day started out with constant rain throughout the morning. Continuing on as I was picked up in the tuk-tuk that was to take us the trail-head. I was one of the last persons to be picked up, so there was a lot of time spent being introduced to the other keen travelers. The group consisted of a British/Dutch family with two kids in their early teen-years, an italian youth and two elderly italians – and me. So we varied group of people.
The trail-head was set in another village. By the time we drove off to reach this village, the rain had stopped, but the sky was still full of threatening dark clouds. It looked to be a wet day ahead. As we closed in on the village, there’s a big hill with a dirt-road. Here our vehicle couldn’t keep up anymore, and so we got out and walked the rest of the way. When we entered the village it started pouring down again. The locals sat in their small shelters, keeping dry, and looking at the bunch of us crazy foreigners traversing their village.
The trail followed mostly the valley of grand limestone mountains, and the scenery was much in the likings of the ones from the previous day, just grander and more of it. The first parts after the starting village would take us through some scattered settlements, with traditional village houses, where our guide gave us some brief information about the design-choices for these houses, to comply with the climate. There were plenty of cultivated land around these parts as well. Walking past endless rice paddies is a great experience, one that I will always enjoy, because its makes for such a great sight.
The rain stopped not too long after we had set off from the village, and would mostly keep away for the rest of the trip.
One thing to notice here, is that I had not learned anything from the previous day, and had stuck to wearing my sandals. Perhaps naively thinking that no hike could possibly be worse than the one I had already made it through. Again, a big mistake, and this time I would actually feel real consequences, as we shall see later.
Hours passed by, and we went through a lot of varied landscapes, both farmlands that was being actively worked on as we walked by, with the farmers waving at us, but also lush forests/light jungles, and big plantations of rubber trees and teak trees. At all times we were slowly climbing upwards. As we progressed the trail would continually narrow, until we walked along just a tiny path with vegetation on all sides. This then suddenly started climbing steeply up a hillside. On the way up we had to pass some locals going down the trail. Given that there wasn’t a whole lot of space, this was also quite the experience.
Needless to say, the path throughout the trip was very slippery and muddy, and we all fell and slipped more than once. Somehow keeping in great spirits, as the group had a great chemistry and did everything to keep each others spirits high.
Eventually we reached a peak, from where we would just descend back down again. At this point our guide improvised some walking Sticks for us, to easen the slippery descend a bit, but even then it was unavoidable that falls would occur. For me, in my slippery sandals, this part especially proved to be a challenge. To make matters even worse, the strap on one of my sandals broke early on during the descend, after too much pressure from my feet pushing out the front of the sandals. There was still a long way to go, so this was a bit of a crisis. After several unsuccesful attempts at making the strap stick on again, our guide volunteered to cut a strap of his shirt to bind around the sandal as an alternative, and much more durable strap. It was quite a great sacrifice, and it stuck out for the rest of the trip. Crisis averted.
Another thing to make the descend even worse, was that the whole path was covered in leeches. Not the big Black kind you see in movies, but small ones that are hard to spot, but can still make quite a bite-cut if not removed right away. It was my first experience with leeches, and I did get bitten a few times, even though my legs were caked with mud at this point. Once again my sandals turned out to be a bad idea.
Everyone was relived when the path finally started flattening out again, and we eventually came upon our lunch-site. It was located at a small resturant out in the middle of the jungle. I think it was supposed to be connected to the Kuang Xi waterfalls, but it wasn’t really that close to the falls. This place was located right next to the spring from which the water to the Kuang Xi falls originates, so that was cool to see. Even if it started raining while we were there.
The lunch was nice, mood was good, with everyone being reliefed that we had now overcome the worst part of the hike, and would “soon” (another hour and a half or so) reach the waterfalls. The rain stopped during our lunch, and so we set off once again for the last stretch. The road, while flat, just became increasingly more muddy and covered with water as we approached the waterfall. At least the sky almost cleared and we got blessed with some actual sunshine for the next little while. It was a welcome change after days of a constant thick cloud cover.
We arrived at the top of the waterfall, which was also flooded due to the rain, making the waterfall a lot wider, encompassing a recreational area with benches etc. This also meant that the stairs leading down to the bottom of the waterfall had themselves become part of the waterfall. We had to walk down the stairs, while water streamed down from above, turning the stairs themselves into a small stream, with raging water. The steps weren’t especially slippery, and the water wasn’t strong enough, or in large enough quantities to seriously threaten to make us slip, so instead it was one of the most surreal and amazing experiences ever, walking through a waterfall, while walking next to the proper waterfall raging on full speed. What an amazing moment!
At the bottom of the falls, we got to see the full scope of the raging waters, as the main parts of the falls has a 60 meter drop. It is by far the tallest waterfall I’ve ever seen, and it was very humbling to witness this amazing display of power from nature. From the bottom of the main falls, the water continues on into several other pools. The currents in most of these pools are still too strong for swimming, but one of the last pools before the water empties out into a river provides calm enough water for it to be possible to go for a swim. So the entire group quickly changed into swimming attire and jumped in. After a long day of some 15 kms of hiking, a dip in the refreshingly cold water was very welcome. It was the perfect end to this fantastic hike. We had all bonded pretty well at this point as well.
After getting out of the water, I discovered that a leech had been sucking a lot of blood from the back of heel, but had already detached, either from being too full, or from the water currents. But now my foot was bleeding quite a bit. Luckily our guide had medical supplies and quickly cleaned the wound and bandaged it up.
For the way back in the tuktuk, i stuck up on Lao beer and just enjoyed the last time with the group. A magnificent end to a magnificent day, just cruising through the mountain roads of Laos, drinking beer, and being with new found friends.
Tour 3 – Hike to Khmu and Hmong villages.
On this last hike, I was joined by the guide from Tour 1 – just me and him again, and he kinda preambled the whole day by hinting that I was either very brave or very stupid to go on this specific hike at this time of year, as there would be a huge amount of mud and water, slippery paths, narrow and slippery paths along ridges, more leeches, steep inclines, rock-climbing, rough trails etc. that tourists mostly stay off of at this time of year. All this without even having the pleasure of a magnificent waterfall at the end! I tried to take his words in strides, thinking that after yesterday, how bad could it really be? Now I also FINALLY had come to my senses and wore my actual hiking shoes (well the sandals were broken at this point, AND the guide had basically ordered me to get proper footwear for this trip as it would be much harder than the day 1 tour, oops!), so what could go wrong? As it turns out, just about everything.
The purpose of the hike today was to make it out to three small villages of the Khmu and Hmong tribes. One of which consisted of just 2 houses with 2 families in total! In the end we would reach a fair-trade village sponsored by the Tiger Trail organization, so a great opportunity to meet local kids and hand out presents etc (not required, but I had brought along some school supplies). Thus no waterfalls.
The day, like the first day, started out by us crossing a river in a small boat, but instead of being dropped off in a little village with a trail-head, we were just dropped off onto some marsh-land bank of sorts right on the river shore. It looked fairly safe, but looks can be deceiving. Ones feet would sink into 10-20 cms of soft sand / not quite mud occasionally. When we made it out of this small marsh-area, we hit a path and I was happy. That only lasted a brief moment though, as the path turned into a swimming pool essentially of waist deep water, as the path was a depression in between the fields on both sides, where I imagen they herd their cattle in the dry season. The water covered branches and tree roots etc. which made it incredibly easy to stumble around. So I had a few close calls of almost falling over into the water. Needless to say my camera came into my bag very quickly, and for the most part didn’t come out again at all during the actual hike as the conditions would not improve significantly. Beyond just getting wet, I also cut up both my hands on sharp sticks etc. Not fun. After having traversed the watery parts, we ended up in a field, that wasn’t covered in either water nor mud. What a relief! From there it was a mostly standard hike through more muddy, but flat, paths. Until we reached the first village, which was also the one closest to civilization, actually being connected by road to the outside world even. That whole initial hike through waist deep water could’ve been avoided! Sigh! But where’s the fun in that..
In this village we had a small stop, talking to the locals and having a small rest, before moving on again. First reaching a mountain pass, with impressive big limestone mountains on all sides. The guide assured me that we would just have to walk around the Mountains, following the valleys. Yet somehow we ended up going up and up and up some steep rock-faces, that offered the first actual physical test of all the tours. It just kept going on and on, and I was sweating buckets. At one point we even overtook a old lady carrying a lot of heavy load, scaling this same path as us, but without seeming bothered at all by it, even though this woman looked very old and fragile. My big macho male ego took a blow, as it became apparent that I couldn’t even compare to these amazing locals in any way.
After a while we reached the second village, the one with just 2 houses, on the shore of a big mountain lake. The lake was very muddy and didn’t look very hygienic, yet this was the only source for water for the locals. It’s a humbling experience to witness how people live and survive out there.
We had our lunch break in this village, in which the old lady we had crossed paths with earlier, and who turned out to be one of the inhabitants of the village, came and joined us for a small talk, and trying to sell some of her handicrafts. I ended up buying a small bag/wallet from her.
I was sure that since we had now reached village 2 of 3 in just about 4 hours, we would soon reach the last village and could call it a day. So I wasn’t happy when the guide told me that we were now about half-way through the hike only. Don’t get me wrong, while I make it sound only horrible, we did cross through some mind blowing sceneries that would make it all entirely worth the pain of this trip, even if it was immensely hard to enjoy it in the moment, as my guide wasn’t waiting, since this hike was already a long one without the random stops for enjoying the view. It is just very hard to describe these landscapes in words!
So off we went. From here on we would reach parts with leeches (that I avoided getting bitten by on this tour at least), extremely slippery narrow cliffside paths, where at various points I had to slow down completely and calculate each step to not slip down a cliff side. It was immensely scary, and went on for too long for comfort. After making it through these deathly paths, which surely would have been an easy stroll in dry season, we started descending again, with great views of all the surrounding mountains we had just surpassed. My mood started to climb, after having been at complete rock bottom for over an hour, doing this horrific hike. On the way down the Mountains, we also crossed multiple small rivers and streams where we could have a small break to cool down in the cold mountain Waters. It also offered a good opportunity to wash off some of the mud that accumulated on ones shoes, feet and legs. As we reached the valley, we entered farm land, meeting local farmers working their fields, orchards and rice paddies. It was refreshing to see people again after having been on a very solitary walk for almost 2 hours after having left the second village. A while after walking through these farmlands, we reached the dirt-road leading up to the final village. I knew that after the village we would have to walk another 5 km back to the pickup point where our driver would get us. I asked my guide if all the 5 kms would go along this great road, and as he replied in the affirmative I got extremely relieved. Turned out to be a lie though.
The village itself was quite the experience, it was a thriving village with around 200 people out of which about 80 were kids. The village had a nice school built by donations from the Tiger Trail organization. In fact much of the village was made from Tiger Trail donations, as this was a sponsor village. I met some of the kids, and got to hand out the pencils and note-books I had brought along (and which had survived by being wrapped up in plastic bags in my backpack). It was great to see the faces light up on the kids when receiving these gifts. Sadly I had not expected there to be anywhere so many kids, so I didn’t have gifts for everyone. That was a bummer.
Another bummer, was that we only had approximately 20 minutes in this village, after having hiked through a hellish trail for almost 7 hours. Tiger Trail does run a guest house here so you can have night in the village, interacting much more with the locals, but unfortunately I did not have the time to do that, albeit it would’ve been nice.
So we set out again for the last stretch. I thought it would be a nice little stroll for the last kms along this nice, non-muddy road as my guide has promised. But the road quickly ended, and transformed into a narrow path, that also quickly turned into a flooded grass area, so we were back to walking in knee-deep water for a while. The path all but disappeared and we had to improvise a good path through this flooded area that was also covered in heavy vegetation, making it hard to navigate efficiently. To make things worse, it started absolutely pouring down at this time, so we just got completely soaked one final time, granted at this point it hardly even mattered, although it didn’t help on the already declining spirit and mood. After a while we once again hit extremely muddy paths. It was still pouring down. My mood hit rock bottom again. I really just wanted to get out of there. Eventually we reached a small settlement located on the shores of the Nam Khan river, not too far from the Tad Sae waterfalls from the first day. From there we would be picked up by a boat and taken to another village where our driver would be waiting for us. We had some cover in the settlement, while the rain continued to pour down around us, waiting for our boat. I was completely soaked from head to toe, my shoes were destroyed by water and mud, and in general my western comforts had been entirely scratched away. While I complain a lot, I’m still very happy to have completed this hike. The nature was insane, the villagers we met – especially the kids – were very kind, and it all came together in the end. And it is just a kind of mark of pride for me to have completed this hike, and then in the wet season even.
But man how I hate mud now.
That was the end to the three hikes in Laos, a great albeit rough way to experience the true beauty of the country.