1st February 2016
After falling in love with Laos’ laid back charm and stunning natural beauty, the WF travellers on my Laos Unlocked recce tour in 2014 asked me to put together a follow up trip to explore the wild northern areas. Here’s how we got on – it didn’t always go to plan...
Eighty per cent mountainous, with only seventeen people per sq. km, Laos’ geography dictates its personality. Isolation and ethnic diversity breeds community spirit and understanding. You don’t have to travel far from Luang Prabang’s (still) sleepy touristy strip, elephant camps and zip wires to experience dramatic limestone peaks and heaven hugging clouds, wild rivers crashing over rocks and trails cut through dense inhospitable jungle. These mountains, rivers and jungles were the wild Laos we wanted to explore.
Reacquainting ourselves with the tragic legacy of the expansion of the Vietnam War on the Plain of Jars we followed the bloody path of revolution backwards to the amazing cave city in Vieng Xai. Here the communist leaders built a city of more than 20,000 people and sheltered from nine years from onslaught of American bombs, before emerging to march on the capital in 1975. After a couple of days nestled among the limestone karsts and (now) tranquil village we headed to the heart of the jungle. Laos' oldest National Park, Nam Et - where a few tigers still roam - provided us with a cosy jungle hut for the night. At dusk we sat beside a fire at a salt lick beside the Nern River enjoying dinner prepared by villagers on huge on banana leaves. With a bright moon above, we drifted silently downstream looking for the red eyes of loris, civets and deer. The eerie Apocalypse Now atmosphere was broken every few minutes as our boatmen plunged bamboo poles into the rapids guiding our tiny boats safely through.
Rejoining the road we began a stunning six-hour ascent into the clouds, at times dramatically winding down into sun drenched valleys of dusty H’mong and Khmu villages. This is Laos at its best; stilted wooden houses perched impossibly on the side of mountains, dusty kids, toothless grandmothers and village industry - basketwork, weaving and woodcarving. Nervy chickens zigzagged around flabby pigs and dozing buffalo. Seventy per cent of Laotians live and work the land; during the Asian financial crisis the joke was it was ‘farming as usual’ in Laos.
After spending the night in the shadow of limestone karsts that plunged dramatically into the Ou River at Nong Khiaw, we swapped bus for boats. The next stage of our journey into the heart of remote northern Laos would be by river. Loading up two narrow boats our captains sped us upriver in partial sunshine towards Muang Khua, our overnight stop. At times they revved hard and hit the rapids full on to get us through. We already knew from the weather reports that a cold front and wintery weather was on its way – making the onward journey to the remote northern outpost of Phongsali challenging.
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