Northern Laos: A Trekker’s Paradise

Lake Nam Ngai, northern Laos, where we disembarked near the trailhead. John Henderson photos.
Lake Nam Ngai, northern Laos, where we disembarked near the trailhead. John Henderson photos.

Laos remains one of the best places to hike, and least developed country in SE Asia

By John Henderson
Senior Writer

The town of Phongsali sits high in the clouds in that little northern tip of Laos that juts into the belly of southern China.

Part of the trail as we leave Chakhampa for Peryenxang.
Part of the trail as we leave Chakhampa for Peryenxang.

On the dusty main drag, I could look down at a fog-shrouded valley that stretches into China only 10 miles away.

This is the eastern edge of the Himalayas, and jet-black mountain tops stuck up through the clouds as I walked the street looking for a bowl of noodles.

I’d just made a 15-hour overnight bus ride that seemed like 15 days. I needed fuel. The next morning I would embark on a two-day trek on one of the least-beaten paths in Southeast Asia. Yes, it took 15 hours to find a path less beaten.

Ugly Publicity

Getting off the beaten path in Southeast Asia has become as hard as my bus seat. Thailand exploded in the 1970s.

Vietnam followed in the 1980s. It’s Cambodia’s turn this decade and some travel websites declared Burma as THE place to visit in 2017.

Akha kids in northern Laos.
Akha kids in northern Laos.

Laos is recovering from ugly publicity that portrayed it as a drunken party destination with some Buddhist temples and monks thrown in.

In 2011, 27 deaths, mostly from drowning in inner tube accidents, forced the Lao government the next year to close down the riverside rave bars in randy Vang Vieng. The town is now attracting hordes of tourists as the country’s adventure center.

However, Phongsali Province has remained relatively unvarnished. For trekkers, that’s like finding a cool breeze in Southeast Asia.

Today, trekking companies have turned paths in Southeast Asia into a virtual highway system. One village in Thailand, Jorpakha, averaged a reported 108 tourists a day in 1999.

Chakhampa village.
Chakhampa village.

To hike in Northern Laos, however, you must really want to go.

The bus ride from Luang Prabang to Phongsali is only 250 miles. However, it took 15 hours as it zigzagged along the narrow, hilly roads at the same speed as some cyclists in the Tour de France.

We stopped in nearly every village with a noodle shop. My seat was broken, and I needed a small crane to put it in its upright position.

Carsick en Route

The ride got off to a nightmarish start when a woman became violently car sick and heaved all over the aisle before a vomit bag could reach her. They never cleaned up the mess, and I spent 15 hours breathing through my mouth. Meanwhile, a baby behind me cried like Pavarotti after he gets his hand slammed in a car door.

Village chief Nouje smokes a water pipe in his Chakhampa village.
Village chief Nouje smokes a water pipe in his Chakhampa village.

Once in Phongsali village, I found Amazing Lao Travel in a roomy office down the hill on the main road. Trips ranging from day hikes to week-long slogs are available.

On a cool day in February, the height of Laos’ tourist season, there were five of us: Pablo, a Bolivian-Frenchman living in Santiago, Chile; Jani from Budapest; Yohann and Orianne, a couple from Bordeaux, France, and me. The group was as diverse as Laos’ geography.

Laos is as long as the state of Minnesota, but the contrasts are much more dramatic.

In just 250 miles, I had gone from sweltering weather more appropriate for African violets to wearing a stocking cap in my unheated hotel room, where a little red string tied the windows together.

In other words, perfect trekking weather.

We were met at 7:30 the next morning by Bounhak, our guide who went by “Boss.” Boss was the perfect guide. A stocky 5-foot-3 and fit at 34, he went to university for a couple of years before working with hill tribes.

He spoke excellent English and seemed to know everyone in Phongsali Province. We were lucky to have him. So is Laos.

The gang drinking lao-lao in Penyenxang village. Boss is second from right.
The gang drinking lao-lao in Penyenxang village. Boss is second from right.

A rickety public bus on its last muffler drove us 45 minutes along a gravel road past hamlets, each one poorer than the last. Houses looked like Lego structures, just a mishmash of wood planks, propped up by wood poles with a rock base. Boulders were everywhere.

Mud paths separated the homes with roofs made of corrugated metal. A Cyclone fence protected the lower end of one house. They looked as if they were built in about 90 minutes.

We eventually made our way to Lake Nam Ngai where we boarded a narrow motorboat for a 30-minute ride to the trailhead. We passed what has become a common scene in 21st century Laos. A giant Chinese-built dam dominated the landscape.

It’s one of six dams the Chinese built in Laos for the sole purpose of siphoning the electricity to China. In 20 years, the Chinese will give the power to Laos at no charge.

Phongsali Laos.
Phongsali Laos.

Boss is skeptical.

“We don’t like them much,” he said. “We import everything from China, but they’re no good. We make the material here, then ship it to China to make products to sell to Laos.”

We passed a cliff with a large garden of white flowers in full bloom. In the 1960s and ‘70s, this area was a leading producer of poppies in the Southeast Asian drug trade but the supply shifted to Afghanistan.

Today the flowers are mere decorations for a leisurely boat ride in a remote corner of the world.

We disembarked on a muddy riverbank and started to climb a steep gravel road. Trekking in Laos differs from Thailand where you traverse through thick jungle on narrow dirt paths, your views constantly challenged by the canopy.

In Laos, we hiked up a service road where every turn offered a new panoramic view of the valley beyond. The morning fog had lifted and we could see for hundreds of miles. The green valley went deep into China where the Himalayan foothills offered the perfect backdrop.

And the air was so fresh it smelled like a perfume shop in Monaco.

Peryenxang view, Northern Laos.
Peryenxang view

Amazing Laos Travel bills this hike as “moderate high to hard.” It wasn’t that steep. It was just relentless. It never leveled. Despite temperatures in the 60s, I had stripped to shorts and a sweat-wicking Nike shirt. At one point, Boss stopped us and pointed high toward the horizon. I vaguely saw some crude dwellings.

“That’s our first village,” he said. “Lunch.”

After about   2 1/2 hours, we stumbled into Chakhampa village, elevation 2,624 feet. It consists of about a dozen structures scattered around a dirt hill, with piglets nursing in the sun.

Chakhampa is one of 600 villages in Phongsali Province where 90 percent of the population of 177,000 is rural. Nearly 6,000 acres of Phongsali Province is nothing but rice paddies.

This is also the home of the Akha hill tribe, one of 49 ethnic groups in Laos and one of seven main ones. Akha women always dress as if a National Geographic photographer is about to show up.

A posse of women greeted us wearing black leggings with black skirts and heavily embroidered jackets, each one representing their marital status.

We met Nouje, the village chief. He’s 55 and has never left Phongsali Province. That’s normal among hill tribes where modernization has not penetrated much. The villages have no electricity, running water or toilet facilities. I wrote my journal by two solar-powered light bulbs hanging from a pole.

Fighting the Government

The view toward China from Phongsali village.
The view toward China from Phongsali village.

Water comes from a nearby well. The lavatory is the jungle on the village outskirts. Nouje is one of the many Akha officials who have fought the communist Lao government to get water, electricity and a proper school.

At one point during lunch, Nouje turned to Boss and said, “You’re crazy for coming up here every day.” While crude and uncomfortable — bathroom privacy depends on the height of vegetation — it made a hill tribe visit feel powerfully authentic.

The Akha tribe is huge. The number 400,000 in Southeast Asia, a potentially solid political faction if they ever get electricity. However, they once numbered more. About 80,000 live in Northern Thailand, many of them escaping during Laos’ civil war in the mid-20th century.

Nervous Lunch

Lunch made me nervous. The first time I trekked in Southeast Asia, I contracted typhoid. I lost 20 pounds in eight days. I warily looked at the spread the women laid out for us in eight bowls: chicken, pork, spicy pork, coagulated eggs, two different green vegetables, fish with vegetables and chili sauce.

While I fended off the eggs, the chicken and pork were grilled on an open flame and could’ve passed as BBQ in any backyard in America.

Lunch at Chakhampa
Lunch at Chakhampa

Our trek continued another 2 ½ hours straight uphill before descending into the village of Peryenxang, elevation 4,000 feet. Each one of the 8-10 crude wood structures had a $1 million view. The rolling green hills stretched to the horizon, all sprinkled with brown rooftops of other villages.

The evening feast was massive but not nearly as good: eggs, pickled vegetables, vegetable soup, fish-filled with more bones than meat and pork made up almost entirely of fat. After dinner, the village chief brought out Laos’ replacement for opium.

Laos Whisky

Lao-Lao is Laos’ whiskey, made mostly by hand in villages like these. Sometimes bad batches have become lethal. Peryenxang’s version, however, could be marketed all over the country.

After a breakfast of a vile, gelatinous glue called khaojepapa, we backtracked our way to the lake for a leisurely return to Phongsali village. Over two days we totaled about 10 hours trekking and covered 14 1/2 miles and more than 1,300 feet in elevation for 500,000 kip (about $60). Incredibly, the lao-lao didn’t leave any marks on our brains.

But the beauty of this beautiful, lightly trodden patch of Southeast Asia sure did.

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