Destination: Laos

Huddled around a candle in the darkness of a jungle cabin, we watched the village shaman perform a ritual practised to welcome guests and wish them luck on their travels. Mumbling mysterious words in a foreign tongue, he moved between us tying cotton string to our wrists to keep the spirits in place. He also offered them a gift of rice liquor which he passed around the circle. This was Animism in practise – a belief system of indigenous tribal people based on the idea that objects, places and people all possess a distinct spiritual essence which must be looked after and respected. A fascinating cultural experience we enjoyed while on trek in Laos.

In preparation for your trip to Laos, I would recommend reading up on the history of this unique country in order to better understand its distinct people and culture. In brief, after Laos gained independence from the French in the 1950s, Communist forces eventually won the ensuing civil war against the royalists in 1975, thus bringing years of isolation for Laos. Only opening-up to the outside world in the 1990s, it remains one of the poorest states in the region.

Laos is located in the heart of south east Asia and therefore very easy to visit alongside other destinations. Visas are easily obtained on the border. At the time of our visit we paid 35 US Dollars each and also needed a passport photo. Local currency was available here as well. There was a marked difference in development when crossing over from Thailand. We noticed how the urban infrastructure was simpler, the countryside was wilder and there were less foreign visitors.

Landlocked and mountainous, covered with tropical forests, agriculture provides most of the employment in Laos. The main crop is rice. As our local bus lurched over the bumpy hills on our way to Luang Nam Tha, fields and fields of it filled the foreground while faint mountains stretched to the horizon. On this long-distance bus journey we found ourselves sharing the space with local farmers and plenty of rice sacks. Crazy Asian tunes playing on the radio filled our ears as we observed quiet rural scenes out the window. Some of the group were surprised to see that the only toilet stop on this journey was a clearing in the jungle. Small trucks were often needed for local journeys as bus stations were mainly out of town. These vehicles each carried about 6 people with rucksacks and were readily available.

In the highlands you will encounter tribal religions but elsewhere Buddhism is the main one. Make sure you visit the beautiful temples that are the cornerstone of community life. Look out for the many friendly monks who walk the streets elegantly dressed in orange robes. Visit the markets where you will find locals cooking up stews, mixing juices and boiling fresh soups with ingredients directly from farmers’ fields. Try the spicy, colourful curries full of flavour, with a choice of either chicken or tofu. When thinking about the best month to enjoy these experiences, take advantage of the dry season between October and April when the country is at its warmest and driest, making travel to remote and jungle areas much easier.

On my visit I was working as the expedition leader with a youth group and our main stop in Laos was for jungle trekking near Luang Nam Tha. It was a challenging 3 day itinerary, even for a very capable and fit group. The distances trekked were not far but there were deep river crossings, steep and muddy ground, leeches and spiders, high humidity and some heavy rain (we were visiting in July which is the rainy season). It felt like a very remote region and we saw no other trekking groups on the trail. Luckily my group were pretty tough and could see through the hard conditions to appreciate this incredible adventure. Walking through the simple huts on arrival into a tiny and isolated jungle village, the group posed many questions: “How can people live like this?” It was a great opportunity to learn about other cultures and start worthwhile and interesting debates on development issues.

While I was looking after the overall safety and well-being of the students, our excellent guides from the trekking agency in Luang Nam Tha had the local knowledge and jungle skills to guide us along the trails and support us on river crossings. Also, their presence would have been indispensable in the event of an evacuation. Spending time with the guides was a real opportunity to learn about jungle life. Most of my group were open to these new experiences but some individuals needed more support and encouragement from myself in dealing with the many leeches, unusual food, adverse weather and rough terrain.

The guides were fun and really added to our experience by telling us stories from their childhoods and sharing their knowledge of the jungle flora and fauna. They chiselled spoons for us out of bamboo, roasted crab for us on the camp fire and made headpieces out of ferns and leaves. The food they cooked for us was delicious: sticky rice wrapped up in leaves, fresh and delicious tomato sauce and spicy scrambled egg. All served up on the floor of the jungle, on a table cloth of banana leaves, and sometimes accompanied with fresh coffee in a bamboo cup.

On arrival back at the hotel in town, the group were more appreciative then ever of that hot shower to wash away all that jungle mud and sweat. Buzzing with brilliant experiences and crazy stories to tell, it had been a very worthwhile and rewarding jungle trek for everybody.



Simply Strudel Delicious

Simply Strudel Delicious – Gastronomic wanderings on the Seefeld plateau and beyond

It was 6.56pm and an intense storm has just hit the small village of Weidach high up on the Seefeld plateau. The thunder was like trampling elephants and the lightning like paparazzi photographers. The terrace of our luxury 4 star hotel floods in minutes, a few leaky bits here and there as buckets and buckets of water fall from the sky. Rivers form on the roads, guests and staff huddle around the large bay windows to marvel at this natural display. It is an ominous start to my summer job as a hiking guide in the Alps.

On my first hike I decided to indulge, I could not spend all my pennies on elegant lunches out, but on this first day I could not resist the royally named Trilogy of dumplings. A great culinary quest was about to begin and last all summer long. This curious search for sweet dishes slightly faulted at the Gaistalalm when an adventurous guest chose an unknown dish and it turned out to be lard bread. I also made a mistake in the village of Mosern by ordering a Wurst Salad, which was simply a pile of cut up sausages. On the up side, a favourite among the guests was always Kaiserschmarrn, which came in a hot frying pan and the recipient of this pan gasped at the enormous quantity as they did not realise that the serving was meant for two. The pan was subsequently passed amongst the entire group in order to finish off the last pieces of the scrumptiously sweet pancake.

Each night in the hotel, we were served a rich and filling 5 course meal amongst which you would find many of the local delicacies. Favourites included liver dumplings in a clear beef soup or the little suckling pigs leg! Claudia,…our fiery but sweet natured hostess, would scowl at us for leaving any food on our plate, “but this is the fourth course” we protested. She simply shrugged her shoulders and piling up the uneaten chocolate cake, whispered to herself, “Hm, I love it”. Claudia, it has to be said, gained a bit of a fan club during the third week as several single men were charmed by her jolly personality, sparkling smile and voluptuous figure, she was obviously a big strudel fan. I could see them trying to charm her, battering their eyelids and smiling sweetly, “Do you ever cook Claudia?”

Between all these leisurely meals we found time to explore some of the cultural highlights of the region. Every Thursday evening at the village band stand, the valley put on show their finest musical talent with their impressive, 32 piece brass band. A group of people, young and old, playing together, proudly wearing the traditional dress of their region. It was a family affair with little kids running onto the stage to wave hello to their mums or dads. We also got to know the locals and their habits or ways of life. One such example includes our first visit to the Tilfussalm, where we met a delightfully friendly, young lady who was a waitress there. She sat down at the table with us and explained in detail all the dishes available, even bringing things from the kitchen so that we could have a sneak preview. She then went on to tell us about her family’s herd of cows. 150 of them would turn up there and wander free on the high pastures, around the Alm, for the rest of the summer. How they would keep count on them, none of us could work out.

Every Friday morning during the following weeks, I would find myself at the hearty Ropferstubm gasthof in Buchen. The white washed arches of the interior and cosy seats made an apt setting for a few hot drinks, shortly followed by a nice strong shot of free schnapps, or the local jungle juice as one sharp witted guest commented. In a jolly mood I took the glass of a reluctant guest to swallow up another gulp of this spiky cocktail and let’s just say, after that I would lead the group up to our next eating stop in a shaky line. Soon the guests realised that I was taking them on a pub hopping crawl between the best Alpine cafeterias of the region, and unsurprisingly there was little protest. So, we slowly rambled up to the Lottensee Hütte, over the beautiful Wildmoos golf course.

I have consistently been amazed by the amount of words in the German language for an eating house, so far I have collected the following: Gasthof, Restaurant, Stubm, Café, Alm, Hütte,…and the list goes on. Guests seemed surprised when we turned up to the Lottensee Hütte to find, not a ramshackle wooden hut, but instead a refined, and lovely decorated, cosy restaurant with a varying menu and large tables suitable for the entire group. We crowded around these tables and gorged ourselves on piles of fried onions, bacon and potatoes, then, there were the omelettes, 3cm thick and toppling over the edge of the plate, and the spicy, juicy sausages and the golden roast potatoes. All of this was washed down with a sparkling herbal tasting lemonade, named Almdudler. One lady summed it all up, by simply saying, “I’ll have a dudle and a strudel please”

Talking of Strudel…our next and thankfully final stop of the day was the infamous Wildmoosalm. I would ring ahead to reserve 20 Strudels for us and when we showed up an hour later, there was 2 metres of freshly baked strudel waiting for us. This extraordinary party place was quirky, strange and surprising. The owner greeted us all with a hand shake and a friendly, “Herzlich Wilkommen”. And then he would trot off to find his special strudel trolley, accompanied by a blue flashing light and a loud car horn. We gobbled down all the strudel, squeezing it in between all our previous courses of the day. Then, we went inside to examine this strange interior of the Alm. There was the photo of a crocodile eating a naked lady and then the pictures of shiny, bumpy bodies of the best Austrian body builders slapped across the paint work and then, would you believe it, a Sheffield Wednesday football club scarf. As we plodded out, balancing our bulging tummies on our shaky legs, we took another swig from the Schnapps fountain, and merrily carried on our stroll, down onto the bus stop.

However, for me it wasn’t all gastronomic delights. On my free days, I managed to tick off many of the 2000 metre peaks surrounding the tiny village. It all began in my first week with Hoe Munde, which stood alone and directly opposite the hotel at a whooping 2,592m. It instantly called caught my attention. When Michel showed up for my first day-off, he said “We are going up there, you have been talking about it ever since you got here”. So he dragged me out of bed at 6am to begin the steep, rocky and unrelenting climb. We sprinted up as fast as we could and arrived at the summit by 9am. We had to get up and down as quickly as possibly as the clouds were approaching and the imposing darkness was following us. Rain and storms were likely. However the way down was perilous, slowing us down. Huge chasms fell away below me as the path flitted over drops and steep grassy slopes. It was important to be sure footed and not to be daunted by the slope that dropped away beneath our feet. We made it back down to the valley and headed to the village of Mittenwald for a celebratory strudel.

Another extremely memorable day out was to the hunting lodge which belonged to the crazy King Ludwig of Bavaria. We cycled on down to the foot of the Leutasch valley and then made a sharp left turn up to the scenic lakes of Lautersee and Ferchensee. We stopped here for a quick dip, slipping down the wooden jetty and letting the small fish nibble at our toes. Lazying around in the sun, we decided that we had a choice between, being a tourist and doing nothing or making the long, sweaty climb up through the woods to the hunting house. In the end we opted for the climb and were very pleased of our choice when 2 hours later we burst out onto a plateau with scenic views running all the way down into Garmish. The impressive square wooden building oversaw it all. Around the corner we found the Ludwig’s pavilion, tucked away behind some brushes and along a tiny path. This was a secret and quiet place; a single bench and a wooden roof. Some railings protected you from the 1000m void above the steep sided Rheintal valley, far, far, below. Next, we entered the alpine garden. Admiring the care with which the gardeners lavished upon their work, I spotted my first edelweiss and was very pleased with that.

And then there was my sprint up to the Karwendel Haus. I had to be back at 5pm to meet the new guests, arriving from Munich airport, however, 15km of consistent up hill stood between me and this lofty situated mountain hostel. As I sprinted up the valley, I overtook several groups of male bikers out for the day and then, to my horror, was confronted with the view of the Karwendel Haus perched high up on a col. The road was steep and irritating as many sharp hair pin bends multiplied my mileage as I made zig zags up this steep cliff face. The Haus looked tantalisingly close but I felt as though I would never get there and constantly had my eye on the time as I could not be late. Eventually, I arrived and collapsed onto one of the large wooden tables inside this hollow building, blown apart by the high mountain winds. I squeezed myself in between German weekend-ers and rewarded myself with another Strudel.

So, at the end of all those sunny and busy days going here, there and everywhere, I find my self above the valley, staring down on that same little village of Weidach which so many weeks previously was battered by that storm. I am on the summit of Gehren Spitze and I see a tin box on the cross. Opening it curiously, inside I find a little notebook to write your name in. I had heard of this but never done it. I could not think of what to write so I simply scribbled down –

“25/08/11 – Seefeld Plateau? Simply Strudel Delicious”