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.