A Story of the Jungle, Villages, and LEECHES

Trip Start Nov 20, 2013
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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Saturday, May 3, 2014

A few days ago we took a public bus as far as we could to the Laos border and then a tuk tuk brought us to the Thai customs office. Next, a bus brought us the short distance to the Laos immigration and visas office. After that, it was another tuk tuk to the bus station, another long bus ride through windy roads (people were getting sick on this ride), and finally, one last tuk tuk into the town of Luang Namtha in the northwest part of Laos. Although it took many vehicles to get here, it was a surprisingly easy journey.

Luang Namtha is known for the great jungle treks it can offer, as well as visiting traditional villages of some of the 17 ethnic groups living in Laos. After finding a guesthouse and settling in, we began inquiring about a two day, one night trek with a few different companies. We found one with a great price, that seemed to be authentic and decided to do it. We were quite excited about our upcoming adventure as we headed to the local night market for dinner.

The next morning, we awoke to a lot of rain. Luckily we have rain jackets and ponchos large enough to cover us and our bags. Our first stop was to the local market where our two guides picked up food for us and Jason and I bought some balloons for the children we would be meeting in the evening in village. Then we started trekking through the jungle, following our guide Zouk with three other people and a guide behind us. The beginning wasn't too difficult, but then the trek got challenging. Because of the rain, the mud covered jungle floor was incredibly slippery, making the very, very steep uphill climbs we had to do really hard. All of our feet kept slipping from under us and all of us, guides excluded, fell at least a couple times. Then came even more challenges as we had to trek through the river, which is usually not such a big deal because the water level stays low. But because of the rain, the water was deeper and there was a fairly strong current. So I kept my shoes on to trek through the river up to about my knees and Jason took his off to keep his shoes dry. Finally, the most challenging and annoying part of the trek came into play as we crossed the river many, many, many times: leeches. Again, this area usually has some leeches, but because of the rain, there were a ton of leeches everywhere. The leeches stuck to us and their goal is suck as much blood as possible.  It's difficult to flick them off because of the way they stick.  We either pulled them off us and threw them or did our best to sweep them off with a stick the guides made for us to help with the leeches.  By this point, we were soaked, muddy, cold but sweaty at the same time, walking through river water up to our knees, and covered in leeches, asking ourselves why we chose to do this.  

By lunch time, I was grateful to have a break, but before we could relax on the bamboo hut and eat, we had to get rid of the final leeches on us, our clothes, and our bags. When I went to the "jungle toilet" I discovered a leech had somehow got in through my pants onto my leg. It was both scary and gross. Once the leeches were off, lunch was wonderful in both taste and relaxation. Our guides had picked up a good variety of food at the market this morning so our bamboo leaf picnic table and bamboo leaf plates were filled with sticky rice, vegetables, bamboo, fish, chicken, and seaweed. It was really tasty.

After lunch we said goodbye to two trekkers who signed up for just one day of hiking and one of the guides. I was a little nervous about this because that guide, Peng, had been really helpful with the steep slippery slopes and the leeches. Then there were four of us trekking and the biggest challenges were yet to come. We walked through the river again a bunch more times, this time Jason kept his shoes on too, and we encountered the steepest, most slippery slope yet where the path was pretty much non-existent. I had a really hard time with this and tripping on my large rain poncho did not help either. Zouk helped as much as he could by using his knife to scoop off some of the wet mud so we didn't slip as much, but there was one point on the side of a steep hill that my feet slipped from under me. I screamed, but I held onto a tree and thankfully my hero, Jason was behind me to grab me and save me from falling, just like he had when we went canyoning in Switzerland a couple years ago! I was so grateful to have made it to the top of this hill.

Eventually, we had climbed high enough that we were near the top of the mountains and the views were spectacular! The sun came out a bit, I could take off my poncho, and we all thought we could relax at this point from leeches. We were wrong about that though! We were still finding leeches on us and our clothing. I found two inside my belly button, which really grossed me out, but I took them out and we kept walking. A little white later, I felt more in my belly button and took out the biggest leech I had seen yet, which was followed by blood, another leech, and lots more blood. I was so disgusted that at this point, the views didn't even seem worth it anymore. I continued the last part of the day's trek while holding my walking stick in one hand and applying pressure to the tissue on my belly button with the other hand.

As we got closer to the Akha village we were staying at for the night, we saw a few boys who were on their way back from catching birds. The children, along with Zouk showed us how they used the bird traps they make to catch the small birds. The boys had about 4 birds in the bags they carried. We all walked to the village together, Jason and I hesitant over the makeshift up and down log ladder and the boys behind us running up and down it easily.

The village is what I had expected based on what I learned in the Hill Tribe Museum in Chiang Rai. There are many small bamboo homes scattered around the dirt roads and pigs and roosters running around free everywhere. Unlike the "human zoo" villages we read about being in Chiang Rai, we were the ones being stared at here. Many of the children would say "sabaidii" (hello) to us and when we responded they would run away giggling. Zouk told us a bit about the village and the Akha people who live there. He explained that in Laos, people are either Buddhists or spirit people and the Akha people are spirit people. They believe that there are many spirits and deeds have to be done to keep the spirits happy. On a recent trip to this village, some tourists touched the sacred entry gate and this was thought to be really bad for the spirits. The tour agency that brought these tourists had to pay the village money and provide them with a pig and a chicken for ceremonial purposes. We told Zouk that we wanted to make sure we were responsible and respectful guests so he told us just not to touch anything as we walked around. Easy enough!

Zouk took us to the Chief of the village's home where we would be staying. The room has one brick wall, three bamboo walls covered with tarps to keep out the light, a tin roof, and one long and wide bamboo platform for a bed. We put our stuff down and went to the tourists' toilet, which is a squatter in a small room made of bamboo. To get to the toilet we had to pass many pigs and climb up and down another log ladder. When I went to the toilet the first time here, I had a very unpleasant surprise of much more blood from a leech I had no idea it had found me. It was really scary and completely disgusting. After taking care of this problem, Jason and I gave a balloon to one of the chief's sons who was hanging out with us in our "room". He was very happy to play with us with the balloon and it was an interesting experience to play with him while we all understood what was happening even though we could not speak with one another.

Zouk made us a great dinner, which we ate on the "porch" of the chief's home. We sat on very small stools around a low small table. We had steamed rice, a vegetable soup, and stir fried vegetables. While we ate, the chief tied a traditional Akha handicraft bracelet on each of our wrists kind of like a welcome gesture. We said "kawp jai" (thank you) and he smiled proudly. Next, we were offered massages so Jason and I took the villagers up on this offer. It was a little strange though because the "women" massaging us seemed to be about 14 years old. While they we're massaging us, there were many other people in our room talking, playing music on battery run radios, and laughing. It wasn't the most relaxing massage and the girls were really strong, but it was an experience!

After our massages, we spent quite a bit of time with many of the young and adolescent boys in the village. For some reason, we noticed that the women in the village didn't come up to us or say hello, but the men did. Maybe the women and girls were too tired since they still have to search the jungle to gather food each day while the men's work in the rice fields is complete for the year and they get to just relax all day. I brought out two more balloons and the children couldn't have been happier. They were so excited and blew them up to be huge. It was so nice to see such a small thing be so appreciated and provide hours of fun. We sat around the chief's house with many of the boys from the village as Zouk wrote some simple English phrases that the kids wanted to learn and they in turn were tying to teach him some of the Akha language. Phijor is one of the chief's sons and he was really interested in having Zouk write some of the English words on his balloon, starting with writing Phijor's name in English letters. The village doesn't have electricity, but the chief has a small solar panel for one tiny light bulb. Other than that, everything Zouk was writing was seen by candlelight or flashlight.

Finally, it was time to go to sleep so we brushed our teeth climbed onto the mattresses and sheets and comforters laid out on the bamboo bed. The four of us, Jason, Zouk, Lucas (the other trekker), and I all slept in a row on the large bed. The villagers were really loud so it took a while to fall asleep. Then the rain came again and it was very loud on the tin roof so it woke me up. All in all, I didn't have the best sleep, but at around 8am we were eating breakfast, and 9am we were on our way out of the village. Before leaving the village though, we stopped at the elementary school where they have three classrooms and three teachers who live in a home here during the week and return to their homes in Luang Namtha each weekend. Since it was a Sunday, there were no children in the school, but it was still fun for me to see another school! Zouk also explained what the many small, high buildings were for. We had joked yesterday that they were for bad children, but we learned they are for young males to live in while they are looking for a girl to marry. Apparently, the young men find a girl they like and if the girl agrees, they spend a night or more together in his little home and then they can tell their parents they can get married because they've already slept together. It's quite interesting.

The first part of the trek today wasn't too hard, but it was really slippery and started out mostly downhill. We had a beautiful view of a large rubber tree plantation that has been planting with funding provided from China. Laos is home to many natural resources which they export to other countries to create ready made products and then Laos imports them back. The country doesn't have the money to create factories so this is how they have to do it. Our trek soon took us back into the river for another half hour or so, meaning of course that there were more leeches to be encountered. We were not happy or ready for this, even though Zouk prepared leech sticks for each of us to flick them off of us. Armed with our walking sticks and leech sticks, we headed into the river. Again, we each had many leeches on us, but it was not nearly as bad as it had been yesterday. After a steep uphill climb, Jason felt a leech may be in his shoe.  He took it off and sure enough there was a leech and a lot of blood.  It took both Zouk and the local guide with us about 20 minutes to stop the bleeding, using leaves and ashes from a cigarette. The local guide cut the leech in half and all of Jason's blood poured out of it. It was nasty!

Where we were supposed to stop for lunch, there had been many trees knocked down from a storm a few days ago. So Zouk suggested we keep walking and eat somewhere else. When he found the place where we were going to have lunch, he first cleared some of the small trees and plants away with his knife and then cut leaves from other trees for us to use as a "picnic blanket". He also created chopsticks for each of us out of bamboo. It was a nice, cozy, and tasty little picnic, until the rain started again. Zouk is extremely resourceful though and he quickly used his rain poncho, our walking sticks, and tree vines to create a tent. Jason and I love how naturally he uses the jungle environment to solve any problem. We ate quickly, put our rain gear back on and continued the trek. The rest of the trek was definitely still challenging, but a relief from yesterday's steep, slippery slopes.

When we made it to the road (after just a few more leeches each) we were thrilled to see the minivan ready and waiting for us. We spent about 6 hours each day trekking.  We drove a short distance to see another village where people of the Lanten tribe live. This village is more developed than the Akha village we stayed in last night as it has electricity and even satellite dishes. It also seemed a bit cleaner and there were more brick houses and a few concrete ones as well. In this village, Zouk explained how the Lanten women weave silk, dye it with natural jungle items like flowers, and sew it into their traditional dark blue and black clothing. Unfortunately today, we were not able to find anyone to show us how they dye the material. After a few pictures of the village, we got back into the van and were ecstatic to be back in Luang Namtha.

Jason and I checked back into the same guesthouse we stayed in two nights ago. We carefully checked our clothing and bodies for leeches and of course we found one. Jason tried to flush it down the toilet, but being a leech, it just latched on to the side of the bowl. It took us another half hour to get the leech out of the toilet, trap in in a plastic bag, and throw it in a garbage outside. We are done with leeches and don't care to ever see them again! Overall, we enjoyed this experience but we've realized that maybe we are not as experienced trekkers as we would like to believe. We also realized we have no tolerance for leeches! The highlight of this trip for me was our time in the Akha village, seeing how the people here live and work together to keep their community strong. This trekking was an experience we are glad to have had, but we aren't to eager to repeat it!
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