Trekking in Laos: when a semi-difficult walk turns into a survival training

I was never a sporty person. I mean, I’m not that lazy either but I usually have to force myself into doing a physical activity otherwise I just don’t do anything. Most of the time, my body and mind are very thankful for it afterwards and I definitely feel a great feeling of accomplishment after having run, cycled or walked a little. The first time I properly trekked was when I did the Overland Track in Tasmania a couple of years ago for which I had to carry my 16kgs backpack whilst walking between 5 and 8 hours a day for seven days. I remember thinking everyday – especially the days it rained because, hello it’s Tasmania – how physically and mentally challenging this experience was and yet, once it was over, I could hear myself saying out loud that “it wasn’t that bad” and that I would do it all over again.

Of course, I would do it all over again because on top of the amazing landscapes I’ve come to discover, overcoming challenges is probably one of the most amazing feeling we can experience. Now we can ask ourselves where we put the limit between challenging ourselves and being totally masochists but I guess this depends on each and everyone of us individually.

Anyway, I hadn’t trekked for more than one day since the end of 2014 and I though it was about time to change that and challenge myself a little. The region of Luang Namtha in Laos is known for its amazing jungle walks so it appeared to be the perfect place to do so. Many options are available there from simple trekking to kayaking and indigenous village immersive experiences. I wasn’t really feeling the last option as I was fearing to take part in an inauthentic display of traditional cultures for tourism’s sake. The tour included a massage from an Akha woman and other folkloric activities that didn’t sit well with my vision of traveling. The two-day jungle treks included a night at a homestay in a small village whereas the three-day ones offered one night camping and one night at that same homestay.

Obviously, my friend – with whom I share very similar travel interests and a tendency to look for the easy way out – and I forced ourselves to pick the three-day trek thinking that yes, it will be hard but we’ll feel so amazing for it later. This is exactly what happened but in ways we could have never imagined.

Luang Namtha is located in the North sort of West part of Laos. This region is extremely dense and diverse in terms of flore and fauna. One thing we hadn’t checked before leaving was the forecast – amateur mistake? Although the rain season had just ended, November is an unpredictable month – at least it has been for the last few years which results in terrible rice harvests for the locals. In this part of Asia, the harvest can only be made once a year as soon as the rain stops. Once the rice plant has been cut, a lot of rain is disastrous as it floods the fields and leaves the crop to soak and rot.

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So as I was saying, we decided to kick our own butts a little and booked a three-day camping trek with The Hiker. The cost of the trip was a little pricey ($94 each for 5 people) but considering the amount of effort they put into their tours, we quickly found out where we were putting our money into. Indeed, it included 3 guides (an English-speaking warrior and two locals), a hell lot of food, the appropriate gear, the second night at a homestay and well, the view.

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We left the first village on a sunny morning and started walking uphill for a good couple of hours. We ate some bush berries, saw a dead green poisonous snake, made ourselves a fan with banana leaves and had a lovely lunch near a river.Β We were sweating a lot and, just like any normal person, started complaining about the heat. Not seriously of course, but still. Enough for the sky spirit to throw some curve balls at us. Shortly after lunch, the wind started blowing and a few drops were felt. Shit, not good at all.

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With our small raincoats on, we braved what turned to be a heavy tropical rain and walked slowly in the dense Lao jungle. So slowly that we arrived to the campsite about two hours later than planned and at night. Trekking under the rain was one thing but in the dark and with shitty torches was a little too much already – and it was only the first day. Luckily, the rain stopped right before we arrived at the camp which meant the guides could make a fire and cook an amazing coconut and vegetables stew using bamboo sticks as pots. We put ourselves into our sleeping bags under a tiny hut covered in huge banana leaves and fell asleep in no time.

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We’ve all experienced this: it’s always when we think things can’t get worst that they actually turn into a nightmare. We were woken up by the rain at around midnight to realise our hut was drenched in water and so were our sleeping bags. We repatriated ourselves under the main hut where the dying camp fire was. The rain never stopped; we never went back to sleep and we just sat down for six hours waiting for the sun to rise. After a quick breakfast made of deep-fried vegetables and fried eggs, we left at around 8am for another 8 hours of walk – yeah you guessed it – under the rain.

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Our shoes were heavy, the paths were muddy and slippery, our cloths wet and our bodies exhausted. Many times during the second day, I literally felt like crying until our guide told us we only had another two hours before night time but also before arriving to the village if we walked fast enough. We all breathed deeply, dug into our energy resources and began to walk fast with our face down to carefully look at where to put our feet. We arrived right before the dark settled in, took off our shoes to let our soaked and wrinkly feet get some air, had an amazing dinner made by the local families and went to bed.

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There was another 6kms to go through on our last trekking day and although it continued raining the whole time, our motivation to get the fuck out of this jungle was stronger than anything. We made it back to Luang Namtha by 3pm, took a shower and jumped on a night bus back to Luang Prabang. And to keep going with all this luck, the aircon in the bus was so strong it started dripping water on our heads. Absolutely brilliant.

In the end, I have to say “it wasn’t so bad” – yeah no I’m just joking, it was an absolute nightmare but we did feel so proud, empowered and stronger afterwards. The major downside of this experience is that it rained so much we actually looked at our feet more than at the landscapes most of the time. Once in a while, we would take a break, look around and realise how amazing and diverse the environment was. Also, we barely spoke to the lovely people we were trekking with as we couldn’t hear anything during the day and were too exhausted to chat or play cards at night.

Note to self: ALWAYS check the forecast before booking a tour.

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Β Photos by @la_moune

18 thoughts on “Trekking in Laos: when a semi-difficult walk turns into a survival training

  1. Susanna Kelly says:

    Something similar happened to me during a Trek in Bali, we stayed out too long and it was pitch black and there was definitely something stalking us in the woods, either a large snake or perhaps a cat. I can’t believe how much it rained and three straight days of it. What an awesome, experience.

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  2. Annie says:

    Haha on my goodness, it’s amazing what you can do when you just have to power through. The aircon in the bus must have been the last straw though, I might have lost it then! Hope you took the longest hottest shower you could find in the end πŸ™‚

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  3. Kristen Sarra says:

    Lol I’ve totally know how you feel! I’ve been where you’ve been a few times (different hike, different country, but some mentally/physically!). I believe those thinks happen to test you and force you to push you limitations. Glad you made it through!!

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    • Matea says:

      Completely agree. And it’s really about how we deal with these situations – we can make anything happen with a smile and some mental strength πŸ™‚

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  4. MeanderWithMeg says:

    Oh how I feel your pain! Being soaked to the skin and just trudging through would be so hard. You battle against the thoughts of just wanting the ordeal to be over and feeling like you should be enjoying it/more grateful for the experience because of where you are. Still, now it is a great story to look back on and say you did it!

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  5. leahshoup says:

    It’s so amazing that you did this! I’d like to do something like this one day, I’m just a little scared. It’s so great to hear about your experience!

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  6. tayonthemove says:

    Wow, this looks awesome! I love hiking but I’ve never done anything longer than 5 hours. I’m planning on it soon though, thanks for the motivation and sharing your challenging rainy experience! πŸ˜‰

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