Luang Namtha – Laos’ Best Trekking Destination
Landlocked country Laos, might not have the stunning beaches of its neighbours but it boasts a unique and beautiful ecosystem all the same. Visitors travelling here come to explore epic rivers, authentic culture and in particular, Laos’ wild forests. Luang Namtha province, in the northwestern reaches of Laos, is a tiny region that’s beginning to make a big name for itself amongst the adventurous as one of the top destinations for wilderness forest trekking. Being intrepid travellers ourselves, we decided to challenge ourselves to trek the trails of the Nam Ha National Protected Area (NPA).
The Nam Ha NPA is an area of significant importance throughout Laos due to its high biodiversity and abundance of isolated ethnic-minority villages. It is home to a wide range of endangered mammals as well as a myriad of smaller wildlife and plant species. It is a guarantee that anyone who ventures along the forest trails will surely be in awe of its stunning natural beauty. Despite the area being famous for ecotourism, it’s still relatively off the tourist radar. This makes it the place to go to escape the crowds and truly immerse yourself into the local way of life and the jungle wilderness.
Out of the handful of eco-trekking companies in the town of Luang Namtha, The Hiker is relatively new on the block, yet it has already firmly cemented itself as the number one adventure tour agency in the area. It’s easy to see why too! This professional company pride themselves on giving back to the local community, both environmentally and by creating opportunities for education and sustainable income. Founded and run by a team of eco-tourism specialists and experienced local guides, many from the surrounding ethnic minority villages, The Hiker offers a huge variety of treks. There is everything from hiking day trips to multi-day rainforest treks and kayaking adventures so there’s something for everyone!
How Do I Choose a Luang Namtha Trek?
When it comes to choosing a trek, the first thing to consider is your physical fitness. The Nam Oun Wilderness trek is rated as moderate on the difficulty scale, whereas the standard Nam Ha trek is moderate to difficult. Although you will spend the majority of the day hiking on both trips, Nam Ha does have slightly less active hours than Nam Oun. In some places, the treks overlap and visit some of the same areas, however, they do take different routes. If you are unsure of which one to go for, we recommend the two day, one night Nam Oun Wilderness Trail Trek as it is more suitable for beginners with a decent level of fitness. This is the trek we decided to do and it was certainly an adventure! For travellers looking for a varied experience, also check out the combo options offered by the Hiker. These provide the challenge of a trek as well as the fun of kayaking and the authenticity of meeting the people of the ethnic villages.
The Local Market and The Start of the Trek
We began day one at The Hiker headquarters in Luang Namtha town, where we met our guide for the trek, Pheng. Growing up in Ban Luang Village, home to the Phou Noy ethnic minority, Pheng has been tour guiding in this region since 2015.
After our introductions, we set off for the local market to pick up some supplies to take with us on the trek. Laotian markets are such interesting places to explore, this is where the locals go to buy everything, from fresh fish to all kinds of rice and even dried squirrels! The market offers a rare and authentic glimpse into Laotian culture and it couldn’t be any more different to our local supermarkets at home!
The three of us wandered around the stalls trying to decide what to buy for the next two days. After visiting all of the various sections, we left with lots of bags containing fish, pork, vegetables, sticky rice and an array of spices. Outside we hopped into the waiting car which took us to a local village on the outskirts of Nam Ha National Park.
Once at the village, we collected sleeping bags and water before meeting our local guide and setting off across the rice fields. We passed curious cows grazing on the dried rice stalks as we meandered along the terraces, we could only imagine what these fields would look like after the rainy season, they’d be transformed! We stopped for a rest, chatting to the guides and watching the surrounding piglets scurry around us.
Into the Jungle
Soon after our pit stop, we ventured from open rice fields into the dense jungle which is where the trek really began. Out of the sun and into the humid shade, we followed the river, winding our way through the leaf-strewn forest until we reached a small waterfall. Here, Pheng and the local guide washed the fish that we had previously seen swimming around at the local market that morning. We sat down for a rest and watched Pheng expertly gut and clean the fish. The cool river water was just thing we needed to splash on our necks and the break also gave us the chance to watch some dragonflies flitting around on the surface of the river.
After the fish were cleaned, it was time to move on. The path began to climb and as we walked over the waterfall, it suddenly got very steep! The dry, loose leaves covering the floor, along with the 40+ degree heat, made this our first challenge of the trek but luckily, Pheng distracted us by pointing out different kinds of plants along the way. There were countless varieties, all used for different things. Pheng cut down some of them for us to try. The most memorable were the figs, which were all over the place! The first ones we tried were a little sharp so after that, it became our mission to find ripe figs!
After an extremely sweaty climb, we reached the top of the hill, probably just in time as the heat was starting to make our heads swim! We perched on some wooden benches under a grass hut for a breather and soon Pheng and the local guide began to prepare a fire for lunch. Once it was hot enough, they grilled the fish from earlier, balanced with sticks. The fish looked amazing and we couldn’t wait to tuck in!
Once the fish was cooked, Pheng laid them out on two big banana leaves, along with the vegetables, sticky rice and pork crackling we’d bought that morning. After offering a blessing to the spirits by touching each pile with a ball of sticky rice, we dug in! We ate with our hands like the locals do and it all tasted delicious! Once the main course had been polished off, we enjoyed juicy mangoes for dessert.
A Night in the Jungle
After we’d eaten our fill, it was time to walk on and the path took us down the other side of the hill. A few hours and a couple of tumbles later, we crossed a little stream and emerged into a clearing to find our jungle home for the night.
The jungle house was built on stilts with rattan leaves for the roof and bamboo for the walls. We would be sleeping on the wooden floor. Far from being uncomfortable, this actually made the experience so much more authentic; we loved our little jungle home! It was a surprise, however, to find that there was a western toilet out the back, not something we’d been expecting in the middle of the forest but a welcome luxury! We took a quick dip in the nearby river to freshen up after our sweaty journey and then we all had a little nap!
When we were rejuvenated, we made our way into the banana trees on the edge of the clearing. Here we collected banana flowers to go into a soup for dinner that evening. Later, we ate yummy homemade soup, salad and our new favourite, sticky rice. After everything was gone, we shared bonfire stories before calling it a night. We snuggled up under the mosquito net and fell asleep to the jungle sounds around us.
Butterflies and Cardamon Walkways
After a good night’s sleep, we woke to a refreshingly cool morning. Pheng prepared us all a huge breakfast of sticky rice and scrambled eggs with tomatoes which were just the thing to get us ready for the long day of trekking ahead. We packed up the camp, said goodbye to our local guide (who was heading back to his village) and set out on a different route to the day before. Today’s trail was much flatter and soon we became engulfed in the trees as we followed the river down the valley.
The three of us made our way through the forest, weaving under trunks, through bamboo, banana and cardamon tree walkways, only having to stop for Pheng to clear a fallen tree from our path with his machete! The surroundings were beautiful and it was easy to spot all kinds of wildlife, especially butterflies chilling by the water or warming up in a sun patch. Using his local knowledge of the forest plants, Pheng offered up more for us to try and we finally found some ripe figs!
Ban Na Lan
Eventually, we came out of the trees onto some land owned by the nearby Ban Na Lan (or Na Lan Village). The trees here had been cleared and the ground burned to add nutrients back into the soil in preparation for rice planting. The hills were very steep and we wondered why the local people would choose to grow rice so high up. Pheng explained that rice grown in the mountains can be sold at the market for a higher price because it requires more work to harvest and is of better quality. He also told us that the village moves around every year to find new spots for rice planting, as they can only use the same patch of land to farm the crop once.
After wandering along the hilly trails and rocky roads, we made it to Ban Na Lan, home to the Khamu (or Khmu) ethnic minority. Before entering the village, however, the adrenaline junkies couldn’t resist walking on the rickety wooden bridge over the river!
Soon we were in the heart of the village, where we were surrounded by tiny piglets running under the wooden stilt houses and chickens with their chicks everywhere we looked.
Pheng got chatting to all the people he knew in the village and we listened to them catch up. It’s times like these when we wish that we knew more languages, although some of the ethnic villages in this area speak only their own dialect so we’d have a lot to learn!
We spent some time wandering around the village, delving deeper into the people’s way of life and getting a glimpse into their culture. We sat with the village elders chewing tobacco under their houses and chatted with a man in the river who was filling buckets with sand. After collecting the sand, he carried them up onto the bank, where they would soon be used to make bricks and build a house.
Back on the Trail
Soon it was time to journey back into the undergrowth and we found ourselves marvelling at some of the biggest trees we’ve ever seen growing along the river’s edge.
Eventually, our luck with the flat ground ran out and the path started to climb up another mountain. It was definitely time to bust out the banana leaf fans to cool ourselves down in the humid heat of the day!
Finally, after a slow but rewarding trek up the slope, we made it to the top where we stopped and enjoyed our second yummy lunch. On the menu for day two was a delicious soup made inside bamboo stems! We had no idea this was even possible but it worked a treat! Pheng added in some pork he’d smoked the night before and of course, we couldn’t forget the sticky rice. We tucked in, filling our faces. It was a real feast!
Centipede Encounters and The Final Descent
After eating our tasty final meal, it was time to make our way downhill; the final part of the trek. As we were walking along the path, we came across a huge brightly coloured centipede: the poisonous Asian Forest Centipede. We’ve had experience with these in Thailand and know a bite from them can be extremely painful! Everyone was suddenly very wary but to carry on down the path and make it to the end of the trek, we had to get past it. Pheng shouted “go quick otherwise it’ll run and jump on you!” and that was enough to kick us into gear. We ran around the edges before it had the chance to realise we were there! In what seemed like no time at all, we reached the last downhill slope and then we were out on the road where a car was waiting to pick us up. It’s definitely much faster going down than walking up!
Just like that, we’d done it! We’d taken on a jungle trek in the blazing Laotian heat, eaten some jungle delights we’d never have even known was food, lived amongst the cicadas and survived an encounter with a dangerous centipede! We made our way back to the office and finally into a shower, to wash off two days of jungle dirt!
Our Thoughts on Trekking in Luang Namtha with The Hiker
Despite it being way too hot and humid (in theory) to go jungle trekking, we really enjoyed our two-day wilderness trek with The Hiker. It was amazing to immerse ourselves in the national park and also sleep overnight in the jungle. That was an unforgettable experience in itself! During the trip, we learnt an extraordinary amount about the local plants and wildlife, as well as the people who live in this region. It really was one of the most memorable treks we’ve taken part in.
We would definitely recommend this tour to both keen trekkers and beginner hikers: it’s not a tough route and the only thing that makes it challenging is the heat! If you fancy taking on a rewarding challenge and you enjoy hiking, then this will be right up your street! We did this trek in April at the height of the hot season but a better time to go would be around June (the start of the rainy season) or between the rainy season and the dry season (October – November).
The Nam Oun Wilderness Trek – All You Need to Know!
Are you interested in taking on the Nam Oun Wilderness Trek with The Hiker? This is everything you need to know! This is a 2 day/1 night forest trek through the Nam Ha NPA in Luang Namtha, Northern Laos. It is perfect for people who love hiking, discovering new wildlife and want to experience what it is like to spend a night in the jungle.
The Hiker provides trekkers with:
- Water (make sure you have enough room in your bag for it)
- Freshly prepared local meals, including 2 lunches, 1 dinner and 1 breakfast
- A friendly and knowledgable English speaking guide, as well as a local guide(s)
- Camping gear e.g sleeping bag
- Transport to and from the trekking trail
- Environmentally friendly accommodation in the heart of the jungle
- Government tax, village fund, NPA conservation fund and community-based ecotourism fund
- All entrance fees and travel permits
Things we recommend you bring along:
- Hiking boots (or sturdy travel shoes – we had our trainers and struggled a little on the steep ground but it’s doable)
- Insect repellent
- Change(s) of clothes
- Warm clothes
- Extra cash
- Raincoat (in the wet season)
- Portable charger
- Swim stuff (women need to also remember additional clothes to ‘cover-up’ whilst swimming)
- Small towel
- Earplugs and eye mask
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