Luang NamTa in northern Laos has a reputation for being a trekking paradise. The one-street town is filled with hiking outposts, saloons, and a large variety of farmyard animals. People don’t come to Luang NamTa to explore the urban jungle, they’re looking for the real thing.
I suppose that somewhere along the way Vinnie and I forgot that we strongly dislike the great outdoors and that hiking is not something we adore. We came to our senses a little too late – three hours into a two-day hike.
It started out just like any other day: waking up in another new time zone, accidentally arriving an hour early for our group outing, eating spicy meatball soup for breakfast to pass the time. But the day did not progress as planned.
In Luang NamTa, foreigners are asked not to trek through the jungle or to visit local tribes without a guide. So we hired a guide. His name was Pet and he had a massive machete strapped to his leg. I didn’t have to wait very long before discovering why he carried freaking machete. And why foreigners aren’t permitted to wander around all by themselves.
We began in soggy rice fields and soon found ourselves skirting huge swaths of burning jungle. It turns out that, unlike in Borneo where companies seem to be doing the most damage, in Laos it’s the people who are tearing down the rain forests so they can feed their families. Burning is the easiest way to clear the land to make room for rubber plantations and rice terraces. It’s pretty sad all around – the people are so poor and the environment is being destroyed.
The smoldering landscape soon gave way to a dense forest with towering palm trees and a thick underbrush. This was not a leisurely hike through the woods on a defined path, in fact, there was no path. Pet took out his huge machete and with sweeping blows, took out the trees, bushes and branches to clear the way.
In the jungle there is no north or south, no graffiti trail marker pointing out the path – nothing but green trees and insects and rain. We had no idea where we were or how to get out. Not that we could have planned our escape from the jungle, the ground was so slick with mud and discarded palm fronds that we couldn’t even stand up.
You couldn’t call what we did hiking. You could call it falling, or mud surfing, or even slip-and-sliding. Whatever you call it, we spent half the trek on our ass, sliding down steep embankments or falling over each other to grab the nearest plant as someone wiped out into you.
Occasionally we would take a short break. Pet would stand at the front waiting for everyone to catch up, while the rest of us stood frozen, clinging to tree trunks, hoping to God that the end was in sight. The end was never in sight, instead Pet would point out to a fruit or a seed and say, “Don’t eat this. You be dead.” Once he reached into thin air and pulled back a huge colorful bug that our second guide held on to for lunch.
But it wasn’t the colorful giant bugs that we were most worried about, it was the brown slimy snail-like creatures that jumped onto your skin and sucked away as you waded through a sea of mud and plants. LEECHES.
After an hour of jungle trekking we were covered with them. Nasty, heat-seeking, blood sucking Leeches.
I hate them. I hate the jungle. I hate hiking. And I have officially sworn off trekking in any form.