Whilst we wouldn’t consider ourselves trekking experts and despite never having done a trek before we set off on our travels, we’ve now completed some of the most iconic treks in the world.
Each one has come with its own challenges. Climbing the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu we were faced with high altitudes and extreme temperatures, our trek to Lost City in Colombia saw us battling with ticks and glaring sunshine and with its super narrow paths and crazy sky plank walk the hike up Hua Shan in China isn’t known as the world’s most dangerous hike for nothing.
None of that could have prepared us for adventure trekking in Luang Namtha and what turned out to be our most brutally challenging trek to date.
Trekking in Luang namtha
We’d opted to do a 3 day trek which included staying in a camp in the jungle the first night and with a family in an Hmong tribe village.
We were a small group of six made up of us, a lovely couple from France who we had met the previous week whilst in Nong Khiaw, plus our two guides Mr Singh and Lee who were both from the Hmong tribe.
We set off on the first day with a spring in our step, the sun was shining and we were excited at the prospect of camping in the wild.
Our enthusiasm was short lived as after 2 of the 8 hours scheduled trekking, the heavens opened.
The paths instantly became mud slides, which made climbing the mountain virtually impossible and descending it into a fraught exercise of clinging on to tree trunks, bamboo shoots and vines in an attempt to stop ourselves from skating down the sheer slopes.
We had to wear our ponchos to keep our bags dry, but with the amount of sweat pouring off us through trying to navigate the steep paths without breaking a limb, they were of little use in keeping us dry.
Caked in mud, we managed to make it in one piece to where we would be building camp for the night and not long after arriving the rain eased off to reveal our beautiful surroundings.
Our jungle camp was in a valley at the meeting point of two small rivers.
To one side was a set of waterfalls and to the other was a natural pool that we swam in whilst our guides put out nets to catch fish for our dinner.
Mr Singh and Lee built a camp fire and cooked a delicious feast using pots that they crafted out of bamboo.
By 7.30pm it was pitch black and we were snuggled under our bamboo and banana leaf hut in dry clothes, falling asleep to the calming sounds of the jungle.
At 10pm we woke up submerged in water, our sleeping bags were sodden and the rain was relentlessly pounding through the makeshift camp from all directions.
There was absolutely nothing that we could do and even though we weren’t cold, trying to sleep in wet clothes and wet sleeping bags with water pouring in from above made for the most uncomfortable night any of us had ever had.
We lay awake waiting for sunrise, the rain didn’t stop. It was hellish.
At about 5.30am it began to get light again, the mood was low as we packed our wet belongings into wet bags.
Our guides began to prepare breakfast, but suddenly Mr Singh said there was a problem and we couldn’t have breakfast because we needed to go immediately.
The River Crossing
The problem was that the torrential rains had caused the two rivers to rise so much that they had covered the rocks we should have been climbing over that morning and had virtually engulfed the small bridge we would be taking.
As we hurriedly applied mosquito repellent and pulled on our soggy trainers, Mr Singh literally tested the waters by battling across the two rivers to make sure that it could be done.
After he made it back, he told us we had two options – we could cross the river if we left that instant or we could go back the way we had come yesterday. Recalling how treacherous our descent down the mountain the afternoon before had been, neither sounded appealing but we decided as a group we would press on.
The guides went first to show us the way and steady the bridge, which was now underwater. We followed, carefully picking our way through the fast flowing river which was up to our waists.
Panic began to set in as Lee started to struggle crossing the most difficult bit, grappling with Mr Singh’s help to reach the other side – we were next.
Hearts pounding, legs trembling and clinging on to our walking sticks and each other’s hands for support, we made it across. This was what we'd come for, a real experience of trekking in Luang Namtha.
In the haste to cross before the water became any deeper, our daily meat allowance had been left at the camp – vegetarian it was, no one was braving that again.
Mr Singh later told us that the other guide, Lee had not wanted to cross at all as he was too scared.
It was by the most terrifying thing either of us have ever done.
Deep in the Jungle
Across the other side, with the rain still pounding hard we descended deeper into the dark jungle.
Lee was heading up our group and had to forge a new path as due to the heavy rainfall hundreds of huge bamboo trees had fallen across the old one rendering it largely impassable.
Sleep deprived, hungry and irritated from leeches latching onto our ankles we battled on.
It was 11am before the rain subsided enough for Mr Singh and Lee to be able to build a fire to cook something to eat. We huddled around it desperately trying to warm our bones and get some respite from the damp.
After enjoying some sticky rice and ferns hand-picked fresh from the jungle the group was in good spirits again and we were ready to complete the remainder of the day’s 8-hour hike.
The rain stayed away for the rest of the afternoon although this did nothing to stop us from slipping and sliding through inches of mud on our hands, knees and bums.
Tired and ready for a good sleep we used the last of our energy reserves to climb to the mountain village where we would be staying for the night.
Everyone was over the moon as we were warmly welcomed into the tiny 4 home village. We were shown to the house where we would spend the night, a simple single room wooden structure with a thatched bamboo roof and a roaring fire on the floor at one end.
Pigs, chickens, cats and dogs wandered in and out as we settled in, meeting our hosts and some children from the other families.
It was a relief to know that we were going to be dry for the night. Mr Singh cooked us his favourite meal, a Hmong dish known as “Olam”, a kind of stew made with dried pork, tiny bananas, aubergine, some greens that had been picked en route to the village, lemon grass and coriander.
With no electricity in the village, bedtime is when the sun goes down so by 7.30pm we were tucked up on our bamboo bed, hopeful of a better night’s sleep.
Unfortunately, going to bed early means getting up early and by 4am our hosts were chopping wood for the fire, pounding yam for the pigs and playing a mini concerto on a homemade flute.
As we rose, our guide purchased a chicken from one of the villagers who wanted some money to buy new shoes, which was then slaughtered and cooked whole in a pot over the fire.
We enjoyed the innards as part of our breakfast which included heart, liver and congealed blood as Mr Singh explained to us that Laotians eat the whole of the chicken so as not to waste anything.
After saying our goodbyes, we were given a short option of 4 hours or long option of 8 hours trekking back to Luang Namtha.
Unsurprisingly we unanimously opted for the short version and in the blazing sunshine, set off on the short journey back.
The views of the scenery were stunning and as we yomped along our sleepless night in the jungle and near death river crossing experience slipped out of focus.
When we reached the village where Mr Singh lived he invited us to meet his children and have lunch in his house.
Another delicious meal over discussions about the differences and similarities between Laotian, French and British culture and we were on our way back to our guest house by tuk tuk for a hot shower and a well-deserved beer.
Trekking in Luang Namtha was one of the most challenging, but without a doubt most rewarding experiences we have had so far.
Learning first-hand about Laotian and specifically the Hmong tribe culture was fascinating. Whilst our trek was extremely tough due to it being rainy season, the difficulty is significantly reduced in dry season.
For our trek we used Ethnic Travel Eco-Guide which we would highly recommend and paid 600,000 KIP (approximately £60) each which included food, water and accommodation for the duration of the trip.
Fancy giving it a go? Have you done any trekking in Luang Namtha? Would you have been able to cope in these circumstances? Let us know in the comments!
James & Sarah