NONG KHIAW (NORTHERN LAOS): WEEK 19 JANUARY (COOL AND MISTY IN THE MORNING WITH BRIGHT SUNSHINE IN THE AFTERNOON, 28 DEGREES, COLD IN THE EVENING)
20.01.2017 - 26.01.2017 27 °C
Boarding a minivan in Laos is rather like playing roulette in a casino, you are never quite sure of the outcome. We learnt our first lesson of minivan travel early on - don't ever leave your seat unattended.
Everyone pays the same price for a seat and the van doesn't leave until it is full. However, it's best to get there as early as possible to secure a seat otherwise you probably won't be sitting together or you may not get an actual seat at all as Thomas discovered! For over two hours we waited for our minivan to depart and Thomas had a seat by the window on the sliding door. Just as we were leaving, a Lao lady boarded and we assumed that she was going to try and squeeze herself onto the back seat (not sure where) so Thomas politely got up so that she could climb over. Instead, she plonked herself in Thomas's seat and refused to move. Poor Thomas was left sitting on a hinge with no backing and spent an uncomfortable four and a half hours without a seat all the way to Nong Khiaw. Torture worst than homework....
Even when you think the minivan is full, it isn't. As soon as the van has left the bus station, the driver will get a call on his smart phone and he'll stop just 100 yards down the road to squeeze someone else onto the van into a non-existent seat and pocket the extra money or stuff a load of parcels into your leg room. Minivan travel is not designed for anyone over five feet tall.
Nong Khiaw is a village set on the River Ou that is surrounded by jaw dropping, breathtaking limestone karst mountains. The view is always changing depending on the time of day and whenever I stepped out of our room onto the balcony, I could never take my eyes off the scenery. Luckily the village hasn't succumbed to mass tourism yet, it isn't on the Chinese tour group circuit so it remains relatively quiet and tranquil. Accommodation is basic but the village is worth it.
Our first adventure was Jungle Fly that started with a four wheel drive trip up a muddy, rocky track out to the drop off point for a trek into the jungle to reach our first practice platform. We had to learn how to brake as some of the zip lines are faster than others including the longest which is over 450m long. The sensation of being weightless skimming the canopy is sheer joy. There were some other challenges that I wasn't expecting including abseiling which I've never attempted before. There is also a sky-high walk and V rope-bridges. Lunch was a rustic affair in a tree house, traditional Lao food served in banana leaf (some dishes I recognised from our cookery course) all served with sticky rice. The whole day was rounded off by an hour trek across rice fields and a river to cross. Thomas loved every minute of it and would have happily repeated the whole day.
The village also has two community projects based around hiking to view points. The first hike was one and a half hours in the heat uphill to the top of one of the karst mountains from which there was a bamboo viewing platform. The view was gorgeous but unfortunately the trail is being blighted by litter and Thomas was disgusted by some of the behaviour of Lao tourists who discarded twenty lager cans and numerous crisp packets all over the platform. "Why can't they take their rubbish with them?" asked Thomas - I don't think rubbish collection features highly on the Lao priority list especially when you consider the conditions many rural communities live in. Unfortunately it really spoils the experience, so if travellers stop coming, may be the rubbish will be collected but where will it go? At least the Deen Indian restaurant in the village had the right idea - they had a water station so that you could keep filling up your water bottles rather than buying new ones and clogging up the planet with yet more plastic.
Having survived one hike, Edward decided that the next day, we would tackle another one. This trail was far harder and involved mainly rock climbing up sharp karst formations. After 15 minutes I knew that I had made a mistake attempting the hike - I was already being bitten to pieces by mosquitos even though I'd covered myself in repellent, I was dripping in sweat and everyone else was way ahead of me. By the time I made it to the top to take a photo (1 hour and 15 mins later), most of our water was gone and there was a long, hazardous climb down. Unfortunately, Edward got bitten by a spider after reaching out to hold onto a bamboo pole which is what I had spent alot of time doing to haul myself down. I narrowly missed the same fate myself as I was now watching out for any creepy crawlies on bamboo or tree branches. The hike had taken its toil though.
By the evening, Thomas was very ill and we were pretty sure that he had heat exhaustion. He spent the next day in bed recuperating as he was never going to be able to endure a minivan journey until he had recovered. And this time, he was determined to get a seat on the way back to Luang Prabang.