Luang Namtha is pretty much the opposite sort of place than Udomxai. There is lots of tourist infrastructure here, such as many hotels/guesthouses, many decent restaurants, lots of tour companies, and a lot to do. It is also a nice place to hang our and do nothing.
Like the rest of the towns we have been in since leaving Vientiane the mornings here are cold and foggy, and the evenings are cold as well. Cold meaning low temperatures in the low 50’s F (even down into the high 40’s F) and highs in the mid-70’s F. Not too bad in comparison to back home where there is snow on the ground and temperatures have been in the single digits, but we only brought light jackets with us. Layering helps, and we do have quilts at night. Not to worry, by the end of January we should be back to lower elevations, sweating all day in the heat, and missing the cooler weather.
We stayed at the Zuela Guest House ($25 per night with breakfast, $20 per night without). This is a nice place with a good restaurant and lots of fellow travelers. We like the yogurt/muesli/fruit for breakfast, it is a nice change from noodle soup or eggs and bread. We’re back on the Banana Pancake circuit!
While here we did a jungle trek in the Nam Ha National Protected Area (NPA) and a kayak trip down the Namtha River (the kayak was more of an inflatable canoe). “Protected Area” is a bit of an overstatement. We found out from a local tour guide that there are exactly zero park rangers assigned to the NPA, and that illegal hunting and logging are common.
Our jungle trek was with (name withheld to protect the guilty) (eight people, about $25 per person). Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to know the name of the tour company. We were supposed to have an English-speaking guide, but unfortunately he spoke very little English. Our first stop on the jungle trek was Chaleunsouk Village, populated by Khumu people. After that we had lunch in the jungle, followed by a visit to another village. The night before we had bought a few pens and notebooks, which we gave to the village chief to distribute to some of the school children. Like all of the villages we have visited, and will subsequently visit, the people are very poor, so we were happy that we can help out a bit. If any other tourists are reading this, please consider bringing some small, useful gifts to the villages you visit. Things such as clothing or school supplies will be greatly appreciated. Lao custom dictates that such gifts should be given to the village chief for him to distribute, and not handed out directly to the people, especially children, as this promotes begging. We also suggest that you avoid bringing sweets since dental care appears to be non-existent in Laos, particularly for the people that live in the small villages.
Given that Laos was heavily bombed from the mid-1960s through the mid-1970’s (the period of the Second Indochina (American) War), we asked our guide whether the area we were trekking through had been bombed, as we are well aware of the dangers of unexploded ordnance (UXO) in Laos (Vietnam and Cambodia as well). He told us that it had not been bombed, but the area in and near the town of Loang Namtha had been. This was a bit surprising to us since this area is in the northwestern part of the country, not near the Laotian branches of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and not near the Plain of Jars, which was the main base of the Pathet Lao. A few days later we heard from a local guide that there was a Pathet Lao base a few kilometers northwest of Luang Namtha near That Phum Phuk Stupa, indicating that this area may have been a pocket of Pathet Lao strength.
Our jungle trek took about four hours of walking, plus time for photos and lunch. It was billed as an easy trek/hike, but there were very steep and muddy sections. We are used to hiking back home, so we were OK, but two older ladies with the group had a lot of trouble. The guide helped one down, and we had to help the other.
The kayak trip on the Namtha River was booked with (name withheld to protect the guilty) (eight people, about $32 per person). Email me at email@example.com if you want to know the name of the tour company. We had two guides, one who spoke very good English, but they were poor river guides.
There was no real pre-trip safety briefing, the guides seemed to not know much about kayaking or conditions on the river, at the beginning both guides were in the front kayak (no sweeper), and at times they were far ahead of the last kayak. To their credit the tour company did provide proper life jackets and helmets. It turns out that was a very good thing. It was also a good thing that we had some limited experience canoeing on rivers back home, since at times we were on our own.
The water was very low, some channels were very narrow, there were lots of rocks that we got stuck on, and we had a few crashes into the rocks and river bank. One kayak kept losing air and had to be pumped up repeatedly, and one inexperienced couple near the back of the pack overturned after turning sideways after hitting a rock. He got a little banged up but no serious injuries. Since there was no sweeper the guides were in no position to help. After this accident I managed to convince one of the guides to act as a sweeper, which he did for the rest of the trip, more or less.
After the trip I talked to the tour company owner about basic river safety, all based on my extremely limited experience. He seemed appreciative but only time will tell if any real changes will be implemented.
Lesson learned: while travelling don’t do “adventure” type activities unless you are willing to take on a substantial amount of risk, accept the fact that you cannot count on the tour company or guides to keep you safe, and that you might need to help a fellow traveller who gets into trouble.
We talked to a local person about the hospitals in Laos. His comments were telling and go a long way toward explaining what appears to us to be the attitude toward safety. He mentioned that people that go to the hospital are treated badly. When we asked why he stated that the assumption is that if you are sick or injured it is your fault (fate).