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It was still dark and a little chilly as we rubbed the sleep from our eyes and sipped cautiously at steaming hot cups of deliciously strong coffee. We were certainly not the only people awake however. The small town was busily gearing itself up for another day – shops were opening, freshly picked produce was being arranged at market stalls, water sprinkled on the ground to keep the dust at bay, dogs were yapping, and all around us people were yawning, smiling, and greeting each other in a wonderfully foreign sing-song language. Delicious aromas of frying food wafted on the air and somewhere nearby a cockerel crowed.
It’s probably fair to say that our guide Kao had more of a spring in his step than we did as we shook hands and introduced ourselves at a little after 6am. Right away his enthusiasm and eagerness endeared him to us and we were soon ensconced in the back of a shiny Toyota 4WD, tiredness forgotten, chatting excitedly about the day ahead.
We were in Luang Namtha, in a beautiful corner of northern Laos, and about to embark on an eco-friendly day trek in the Nam Ha National Protected Area. This mountainous region near the border with China is home to many ethnic tribes who live a lifestyle largely unspoilt by mass tourism and luckily there are several trekking companies in the area dedicated to protecting these people and their customs.
After an hour or so on a surprisingly good road we reached a small village nestled in the lush green mountains and were immediately surrounded by a number of very excitable young children. An old lady with a piglet in one arm and a bundle of twigs in the other wandered past. Dangling from her mouth was an enormous hand-rolled cigarette – she would have made a fantastic subject for a photograph but I was happy to leave her to her business as I tried to adjust to my surroundings. The village was small with wooden buildings set above a muddy brown river. On all sides of the village there was green vegetation. It was stunning.
After a few minutes of laughing and playing with the kids we were soon settling into roughly built wooden canoes to be punted over a slow flowing brown river to what on the other side looked like impenetrable forest. By now the sun had come up and as we started to clamber up a reasonably steep slope there were shafts of sunlight trickling through the trees. Somewhere overhead a bird called and Kao, our guide, was quick to identify it as a stripe-breasted Woodpecker.
We walked for a couple of hours spotting various endemic bird species as well as a couple of snakes slithering along the forest floor. It was quite tough going but very rewarding and by the time Kao stopped us for lunch we were all rather peckish. Lunch, cooked the traditional way in a length of bamboo, was a delicious beef stew with fresh vegetables and rice. It was absolutely sublime.
Suitably refreshed we headed off again and before too long we emerged from the trees into a clearing and across the river was another tribal village. This time there was no canoe to help us over the river but luckily it was only ankle deep and we were able to walk to the other side without too much difficulty.
The local people were as interested in us as we were of them and after exchanging smiles and nods and taking some photographs (having asked permission first) we were soon back in the jeep and heading back to town. It was a tiring and fascinating day walking through what really did feel like one of the least spoilt and remote places I have travelled in. The scenery is spectacular and we saw no other tourists all day long. I would strongly recommend visiting now before the word gets completely out!