Part one of this Laos special sees our intrepid editor, Sebastian King, lose his bearings in the rainforest on a mountain bike and discovering some rather breathtaking waterfalls.
From the town of Luang Prabang it’s possible to book an adventure trek for two days and one night for $12 (US). This includes food, local accommodation and activities such kayaking, hiking, mountain biking and elephant riding. It’s hard to miss the place from which we booked our trek, it’s located in the town centre (near the monastery) and has a huge plastic elephant outside its doors. Failing that, look out for an eco tour operator called Tiger Trails.
We had to veer off the beaten track. I’d gazed long enough at the mysterious mountains above, wondering what life was like in that forbidden frame of the wilderness. It was time to find out for myself what secrets the rainforest harboured.
Biking was the first activity. On our way to visit a Buddhist temple at the pinnacle of a mountain the winding pathways were uneven, steep and unsurfaced. Vegetation grew heavier, mopeds vanished and the sound cicadas intensified. The thick thread of the bicycle’s wheels kicked up ruby red dust as they dashed past the luscious scenery. Finally, after all that eating and drinking I began to work up a healthy sweat.
It took an hour’s pedalling before we reached the golden temple. We stopped for a quick breather. The Lao highlands spread out before us, dense black clouds bubbled up to crown the peaks and the town of Luang Prabang nuzzled the bottom of a v-shaped valley.
“This, my old home”, our guide, Sommai informed us.
“You used to live here?” asked my Skinny Friend.
“I used to pray and live here, when I was a monk”, he replied.
There was a silence. Then the inevitable question slipped out my mouth.
“Why aren’t you a monk anymore?”
“I wanted to study. The monastery said that if I studied then I couldn’t be a monk anymore.”
I cut in, “well that’s a little harsh.” I tried to giggle the understatement out of my system but no one else was laughing.
Above: Sommai's Old Home, The Golden Temple
We pushed on and mounted our bicycles. The midday Asian sun beat down. The clay stained water of the Nam Cam river gushed past us as we zipped through the mountainside in a blur of green and brown.
The constant buzz of exercise flooded my brain with endorphins and I soon found myself well ahead of the group, so much so that I hadn’t a clue where they’d disappeared to or what turning they’d taken. I estimated that I’d been riding in solitude for at least 45 minutes, totally oblivious.
Curious as to the whereabouts of my Skinny Friend and our guide, I turned back the way I came in the vain hope that they were waiting for me around the next corner. All the slopes I thought great fun on the way down now looked menacing and the noontime heat drew all the energy out of my legs.
I thought I was finished. A boy lost in the jungle, I drew comparisons to Mowgli and prayed that I wouldn’t bump into The Jungle Book’s hypnotic python, Kaa. But thankfully after an hour’s painstaking cycle I met Sommai, only to discover him rather angry and concerned that I was dehydrated. He led me back to the others who were busy enjoying a meal beside a river that seemed on the verge of breaking its banks.
I was exhausted on the first outing of our two day adventure and felt as if I should’ve listened more carefully to Aesop’s Fable of The Tortoise and the Hare.
Above: Me, Sodden And Spent After Mountain Biking
At lunch I wilfully filled my needy stomach with Lao food. By the time we set off again the angry clouds above us began to pour and raindrops the size of golf balls thrashed at my dry clothing. Within five minutes I was sodden.
“Where are we walking to?” I asked Sommai.
“We take boat to other side of river. We see waterfall. Have drinks. Sounds fun, no?”
“Sure does!” I said. However, my legs had turned to jelly and I suspected that although the mind was willing the body was weak.
The group soon sped ahead of me as my Converse trainers slipped about on the greasy mud. I traversed up steep gradients and clung to the dirt pathways and its surrounding plants and shrubs the best I could. I fell over on many occasions, cursing my lack of appropriate footwear.
Above: A Vantage Point Above The Jungle
It took one and a half hours of desperate shenanigans before we reached the transport boat. The frenzied waters of the Nam Cam were almost level with their banks and the velocity of the river caused the little dragon boat to jerk around like a dog on a leash. But at least it’d stopped raining.
We stepped onto the rickety planks of the vessel one by one. As I boarded I felt its entire weight shift dangerously from side to side, then eventually settle once I’d claimed a seat. With everyone aboard, the motor spluttered to life and we made our way, against the flux, towards our next destination.
The current was fierce. It thrust itself against our forward motions at such a rate that it was hard to determine whether we were actually making progress.
“I wouldn’t like to breakdown here,” said my Skinny Friend.
“You can bet your cotton socks I wouldn’t like to break-” I was interrupted by a sudden blast. Black smoke poured from the chassis of the off-board motor.
Above: A Bad Place To Start Floating Backwards
The pull of the Nam Cam grew stronger until eventually we became part of its flow. We drifted back the way we came for nearly ten minutes before the industrious efforts of the driver eventually paid off and he took control of the tiller once more. My Skinny Friend and I were quiet for the rest of journey, mutually grateful that we’d not bumped into any rapids or waterfalls on our little detour downstream.
The waterfall was just a short walk from where the boat had dropped us off. Thank God! I needed to relax, put my feet up and enjoy a tipple while bathing in the sun that had burned through the clouds.
Crystalline water cascaded from a variety of separate planes that met in a main pool; it reminded me of a coin that tumbles the through knuckles, always looking for the next plunge. It was so strikingly beautiful that I had to question if it were real.
I flung my sweaty body into the peaceful, turquoise water at first sight. It cooled my core temperature to a tolerable level and soon I was focussed on more important things. I ordered a rum and kicked back on one of the sun loungers near the base of the falls and shut my eyes.
Above: The Upper Reaches Of The Hidden Waterfall
“Tut tut…wake up you slacker.” The words of my Skinny Friend yanked me from my reverie.
“What, right now?” I slurred, drunk with sleep.
“Yes right now! Everyone’s ready to go...”
Tiger Trails: http://www.laos-adventures.com/
The story continues in next weeks newsletter...Find out why you should never kayak down a river in rainy season without examining the boat beforehand and why satellites practically outnumber people in the Hmong hilltribe.
Lost? Missed the last instalment? Catch up here (Luang Prabang, Laos)
Alternatively to read about Seb's next adventure click here (Homestay With The Hmong Hilltribe)