For our very last adventure in Laos, and unfortunately also for our entire trip through Asia :-(, we decided to head back into the mountains. If you’ve been following us for a while, then you know that trekking and hiking were one of the major activities we pursued while backpacking from country to country. So there is no more fitting way to finish our journey!
Apparently, the best hiking in Laos is really far north, around Nong Khiaw or even Luang Namtha. We didn’t have enough time to travel up there. But luckily for us, there is tons of hiking and trekking in Luang Prabang and its surrounding hills and mountains! And since Luang Prabang was in any case high on our (and anyone else’s travel bucket list), we seized the opportunity!
Normally, we are big advocates of independent trekking and we have hiked even some of the remotest regions without guides. But for Luang Prabang, we really couldn’t find any information online and there is a real risk of encountering UXO in northern Laos. Plus, we had left all our camping equipment behind in Bangkok and didn’t know if local hill tribes would be ready to host us. So in the end, we opted for a (quite expensive) tour with White Elephant Adventures in Luang Prabang. If you want to do the trek on your own, here are some maps and hints!
All in all, it was awesome! We trekked through some of the most impressive landscapes we have encountered in South East Asia, rolling hills, rice fields and bamboo forests. However, the highlight was certainly the possibility to get a glimpse into the rural life of the remote Khmu and Hmong hill communities. The only real negative point was that the tour was advertised as moderate trekking, with walking time between 5 and 6 hours a day. In reality however, we walked an average of little more than 3, so we were usually already finished at lunch!
The trail starts at a village about 50 Km northeast of Luang Prabang but because of really challenging road conditions, it takes about one-and-a-half hour to reach it by car. The village is located next to the road 2505 which curves along the Nam Xuang river. At the village shop, there is a path leading to the right straight to the river. But the actual trailhead is on the other side and there is no bridge to cross it! So our group had to be brought to the other side by a really old local woman steering a very tiny boat, where a dirt road led towards the mountains already rising up behind!
Day 1 (around 3 – 4 hours)
Following the dirt road, the trail runs along a number of farms before going deeper into the forest. During the wet season, there should be a river, Houay Keng. Right now however, the water has dried up and the trail crisscrosses along the riverbed. The trail was mostly flat and sort of maintained, including wooden steps built by villagers over fallen trees. After around two hours, we reached a little opening in the forest which provided a natural spot for having lunch break. Despite being a big group of 11 people, we had hiked at a pretty fast pace and were now sweating and happy for the relief. Our tour guides (themselves members of the minority tribes) were very knowledgeable, both regarding the local geography and local culture, and were more than happy to answer any question that we could think of!
After lunch break, we continued hiking along the forest trail. At some point, we left the forest and were now walking across dried up rice fields with the occasional farmer and cows on them. Continuing past the rice fields, we took a right heading south towards the destination for the first day, the village of Ban Long Ngath (Ban means village).
Long Ngath turned out to be much larger and less remote than we thought. There is even a dirt road running from the village directly to the main road so that you could even reach Long Ngath by motorized vehicle. There were a couple of small shops, a medical center, some workshops and a pretty large school in Long Ngath. When the guides took us to the school we had the slight feeling that the children were mildly overwhelmed by the onslaught of tourists ;-)
Our sleeping place was a barn-like building in the middle of the village where all of us would sleep in a single room. After dinner, we gathered around a large fire – more than welcome since the temperature had now dropped immensely! Long Ngath was thankfully equipped with the most important traveler perk, Beerlao, and so we enjoyed very interesting conversations until we ran out of firewood. The night was short, because with 11 people in one room, someone is definitely going to produce some annoying noises while sleeping…
Day 2 (around 3 hours)
After breakfast and packing our stuff, we started hiking at around 10 am. Leaving the village, we followed the main road towards the east before turning left at the first junction. The trail then winds towards the north for around 30 minutes, before hitting a tiny Khmu village, Long Yuak. We took a short break to marvel at the inhabitants going about their daily life, making knives (out of steel from past bombshells) or grinding wheat. Coming from Western societies, seeing how these people manufacture (almost) everything they need themselves is really special.
We left the village again towards the east and the trail again goes past forests and through rice fields before finally hitting a hill, the first steep ascent of the trek! The trail climbs up for more than 500m altitude and it definitely put some of our group out of breath and sweating! After hiking up for maybe half an hour, a clearing appears to the left side of the forest, which serves as a perfect viewpoint and breaking spot, with some incredible vistas along the rolling hills.
The trail climbs further still, until it turns into a ridge along the hill, marked by a small hut to the left of the trail. Here, we met up with some locals before descending downhill into the next village and destination of the day, Kalong Kong. We arrived shortly before 2 p.m. so that even after lunch, we had a lot of time to kill. Apart from walking around and beyond the village, it was particularly interesting to observe the local kids. Without smart phones, they had to make due with knives, machetes, fire and bows and arrows! So safety definitely didn’t seem to be too much of a concern! On the other hand, we all agreed that playing outside with other kids should definitely be encouraged more in our internet driven societies back home. Despite their harsh living conditions, these kids all seemed very content and happy with their lives!
Sleeping conditions were much like the day before. Most people went sleeping into a barn-like building after finishing a couple of obligatory beers.
Day 3 (4 - 5 hours)
The final day would also be the longest day, which is why we started hiking “early” at around 9 a.m. We began by walking back the trail we came the day before. However, on the second junction, we turned right onto a smaller trail towards the north-west. The trail goes through a dried up river which makes it seem like we were walking through a small canyon. After a while however and staying to the right, the path hit deeper into a lush bamboo forest. After day 2, we were told that the trail would be mostly downhill, but in fact, the beautiful forest trail goes up and down (though more up then down). Having left the village behind, we were really the only ones hiking through the dense underbrush, which grew more beautiful with every meter we walked.
After a long while, the trail makes a sharp right and steep down, finally leading up to a forest clearing with high grass around you. We followed the trail until we reached some wooden steps with a handrail, which descends into another dried river bed with lots of stones – a perfect place for a small break after the strenuous hike before!
After break, we followed the riverbed to the right, before making a left to make the final climb of the trek, towards the tiny village (maybe its name is Punovan). This was by far the most remote village we have been and we spent some time here exploring its inhabitants’ rural life. Our guides explained to us how every aspect of life is still very much dominated by a village chief, even after they moved to the cities.
Climbing further up, we left the village on the dirt road to the left. And from now on, it’s all downhill! While this part of the trail is not as beautiful as the bamboo forest, it grants some amazing views over the valley and the surrounding hills.
The dirt road leads all the way down back to the river we had crossed in the very beginning of the trail (though around 15 Km to the east of the trailhead). Luckily for us, there was no need to take another sketchy boat: The villagers have built a very rudimentary bridge (which apparently has to be rebuilt every year after the rainy season).
Day 3 was the longest hike and we were all kind of happy that we had finished the trek safely and could now take a break! Nicole was among the bravest who took a bath in the ice cold river. After that, it was going back to Luang Prabang!
Tips for hiking through remote village in Luang Prabang without a guide
These three days with White Elephant Adventures were one of the most informative and incredible tours we have been to in South East Asia and big thanks are due to our guides as well as our incredibly diverse and fun group! We can only recommend exploring these hidden villages and the amazing landscape in such a safe enviroenment with White Elephant Adventures. However, we also understand that a tour might not be for everyone and we believe that this trek is also doable on your own. So here is some useful information to keep in mind.
What to bring: Definitely bring warm clothes and an inlet/sleeping bag. It gets cold in the night and even with blankets, a sleeping bag comes in handy. We recommend sturdy hiking boots, especially when doing the trek in rainy season where great parts of the trail will be covered in mud.
Transport: The most difficult part to organize may be transport. There are no public buses we know of so you will probably need to take rental cars/scooters. Scooters in Luang Prabang cost around 120.000 Kip per day. In a group, the best idea may be to park one scooter at the end of the trail so that you have transport when you finish the trek. Hitchhiking might be possible but seemed quite unreliable. Also, you have to negotiate the river crossing at the beginning of the trail on your own.
Food and accommodation: Without a tour, you will most likely have to bring everything along. We are not sure if local villagers will let you sleep in their homes/barns if you show up without a guide. If yes, a small payment is definitely due. You are on the safe side with your own tent.
Nicole & Kevin, written in Vientiane