Sticking with my adventure theme I departed Nong Khiaw for Pakse – a little nothing city in the south of Laos that, I’m sorry to say, it not worthwhile unless you’re heading off for one of the many jungle tours that depart from there. I’d heard about a zip line/trekking jungle tour from my old Aussie pal, Jessica. She said that it was absolutely a once-in-a-lifetime experience that was not to be missed and, as usual, Jess was right.
I was a little gun shy about booking it at first though, mostly for one reason: the day I wanted to start there was only one other person signed up for the tour. So I figured this person would be the most heinous human on the planet or the love of my life. That’s a gamble for three day and two nights in the jungle. Luckily the group ended up being larger than just me and a mystery person. I was joined by a Swish/German couple, a Canadian and a fellow American.
From Pakse we rode on a bus for an hour and a half to a small village where the locals are mostly coffee farmers. Before we barely got started on day one, we came across a small celebration where the local Laos people were cooking up all kinds of food: fried bananas, heaping bowls of noodles and broth for a soup, and sticky rice that had been formed into a football-like shape, dipped in egg and grilled. Lucky for us they insisted we join in, so we happily shared in their meal.
Not 15 minutes later it was time for the meal our guides had planned, so we ate extra well that day. As would happen at lunch for the rest of our trip, the guides cut down 5-6 banana leafs, laying them on the ground like a make-shift table. From their packs and pockets they pulled bags of goodies: sticky rice, cured meat (similar to jerky), candied sausages, fish steamed in banana leaf, hard boiled eggs, sautéed mustard greens, various mixtures of cooked veggies and this amazing spicy tomato concoction that was sort of like a Laos salsa. One of my favorites was a piece of pork that had been pounded thin, breaded and fried. I referred to this as “chicken fried pork steak”… and could not have sounded more Hoosier. We encircled the “table”, sitting on the ground and eating with our hands, using the sticky rice as a sort of edible utensil to scoop up the food. While our dinners in the jungle were good (curry, rice, fresh spring rolls, and noodles), lunch was always my favorite meal and usually served in a picturesque setting near a waterfall. Like seriously… come. on.
Throughout our three days, we’d trek through forests that were dense with greenery and towering, hollow shoots of bamboo that grew in wild, random clusters, looking more like installation art than nature. While the trekking wasn’t always particularly long, it was always steep and made more difficult (and sweatier) by the harnesses we wore and the packs on our backs. When we weren’t trekking we were zipping over massive canyons and past tumbling waterfalls from one treetop canopy to the next. I wish I had more action shots while I was zipping, but risking dropping my phone during a 450 meter long (1,476 feet) zip was not an option.
Our camp was primitive, but comfortable, and much more than I was expecting. A wooden walkway connect the main lodge to the platforms where we’d zip in and out of the tree houses where we slept. The lodge was an open air area with a huge deck and a few long table with benches that was perfectly perched so as to have an awe-inspiring view of focal centerpiece: a massive waterfall that thundered into a pool of boulders the size of SUVs.
In the evenings we’d strip down from our gear, grab a coffee from the kettles that sat ratteling over the fire and venture over to the large rocks at the base of the waterfalls, talking over the day and watching the sunset before an early dinner. In the mornings we’d wake up in our treehouse to the sound of the forest coming back to life. Suited up in our harnesses and helmets and armed with our wooden stick break we’d zip from one platform to the next and head down to the main lodge area for breakfast before getting started around 9:30 or 10am. I loved that the days were packed with action, and the evenings/mornings were slow and lazy.
On day two after some particularly beautiful zips, we hiked down to a small river. The river had short, wide, shallow terraces of waterfalls that would flow into the pool below, filling it and spilling over, creating the next waterfall. On and on down the river, infinitely it seemed – like looking into the reflection of a mirror in a mirror. We rested here and refreshed ourselves in the waterfalls with cool showers. Afterwards we enjoyed our typical lunch on banana leaves and then laid down on the massive rivers to nap – feeling full, tired and satisfied.
One of the most memorable moments of the tour came after the tour was actually over. We’d made it back to the small village where we started at and from our lunch spot could hear music pumping.
“Local people making a party – from the festival before,” our guide explained.
Only it was NOTHING like the festival we had encountered just a few days ago. We walked down the dirt road, following the sound and before we’d even reached the house, women were jogging to meet us. Before we could say “sabadee” they had trust beers into our hands and were leading us to the dance floor. Their Asian roots gave them away the instant we arrived as their faces were red as a ripe tomato. Eric – the Swiss guy in our group – thought that they had just used far too much “rouge.” This was clearly not the case after witnessing two particularly feisty women “backing it up” into anyone or anything. I’d later give these two a tutorial in “gettin’ low” and “droppin’ it.” Just go ahead and give me my seat at the U.N. now cause I’m NAILING this cross-cultural relations thing.
Everyone who went by was stopped by the party police and nearly drowned with beer. They took turns singing into the microphone, which was amplified times a million by the four concert-size speakers that were stacked next to the house. For the next hour we danced and sang and never once saw the bottom of our glasses. Sometimes they’d just go straight to the source, pouring beer directly into our open mouths. I never quite got what exactly they were celebrating, but it made for a helluva Monday afternoon in this sleepy Laos farming village.
I lucked out with fantastic guides and an even better group of travelers who really made the experience what it was. So while everyone was far from awful, but not the love of my life as I had previously hoped for, it was a great few days of adventuring with some other wonderful humans.