Nam Tha: Jungle, leeches, and thieves

The Golden Triangle is an area loosely bounded by gentle mountain ranges that cut through western Burma, northern Thailand and Laos, and parts of China’s Yunnan province.  Along with the Afghan and Pakistani ‘Golden Crescent’, it is famous for being one of the world’s most productive opium cultivating regions.  Eager to see this northern edge of the country, we took a government bus from Luang Prabang with a small group to Luang Nam Tha, a boom town at the edge of an enormous national park famous for its varied flora and river communities.  More recently, the region has come under the influence of Chinese economic expansion.  The Chinese, eager to facilitated trade with Thailand, are forcefully developing the Laotian territory standing in the way.  Large infrastructural projects such as dams and mega-highways are expected to transform the relatively isolated communities and ecosystems in the region.  During our four days in the jungle we walked and canoed from river valleys to bamboo covered highlands and were able to get an intimate look at the diverse hill tribes that share the narrow trails and river passes along the Nam Tha park.  That said, we also encountered a new level of discomfort: leeches.  Awakened from the recent rains with a primordial hunger, every inch of ground was writhing with emaciated leeches ready to latch on.  Our treks took twice as long since we would have to stop every five minutes to strip leeches from our shoes or in worse cases from the dark, dank crannies of our body.  Occasionally one of us would see the bloody aftermath of a satiated leech on another.  Sucking us dry seemed to be a growing theme during our time in northern Laos.  After the jungle treks we headed south to Nong Kiaw, a godforsaken speck of a town surrounded by limestone cliffs.  The town is cleaved in two by the Nam Ou river heading down to Laung Prabang.  Intended as a one night stop, we were marooned in this purgatory.  Minutes after we arrived while we were performing the ritual negotiations for a guest house, I dropped my money belt containing the rest of our cash for Laos.  Quickly noticing what had happened I retrieved it from the person who had picked it up, a small boy.  The boy, however, had given the purse to his mother who proceeded to extract our entire savings for Lao.  She returned the purse with our documents and a single bill, a minute fraction of was there to begin with.  Robbed, broke, and dumbfounded, we entered into a vicious cycle of hope and disappointment that lasted a week.  Along the way we learned a great deal about the many faces that exist in a single community.  We met extraordinary people both helpful and warm as well as extraordinarily corrupt people.  In the end we left Nong Kiaw the day before my 30th birthday with a quarter of our money back, a minor triumph.  With the little we had left, Vivi treated me to a lavish retreat in Luang Prabang and we made haste to Cambodia, leaving Laos with a sour taste in our mouths.

Luang Nam Tha, the rains waking the leeches

on the Nam Tha river

a Khmou village

a Khmou village

lunch by the shoals

delicious!

lunch by the shoals

entering a Lantan village

a Lantan village

a Lantan village

a Lantan village

a Lantan village

a Lantan village

our first night at a Lantan village

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we had a singing contest.  they had a larger repertoire

in the jungle, already looking our for leeches

fortunately you don’t feel a thing

yes, it made sense to look there too

the Nam Tha crew

a recently settled Khmou village

after a hard day’s trek

exhausted

the second Lanten village we stayed in

our very comfortable house

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and improvised shuttlecock, played with both hands and feet.  fantastic

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in the highlands, away from the river, the wet, the leeches

bitter bamboo soup

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hauling a blackboard up the mountain with flip-flops!

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Nong Kiaw: Purgatory

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the Nam Ou

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throwing firewood down to the bank for the boat race festivities

Nong Kiaw

slash and burn afternoons

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