Inspired by the surrounding scenery and relaxed feel of Luang Prabang, we decided to indulge the more intrepid side of our nature and sign up for a trek. A suitable program was found at 'Green Discovery', with the staff there reassuring us that we would have an English-speaking guide with us for the whole 3 day trip, along with a local guide on the trek itself. We would need to carry all our water for two days, along with anything else we felt we would need! Having already pared our lives down to the basics for the whole of our tour we felt confident that living on our wits and out of bags, not yet bought, would not pose any serious problems! A trip to the local chinese market to haggle for the essential companions of the trip, his and hers school rucksacks, provided us with the final commitment needed to see this through.At 7.30am the next day we were met by our guide, who clearly could not have imagined what he was letting himself in for, matching our unswerving belief that this 'moderate' 3 day trek was going to be well within our capabilities……
The 3 hour mini bus drive to the starting point was a time for calm thoughts of times already enjoyed, so on arriving to meet our local guide, a 65 yr old Hmong man weighing in at 7stone wet through and wearing a white cap emblazoned with marijuana leaves, sporting a fine pair of all-terrain flip flops, we still had no inkling as to what was ahead. It all started so well; the first part of that day's walk followed a rather depleted stream (it is the dry season) as it meandered its way down the mountain. Clearly we were walking up stream, since the purpose of the trek was to visit two hill village (you would have thought the name might have given us a clue!?) tribes, our local guide being a fine example of the genetics we were soon to be wanting. A few waterfalls later and plenty of scrambling over rocks and wading through water, we emerged at the top to see what all the fuss was about. The scenery of limestone mountains covered in primary forest was like something out of Avatar. The day was now getting into full swing, humidity levels were tropical and the sun was high in the sky so that even the surrounding canopy of trees could not protect us from its unrelenting urge to melt our whole bodies from the inside out. As we were beginning to feel the demands of walking up hill for 2 hours, along with the realisation that our water supply for the day was already running low, the inevitable doubts associated with a physical challenge began to erode our spirits and the stark reality of the position we were in began to emerge.It didn't take long for us to become more and more aware of the needs of each other as we battled with the needs of our own bodies! We were either going to hate each other at the end of this or have shared an amazing experience to be remembered for ever. It was still in the balance as the flip-flopped guide continued to lead us ever onwards and (more importantly) upwards to places new with more heat, breathless rests to drink water and stunning views. We both agreed that we had never been so tired, hot, in pain, uncomfortable, unable to stop sweating or downright miserable inside. When was this torment going to stop? How much more 'up' was possible? By now we had given ourselves the 'you simply cannot cry in front of the children' talk and were managing to find somewhere within ourselves to cope with all this pain and wet.
As our bodies began to grind to a halt we emerged from the forest to a clearing, the home of two tribes of hill people. The local guide led us into a village (his own as we later found out), and after several conversations with various people it was decided where we were going to sleep. The village was the most relaxed place you can imagine, there was a complete absence of any signs of stress. Everyone was busy with jobs or just chilling out in their thatched-roofed, rattan-walled homes and the animals that provide the protein to supplement all the food grown around the surrounding hills and mountains were also busying themselves with eating or pottering around the village, avoiding any of the children who wanted to play 'throw the chicken', a game involving throwing a live chicken as far away from a fixed line as you could and then running to retrieve the beast before it had time to come to its senses and escape the next round! The children who witnessed the enormous, sweaty and bedraggled examples of 'mighty white' humanity stumbling into their lives followed us about as we were given a guided tour of the village and its workings. No amount of gentle coercion could get them to even come close. Their suspicion of us was only matched by their curiosity.
The village was a community of two halves; one side of the stream were the Hmong people who generally live in the upper reaches of the mountain and whose houses are built on the ground to protect them from the wind. On the other side lived the Khmu, who prefer the middle ground of a mountain and whose houses are built on stilts. Both tribes speak their own language, share a school with lessons taught in Lao, and are happy to intermarry (as soon after 16 as possible), although it was noticeable that the Hmong children who were following us around stopped at the stream as we explored the Khmu side of things. All the buildings are built from what can be harvested from the countryside and wood fires accompanied most homes as food was cooked for the evening. The sights, sounds and smells were amazing. Meanwhile back in our half of the village the children had gathered round our hut and were in need of entertaining. Years of attending INSET days had prepared us for such a time and a colouring book complete with a selection of coloured crayons was brought out of our bags and we set to work keeping the children busy while their parents washed themselves and their clothes of the accumulated grime of the day and prepared dinner. After plenty of modelling and some crayons placed in the hands of the children they soon got into their stride and were taking it turns to colour Tigger blue and Pooh Bear green. The stickers, provided in the book, of all the characters in the pictures were fairly distributed to all attending the 'class', leaving cheeks and foreheads awash with Disney favourites and children excitedly running home to show parents. While we were summoned to eat with the chief of the village and retire early to bed, the noise outside our digs of chattering children flashing their torches so as not to colour outside of the lines continued long into the night!
After a strip wash at the communal tap and a quick breakfast the next day we were off again, better prepared this time for the challenge the day ahead would present, or so we thought! It was an amazing thing to eventually get to the highest point in our trek. The views were too vast and big to begin to explain or record. We simply couldn't believe that we had walked uphill over these two days to get to this point. Our legs were on fire, we were in a complete mess of sweat and itchy mosquito bites. The promise of it all being downhill from now on until we reached the second village of the trek allowed us to believe the worst was over.Wrong! 5 hours of the steepest downhill later we were fashioning leg callipers from bamboo to enable us to continue! The eventual relief of reaching 'home' for the night could only be measured by the complete inability either of us had the next morning to put one leg in front of the other. This second village was reached in late afternoon after 8 hours of walking. The surrounding mountains and setting sun made for a magical scene. A familiar pattern followed of being shown round, the highlight being the local blacksmith making a machete out of scraps of US bomb casings and children racing down a mud slope in their home made karts. With the sleeping arrangement agreed, we soon settled down to another early one, sleeping on a bamboo platform on a mattress surrounded by a bullet proof mosquito net!
The next day was much more pedestrian, walking a mere 2 hours to the main river across expertly cultivated lowlands. Finally, a very relaxing boat ride up the river to our pick up point before heading for home. We are still talking to each other by the way, time is a great healer! It has taken a few days of quiet reading and chilling out in cafes drinking iced lemon in the capital Vientiane to be able to revisit the amazing experience that was our 3 day trek to write this blog, but it was well worth the blood (Nick got a leech), sweat (Nick won this one) and tears (all Nat's). Having just finished 'The Wasp Factory' I feel I may have simply exchanged one weird religious experience for another!