A walk in the woods: trekking in Nam Ha NPA

Just back from a one-night, two-day trek run by Green Discovery into the Nam Ha National Protected Area (NPA). The two-day trek was described as difficult and that two of our group of seven dropped out after the first day supports that this was quite a difficult trek. It was overall a bit of a mixed experience.

Nam Ha NPA

The trek involved around 31km walking in total over the two days with an overnight stay at the Akha village of Ban Nam Lai. It took us through primary forest, secondary forest and through vast tracts of the NPA that are being exploited by the villagers who live within the park’s confines.

For the group of seven it cost US$51 a head and that was pretty much all inclusive (except for a couple of warmish BeerLao upon arrival at Ban Nam Lai). As anyone who has been to Luang Nam Tha before will attest, there are no shortage of tour operators to choose from — all of whom offer variations upon the same base tours (albeit to different areas of the park).

Cost varies considerably and Green Discovery is one of the more expensive. I opted to go with them because they came very highly recommended but also because they had the biggest group already signed up (thus making the cost lower than two other groups that left the same day with four and five people respectively).

Crossing a log bridge, Nam Ha NPA

The trekking scene is set up in a manner not unlike that in Thailand. Many of the guides are freelancers (so may work for more than one company) and companies are not allowed to trek into the same areas, nor use the same trail networks as one another. This means it is very unlikely you will come across another group during your trip. On the downside, this means that you have a bunch of operators, all offering quite similar services, but struggling to get enough people to make the trip financially viable. There are a lot of stories of travellers, with their heart set on a particular tour, waiting for days and days for enough to sign up for the trip to be viable. So if time is short, be prepared to compromise a bit on what trip you’ll actually do.

Also, be prepared for your trip to vary considerably (without any explanation) from what you were actually promised. In our case, the order of the trip was jumbled, some services (eg Akha bird calling) never appeared and some people’s requests (“no fish please”) were ignored.

First rest stop in the Nam Ha NPA

Most importantly, just because you’re told you’ll be trekking through a NPA, don’t expect to spend the majority of your time in primary forest — you won’t. Of the roughly 12 hours of trekking, we had perhaps four hours in total in primary or very old secondary forest. The majority of the time we were either walking through exploited areas or along dirt roads and rice paddie. The walking was very strenuous.

Even taking that into consideration, I’d say it is worth doing, for the period in the primary forest is simply tremendous.

Lunch on day one of Nam Ha trek

You will not see animal life and while you may hear a lot of birds, you’ll see few — to be fair it doesn’t help when you have seven people tramping through the forest chattering away. Our guide said he’s cross his fingers for a pheasant. We lucked out.

But it isn’t about the critters, rather it is about the forest — and it is a pretty mixed scorecard in that regard.

View back up a watershed, Nam Ha NPA

The Nam Ha NPA tries to meet the needs of both protection and development. It strives to protect the interests — and lifestyles — of the villagers that have moved around in the region for hundreds of years — way before the term “National Protected Area” was ever coined. Villagers are permitted to conduct slash and burn agriculture in areas of secondary growth, but where in the past the land would be left fallow, only to be returned to in years later to be slashed and burned again, today other cashcrops go in. These are long-term crops with yields spanning into decades meaning that the park may well end up as a patch work quilt of primary forest and extractive industries.

Waterfall Nam Ha NPA

In order to try and tap down logging, villagers are permitted to use fallen timber solely for firewood and construction — they are not permitted to sell it (though I assume that still goes on illegally to an extent). What this means is when secondary forest is cleared the lumber is left where it fell. The resulting impression to the casual onlooker is vandalism. That exploited parcels of land directly abut untouched forest makes the impression seem all the starker. To leave the trees there, while I understand the thinking behind it, seems wasteful in the extreme.

Cleared forest, Nam Ha NPA

Villagers are ostensibly only permitted to clear secondary forest. Once cleared, sticky rice goes in and when the rice fails another cashcrop — we saw expansive cardarmon and rubber plots — goes in. Thicket used for brooms goes for 5,000 kip per kilo, dried cardarmon 45,000 kip — all of it pegged for export to China.

Another log bridge crossing

Competing with this, you have revenue from tourism. A per person fee is paid to the NPA and the village we stayed at also derives revenue from our stay, but this revenue must be chump change when compared to that derived from the cash crops. Tourism also employs a bunch of periphery services — we had an English-speaking Thai Lue guide and a local guide, drivers, agents in at Luang Nam Tha and so on.

Protected and not protected

The stay in the Akha village, as expected, was a bit of a human zoo-like experience. Us gawking at them and them at us. Lots of children living in grinding poverty. Our guide couldn’t speak their language so interaction and explanations was limited in both depth and value — though we did have a prolonged discussion regarding Akha love-shacks and they’re penchant for marrying very early. Some of our group decided not to visit the village at all, instead staying at our appointed accommodation a five minute walk, but still within eyeshot, of the village. With no real means of communication or interaction the visit, as with much of the hilltribe trekking in Thailand, was for many a frustrating and uncomfortable experience.

Akha Love Shacks

This could be improved on in many ways. For starters we could have been appointed an Akha-speaking guide. Perhaps with a different timing of the trek, we could have met the Akha in the fields working — and be offered the opportunity to see what they do and assist — be it clearing fields, sticking rice in the ground or cutting down the very forest we were there to admire. An hour spent interacting on this level, after which we returned to walking and saw them again at the end of the day could be a more satisfactory experience. As it was all we saw were a bunch of knackered people who appeared to have been working their arse off all day.

Akha kids hamming it up for the camera

After meal time we all got treated to an “Akha massage” by a bunch of the village girls (our guide’s “masseuse” was 11 years old) — I can say without pause an Akha massage is not worth six hours walking to reach!

We were trekking in the dry season, so some of the walking was done on dry river beds. In the wet season I’d imagine the walking to be considerably more challenging. The downward slopes were often set in a bauxite-coloured clay soil that would have been treacherous and slippery after a prolonged period of heavy rain. As it was I slipped, spraining my wrist and two dropped out after the first day because of knee problems. It was a challenging walk and while our guide said he thought it was one of the best tours — from a traveller’s perspective — he hated it because it was so much work. “I’d rather be kayaking” was how he summed it up.

Akha village Ban Nam Lai

Despite the various flaws, I’d still recommend trekking in the Nam Ha NPA because the tracks of primary forest are simply breathtaking. I wouldn’t be overly drawn to use Green Discovery again and if I was to show up in town and one of the other operators has a bigger group, I wouldn’t think twice about trying someone else.

Lunch on day two - what part of 'no fish' didn't you understand?

Some closing advice:
Check the group list to see where the other people are from and ideally meet them beforehand to see if you’ve got the same mindset.
Discuss and agree upon the pace of the trek before departure.
Ask all the questions you want. Ask how much time is in the forest, how much time is in paddie, how far by tuk tuk and so on.
If you are going to have time in a village, make sure your guide has local language skills.
If you have dietary (or any other) requirements — be very explicit.
Do your trip research as soon as you arrive and get on the list you want — the sooner you sign up, the better chance you’ll have of more people joining with you.

Just do it!

Just do it!

PS Excuse any typos – I’ve got a sprained wrist!