Photo: Up the river we go.

Introduction

Our rating:

Covering 410,720 hectares across three provinces in northeast Laos, Nam Et-Phou Louey is Laos’ largest National Protected Area. Named after the Nam Et river and Phou Louey, the country’s third highest mountain, the park contains unique biodiversity, endangered species endemic to Indochina and source waters for major rivers. Travellers can now enter the NPA on the Nam Nern Night Safari, an overnight adventure that involves wildlife spotting on the river in the dark.


Wildlife spotting in the dark? It’s an unlikely pairing. Think “safari” and Laos doesn’t spring to mind. Conservation is a new concept for a country that only emerged from civil war as an independent nation in 1975. You’re more likely to see dead wildlife illegally for sale in a market than alive in the wild. According to a 2011 assessment, the three main districts in Nam Et-Phou Louey (NEPL) are in the second highest poverty bracket, with 90% of villages classified as poor. How do you stop poaching and deforestation when traditionally, local people needed to hunt, fish and cut wood to survive? How can they buy into conservation when catching a rare animal is a windfall? Eco-tourism may be the answer.

Into the wilderness. Photo taken in or around Nam Nern Night Safari, Laos by Cindy Fan.

Into the wilderness. Photo: Cindy Fan

Night has fallen and our dinner, a hearty spread presented on banana leaves, is eaten by firelight. Our guide translates a legend that’s being told by one of the boat captains, a local who grew up hunting in this forest. Today, by law, we’re the only ones allowed in the NEPL’s core protected area. To reach the jungle camp, it was a thrilling two hour journey up the Nam Nern river by long-tail boat with a two man crew: one man operating the motor at the back and an oarsmen standing at the front, both working together to expertly steer us around every rock and fallen tree. Launching from Son Khoua village, farmland and ugly deforested hills transitioned: the landscape became greener, the forest thicker and more frequent until the river was crowded with soaring cliffs and dense jungle.

At sunset, we travelled another hour upriver to make it to this dinner spot and now the time is right to slip into the boats. We float down in silence and pitch darkness. Using a single torch light, the boat crew scan the riverbanks, the brush, the canopy looking for the glint of an animal’s eyes while somehow managing to balance themselves and guide the boat through rapids. It seems like an impossible task. Both the jungle and darkness are immense and finding eye shine is like searching for a needle in the haystack. But suddenly the boat shudders—the signal!—and we switch on our head torch, training it to where the oarsman points his.

What others have seen, you may too. Photo taken in or around Nam Nern Night Safari, Laos by Cindy Fan.

What others have seen, you may too. Photo: Cindy Fan

Two glowing eyes. They stare at us before an elegant figure emerges. A sambar deer leaps across the river.

Introduced in 2009, and supported by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the Nam Nern Night Safari is trying to change the locals’ relationship with nature. Firstly, eco-tourism provides them alternate livelihood, a way to live off the land in a different way. People from four villages work on the tour employed as guides, boatsmen, cooks and cleaners.

Think of it as a local taxi. Photo taken in or around Nam Nern Night Safari, Laos by Cindy Fan.

Think of it as a local taxi. Photo: Cindy Fan

Secondly, a fund has been set up to create a direct financial incentive for the programme’s success. 14 villages around the NEPL have signed contracts that prohibit them from breaking poaching laws. For every tourist, money is added to the fund, as well as for any animal spotted on the tour, with rare species like white-cheeked crested gibbons, Asiatic black bears, slow loris and six cat species commanding more. The NEPL is said to be the last home of wild tigers in Indochina and the population could be 4 to 21. However, they too may be a thing of the past. The last camera trap picture was taken in 2007, the last footprint found in 2014.

Once a year, the fund is paid out for development projects the village votes on. If people are caught violating the contract, the amount their village receives is reduced. The system is outlined in great detail here.

A delicious lunch prepared by the village crew responsible for meals. Photo taken in or around Nam Nern Night Safari, Laos by Cindy Fan.

A delicious lunch prepared by the village crew responsible for meals. Photo: Cindy Fan

Not only are tourists helping a good cause, it’s a darn fun experience and one like no other in the region. During the two hour float down we see more sambar deer, monitor lizards, a barking deer, a giant porcupine and several civets, all because of the expert crew. With every sighting the thrill never dissipates.

The jungle camp itself is a sweet retreat—true wilderness, a rare thing to experience in Laos. There’s no roads, farms or internet for miles. The Nam Nern river is delightful to swim in during hot-dry season. Accommodation are simple raised bamboo huts with two beds, mattress, linens and mosquito net. The camp has a shower (cold water of course) and a bucket flush toilet. In the morning, a guided walk reveals medicinal plants, the ruins of a temple built in 1912 and a view of a mountain used as a CIA helicopter pad during the war.

Light filtering into a room. Photo taken in or around Nam Nern Night Safari, Laos by Cindy Fan.

Light filtering into a room. Photo: Cindy Fan

The safari has made great strides since our first visit in 2014, especially on the tourism experience and customer service side. On our latest trip in 2018, the guide communicated well, the tour ran smoothly, the bedding was better and the local staff (some of them had worked our tour four years ago) were comfortable and confident with guests.

They’ve expanded, recently adding dry-season trekking tours which are currently the only guided treks available in Hua Phan province. Since the night safari has no physical fitness involved (except a brief walk up/down the steep river bank), the moderately difficult to challenging treks are for those looking for activity. “The Nests” two-day, one-night programme includes a wildlife observation tower overlooking a salt lick and a night in the “nest”, a basket hanging from the tree. The three-day itinerary adds a trek up a mountain, a waterfall and night in a jungle camp. The five-day “Cloud Forest Climb” requires a very good level of fitness as it involves full days of climbs, including up Laos’ third highest peak, the NPA’s namesake Phou Louey (2257 metres). Treks start at 1,300,000 kip per person.

Some are more likely than others. Photo taken in or around Nam Nern Night Safari, Laos by Cindy Fan.

Some are more likely than others. Photo: Cindy Fan

There is room for improvement on the night safari. We think it would be a good service if there were drinks for sale at the camp. Drinking water and tea/coffee are included but for anything else, for now bring your own drinks and snacks. Also, the individually wrapped instant coffee packets don’t go well with the environmental message.

The toughest part remains the effort needed to get there. On the upside, while looping through the northeast, it is an excellent way to break up the long journey between Nong Kiaow and Sam Neua or Phonsavan.

All the way with natural refrigeration.  Photo taken in or around Nam Nern Night Safari, Laos by Cindy Fan.

All the way with natural refrigeration. Photo: Cindy Fan

On the downside, night safari participants who overnight in Muang Hiam will be taking the local bus in the morning to the starting point 51 kilometres away. The guide accompanies guests but this bus is as bad as it gets in Laos: small, cramped, packed to the rafters and usually with more than one passenger getting motion sickness. The one and a half hour ride requires a positive attitude, zen and an ability to somehow make yourself half your size—we really feel for long legged folks. It’s an uncomfortable start to an otherwise exciting and recommendable outdoor adventure. Including private transport into a tour can make the price prohibitively expensive so we don’t know what the solution is. Perhaps in the future they can acquire a vehicle, or at least have a private transfer from Muang Hiam available as an add-on option for those willing to pay.

Transport directions are outlined on the official site. Here’s what we learned firsthand about the night safari:

Simple lodgings. Photo taken in or around Nam Nern Night Safari, Laos by Cindy Fan.

Simple lodgings. Photo: Cindy Fan

Generally speaking, November to February is cold-dry season, meaning no leeches, few mosquitoes and cold nights. A jacket/windbreaker is a good idea for the boat, it can be chilly when it moves. March to May is hot, the water is low and it’s the best time for wildlife spotting and swimming in the river. The boat trip may require getting out and walking up river past shallow sections (wear footwear that can get wet). During rainy season, water is high and fast. There’s less chance to see wildlife and many blood suckers to contend with—mosquito/leech repellent is a must. Operations may shutter up during a heavy rainy season, as was the case in 2018.

It’s recommended to book at least a couple of days in advance. Bookings can be done on their online reservation system and the system shows which safari/treks already have participants, thereby reducing the cost. As of 2018, the night safari is 2,000,000 kip for one person, 1,500,000 per person for two or more. The office is closed on the weekends so for last minute weekend bookings, use the special telephone number listed on their website.

The van from Muang Hiam. Not as comfortable as it looks. Photo taken in or around Nam Nern Night Safari, Laos by Cindy Fan.

The van from Muang Hiam. Not as comfortable as it looks. Photo: Cindy Fan

Payment must be done in Lao kip directly to the guide/manager at the start of the trip. There is no ATM in Ban Son Khoua. Though there’s one in Muang Hiam, it’s not reliable. Make preparations before arriving.

Night safari participants travelling from Nong Kiaow can overnight in Muang Hiam (formerly known as Viengthong) or can continue on 51 kilometres to the starting point Ban Son Khoua village.

Matters improve dramatically once you are out of the van. Photo taken in or around Nam Nern Night Safari, Laos by Cindy Fan.

Matters improve dramatically once you are out of the van. Photo: Cindy Fan

Muang Hiam is home to the Nam Et-Phou Louey NPA headquarters and visitor centre. As of 2018, a bus headed to Sam Neua is due to pass through Nong Kiaow around 12:30-13:30 (this is the best option), with another around 17:00-18:30. This Luang Prabang-Sam Neua bus does not stop at the Nong Kiaow bus station, rather, it stops by the bridge. Purchase the ticket with a travel agent/tour company by the bridge like NK Adventures as they can “reserve” a seat on the bus, you can wait at the office and the bus driver will call them as they approach. Costs 130,000 kip and takes 5-6 hours.

Muang Hiam is a small town with a market, bus station, a thin selection of local eats and budget accommodation that are good for a night. The two best, Dorkkhounthong Guesthouse and Heungkhamxay Guesthouse, are beside each other at a junction, 500 metres past the bridge. They are close to the market so ask the bus driver to drop off at the “talat”. Both guesthouses have rooms with windows, fan, private hot water bathrooms, beds with thick blankets and free drinking water, for 60,000 kip a night. Dorkkhounthong has a communal balcony for relaxing though Heungkhamxay is newer and the rooms are bigger. Whichever you choose, be prepared for the public service radio blasting throughout town at 05:30 in the morning.

Muang Hiam is none too shabby. Photo taken in or around Nam Nern Night Safari, Laos by Cindy Fan.

Muang Hiam is none too shabby. Photo: Cindy Fan

A day before the trip, call the office to confirm. When we did, they arranged a time in the evening for the guide to meet us at the guesthouse to introduce himself and answer any questions, a nice service touch.

Take the midday bus from Nong Kiaow and arrive in time for a bit of daylight to wander around. The town is an interesting mix of traditional bamboo homes and modern concrete buildings, and the bridge and rice fields are a pretty photo op. As for food, don’t expect much. There is a noodle shop beside the guesthouse and at the bus station, and a restaurant across from the market.

There is nowhere else in Laos quite like it. Photo taken in or around Nam Nern Night Safari, Laos by Cindy Fan.

There is nowhere else in Laos quite like it. Photo: Cindy Fan

The website and the Nam Et-Phou Louey NPA visitor centre has suggestions on things to do in Muang Hiam and the surrounds should you wish to linger and explore. There’s hot springs (walking distance), a self-guided hike, two waterfalls and a village homestay near former US airbase Lima Site 36. Bear in mind that the province is heavily contaminated with unexploded ordinances. As tempting as it may be to go bushwhacking, do not venture off the literal beaten path.

Night safari participants coming from Sam Neua will disembark the bus in Ban Son Khoua, a village seven kilometres west of the Ko Hing junction (where Route 1C from Nong Kiaow meets Route 6 from Sam Neua). Ban Son Khoua is the starting point of the tour/where participants embark the boats. A very basic homestay is available in this village.

Travellers will store their large backpack/luggage in the village and should only take a small overnight bag.

Enjoyed the trip? Tips are appreciated and show staff they’ve done a good job. You can give a lump sum to the guide and it will be divided amongst the entire crew.

After the trip ends, the guide can help travellers grab buses headed to Nong Kiaow, Sam Neua or Phonsavan.

More information
Contact Nam Nern Night Safari direct for enquiries and/or to make a booking:
http://www.namet.org/
info@namet.org
T: +856 20 2860 0038

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