Trekking is the primary reason that most travel to Luang Nam Tha.
The province contains the Nam Ha National Protected Area (NPA), 2,224 square kilometres of mountainous mixed deciduous forest with three large rivers that drain to the Mekong, remote ethnic minority villages and endangered wildlife such as clouded leopards, gaur and Asian elephants.
Eco-tourism first emerged and grew in Luang Nam Tha supported by several international NGOs, but presently eco-tourism here is in flux and unstable. Restrictions on trekking companies loosened in the last year resulting in many new operators. Their shops line the street and all seemingly offer the same one- to three-night treks. We’re doubtful about how much training and experience these companies have.
On the surface, the programmes are hard to differentiate so it’s important to do your research and also have realistic expectations. Some programmes are a “jungle experience” – hiking and sleeping in the jungle with no local interaction – while others emphasise village homestays and ethnic tribes. If you have visions of getting way off-the-beaten-jungle-track, a one-night trek will not suffice; it’ll take time and money and in general, you get what you pay for. Going too cheap will have results to match.
Operators advertise upcoming departures that people have already signed up for and in high season, you are almost guaranteed to have others join your tour the night before which will lower the price per person. Every company has exclusive rights to certain routes and villages as the tourism department is trying to spread the wealth while minimising impact. This means you should never meet another group on a trail or at a village from a different tour company.
All treks are physically demanding and on hot days you will need at least one litre of water per person and for some people two litres. If the tour company provides water, take more and bring your own snacks for the trail. The jungle in rainy season has its tough challenges but also rewards: beautiful scenery, big water for rafting and the best chance of wildlife spotting. Some of the usual treks however are not on offer during this time.
Questions to guide you:
*) Is the homestay in or near the NPA? Is it surrounded by jungle or close to a main road?
*) How much of the money goes to the local community?
*) Will I meet any minority tribes?
*) What is the trail difficulty? How many hours of hiking a day?
*) Is there a river and an opportunity for swimming?
*) Do I stay with a family or in a separate building for visitors?
*) Are bedding, mosquito nets provided? Do I have to bring and carry our own?
The eco-tourism scene here is still growing and finding its way. Feedback on treks has been hit and miss, often arising from expectations not meeting reality and the guide lacking communication skills. Hopefully with more people coming through, operators and guides will gain experience, improve their English and learn what foreigners want in a great trip. So let your guides know if they’ve done a good job with a tip: $2 per day, per guide is a fair amount.
Forest Retreat Laos was managed by foreigners and under their leadership, the trips ran smoothly and received overwhelmingly positive reviews. However,in 2014 it returned to local management and feedback since then has been mixed. The company remains popular and they churn out trips in high season, with two or three departures a day. One of their unique programmes is the three-night “Jungle Expedition” where you cut your own trail into the forest and build your own bamboo raft to get out (think of it as Lao stand up paddleboard).
They advertise upcoming departures on their roadside chalkboard. A three-day trekking and kayaking trip, based on four people, $125 per person. Forest Retreat Laos is located at Minority Restaurant, on the main road down a narrow alleyway.
Forest Retreat Laos T: (020) 5556 0007 http://www.forestretreatlaos.com
Green Discovery were the first operator in Luang Nam Tha and while the programmes seemed to have not changed in many years, they have a more professional set up than most in town. A variety of treks are offered and you’ll find detailed tour descriptions, itineraries and helpful maps at their sales office, as well as a breakdown of where your money goes. They are one of the more expensive operators, but feedback on their customer service has been mixed. A three-day trek in the Nam Ha NPA, based on four people, is $115 per person. The office is at the southern end of the main drag.
Green Discovery T: (086) 211 484 http://www.greendiscoverylaos.com
By Cindy Fan.