Laos is a land of rolling hills, remote tribes, unique cultures and stunning scenery. It’s predominantly a rural landscape where villagers practice basic forms of agriculture to scrape enough food together to live a simple life. In many parts of the country, entire villages of people still live in bamboo huts topped with grass roofs. The villagers themselves still tend to the fields in their traditional clothing. The land available for cultivation is often not flat and farmers need to slash and burn entire mountainsides in order to plant crops. How hard must it be to farm on the side of one of these mountains? Well, we decided to find out by taking a trek up one of the mountains surrounding Nong Kiaow.
We searched around town at the different tour agencies for a trek suitable for us. That is, not something that was a 10-hour hike, as is the case with Green Discovery which has trips up to the highest peak surrounding Nong Kiaow. We also needed a company that had enough customers as sharing the cost of the guide brings most treks into a reasonable price range. In the end, we decided on Tiger Trail who are famous for their 100 waterfalls trek and are currently located inside Delilah’s Cafe on the main road on the bus and boat station side of the river.
Pre-trip is supposed to be the time when companies pull out all stops to get your custom. Unfortunately, Tiger Trail were a major disappointment in this regard. The first time we went to ask about treks, the people manning the office were drunk. I’ll repeat that again: the people manning the office were drunk. At least one of the people there was a staff member and showed me through the brochures in a reasonably coherent manner. Unfortunately his female friend sitting right next to me had a plastic bag open and she was drooling into it through the entire process. Drooling and giggling interspersed with the occasional spitting sound. The day I visited was a particularly special day on the Lao calendar and I tried to ignore what I’d just seen. Special indeed.
The sign out the front states opening times of 07:00-10:00 and 16:00-21:00. The night before the trek we had dinner at Delilah’s and waited a couple of hours for staff to arrive to take our booking. When we spoke to Delilah’s staff, they said that the Tiger Trail people had probably gone home for the day despite a few potential customers coming in and leafing through the tour booklets. The next morning we arrived bright and early hoping to make a last minute booking, but Tiger Trail staff again were nowhere to be seen. Perhaps they were hung over? After an hour and a half or so, they finally turned up and were courteous and professional. They soon managed to get a small group of us together for a trek up the nearby mountain an hour before it departed.
Despite the disgraceful booking process, Tiger Trail excelled with the tour itself. The sole guide, despite never having trekked the mountain before, managed to keep us moving at a comfortable pace and in the right direction. Immediately from the road on the eastern side of the river, the path climbed upwards and never really stopped as it passed by cotton fields and through dense jungle and thickets of bamboo.
Because of the relentlessness of the steep incline, I felt like I needed to stop for a rest about every five minutes. Part of this was due to lack of fitness, part due to carrying two litres of water as well as a heavy dSLR camera and part just because it was a steep climb. Tip: Ditch anything you don’t need from your backpack as the extra weight is a killer.
The views of the surrounding countryside don’t open up until the top of the mountain is reached which is a two and a half hour climb from the bottom. But those views really are something: almost 360 degrees of the surrounding area and a great aerial view of the whole of Nong Kiaow. The guide even suggested that Muang Ngoi was visible, but without binoculars it was difficult to tell if the village in the distance was Muang Ngoi or not. But that didn’t matter; the views were spectacular nonetheless.
On this Tiger Trail trek, lunch is provided and trekkers usually eat a bag full of fried rice at the top of the mountain while chatting and taking in the views. We stayed at the peak for about two hours, but this time is totally dependent on the group.
The trip back down the mountain was slippery in parts, but quick. An hour after setting off from the summit of the mountain we were back at the main road and the trek was over. Was it worth the hassle of dealing with drunken staff? Maybe. Was it worth the cost charged? Definitely. Would we choose Tiger Trail again? Yes, but despite this being Laos, land of the laissez-faire attitude, we expected more professionalism from their staff. The guide was first rate, the trek itself a great experience and the value for money very good.
We’d suggest some things to keep in mind ahead of a trek. Staff suggest carrying two litres of water per person on this trek and do provide it free of charge. However, some will need more than this as the climb is punishing and the heat stifling. We’d carry three litres to be on the safe side. Staff also suggested that climbing in flip-flops would be ‘no problem’. One member of our group did trek in flip flops and suggested that staff advise against this as she struggled the whole way due to the slippery conditions.
Other tips: Climbing in the wet season is not advisable due to muddy conditions. Costs of treks decrease drastically with additional people. The cost per person with three people in our group was 130,000 kip (US$15).
By Adam Poskitt
Last updated on 31st January, 2015.