21st of September, 2013
(Spoiler alert: If you are going to go on this trek anytime soon. Please don’t read this post yet. Go first. Every experience is different but we went not knowing much and enjoyed it all the more. Nothing we write can capture a whole experience and this account will be different to yours or others you read. Also doing this trek with young children is a whole other kettle of fish. Some say this trek is a ninety minute easy walk. We didn’t find that the case. But If the idea of this trek inspires you. Please stop reading and start planning to do it).
Being budget backpackers and travellers at heart. We are not usually ones to dish out big dollars for a tour. We generally forgo the big and well promoted, for the low key, local and self-organised. But sometimes exceptions have to be made.
After reading Tony Wheeler’s article (we are big fans of lonely planet guides, although not using one for Laos) and others on the 100 Waterfalls Trek, I couldn’t help but think that we would all be doing ourselves a great dis-service if we missed this opportunity. Here we were in spectacular Nong Khiaw. We could easily book with a local ecotourism company and go on one of the worlds best treks. So hang the expense. I felt that this was one family adventure that would be a glowing highlight in our Laos travels – as it happens, I was right…
We set off at about 9am walking down the slippery banks of the river. A tranquil view of Nong Khiaw perched peacefully across the waters. Our local guide Mr B, was a likeable, smiling, young man. He donned his traditional raised woven hat and led us to his yellow wooden boat. We each carefully stepping onboard and under the shadow of the bridge, began our adventure, as we slipped into the waters of the Nam Ou.
The boat trip to the village of Don Khoun was a spectacular one hour ride downstream. The scenery along the way was majestic and green. Shear limestone cliffs, villagers fishing, small lonely huts in remote fields of rice – a beautiful scene at every turn.
We arrive to see men building a new boat and ascended to the sound of snuffling pigs. We saw several pens of black pigs with piglets. The boys enjoy watching the fun. Although Felix was quick to point our it was a bit stinky. he he. Then over a bamboo stile to the village huts. Here we see our first Laotian loom and a lady making fishing nets. Groups of villagers sit and work together. We stop to admire a locals new baby son and collect our other guide, who calls this his home. Then onwards to the village temple. Here is stored the village racing boat and the traditional drum tower. Mr B skilfully cuts bamboo poles to create customised walking sticks and we are now fully prepped as we head off through the village. Slowly out of doorways and windows peer little children and villagers. We are told a portion of the tour cost goes towards local villages such as this.
The 100 Waterfalls Trek is set along muddy jungle tracks and waterways that have been known to the villagers for hundreds of years. It was made into a tour in about 2008 when it was first opened to travellers. We met quite a few locals as we walked – some children. Many carrying heavy sacks of produce or wood. Some of these tracks are barely as wide as a person and yet they are well known to the people of the Nam Ou valley.
On this beautiful warm day, the guides led us to the shallow irrigation channels. We walked ankle deep in the cool, slowly flowing water. High vegetation growth on either side made a long shaded tunnel, sheltering us from the sun. The guides pointed out little things. They showed the boys a large dragonfly and placed it on Felix’s hand. He is our resident bug enthusiast and is thrilled. They take the boys in hand and leave us to trail behind, enjoying the sights and sensations.
I am impressed by how they gently took the boys under their care and treated them like little brothers. A hand is offered, an arm is placed around a shoulder, a smile of encouragement given. The boys bloom under their care and we all develop a warm trust. This stops us questioning or thinking about where our feet are going. This environment is so beautiful and yet so alien to us. We have never been so off the beaten track – literally.
Our guides point out insects. They float the boys walking sticks down the stream, so they can give chase. They show us some basic hydro electric systems, a credit to village invention and ingenuity. They even show the boys a delightful plant of folklore – I’ll keep this one tiny secret for other children.
Soon we emerge into the rice fields. Some of the crops are ripe and we watch as groups of workers joke and chat as they harvest each stalk by hand. One lady is heavily pregnant but still working as hard as any. Some of the scenes we see, as we walk along the bunds, are ones that could have been the same hundreds of years ago. At times, we feel we are in some perfect, rural painting. Even the simple spirit talisman still exist to ward off evil or a bad crop.
We stop for a rest, next to a farmers humble hut. He and his family are threshing their grain on large bamboo mats. It is wonderful to see the whole process. We feel that being close to the rice is so like being close to the essence of Laos. This country, built on tradition, sheer hard work and sticky rice. To run it through your hands and see it’s changing colours from bright green to gold. To know the wet and dry rice, is in some way to know Laos.
At one point we pass through grain so high that it is like being in a maze. Only the incessant chatter of the boys assure us they are indeed ahead. We pass smaller crops of corn, aubergine and sweet potato. There is even a flowering wet land where butterflies flutter. The sun shines down on us all and we quench our thirst on the large water supply we were carrying. The last small hut we pass has a stone flour mill beneath it and even a small forge. Then we plunge into the darkened jungle.
The crystal clear streams of water we are following and criss-crossing get larger. Eventually we hear the splashing of water as we approach the first of many small falls, all part of a larger fall system. Here it is a step up, there a crawl and then we need a guide to pull us up large boulders. Some rickety bamboo ladders and rope help us get over the dangerous climbs. Always the rushing of water, slowly but surely getting louder. The rocks are surprisingly rough and we manage with our inappropriate footwear. Sometimes it is hard to see which path to follow and the water holds deeper pockets and unexpected rocks. Some rocks are slippery and sometimes the floor is muddy and sucks at our shoes. As we tire, small slips or falls make you lose your confidence and the group slows. This is becoming a lot tougher than we imagined it would be. Reuben gallantly forges on in the lead but we are all getting tired.
At last we take a long rest at a pretty fall. It magically cascades into a deep clear pool. The guide jumps in and we all soon follow. Such a relief to have a small swim. We feel as if we are truly apart. Here there are no voices except our own, no established paths, no hints of civilisation. Just pure nature in all it’s majesty.
So after a long rest we continue, refreshed. We have to concentrate on watching the guides and stepping where they step, through the rushing water. We splash upwards, sometimes using trees or roots for support. It is becoming more and more of a struggle for our wet little band. By now we have left behind our trusty walking sticks as the climb is too steep and we need both hands.
At last, we are slowing so much the guides decide to stop for lunch. We are in a little shaded gully with banks of jungle on each side. There is a small flat area, forming a little island, which is to be our picnic area. One side has a large fallen bamboo pole, just right for a family seat. We sit and dangle our feet in the cool waters, whilst the guides dazzle us with their preparations.
We admire their skill and teamwork. All in complete silence. First they cut down several wild banana fronds nearby and overlap them tenderly on the ground – voila a picnic blanket. Then some bamboo is split into tiny shards. The largest banana leaf is torn into squares, two at a time. These are gently and expertly folded into a square container. The bamboo shards are used to secure the corners. This pattern is repeated with great care until there is a line of bowls and several more as serving containers. Magically from their little satchels comes out some bananas, vegetarian fried rice, omelette, rich tomato salsa, sliced cucumber and spoons. We are all so tired and hungry that it is simply delicious and in such a magical setting.
With our energy renewed we continued our scramble to the top. Soon we are at the foot of the final falls we look up at the spectacular torrent of water. Then skirting to the side we make the final push and ascend. After what seems a long while later, much to our exhausted surprise – we finally reach the top! Our reward is a splendid view of the Nam Ou valley and the distant mountains beyond.
Our guides explain that this was to be our lunch stop but here we are a few hours later. Our small conversations with them, tell us that neither have ever been that far away. They have only heard stories of caves in the mountains beyond this valley. In some ways, we felt humbled by these two kind guides. For all our materialistic goods, opportunity, etc. We would never know one place so deeply or so well. Never be so at one with a community or so intimate with the natural world. Our worlds were, in some ways, so far apart yet for this one day we had happily shared in each others company with a common purpose.
As we sat, the guides practiced some jungle medicine on the small scrapes and scratches of the boys. They collected shoots from nearby, rubbed the leaves on the scrapes then twisted the stems and spread on the sap. This seemed to act as a mild anaesthetic, congeal the blood and perhaps act as a bandaid. Pretty amazing stuff. This would come in handy later as both Reuben and Lucas would gain their leech survivor badge before the day was through.
The descent, though not in water, was very steep. So much so that the boys spent some time just shuffling on bottoms. By now it was easy to slip because we were all tired. Again Mr B. came to the rescue and headed into the jungle and cut more bamboo walking sticks. This made the steep journey much easier. Our other guide now decided that since his satchel was empty and the going was slow he would start some jungle foraging. This mainly consisted of banana flowers and shoots. So every now and again he would suddenly head off into the jungle and we would hear the hacking of his machete. Needless to say his satchel was soon bulging.
Finally we came full circle to the hut with the forge we had seen before. This time the owner was home. So we sat and he talked with the guides, whilst smoking an ancient pipe. One of the guides pulled out a single thong from his backpack, one he had found in the falls. This was received gratefully by the farmer that then produced a large bunch of bananas. These were kindly offered to the boys, who ate a considerable number.
This time when we went through the maze, Felix was too tired to walk. Fortunately Mr B. carried him, because I was far too exhausted to. So as we walked all we could see was Felix happily chatting and magically floating along above the grain. The thought of it makes us smile…
On returning to the village we were so proud of our now muddy, wet, tired little men. Reuben had led us most of the way. Lucas had kept a caring eye on us all and Felix had kept our spirits up. They had done it far tougher than us and managed it. They had been brave and courageous. They had rarely complained and had successfully walked, climbed and stumbled, a very tough ten kilometres.
As the boat stopped directly by our guesthouse on the Nam Ou. I checked the time. It was 6pm and we had finally completed the 100 Waterfalls Trek…
What made the 100 Waterfalls Trek so magical for us, wasn’t just the beautiful scenes. It wasn’t just about feeling closer to nature or the challenge. It was that through the local guides you gained a little insight into the lives and landscapes of Laos. You saw the fields, you felt the streams, you listened to the jungle. You sat with the farmers, you watched the harvest – you stood where they stood.
You saw a glimpse of what they see.
You found yourself not being afraid, but embracing it.
Just letting fear go and trusting others.
After all, isn’t that what the world needs?
To see another’s point of view.
To trust in yourself and others.
“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”
– Ernest Hemingway
We hope you enjoyed reading our account of the 100 Waterfalls Trek. Read more about our time in Nong Khiaw here.