Adventure enthusiast Chris Greener braves the wild landscapes of the Nam Et-Phou Louey Protected Area in northern Laos to track wildlife, make new friends and sleep to the sounds of the jungle.
Climb into the clouds
The air trills with a chorus of “sabaidi!” The whole village is here to greet us. Kids appear from nowhere to see exotic foreigners, chickens jostle at our feet and young men invite me to play pétanque (French boules). I’m in a rural village at the edge of the Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area with my guide Souvit; a local wildlife expert who knows the maze of jungle in northern Laos like the back of his hand.
Meeting the gatekeepers
Having lived in Southeast Asia, I have been to Laos before. But unlike previous visits, I’m travelling to a remote corner where few tourists have been, to embark on an adventure that even fewer have completed: a three-day trek to the 2,257m summit of Phou Louey. If Laos is little-visited, this area feels uncharted. There are night safaris and gentler hikes for a taste of this evergreen jungle, but having heard about the cloud forests, I’m longing to see the summit.
As home to many endangered species, Souvit is protective of the park and bubbles with enthusiasm about local ecotourism initiatives. The conservation of the delicate ecosystem in these 5,000 square kilometres is managed by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, along with the Wildlife Conservation Society, and incentivised for 26 villages such as this one. Their funding is dependent on the upkeep of a ‘core’ wildlife area and the agreement to farm and hunt (using traditional methods) in a controlled zone. Despite being the gateway to the park, the locals are not used to groups of tourists trudging through and I become quite the celebrity.
As I try to grasp the rules of pétanque, Souvit tugs my arm, pointing to a small house where a group rally around, inviting me into a room tightly packed with revellers laughing and joking, football-sized pots of rice wine with long bamboo straws at their feet. As a celebration, I’m told earnestly that it’s tradition for each person to drink two horns at a time.
The gruelling three-day trek hanging over me, this is the last thing I want to do, but politeness gets the better of me. I’ve had my fair share of rice wine while living in Cambodia, how bad could it be? Grimacing, I throw my head back, forcing it down. I feel my face flood scarlet as I splutter and cough, much to the hilarity of the rest of the room. Head fuzzy, we leave the villagers (and their liquor), taking a cook, three porters and two chickens with us.
Fuelling up for the forest
It takes a couple of hours to reach the wildlife conservation area, and as inclines get steeper and jungle thicker, the place crawls with life; furry caterpillars shimmy up tree trunks, beetles scuttle over fallen leaves and spiders busy themselves in filmy webs. Stopping at a ranger station, we sit cross-legged on the floor, a simple spread of sticky rice, boiled eggs, sweet bamboo and morning glory (steamed greens) laid on banana leaves in front of us. Laotians believe no meal is complete without a good helping of chilli, so little dishes of spices are served in with just about everything.
Eating is a communal affair here and our hungry group team up to finish every morsel. Standing up and readying myself for the next part of the journey, I discover some jungle residents tucking into a feast of their own; with Souvit’s kindly gifted leech socks buried in the depths of my bag, three of the blighters misinterpret my legs as an afternoon snack. A spray of insect repellent and they go on their way – suffice to say I don’t forget my socks again.
After a long first day, my feet are relieved to see a forest clearing leading to our home for the night. As Keo (one of the porters) sets up the beds, the rest of us seek respite from the heat nearby. It’s as though nature has arranged the cascading waterfall, complete with perfect-sized pools below, just for us. Rejuvenated and ready for dinner, two live chickens become one and a barbecue with sticky rice and fresh vegetables is served on a long bamboo table.
Tales around the campfire
Each evening, our little band huddles around the campfire to swap stories about home. Wherever I travel in Laos, there’s an inherent curiosity to learn about my life and teach me about theirs in return. In this humid part of the world, jaws drop when I produce photos of my kids building snowmen! Moments like these remain my most treasured memories; our daily lives couldn’t be more different and if it weren’t for the trip we would never have crossed paths. Flames flickering, we share folk tales too; one traditional Khmu story is strikingly similar to Aesop’s fable The Boy Who Cried Wolf. At the heart of it, we’re not that different after all.
As stilted wooden huts open to the elements The Ritz this isn’t, but a luxury city hotel could never compare. Waking to cicadas singing in the trees and gibbons hollering in the distance is so special, I pinch myself to check I’m really here. One animal is curiously absent from the hoots and howls though; seeing her friend’s fate, our second chicken made a brave getaway during the night. Vegetarian food all round!
Meeting jungle residents Souvit is attuned to imperceptible changes in the jungle, and on the next leg of our journey he stops ahead of us, studying the forest. We pause, urging the leaves below our feet to stop rustling. Just as we resign ourselves to a false alarm, a large family of wild pigs burst through the trees, scarpering up the ridge with babies following suit. A reminder that we are not alone in this isolated part of the world, but guests of the jungle. Reaching each wildlife camera trap, we gather in anticipation as Souvit plugs the memory card into his tablet (strangely anachronistic). Despite only encountering wild pigs, it’s exciting to see that samba deer, langurs, civets and monkeys have been here, but it’s the clouded leopard strolling nonchalantly across the screen just days before that leaves each of us in awe.
Reaching the top of the world
The final arduous reach is increasingly steep. Souvit warns me that the mountain is usually surrounded by misty clouds, so visibility is likely to be low. Gradually covered head to toe in moss, the surroundings are serene and eerie in equal parts, but after one last scramble we reach the plateau where it all changes. Streams of cloud forests swirl below us and mountains stretch seamlessly into the distance ahead – there’s a reason they call it ‘Forever Mountain’. I’m on top of the world. Though I could happily look over that view for days, at 2,257m it’s considerably colder than ground level and we don’t have long before making our way down, still walking on clouds, elated by our journey.
When I packed my bags, met the villagers and even started the first leg of the trek (missing crucial leech socks), reaching the summit was my ultimate goal, the end point, the whole reason for the journey. But it isn’t the view at the top that makes it one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, it’s new friendships, learning from Souvit’s encyclopaedic knowledge, hearing magical animal alarms and learning the rules of pétanque. When our group says farewell, it is with a heavy heart because not only have we made new friends, we have played a small part in protecting this land at a time when the world’s rainforests are most at risk.
For the ultimate outdoor adventure, pack your hiking boots for our Trekking the Cloud Forests of Laos Fully Tailored Journey. Shorter treks can also be arranged. Contact our Southeast Asia experts to find out more.
This article was originally published in issue 8 of east, our travel magazine. To keep up to date with the latest travel inspiration and features from Japan and Southeast Asia, sign up to receive east twice a year through the post for FREE!