Trekking the Wild Jungle of Laos

souvit guide nam et phou louey national protected area laos

Lying on a log platform with nothing but a mosquito net between me and the vast darkness of the jungle, I was surrounded by the sounds of a living forest. Insects scurrying through the leaves that had fallen to the ground, birds of prey calling in the night, unknown animals rustling through the underbrush not far away, and straining in hopes to hear a lonesome tiger roar in the far off distance. Rainy season was starting to be in full swing, the park was closed, but here we were - trekking through the wild jungle of northern Laos.

mountain jungle nam et phou louey national protected area laos

Just a few days earlier I sat at a sidewalk table of a Lao restaurant in Luang Prabang. As I sat eating a warm bowl of orlam, planning my next moves in my trip across Laos, I saw a sign at a tourist company not far away. With a picture of a tiger prowling through the forest, the sign read, 'Tiger Trek to the Heart of the Jungle.' "I want to see a tiger," I thought, "and a hike into the heart of the jungle, I'm sold." But you know me, I'm not really into paying for a tour company when I can just figure it out myself.

rice fields nam et phou louey national protected area laos
Rice fields on the edge of the national park.

So I did my research on Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area. Northern and eastern Laos are incredibly unsafe due to exploded bombs dropped during the Vietnam war, so I knew I would probably need a guide, but I also learned that I would also need porters. I found out where I needed to go and how to get there. I even emailed the ranger station to set up a meeting.

cargo truck nam et phou louey national protected area laos
The rain finally stopped and I was able to enjoy a bit of my ride to Muang Hiam, Laos.

A few days later, in the midst of a rain storm, I hitched a ride in the back of a leaky cargo truck headed for Muang Hiam. Muang Hiam is a sleepy small town in northeastern Laos, stretched out along the main road with just a few small restaurants, a hotel, and a small store, but it is also the home of the headquarters for the park. So after settling in to my hotel (where I would be leaving my main pack), I looked around the street market (where I found, and of course bought, a Malagasy presidential political shirt - who would have guessed), and then settled in for the night.

village buffer zone nam et phou louey national protected area laos
There are many villages that are within the national park that are part of the conservation project.

The following morning I set out to the park headquarters where I had planned to meet a park ranger about the hike. But upon arriving, the station was closed - closed for the season. The person who I had been in contact with had either forgotten to tell me about the closure, forgot to tell the park ranger I was coming, or possibly both. I was finally able to get a hold of someone who came to the office, but they told me that it was not advisable to go on a long hike into the jungle due to the recent rains. They did offer to set up a shorter three day hike though, which I quickly accepted.

souvit guide nam et phou louey national protected area laos
My guide, Souvit, has lived his whole life in and around this rainforest.

Hopping on the back of a motorcycle, we took a short ride out to a small village on the edge of the rainforest, where we would meet the guide, porters, and a translator that would help us along the way. My guide, Souvit, had lived in this village since he was a kid and had been a hunter in the area before and after the war. During the Vietnam War he had also served in the Laos army and was stationed in the trenches along one section of the trail we would be hiking.

vegitable lunch nam et phou louey national protected area laos
The 1st meal of the trip.  Steamed greens, bamboo shoots, sticky rice, and tea.

After eating an amazing lunch with Souvit's family, I dawned my leech socks offered to me by Souvit, and we headed off to start our hike. Along the way we made a quick stop at another village outside the jungle to buy some chickens, who's unfortunate fate it was to hang from a porters pack till they were to be eaten for dinner over the next two days.

rufous necked hornbill nam et phou louey national protected area laos
Rufous-Necked Hornbill

We had a late start, so we had to make up time along the hike, but the first day was still relatively easy. Souvit lead the way, pointing out animal tracks and birds along the way. At one point we tracked down a Rufous-Necked Hornbill that was flying from tree to tree. Along the way Souvit also took the opportunity to pick some Rosy Russula mushrooms that he found. As he told us, the mushrooms could be sold to the Chinese for medicine at $75/kilo; not a bad side gig.

waterfall nam et phou louey national protected area laos
The water was much colder than I expected, but it was really refreshing.

Just before arriving at our camp for the night, the group split up; the porters continued on to start setting up and the rest off us dropped our bags on the trail and made our way down to the river. Souvit had said there was a waterfall we must see and it was also a chance for a quick swim to cool off from the hike. The three-tiered waterfall tumbled down fern covered rocks into a cool pool below. The whole area was engrossed by the jungle around it, creating an idyllic scene one simply has to experience.

river nam et phou louey national protected area laos
I never passed the chance to fill up my water bottle with fresh water from a stream.

Our camp that night lay beside a small stream that rambled across a shallow stone bed as it made its way slowly through the jungle. A log laid across the stream served as a bridge that lead to our camp. Camp that night was a series of log platforms, a log and wood plank table, and a small cooking area; all covered by tin roofs. As the porters, now turned cooks, prepared a dinner of greens and chicken, Souvit lead us to check a camera trap that was deployed nearby. Along the way he noticed a tree that had recently been scratched by a wild cat (possibly from an Asian Golden Cat or Leopard Cat that had been seen there before). The camera trap, after dispersing the ants that had made it their home, showed that an Asian Golden Cat had in fact been in the area in the past week.

chicken greens lunch nam et phou louey national protected area laos
Dip the sticky rice in the ginger or peppers and eat it with the chicken. Delicious!

After an amazing dinner of sticky rice, chicken and greens, and fried egg, we all called it a night and made our way to the platforms to sleep; which brings us to where this story began. I have been camping numerous times before and have slept outside without a tent on many occasions, but it felt surreal to be amongst this wild nature so far from civilization.

Following a hardy breakfast the next morning, we set out for our only full day hike of the trip. Although it was the beginning of the rainy season, we had fortunately not had any rain since we had started the hike; something that would hold out through the rest of the trip. This second day would test everyone's endurance. The trail was steep and in places it had become slippery with mud. Souvit continued to pick mushrooms along the way, to point out animal tracks we would pass by, and to explain the use of medicinal and edible plants he would find. One of which, a root, he would later make into tea when we reached our camp that night.

picnic lunch nam et phou louey national protected area laos
Who needs plates when you have big leaves and finger food.

At around mid-day we stopped along side a stream to have a picnic lunch of sticky rice, chicken that had been cooked that morning, and hard boiled eggs. Once lunch was over we began to ascend the mountain again, this time heading for an old military camp high in the mountains. When we arrived Souvit pointed out one of the trenches he served in during the war. Nature, as it generally does, had already made great strides in erasing the existence of the camp. All that remained were the holes were the trenches had been. They themselves, mostly overgrown and hidden by the jungle.

nest nam et phou louey national protected area laos
The Nests. Loved this thing!

The rest of the day was mostly a downward trek towards our camp for the night, referred to as 'the nests.' The nests were semi-sphere housing units, with retractable roofs, that hung from the trees. After settling into one of the nest, I made my way down to the nearby river to wash away all of the mud and dirt from the day.

lookout tower nam et phou louey national protected area laos
We arrived early to the tower, but unfortunately there were still no animals.

Once finish, Souvit took us to a watch tower overlooking a salt-lick that was not too far away. He said that he expected to see at least some birds in the area and maybe a deer come to the salt-lick, but after sitting for a while and not seeing anything but a few small birds we decided to leave. Once we got back to the camp the cooks had a dinner of soup ready; served in bowls cut from bamboo.

souvit guide nam et phou louey national protected area laos
I'm pretty sure we are lost at this moment. Everyone had scattered to find the trail.

The following and final day of the trek would turn out to be one of the most interesting. If at any point in the trek one could notice that the rain had taken a toll, it was our last day. The trail was extraordinarily muddy and at times it was under water or had just disappeared into the jungle. There were a few times Souvit lost the trail and we seemed to wander aimlessly through tall grass and mud until he, or one of the porters, found it again. By late morning we had made our way out of the jungle and to our rendezvous point, where we all hopped onto a tractor trailer for a ride to a nearby village.

tractor nam et phou louey national protected area laos
After 3 days of hiking it was nice to take a ride to the village. 

At the village, we took a seat inside a patio area where a few ladies tried to sell some homemade textiles.  They were kind and not pushy at all. While they showed us what they had, we were brought some food to snack on while we talked to our translator. Our translator told us about how the Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area was a community run eco-tourism project to create community buy-in for conservation. Their model builds awareness through payback incentives, investments into development, and employees community members. Through the payback incentives, villages get paid for tourist sightings or markings of different animals; much more than the hunted animal would be worth.

mountain nam et phou louey national protected area laos
View of the national park from the old military base.

All-in-all, the trek into the wild jungle of Laos was an amazing trip. I may not have had the chance to trek to the heart of the jungle or to see tigers, but the experience was more than enough. I had an amazing time and learned about a new model of eco-tourism. It was a truly unforgettable trip.

Have you trekked through Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area before? What was one of your favorite jungle hikes?

souvit guide jungle nam et phou louey national protected area laos

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