Trekking Tha Khek
March 31, 2015 – April 3, 2015
Setting off from the capital we next headed south to the town of Tha Khek, for an overnight jungle trek and village home stay. A five hour bus ride south of the capital, Tha Khek sits along the border of Laos and Thailand. The city itself is a bit rough, but the surrounding countryside is beautiful, a forest covered hillside filled with dozens of large caves. We went on a single overnight trek, but one could easily spend much longer exploring the countryside and the surrounding villages.
Bus to Tha Khek
Our journey to Tha Khek started out interestingly enough. We paid a travel agency for our bus tickets and lift to bus station. Bus tickets can usually be found a bit cheaper at the station itself but as it is a taxi ride out of town, it is sometimes cheaper and always easier to just go through a travel agency. The morning of our trip a minivan picked us up along with a half dozen other foreigners for the ride to the bus station, only we never actually made it to the bus station. Our van driver drove very slowly along the side of the road and eventually stopped completely, acting very suspiciously the whole time. Stopped along the side of the road as our bus departure time came and went, everyone was demanding to know what was going on, but our driver was silent. As everyone was about to revolt and get out of the van, the bus showed up behind us and we were able to get on.
We figured out later that the van driver and the bus driver had arranged a deal where they took all the money we paid for our bus fares and just skipped actually purchasing tickets or going to the bus station. They were essentially stealing from the bus company and not the tourists, as we still got the bus seats we were promised. The bus actually turned out to be very comfortable with excellent air conditioning, our best bus ride in Laos.
Arriving in Tha Khek, and still trying to figure out what exactly had happened on the bus, we checked into our guest house and went out to explore the city. The city itself is fairly spread out, but the only part really worth visiting is right next to the waterfront, so get a place close to the river or you will be walking or taking a taxi a lot. There are a handful of restaurants along the river’s edge with outdoor tables set up and a small food market in the main square. Aside from that there is a few streets with some small stores, and not much else worth seeing.
The main reason people visit is to explore the surrounding countryside which is some of the best in Laos. Guided trekking and renting a motorbike are the most popular ways to see the landscape. The roads are very poor and crowded and the rental bikes of questionable quality, and every year many tourists are injured or killed riding so we elected to go for the much safer trekking. We did witness some bike accidents and two near misses involving foreigners so it does happen. If you do decide to rent a bike, get either a Korean bike or a Japanese bike, the Chinese made bikes apparently break after as little as six months after being purchased and you don’t want to get stuck in the middle of nowhere, no matter how beautiful it is.
We looked into trekking companies and the official tourism office and found that the private agencies use the exact same guides and routes that the government office uses, and charge twice as much. So it is best to go with through the government operated tourism office in town. Our guide told us later that the private companies, after taking your money, simply call up the government office and book a trip with one of their guides. So don’t waste your money on a local privately owned and operated agency, go with the official government office.
Trekking Tha Khek
We were picked up from our hotel first thing in the morning for the hour long van ride out of town. We got to know our guide Mee along the way. He was only about 4 foot 6 and knew the local area well as he grew up there. He explained that a lack of food when he was growing up resulted in his short stature.
We started our hike in a small farming village between mountain ridges. Mee, our guide pointed out various bugs and plants along the way, he stopped often to show that many of the plants and bugs were edible, eating whatever grew or crawled in our path. “You see this? You can eat it!” Was heard often.
We visited several caves first, as they seemed to be around every corner. The limestone hills of Laos are simply full of them. Many of them near our trekking route were big enough to have rivers going through them, and we could walk in one side along a tall ridge line and walk all the way through to the other side, crossing the ridge without any climbing.
Not all of the wildlife around us was harmless, I spotted a snake and pointed it out to our guide. You can tell a snake is could be poisonous when your guide jumps back about five feet in terror after you point at it.
After crossing through the massive cave to the other side, we entered a flat plain of farmland with scattered households growing different crops. One of the most popular crops was a plant with large bright green leaves growing out of dirt as hard as rock and as hot and dry as the desert. It turned out to be tobacco, and we stopped to watch some locals harvesting it, and even helped string some of the leaves onto wooden stakes to dry. We were pitifully slow stringing the tobacco compared to the locals.
After hiking in the exhausting heat of the Lao dry season for most of the day we arrived, quite thirsty, in a small village where we would be staying the night. Many villages welcome tourists to do homestays, the money it brings in goes a long way to help the villagers. It is also nice to see the money going directly to a village. The small village of 98 people where we stayed only received power and running water (one well tap for the whole village) in recent years.
The villagers welcomed us with tea and soft drinks and showed us a local game called petang, similar to lawn bowling which involved throwing heavy round stones. Afterwards we toured the village and the surrounding farms, the houses are each built high above the ground on stilts. Not just because the area can flood in the rainy season, but to keep the homes cool and away from the bugs and snakes on the ground. The uplifted homes really do cool off during the night and we slept surprisingly well.
The next morning we headed out early to complete our trek. We started early to try to avoid the heat of the day, but it arrived soon enough anyway, each day the temperatures reach around 100 degrees and the air was quite humid. Trekking in the heat, especially on any incline with our day packs on got quite exhausting. Despite the intense heat we enjoyed the second day of hiking through the forest. We picked up another local guide for the first half of the day, taking us through a maze of wandering, unmarked trails. Our guides pointed out the local poaching activity. As the whole area is part of the Phou Hin Boun National Protected Area it is illegal to hunt or harvest anything without permission. In this case teak trees are cut illegally and harvested for their valuable wood. A few kilograms of teak is worth far more than a typical months salary in Laos, and the huge trees are easy targets in the night. It is tough for poor countries like Laos to enforce some of the regulations put in place.
Our day of hiking ended at a large and very deep blue lagoon. It is considered a holy place by the local monks. Sadly as clear and blue as the water was it was not as perfect as it once was, as cows from local farms sometimes come to the water to cool off, destroying the shoreline and filling the water with mud and cow droppings. Handmade wooden fences had been put up to try and stop the cows but they didn’t seem to be working. Also the locals were damming the river outflow for irrigation, keeping the lagoon more stagnant than it once was. Sadly this beautiful blue lagoon, probably the entrance to a deep underwater cave, is slowly being ruined by the local farmers.
We enjoyed our time trekking through the countryside and really enjoyed meeting the locals and seeing how they lived. They were happy to meet us and share some of their stories about village life as well. We also learned a ton about Laos from our guide, Mee, who is quite a character. He asked if we had met any ladyboys in Laos, as he appeared to be quite amused by them. He went on to explain a lot about their lifestyle and which jobs ladyboys in Laos can and can’t get, for example no government positions. Mee is one of only two English speaking guides from the tourism office and has the longest tenure by far. Generally, young people are lazy and don’t like the walking involved in the job, but he enjoys it. He also asked questions of us like are there bathrooms in planes, and how do they work? He also wondered why black people’s skin is so dark, is it a type of sunburn? Although our backgrounds couldn’t be more different, we got along great with Mee and enjoyed every conversation with him and highly recommend him as a guide. Though we didn’t miss the heat, we wished we could have stayed longer. If you ever get a chance to go to a country like Laos, we strongly recommend getting out of the large cities and tourist traps to visit the smaller towns and villages and see the countryside.