I have always enjoyed hiking in foreign and remote parts of the World.
With little effort I have been lucky to find beautiful and deserted places to explore.
I often tread the less warn paths in my native Britain and enjoy doing the same in different parts of the world.
Recently I visited the South East Asian countries of Laos and Cambodia.
Laos is little known, boarding China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma it is a truly land locked country.
Laos has one of the most famous rivers in Asia running along its Western margin, the mighty Mekong.
High mountains and thick forests mean that this river provided the only access to the country before the introduction of air travel and recently built roads.
With a population of 6.1 million and a land mass of 236,oo sq km Laos has one of the lowest population densities in Asia. Laos in comparison to, say, Thailand is little known and has a low number of visitors per year.
Trek 1 – Ang Nam Ngum National Park
This trip was my sixth to Asia but my first to Laos. I was really looking forward to exploring this little know country. My main reason for visiting Laos was for Jungle hiking. After landing in Vientiane the capital, I quickly found a guide willing to take us north the next day to the Ang Nam Ngum National Park.
After booking our guide we walked down to the Mekong where I spotted a snake trail in the sand banks of the river. I employed my tracking skills learned on the Frontier Bushcraft Tracking Course to follow the trail down to the water’s edge.
According to WHO South East Asia is one of the top three regions in the world for snake bites. http://www.who.int/neglected_diseases/diseases/snakebites/en/
When hiking in areas where there may be poisonous snakes, a few precautions can help to avoid being bitten:
– One is to take a local guide with you; he is far more likely to see the snake than you.
– The second is to walk with a heavy foot fall, snakes feel vibrations through the ground and will generally get out of your way if they feel you approach.
– The third is to avoid reaching in to any places you can’t clearly see into.
– The last tip is when stepping over logs to step on them and not over them, because you can’t see what you might be stepping on the other side!
On the morning of our first trek we woke early and drove for 3 hours to a small village in the Ang Nam Ngum park. Here our guide hired a local park ranger and a boat man to take us up river.
From May to September South East Asia receives heavy rain during the monsoon season.
In February, the time of our visit, there is very little rain and river levels drop. We had to get out of the boat on several occasions to drag it over the soft river bed.
After about an hour in the boat we came ashore to find ourselves deep in the jungle at the start of our trek.
The Jungle is a place where everything feels massively out of scale. Trees of immense proportions are surrounded by giant bushes and shrubs, even the insects here are huge.
Yet still today the people of Laos live closely to the natural environment around them.
Many plants are used for food and medicine. Hunting and fishing are a way of life for the people. While we walked along the path our guide pointed out many useful plants which locals still use.
The first was called Khing Pa, a small plant with slim dark green leaves; it is used as a substitute for ginger in cooking.
To process the plant the roots are dug up, peeled, chopped and added to chicken curry. The leaves when crushed up smell strongly of ginger which helps the locals to identify the plant.
The second plant we were shown was called Markpet Din, which produces a natural form of insulin used by locals to control diabetes, again this plant has dark green leaves and clear ridge lines along its edges. The yellow root once dug up is peeled, dried, ground up, and added to hot water and drunk.
Next our guide pointed out a vine with distinct lumps along its length called Kheua Nom Nu (Nom translates as nipple in Lao) which is used to help mothers lactate while breast feeding their child. To process the vine it is first peeled then cut in to small pieces and dried in the sun. Once dry, the vine turns pink and is boiled then drunk.
During the hike our guide continued to point out many other plants with fascinating uses, like the Tonh Nong tree. Small pieces are cut off the tree which, when mixed with chillies are used to produce a deadly poison. Laoasians would rub the poison on their arrows or spears before hunting or going in to battle.
Our guide then pointed out a small plant he called Tid Tor, which is rubbed on the skin to induce vomiting in dogs. This effect is particularly useful if they have been bitten by a snake, (or swallow your car keys). Wondering about how the uses of these plants where discovered is enough to make your mind boggle.
We had been walking for 3 hours when I started to hear the sound of falling water, soon after we emerged to the site of a beautiful waterfall.
At the waterfall our guides started fishing and picking local greens for us to eat for lunch; they had bought along sticky rice from the village contained in woven pots made by the locals, as well as some a beef curry.
After eating our fill we went for a swim and explored the area around the waterfall.
After lunch we followed the path of the river downstream to see more waterfalls. Only one day in to our trek I felt at ease in this environment. That evening I was sad to leave the forest for the village as darkness started to close in.
The next day was spent hiking to a small lake north of the village where we had lunch and swam.
Trek 2 – Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang should be on everyone’s list of places to visit in Asia, flanked by the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, this UNESCO protected town is the gem in the crown of Laos.
Located 200km north of Vientiane, Luang Prabang is surrounded by rivers, thick jungle and high mountains.
Once settled in our guest house we walked along the river to where the Nam Khan joins the Mekong.
On the Frontier Bushcraft Intermediate Bushcraft course we teach the art of net making; at the rivers edge I was pleased to see a local fisherman making nets using a netting needle made from bamboo.
Nets are made using something called a netting needle and a gauge; the fisherman had two different gauges for making different sized nets. These nets I learned through sign language (my Lao needs a little work before I’m fluent) were used to fish the two different rivers, the small net for the Nam Khan and the big one for the Mekong.
The next day we travelled to the Tat Kuang Si National Park for our second trek. In the centre of the park is the Kuang Si water falls.
The falls flow over limestone rock rich in calcium carbonate which dissolves in the water and forms stunning natural pools. The deposits build up over time – a bit like the one in your kettle – but far more beautiful.
In Tat Kuang Si park we trekked along the valley floor and up to the top of the main waterfall, hot and humid the jungle can be hard to travel in. The recommended daily allowance of water in this sort of heat is 4-6 litres a day. So if you intend to do some long hikes take at least 4 litres of water with you and some chemical water purification tablets just in case.
A word of warning for hikers in Laos and Cambodia: After what is known as the “Secret War” in Laos and the activities of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, these two countries are densely covered in land mines. Much work has been done since to clear the land mines. But still there are around 300 casualties’ a year in Laos, mainly to farm labourers in rice paddies.
If you are intending to go hiking in Laos, the first rule is to take a guide; the second is to stick to the paths; and the last is to seek local advice before you head off. This is not to say that you can’t enjoy the wilderness in these countries but, for example, as precautions are taken to avoiding bears in Canada, the same amount of thought should go into avoiding land mines in South East Asia.
Trek 3 – Kbal Spean, Cambodia
After our adventures in Laos, we travelled south to Cambodia. Before getting on the flight our bags where weighed with special attention. Due to high mountains and out dated planes the pilots have to be very careful about how much luggage is loaded on each flight. Luckily we were traveling light. With a collective weight of only 15kg for both our backpacks (more to come in a further kit article), we were waved on to passport control.
Our next destination was Siem Reap, a support town for the world renowned temples of Angkor. This was my second visit to Angkor and I was very much looking forward to returning. Angkor is the greatest concentration of architectural wonders anywhere on earth. A wonder of ancient construction, the region lays claim to having the largest religious building in the world, Angkor Wat.
One of the ancient sites we visited was Kbal Spean which is about 50km north-east of Angkor Wat. Kbal Spean is a site of religious worship with carvings made directly in to the bedrock, some of which were only discovered in 2008.
On the way to Kbal Spean we saw people cooking with earth stoves. These stoves apart from the cooking pot are made purely from materials sourced from the jungle and are a very effective way cooking method.
When walking through environments like the jungle or even my local woods I like to stop every now and then to listen. This helps me to tune in to what is going on around me.
While following the track which runs along the stream through Kbal Spean I climbed down in to the stream bed. Once down I stood beside a tree and listened to the sounds around me. I could hear some monkeys up stream, insects flying around the canopy and some form of mammal moving through the undergrowth not far away. It is very hard to judge distances in the jungle; thick undergrowth muffles sound and cuts visibility down to a few meters.
While standing beside the tree, a shape flew past my face and landed on the tree. It was the largest moth I have ever seen. From later research it looks like a type of Giant Asian Owl Moth. With large eye markings on its back and a wing span of about 8 inches it was an impressive insect.
On the return journey from Kbal Spean we passed a local shop selling the most beautifully woven fishing traps. Carefully constructed these traps are made in a variety of sizes and to be baited with ether live fish or dead bait. These traps are a clever way of fishing without having to spend time by the river bank.
The trip to South East Asia was a magical experience, beautiful natural environments and local people who are still very connected to their surroundings was inspiring to see. I now have a long list of the craft skills I witnessed in Asia to master. Like the cleverly crafted fishing traps.
The beauty and allure of the jungle is hard to forget. Once you have been, the majesty of the jungle calls you back again.
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