In which Matthew and Alison nearly drown

Luang Namtha is full of “eco-tourism” offices selling treks into the jungle, village homestays, guided bike trips, and river excitement. “Eco-tourism” has become the major draw in Laos in an effort to protect the landscape and the local culture. Many of the tourist offices provide breakdowns of where the money for the tours go to benefit the local area. It’s all in the hope that protecting the natural beauty becomes more profitable than destroying it with logging, hunting and traditional ‘slash and burn’ farming techniques.

We decided to take a break from the bikes as a form of transport and give kayaking on the Namha river a go. It was a day long tour that followed the river about 20 km along the border of the protected zone. And included visits to three villages, all of different ethnic minorities. We set off just the two of us and our guide with high hopes.

The village visits were not the main attraction. All too often it ends up feeling a little too much like visiting a strange zoo that features people as the attraction and that makes watched and watcher uncomfortable. There is a feeling of intruding on their lives, especially as part of a formal guided tour which makes the whole thing unpleasant. We didn’t take any pictures for that reason. However, one of the main points of ‘eco-tourism’ is that these villages benefit financially from the visits, and the element of mutual gain, and mutual learning is much touted.

The first village belonged to the Lenten tribe, who have their own language and culture ties to China. We were mostly ignored , though some children seemed please to show off their talents at “French Skipping,” or “elastics” as Alison used to call it at school. The most interesting part of our visit was that it coincided with a visit from health officials. We spoke to one of them, who had better english than our guide, and he explained that they were testing for HIV as there has recently been an outbreak due to lack of education and drug use amongst villagers. This contrasted somewhat with the picture that our guide was trying to present.

And so to the river we went. It was a fairly calm river interrupted briefly by varying degrees of small rapids. We were in a double kayak with our guide on his own in front of us. Although the river is fairly calm, its bed is full of large submerged rocks which makes kayaking more challenging even outside of the rapids. To our right was the protected area, which at times was an impressively dense jungle and home to some beautiful birds and large insects.

The beginning went alright though it quickly seemed that our kayak was having troubles balancing, listing dangerously from side to side even in calm waters. On our third set of rapids, we got into difficulties and flipped. The water wasn’t that dangerous and we calmly floated to a point where we could right our boat and climb back aboard. No big deal. Or so we thought.

The reason for our upset rapidly became apparent: two large failed patch jobs in the hull were causing us to take in water constantly. The pleasant paddle along a river soon turned into a struggle of epic proportions. We would barely make it a kilometer without needing to pull off to a bank to drag the heavily waterlogged kayak out of the water, lean it against a tree, and drain our unwanted ballast. Needless to say, we didn’t always make it to a bank in time, and ended up being tossed into the water more times than necessary. The most frightening time, we were tipped out in between two sets of rapids and were forced to get back on the kayak going backwards. Unsurprisingly, going backwards failed and we found ourselves once again submerged and dragged along by the current over jagged rocks. But luckily our helmets and life jackets worked better than our kayak.

For obvious reasons, we would hesitate to recommend you use “Jungle-Eco Guide Services”. Although our guide, Air, did his best with poor materials and the fish he barbecued for us was delicious. All the excitement and constant water removal meant we were able to skip the other planned village visits. Despite it all, we had a great time and escaped with only a few bumps and bruises. Floating down the river in a life jacket was at times immensely enjoyable. The prospect of cycling through the Namha protected region tomorrow is an exciting one. Let’s hope we meet some gaur.

For those interested, Matthew’s last rapids experience in New Zealand went equally well: YouTube link… our rapids today were nothing like those.

First pictures in Laos can be found here

Other Pages Updated: Pictures, Maps, and Statistics

~ by Elephants on November 8, 2010.

3 Responses to “In which Matthew and Alison nearly drown”

  1. Who needs Corrie when you can just read this blog eh Alison?!?!
    Great stuff!!!!

  2. Yikes was pleased to see from the photo that you survived the kayaking adventure intact. Now I just have to be a little concerned about the tigers………

  3. SO happy to see you leave Mengyang and Menglun I never did like Barbecued Bamboo anyway. also what a good idea not to travel at night. i wouldnt even think of driving at night here in California Laos looks like it might be better .We were suprised
    to see Collin on the photo We didnt know that he had left

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