One of our greatest memories of Laos will always be the full-day trek in The Xe Pian National Protected Area (XPNPA).
Open this link for some amazing photos in the public domain (our own photos will follow).
Xe Pian covers circa 240,000 hectares in Champassak Province, Southern Laos, bordering Cambodia. This is one of Lao’s most important natural areas, both in fauna and flora. It abounds in wildlife including elephant, tiger, gaur, Sun bear, and the Asiatic black bear. It is also renowned for its extensive wetlands, home to 330 bird species or over half of those to be found in Laos.
We used Pakse Travel to put together a customized package. PT use experienced guides and were flexible to customer requirements. We had an English-speaking lead guide (No 1), a local guide with deep knowledge of the forest and local traditions (No 2), a trainee guide with some English, a driver and a minibus. We used a cost-plus arrangement with PT and asked them to organize a picnic lunch and water (GBP8 for everybody’s needs).
We were picked up at 8.30AM from our hotel and it took ninety minutes to reach the start point, Kiet Ngong Village, Paphoumphone District, Champasak Province. We started trekking at 10.00AM and finished at 4.00PM – with roughly an hour’s break for lunch, then we returned to our hotel and got back at around 6.30PM, thoroughly exhausted.
The start point, Kiet Ngong Village, is also home to an elephant sanctuary. It is possible from here to go on an elephant trek. We were introduced to our local guide (No 2), who spoke a little English; he would explain all about the jungle to us regarding the flora and fauna. We started walking through rice fields and passed a forest of teak trees and headed for deep jungle and some very interesting plant life. Our local guide stopped to show us a plant that is used for medicinal purposes in Paracetamol, then the Quinine plant. The local herbal treatments for curing a headache or Malaria is to put the appropriate leaf from the plant in a glass of Lao whiskey and allow it to infuse for a while, then drink it. We saw cardamom growing (used in curries) plus a small spiny red capsule looking plant that contains the seeds used in Chinese medicine to treat such ailments as stomach aches and digestive problems and many other plants that act as natural remedies and cures for various problems including aiding child birth. We didn’t see any wildlife apart from one poisonous tree snake and a variety of insects including some unusual looking spiders. On our way up the hill we listened to bird song and the sounds of insects and learned how local people use the forest for food and medicine, heating and cooking. The forest provides the raw materials for the local people to manufacture things ranging from costume jewelry to furniture.
We were about two and a half hours away from the start point and the No 1 guide, who spoke very good English, suggested we break for lunch. We stopped by a dry stream but were assured that it would be gushing in the wet season. Our guides had brought us all a picnic lunch, Lao style, and this was being laid out on tree stumps using plastic plates and fingers – we washed our hands with bottled water and noticed No. 3 guide follow our example. We had chicken with chillies, pork with chillies, beef with chillies, veggies with chillies and plenty of extra chillies if you so wished, fortunately we also had some hard-boiled eggs without chillies! Not to forget the number one inclusion in any Lao meal, sticky rice, all to be washed down with warm bottled water. We thoroughly enjoyed the experience of socializing with these wonderful, very real and honest Lao people and they made us feel humbled. After lunch, we continued with our trek through the jungle. It was becoming far more challenging. There were lots of rocks to clamber over and as we were on our seriously upward hike our No 1 guide walked hand in hand with Marilyn. Even Alf had difficulty with the terrain and the young trainee (No 3) was offering Alf a helping hand which he gratefully accepted. We had passed the point of no return and it was onwards and upwards until we reached the summit with fantastic panoramic views – this made it all so worthwhile.
In previous trips to Asia, we had taken hiking boots but this time we just settled for hiking sandals. We learned the hard way that hiking sandals are not ideal for mud, rough terrain, slippery surfaces, clambering over rocks and walking in the jungle with lots of natural obstructions for our feet. Fortunately, we survived the jungle with just a few superficial scratches, some insect bites and sore ankles. It was very hot and humid and we were both perspiring constantly. Alf was also struggling with an upset stomach that day but didn’t want to miss the trek – he was lucky and had a good excuse for only eating sticky rice for lunch! Incidentally, our No 1 guide explained that in Laos 80% of people eat sticky rice rather than steamed rice – sticky rice he told us provides energy for much longer than steamed rice where people are often hungry again in an hour.
Nearing the end of our trek, we met with a group of Russians that were doing an elephant trek. Probably aged early twenties, they had just left their elephants to explore the plateau and were surprised when they saw us emerge from the jungle. When we showed them our route in the distance they were amazed, especially the attractive Russian lady in her designer clothes, that looked so out of place whilst riding an elephant!
Our guides were truly wonderful. No 1 was outgoing and full of jokes but a very experienced guide. No 2 was a charming elderly man who was very agile in the jungle on a pair of flip-flops and despite the language barrier, he was warm and friendly. Finally, No 3 was a delightful young man of 19 years, with a lovely outgoing personality, keen to practice his English and become a guide. There is a major shortage of suitably qualified guides in Laos. It would be suicidal for visitors to attempt to trek in the jungle without a guide. If you plan a similar trip, our advice is to insist on experienced guides.
We have trekked in the jungle before in Malaysia, especially in Borneo, but this time was different. Although No 2 was following narrow paths through the jungle, he was regularly clearing the way with his machete. No 1 was constantly calling out ‘sharp spikes on the right’ or ‘poisonous tree on the left’.
On balance, it was a wonderful day. The experience of our guides reduced our risk of course. We feel privileged that we’ve had the opportunity to see Xe Pian – the trek reminded us that we in West have such privileged and pampered lives compared to the people who live in the jungle villages and rely on the jungle for food, medicine and making household items.