Having resisted the dubious lure of elephant training in Thailand and the Gibbon Experience in NW Laos, we decide to make the altogether more low-key Night Safari in Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area (Laos’ largest NPA) our first paid ‘experience’ of the trip.
Nam Et is home to rare civets, Asian golden cats, cloud leopards, more than 200 bird species and a small (c.10-20) tiger population. While some of the NPA is habited and some hunting and fishing allowed, an inner core of several thousand square kilometers of pristine jungle and cloud forest is (in theory at least) completely free of human interferance. Running through it all is the Nam Et river – the only way in.
We are picked up from Ban Kor Hing and jump in the back of the van with our bikes and bags for the short ride back down the massive hill, to the village of Ban Sonkhua, where the trip starts. There is a short orientation session from our guide, Keo, where we learn about the NPA, the project, and the vital involvement and support of the local villages and people.
The project uses the classic eco-tourism approach of financial payments to the villagers based on how much wildlife the tourists see – meaning that it’s in their financial interests not to hunt animals in the forest or degredate the environment. The project also employs only local people and is low-impact by taking only two or three small groups into the Protected Area per week.
After the orientation and the safe stowing away of bikes and bags, we have a quick walk around the village to learn a little about it, including their twice-yearly Animist celebrations and sacrifices to ensure a good harvest. We also see a small floating spirit catcher being constructed, the idea being you transfer all your troubles into the little vessal and then let it float off downstream, taking your problems away with it. If only it was that easy!
Then it’s onto the narrowboats for the 60 minute journey upstream, into the heart of the NPA. Along the way we see all sorts, from Crested Serpent Eagles and Grey Wagtails (known locally as ‘rock-fuckers’) to a slightly shifty looking young lad standing in the river holding a snorkelling mask in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Eventually the scrubland (ie: previously cleared land) gives way to thick vegetation cover and we don’t see any more humans – we’ve entered the NPA ‘core’.
The ‘eco lodge’ is basic, low-impact stuff but as you’d expect. We drop off our bags then it’s back in the boats to go further upstream. We then go on a short wildlife walk to a ‘salt lick’ apparently very popular with animals (they just can’t get enough of that crazy salt shit) before eating a lavish meal off huge banana leaves, by a riverside fire, as dark descends. Pretty special!
The big draw of this experience is the ‘Night Safari’, but a word of warning here: sightings are not guaranteed and you spend a long, cold time sitting in a narrow boat straining your eyes to see any form of wildlife. For sure, gliding silently down the moonlit Nam Et is a totally unique and magical experience, and the skill of the boat crew in navigating the rock-strewn waters in darkness is incredible, but don’t expect to see too many mammals (especially big cats) up close, it’s just not gonna happen. We catch glimpses of a couple of (sadly endangered) deer species – barking and sambar – and an owl, and that’s it.
Back at camp, we defrost around the fire and sample the strange local brew, LaoLao, which ferments in the pot and is drank through a long bamboo straw.
Next morning (after a chilly night dreaming about tigers) we are served sticky rice and pumpkin (breakfast of champions) before a short trailwalk around the lodge area. Our local guide shows us some of the medicinal plants and explains their usage, as well as the remains of an old village which used to exist on the site. Incredibly, there is still a huge (30ft) ‘stupa’ (monument) remaining; it seems incredible to think of people living in such a remote location just a few decades ago – and carting all those bricks upstream.
Overall, the Nam Et project has admirable and very worthy aims and, for the paying punters, provides a genuinely unique experience, even if this is less about seeing the wildlife and more about the remoteness and sense of adventure. It’s also good to know that some of the fee you pay goes directly to support the work of the rangers and the villagers involved in the project. But some words of warning: if sitting in a narrow boat for six hours isn’t your idea of fun then this probably isn’t the tour for you! And bring (really) warm clothes in winter – it gets cold.
The tour wraps up with the usual evaluation form, then we are touched to each receive a really rather amazing woven scarf as a gift from the village.
One of the tour guys drives us back up the hill (for 50,000 kip, natch) to Ban Kor Hing, where we wait for transport to take us on to Sam Neun. For more than two hours nothing comes, then, just as we are preparing to attempt to start riding in the scorchio heat, at a little after 2pm, not one but two minivans appear (just like London buses!), with just enough room to take us and the bikes. Rach, not keen on cycling this impossible stretch of road, is so happy she practically snogs the driver, and we jump in after handing over the requisite 100,000 kip each.
The excitement and happiness is short lived. Unlike our first minivan experience, this time the vehicle is packed, people have sick bags, and the driver is a certified maniac. We bounce around all over the place and the constant bends and potholes make this more like a rollercoaster ride than a bus journey.
Still feeling a bit queasy after all the boat action, I spend the 90km, 3hr ride trying not to think about the possibility I might at any moment be sick. Unfortunately, the lad next to me is sick, several times, and Rach has a phobia about people being sick. Which means I spend the entire journey feeling sick, sitting between a poor lad being sick and a girlfriend who has an acute phobia of sick. It is, unsurprinsingly, the least pleasant bus journey I can recall, although I’m told the scenary was stunning…
And so, we have made it to Sam Neua, stronghold of the Communist Pathet Lao Party. The town looks well manicured and even, by the riverside, oddly European. We look forward to eating baguettes and drinking a bottle of Pinot Grigot here tomorrow! With little energy to do much else we procure a room at Phouddy guesthouse just off the main road (a decent ground floor room with good wifi for 80,000 kip) and head for the only falang-favoured restaurant in town, Dan Nao Muang Xam, a stone’s throw from the big communist monument.