Exploring Luang Prabang: hiking with Tiger Trail

Whenever we’re in Southeast Asia, we love getting out of the cities and into the countryside. It’s where you get a real taste of how people live and what the country is really like. We have been hiking in Myanmar and Vietnam, and of course we couldn’t miss the opportunity to go hiking when we were visiting the UNESCO World Heritage city of Luang Prabang in Laos.

Luang Prabang hiking with Tiger Trail

The hiking ‘industry’ isn’t hugely developed in Luang Prabang; there are just a few operators. We chose Tiger Trail based on the excellent reviews the company had been given on TripAdvisor, and we chose to do the Thin Pha Trek, a 12 km hike through scenic jungle, involving boat rides and a visit to the Tad Sae Waterfall. It sounded great!

We met after breakfast at the Tiger Trail office in downtown Luang Prabang, and 13 of us piled into back of the Tiger Trail tuk tuk (fortunately it was a big tuk tuk that could fit all of us!). We bumped our way out of town on the potholed Lao roads (a common sight here) for about 25 minutes to reach the Tiger Trail camp on the banks of the Nam Khan River (the same river that meets the Mekong at Luang Prabang).

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We jumped in a couple of tiger-striped longtail boats for a short journey up the Nam Khan River to the beginning of the trail. Next door to the camp is an elephant centre, and even though we don’t approve of riding elephants it was a joy to see them wading through the river – such magnificent animals! Can you see them in the river in the distance in the photo below?

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Most of the hike is through the lovely cool dappled shade of the jungle. We visited Luang Prabang in the winter and it was a great temperature for hiking, probably around 20°C. Even so, the sun was quite hot when it came out from behind the clouds. I can imagine in the summer when it gets well up into the 30’s that it would be rather unbearable doing any kind of physical activity!

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Ambling in the jungle

We wandered through the jungle and crossed a sketchy looking bamboo bridge – they build them every year in the dry season when the rivers and streams are low enough so they won’t float away. The hike wasn’t hard so it was nice to amble along, chatting with the guide and the other guests in the group. There was a wide range of nationalities, with the UK, Australia, France, Germany and Malaysia represented (as well as us kiwis of course!). We passed a rubber plantation which was really interesting to see. Man the raw rubber stinks!

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After a couple of hours we made it to the first village, Ban Houay Fai, which is home to about 400 Khmu people (descended from Khmer people from Cambodia). We visited a school where Tiger Trail had helped to build a kindergarten building and a toilet block, and got to walk around the village and talk to the local people. It was really interesting seeing how they lived.

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Village life in Laos

Our guide translated some of our questions to an elderly lady who was 74 years old (it’s quite a rarity to live to that age!) – she had cataracts so was completely blind and had been for some time. Fortunately her family feed her and look after her. It was sad to see her with such an easily reversible condition, but they just don’t have access to healthcare like we do. Thank goodness she has a loving family otherwise I’d hate to think what her life would be like. She looks really grumpy in the photo below but I caught her in a bad moment!

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Then it was back into the jungle. We were down in the bottom of a valley so we had to cross a small creek multiple times, and the trail was quite muddy. I can only imagine what it’s like in the wet season – you’d want to be wearing gumboots I think!

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Lunch time!

After a while we started to climb a hill, really the only decent hill of the day. It definitely made up for all the ambling along before! It was a pretty steep climb for about 15 minutes and got the blood pumping. But the reward at the top was a Hmong village called Ban Tinpha, and lunch! We were amazed when our guide and his assistant pulled out individually-wrapped chicken stirfried noodles in banana leaves, complete with little packets of peanuts and chilli. I was super impressed to see the use of biodegradable banana leaves instead of plastic or polystyrene packaging – what a great idea!

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Lunch was delicious – we were ravenous. We enjoyed feeding the resident baby chicks and dogs our leftover noodles (did you know that chickens eat chicken noodles?). The village was very small, only 7 families live there. Most people seemed to be out for the day, but there was a friendly old man who greeted us.

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You know what goes up must come down? Yep, after lunch it was down, down, down, back towards the Nam Khan River. We passed houses with vegetable plantations, pretty valley views, and a school where the kids were practicing a traditional dance that they are going to perform in front of the Prime Minister in the capital city of Vientiane.

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Off to the waterfall

We got to the Nam Khan and our stripy tiger boats were waiting to take us downstream to the Tad Sae Waterfall, about 20 minutes away. It was nice to rest and watch the world go by as the boat driver expertly steered us down the river. There were people in their longtail boats fishing, and others doing their washing and tending to their crops on the banks of the river. Rivers really are the lifeblood of this part of Laos.

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We docked next to a bunch of other longtails and walked up the hill to the base of the Tad Sae Waterfall. It was a pretty waterfall and far less busy than Kuang Si Waterfall which we had visited the day before. Tad Sae can only be accessed by boat so that’s probably part of the reason! We had an hour to explore and so we walked up the track to see the different parts of the waterfall. The second tier was definitely the best!

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Then it was time for the final stretch in the longtails back to the Tiger Trail camp. We enjoyed racing the other boat (we won) and sitting back and enjoying the end of a fantastic day. It was so great being able to see some of the countryside around Luang Prabang and experience village life. It’s striking to see how different their lifestyles are, even such a short distance away from the booming city of Luang Prabang. We would totally recommend getting out there and doing a hike with Tiger Trail, you won’t regret it!

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Thanks to Tiger Trail for sponsoring our hike. Follow them on Instagram and Facebook, and look them up when you’re in Luang Prabang! As always, you’ll receive our honest opinions, regardless of who is footing the bill.

Would you go hiking in Laos? Let us know what you think in the comments below!

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