Strictly speaking, the name of the 100
Waterfalls Trek in northern Laos is misleading, since it is impossible to
say how many waterfalls tumble through the thick jungle along the steady 10km ascent,
with each one tumbling immediately into the next.
The trail, which starts near the small town
of Nong Khiaw not far from the tourism hub of Luang Prabang, was really only discovered
by tourists in 2009, though it has been used by locals for years as a direct
route between the scattered settlements of the Nam Ou valley. But in just four short
years, the slow trickle of backpackers has turned into a steady stream of
adventure travellers eager to experience the spectacular trail for themselves.
Getting to Nong Khiaw from Luang Prabang is
an adventure on its own, with most people travelling three hours by songthaew (a pick-up truck converted to
a passenger vehicle by adding a couple of benches along its side, allowing some
25 people to squeeze into its small frame). Stepping onto the main street of
Nong Khiaw from the vehicle, it takes a while to shake off the bruised and
slightly numb feeling that comes from riding along the heavily potholed roads
of rural Laos.
The 100 Waterfalls Trek can only be tackled
as a one-day tour from Nong Khiaw by Tiger
Trails, a Luang Prabang-based ecotourism company led by German founder
Markus Neuer. A small portion of the tour cost goes toward helping local
villages provide for their basic maintenance needs and infrastructure.
Starting from Nong Khiaw in the early
morning, our guide Dhit sat quietly as we drifted around 10km downstream along
the calm Nam Ou River in a narrow long-tail boat. Ladies who were busy washing
their clothes in the murky water stopped to wave as we passed, while fishermen
smoked silently in their boats -- a scene that would probably have looked the
same 100 years ago. After an hour, we came to rest and we climbed up the
riverbank to the tiny stilted-house settlement of Don Khoun, where we were
joined by an additional village guide, provided as part of Tiger Trails’ initiative
to involve locals in the tourism activities.
The Lao government has plans to build a
series of dams along the Nam Ou River, which would have a profound impact on
the area. While the timing of the construction is not yet known, such a scheme
would almost certainly lead to the forced resettlement of the Lao-Khmu
community of Don Khoun, just as the residents have begun benefitting from
tourism through their village. As for the waterfalls themselves, no-one yet
knows how the damming plans for the Nam Ou might affect this natural wonder –
so if you want to see it, now is the time to go.
On the following 45-minute hike through
flat jungle terrain and along the edges of rice fields, the occasional screams
from behind indicated that yet another blood-sucking leech was drinking from one
of the eight trekkers in our group. Even so, as we began to hear the sound of
gently tinkling water, Dhit invited us to remove our walking boots and change
into our sandals: it was time to get wet.
We began our slow ascent through the shallows
of the first group of waterfalls, the cool water reaching up to our ankles and providing
welcome relief against the heat of the morning sun. For much of the way it was
a gentle wade through shallow water, the wet rocks providing a surprisingly
firm grip for both sandals and bare feet. Occasionally we used our hands to
pull ourselves up large sets of smooth rocks, and as we climbed, the jungle
grew denser and the waterfall became steeper. Soon the only sound was the water
tumbling down to meet us, drowning out the voices of the other trekkers. At several points, the rocks were too high or
the climb too steep, and fragile bamboo ladders or ropes had been placed to make
the ascent a little easier.
After 90 minutes of climbing up the increasingly
powerful waterfalls, we reached the top of the trail. Ahead was a 20m high
waterfall well beyond our climbing ability; below us the thick jungle canopy
out of which we had just climbed. As we enjoyed the mist that sprayed off the
thundering falls, our guide got to work cutting down banana leaves, laying them
out as tablecloths and unpacking a splendid meal of cooked aubergine, fresh
salad and omelettes.
Walking back to the village after lunch,
the route followed a dry and pleasant jungle trail away from the waterfall. The
path initially skirted the top of the canopy, offering extensive views of the
Nam Ou valley below, before once again dropping into the shade of the jungle,
providing welcome relief from the intense midday heat. For a little over an
hour we followed the trail as it wound through the trees, crossing the
occasional stream before arriving back in Don Khoun where our boat was waiting
for the return journey to Nong Khiaw.
The 100 Waterfall Trek is not physically
demanding, although the heat and humidity do add to the challenge. But the
opportunity to experience the natural beauty of this little-known part of rural
Laos should not be missed – especially as its long-term future is far from certain.
Bookings for the 100 Waterfalls Trail can
be made at the Tiger Trails office next to the bus stop in Nong Khiaw or at
their office in Luang Prabang, and the price per person depends on how many
trekkers are going. Since the 100 Waterfall
Trek starts in the morning, many visitors stay overnight in Nong Khiaw and walk
to the Pat Hok caves, 3km out of town along the main road to the east. It was here
that local villages were forced to find shelter during the Vietnam War, as American
planes bombed the region heavily in an attempt to destroy communist
sympathisers. An unstable ladder still leads to a cramped cave that served as
the Bank of Luang Prabang between 1968 and 1974. Visitors are warned to stick
to marked paths at all times as unexploded bombs are frequently discovered
across much of northern Laos, often with tragic consequences.