We decided on this trek, because friends we met and went trekking with in Sapa, Vietnam raved about it on Facebook. After some private messages, I really wanted to give it a go. Tony warned us it would be difficult, about the community shower, and leeches, but said it was totally worth it and a much more satisfying experience than the one (which was still great) we all had together in Sapa. White Elephant Adventures is a bit on the expensive side when it comes to trekking ($50.00 per day) but you trek to more remote villages, that other companies do not visit (getting a more unique experience when interacting with the tribes), and when we met to discuss our booking, small groups and multiple guides (if more than three people) were emphasized. I was relieved. There were too many people on our previous trek in Sapa, and it felt like a hostel room when we slept in rows of beds, not even with the family we were supposed to be "home-staying" with.
Day 2 of our trek was HARD. We were told it would be an intermediate trek, and all of the pictures we were shown had a clearly marked trail in the background, so I didn't hesitate planning on having my DSLR slung over my shoulder (outside of my backpack) for the trek. (Our daypacks are not exactly big enough for camera gear AND three days worth of trekking clothing). This was a huge mistake. Day 2 was advanced. Which would have been fine, had I been prepared (with camera secure in backpack and more appropriate shoes) and it would have been a LOT more fun if our primary guide stayed in view of everyone to show us where to go in the middle of the jungle- not on a trail- but scaling a dried up river bed full of leeches, slippery rocks, rotting trees, and lots of sticker bushes. It was still rewarding, and the second village proved to be an even more amazing experience than the first village, but White Elephant Adventures will not get as glowing of a recommendation as I would have liked to give it on TripAdvisor.
We left Long York around nine in the morning and our trek started out innocently enough, crossing small creeks and walking on trails through some overgrown fields. But then it got complicated. Lee was hungover or couldn't be bothered, but homeboy went FAST and there was always 100-200 meters spanning between him and Jimmy who brought up the rear. Today was the most difficult for me because I was almost always in the middle of the pack, so we weren't sure the best way to maneuver rocks, or we were too busy staring straight down at our feet to keep from falling, that at least I felt, I couldn't appreciate how awesome my surroundings were. Oh, and then there were the leeches. At one point I was in the middle of the dried up river bed, fighting off leeches, while Sabina and Anya waited at the top of the river bed, and Andrew, Sarah, and Jimmy (the other guide) couldn't even figure out how to reach where I was. I'm not going to lie, I was more than a little nervous to feel so detached from the group. At another point, I was trying to catch up with those ahead of me and got stuck and pierced in a sticker bush so badly I couldn't move and had to wait while Andrew removed thorns (one that went in and pointed out of my skin) from my arm. By the end of the day, my arm was so badly bruised, it would have been more believable had I pointed to Andrew if someone asked me what happened.
We arrived in the next village super early (big surprise at the speed we were going) only to discover one more leech on my ankle, and lots of very timid children, who acted as if they had NEVER seen a foreign face before in their life. It's up to each guide as to which village he will take a group. They might not have actually seen foreigners for awhile… And after asking Lee, I found out that he was not Tony & Raquel's guide two weeks before. (Which may explain a lot in our slightly different experiences and feelings afterwards.) More shy than the previous village, the children of Ka Lau Kong always followed, but kept a safe distance from whatever you were doing, or where ever you were walking towards. Unless you took their picture and held up your camera for them to see. Then they would rush and surround you looking at their faces on your screen. Without your camera ready, "playing" with the children made for a fun, yet unintentional game of tag. We never won. I'd like to believe the children were more amused than terrified, but it was sometimes hard to tell.
The village shaman was in the midst of performing some kind of ceremony within the house of a family who just welcomed a new baby into the world!
Interacting with the village children was clearly one of the highlights of the trek. And then, I had enough courage to whip out my new Polaroid/digital camera. I had ordered the camera over the summer, but it wasn't released until the week we left Korea, and only shipped within America. Momma sent it to Hans, and we were able to pick it up from the post office when we visited him in Vientiane. I was too nervous to break it out in the previous village, because there were only children around, and I simply couldn't print enough out to make sure each child got a picture. In other words, I didn't want a fight to break out. But in this village, we walked past an older couple, surrounded by children, and I quickly embraced the opportunity. The first picture I took was of the older gentleman surrounded by children, and then his wife asked for a picture of the two of them, and then she asked for a picture of me with all of the children.
Giving her those pictures was hands down, the most touching part of this entire trip so far. She couldn't take her eyes off of the pictures and just had this huge smile on her face the whole time. We quietly slipped away as she kept looking at them to see if we could find some others who would appreciate a printed photo or two, but most others weren't back from the fields yet, and then it was too dark to go explore.
After a dinner of sticky rice, the same vegetable soup, and roasted duck (that was killed, plucked, and boiled practically right in front of us) we were all beat. We were staying with the teacher in this village. We slept not with his family, but in a house (barn, really) next door. We're not quite sure who the older man was who lived there, and were again anxious to get the mosquito nets up because of the spiders that once again came out of the woodwork. Literally. We split up into two groups of three and slept on two bamboo platforms. It was surprisingly not terribly uncomfortable, that is, until the roosters piped up at 1:30 in the morning, then again at 3:30. It was deafeningly loud. When I climbed out from under the net around 7:00 it made perfect sense (um, not at all) that three of the roosters were walking around INSIDE the barn we were sleeping in. Needless to say, It was not the most restful night of the trip so far…