During the summer of 2018, I took part in a month long World Challenge expedition to Laos and Vietnam. It was the most amazing month and such a fantastic experience that I will never forget.
In order to get to Luang Prabang (our start destination in Laos) we took a 6 hour plane journey from Manchester to Dubai; another 6 hour plane journey from Dubai to Bangkok and a 2 hour plane journey from Bangkok to Laos.
During our time in Laos, we completed a 3 day trek in Luang Nam Thai. I can honestly say it was the most challenging, yet rewarding 3 days I have ever experienced. The first day of the trek was by far the most difficult. We had yet to acclimatize to the 35 degree heat and humidity, so we were struggling to stay hydrated and had to keep on taking regular breaks. In addition, 4km of the 8km trek were uphill, and due to it being monsoon season the paths had become very muddy and slippery which made the ascent up even more tricky.
After the demanding first half of the day, the morale of the team was quite low. It soon began to lift as we started the descent to where we would be staying that night. There were even a few giggles as people started to slip and slide due to the muddy terrain. That night we stayed in a wooden shack in the middle of the rainforest next to a river. For me, this was one of the most challenging nights of the entire month, because we were out in the open where there were lots of insects (which are double the size of the ones back at home!) and we were at the mercy of the elements. However, this is definitely a night I will never forget, as I doubt I will ever get the chance to sleep in the middle of a rainforest ever again! Due to the lack of light pollution there, the stars seemed so much brighter and you could see the Milky Way, which has got to be one of my favorite moments of the entire expedition.
The second day of the trek was far easier and much more enjoyable, but was still in the rainforest. As part of the trek to the village we were going to be staying at, we had to use a bamboo bridge to cross a river. It was extremely wobbly and we had to go one at a time as the bamboo wasn't strong enough to hold more than one. Luckily, we all managed to make it across. Once we got to the village, we had a welcome ceremony where the elders of the village blessed us and tied one string to each wrist, which signifies health, happiness and only allowing good spirits to come near our souls. That night we stayed in a wooden lodge within the village.
The final day of the trek was the shortest, around 7km, and the team was really motivated to do it as quick as we could as we were to stay in some fancy bungalows with a swimming pool that night. A large proportion of this trek was on the road, and only a small section in the rainforest, so was by far the easiest and we managed to do it within around 4 hours. The bungalows that we stayed in that night seemed like a real luxury compared to where we'd slept the nights before. We spent the rest of that day having a well deserved rest and some fun in the swimming pool.
One of the main focuses of World Challenge is giving something back to the communities that you visit whilst on your expedition. Our community project was based in a village along the Mekong called Lat Han Village. The only way to access this village was by boat, and takes around 2 hours to get there. Our task at the village was to help to renovate a school, and our main focus was painting the outside of the building. Blue water-based paint was used to paint the walls and purple petrol-based paint was used to paint the window frames. Each morning we had to go down to the river to collect supplies from the boat e.g. paint, wood, steel and paintbrushes. We stayed in the Lat Han Village for 5 days, but for one of those days we each got to teach some of the local children for a day. Myself and one of my team mates Holly taught the youngest class. Given the language barrier, this was a huge challenge and to start with it was very difficult to communicate with them at all. However, we eventually figured out that by drawing images and acting out what we wanted them to do, they could understand us. We taught them the alphabet, did simple maths, played games, sang songs and then they taught us some of their games that they play. To show us their appreciation they kept making us little origami flowers and cranes, and bringing us flowers and leaves from the trees. It was really lovely to see that they were enjoying what we were doing with them. Each evening after all the painting had been done and the teaching had been finished the local children and the boys from our team always set up a game of football, which really brought everybody together. On our final night at the Lat Han Village they held a ceremony for us where the elders blessed us and tied string to our wrists. This time each of us ended up with around 15 bracelets on each wrist. Once the ceremony finished, to thank us for our help the local girls did some traditional dances for us, which were very interesting to watch.
They then asked us to perform some traditional dances, so we decided upon the Macarena (which is very popular amongst the village people) and the Cha Cha Slide. They aren't the most traditional dances, but it was the best we could come up with at the time. Overall the community phase of the expedition was amazing, and to be able to spend a week within a rural community and fully immerse yourself in their culture, was something very special.
Laos wasn't all about volunteering and trekking, we also had time for rest and relaxation activities. In Luang Prabang we went to see the Kuang Si waterfalls and the moon bear sanctuary. The waterfalls were very pretty and you can swim in them, but the water is very cold! Luang Prabang is also well known for its night market, which consists of around a hundred stalls of local people selling scarves, paintings, pottery, jewellery and clothes. This is where the majority of us got our souvenirs and presents for family and friends back at home. The currency in Laos is kip and the smallest note available is 1000 kip and the largest is 500,000 kip, so it takes a while to get used to the currency and trying to work out what prices are in relation to the pound. My favourite rest and relaxation activity was the Buddhist temples in Luang Prabang. That Chomsi is a temple at the top of mount Phousi, that we hiked to at sunset to overlook the Mekong and Luang Prabang. The architecture of the temples, and the Buddhist statues are so beautiful and elegant, something really different to what you'd see at home.