The jungle did its job. And the leeches were experts at theirs in the Luang Nam Tha Protected Area of Laos.

I scraped the wiggling bloodsuckers off with my knife at every stop, but new ones would grab hold of my left foot even as I was clearing the right. We danced around trying to avoid the things, but the jungle floor was blanketed with them. One even managed to sneak up my thigh on our first date; I accidentally popped it, releasing a burst of warm, sticky blood that stained my shorts brown after it dried.

It didn’t matter. My two days of trekking in Laos’ remote Nam Tha National Protected Area were well worth feeding the thirsty buggers. We slipped and slid along muddy trails, pushed through towering bamboo groves, and devoured hill after hill of terrain.

The going was steep, as it always is in Laos, but feeling exhilarated, I pushed up hill after leg-burning hill. The guide knew his stuff, and our small group was great – intelligent travelers, the types who would brave a hellish bus full of bodily fluids to access such a place. We were far, far away from Vang Vieng tubing.

leeches on a foot

Delicious field lunches were served on banana leaves; we ate with our hands right from the jungle floor. I drank down my four liters of water and had to ration what was left. The thick humidity made us all look like we had already taken a dip in the river with our clothes on.

We skirted rice paddies and walked through electricity-free villages where sun-darkened people and their free-roaming animals scraped away at the land to survive. Pigs, chickens, and dogs wandered around openly – all were on the menu.

On breaks, the guide provided interesting tidbits about how the indigenous people live. For instance, rice is always stored in huts a good distance from the village. The practice comes from experience: if the village burns down – as they sometimes do – at least the people will have rice while they rebuild.

Interestingly, these poverty-screwed people still have to somehow sell surplus rice and pay their taxes with real currency. Never mind that they are at least a day’s walk along jungle trails from any place to sell something. Neighbors are as poverty stricken, so they probably aren’t interested in buying stuff that they raise themselves. Apparently, no one is exempt when the government comes knocking.

Guide Laos Trek

Another interesting tidbit learned was about the villages’ annual ‘Open Door Day.’ On one day each year, doors are left unlocked and men can go in to spend some ‘special time’ with a prospective woman. The girl’s family isn’t allowed to object or even to ask questions. Anything goes on Open Door Day. And I’m sure the men are marking their calendars. Getting lucky seems nearly impossible no matter how many small villages are strung along the river. And if you manage to meet a mate, there’s the question of paying a big dowry. Pigs have to exchange hands. Forget any notion of privacy – I could literally see through the bamboo slabs and into people’s ramshackle houses.

Luang Namtha, Laos

We slept in a village longhouse at night, essentially a sweatlodge after our dinner was cooked by open fire inside. After dinner, shots of rice whiskey were had, mosquito nets were closed, and I sweated out the night next to a 20-year-old Taiwanese traveler – an impressive vagabond determined to see the world in the raw. Fireflies and shooting stars filled the night sky while animal sounds permeated the blackness. Total bliss.

Jungle Trekking in Laos

As much as I enjoyed my trekking, I made one mistake – what turned out to be a serious one. As I was drinking the river water (supposedly boiled for us) the next day, I noticed that my bottles were full of dead ants and mysterious floaters. I started using my survival filter, but I may have started too late. Or perhaps I accidentally gulped some of the brown, slow-moving water while bathing in the river. Regardless, I ended up hosting a thriving community of parasites.

I found out slowly that there are some advantages and many disadvantages of taking hitchhikers along in your guts.

For weeks afterward – including the two weeks spent during my first trip to Burma – I noticed that my energy levels were lower than normal. I just couldn’t eat enough. Seriously. I lost over 10 pounds. Meanwhile, I would eat until I couldn’t afford to put any more food into my face. At street carts, I would eat a noodle soup and then immediately order another one to follow up. But unfortunately, while I was giving credit to my awesome-for-a-40-year-old metabolism, I was secretly getting some help.

Hospital in Chiang Mai

It took a visit to the hospital in Chiang Mai, lots of lab work checking for malaria and dengue, and some x-rays (literally only $10 in Thailand) to determine the problem. In nine years of getting hurt while traveling, this was my first visit to a hospital while abroad. And I have to say, I now know what real health care looks like. Here’s a hint: we don’t have it in the U.S. I walked into a hospital, was seen within 20 minutes, had a lengthy consultation with a real, well-spoken doctor, had lab work done on site with results handed to me in 30 minutes, and I was out the door in under two hours with drugs in hand.

Total cost for treatment and drugs: $51.

One bag of harsh pills and good ol’ doxycycline later, along with lots of probiotics, and I’m back to eating like a normal human being.

Too bad…I was starting to enjoy the prospect of being able to eat two pizzas in a row.

Update: Yes, these blog posts are a little rushed. I’m boarding a plane from Bangkok to Barcelona in a few hours. The mission at hand: cross off running with the bulls in Pamplona from my adventure list!

Boat boy Laos