Somehow, the leeches knew this was my first time jungle trekking in the Luang Nam Tha Protected Area in Laos. They were relentless and persistent but pretty well left my guide alone.

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. It was physically wiggling and alive. One even managed to sneak up my thigh on our first date; I accidentally popped it, releasing a burst of warm, sticky blood that permanently 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 the drunk, tubing masses at Vang Vieng.

The Luang Nam Tha Protected Area is lousy with landmines and unexploded ordinance (my country left a lot of UXOs there in the 70s), but we were coached on what to watch for.

leeches on a foot

Delicious field lunches were served on banana leaves; we ate with our hands right from the jungle floor. Dripping with sweat, 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, our guide provided interesting tidbits about how the indigenous people live there. 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 the simple, wooden structures.

Interestingly, these people mired in the depths of poverty still have to pay taxes. They somehow manage to sell surplus rice for real currency to do so. Never mind they are at least a day’s walk along jungle trails from anyplace to sell something. Neighboring villages are equally as poverty stricken, so they probably aren’t interested in buying stuff they can raise themselves. Apparently, no one is exempt when the government comes knocking.

I also learned that the villagers eat the lowest quality rice themselves (which they sometimes purchase!) so they can sell the more expensive varieties they grow.

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 young men can go in to spend some “special time” with their girlfriend or crush.

The girl’s family isn’t allowed to object or even to ask questions—the choice is the girl’s.

Anything goes on Open Door Day, and I’m sure the couples are marking their calendars. Getting lucky here seems like it would be nearly impossible no matter how many small villages are strung along the river. If you managed to meet a mate, there’s the question of paying a big dowry. Pigs have to exchange hands before weddings. And forget any notion of privacy: I could literally see through the bamboo slats and into people’s ramshackle houses without trying.

Luang Namtha, Laos

We slept in a village longhouse at night. The dirt-floor structure became a sweatlodge after our dinner was cooked by open fire inside. After dinner, shots of rice whiskey (basically moonshine) were shared, mosquito nets were closed, and I sweated out the night next to a 20-year-old Taiwanese guy who turned out to be an impressive traveler determined to see the world in the raw.

Fireflies and shooting stars filled the unpolluted night sky while animal sounds from the jungle 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 that would haunt me later.

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 Sawyer survival filter, but I may have been too late. Or perhaps I accidentally gulped some of the brown, slow-moving water while bathing in the river the evening before. Regardless, I ended up hosting a thriving community of parasites inside my torso.

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 also had perpetual mucus drainage but didn’t have a cold.

Even stranger, I just couldn’t eat enough no matter how hard I tried. Seriously. I lost over 10 pounds in three weeks. Meanwhile, I would eat until my jaw was tired and I couldn’t afford to put any more food into my face. At street-food carts, I would eat a noodle soup and then immediately order another one to follow up the first.

Unfortunately, while I was bragging and crediting my awesome-for-a-40-year-old metabolism, I was secretly getting some help. The little bastards living inside me were stealing my nutrition!

Hospital in Chiang Mai

It took a visit to the hospital in Chiang Mai, Thailand, lots of lab work (they checked 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 with no insurance, was seen within 20 minutes, had a lengthy consultation with a real doctor, had lab work and x-rays done on site with results handed to me in 30 minutes, and I was out the door in under two hours with the cure (some pills) in hand.

Total cost for treatment and medication: $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, Spain, from my adventure list!

Boat boy Laos