Happy New Year

2013 has gotten off to an awesome start!  We saw in the new year with a fun party at Forest Retreat Laos where we danced the night away.  Our first westerner Alex started helping us in the shop and we have our second person Lizzie coming this week so we are stoked to have more hands on deck.

Forest Retreat Laos opens upstairs

We  have opened upstairs and customers are loving the comfy lounge suites and balcony up there.  It’s so awesome to have so many long standing projects being finished and being able to enjoy them!

Beautiful Luang Namtha rice fields

Luang Namtha is so beautiful in the afternoons and evenings at this time of year and we’ve taken advantage of this by spending time out watching sunsets and exploring.

Nam Ha NPA monastery

We have been working with Thong to set up many new initiatives for some small ethnic minority villages here and yesterday spent the whole day out at Ban Sin Oudom, a Tai Lue tribe who live on the Nam Tha riverbank across from the jungle in the Nam Ha NPA.

Ban Sin Oudom new hut on the Nam Tha river

We have helped them to start a village homestay, as well as make 3 new trekking trails with a jungle hut and river hut also.  It was so cool to see the villagers super excited to be a part of the eco-tourism project in Luang Namtha and see them begin to reap the rewards.  Yesterday marked the official opening of the trail and huts so the villagers held a lunch of freshly caught river fish, river weed, vegetables grown in their garden and sticky rice.  We saw a 13 year old girl walk into the village after collecting plants to make brooms from the jungle and Karen tried to pick it up and couldn’t even lift it to her head (the carrying method) despite using all her strength.  These girls are so tough!

Broom making season

We also had a party at the Chinese disco to welcome Alex to the shop.  Over the coming weeks we have plenty of things planned so will update again soon.

December in Luang Namtha

This month it has finally gotten really cold in the mornings (much belated compared to last year) and we have stunning blue skies every single day.  December has seen us achieving many different things and attending quite a few events.

Baci ceremony for Bounmee and Sai's babyThe first one was Bounmee and Sai’s baby party for their newborn baby girl.  We attended the Baci ceremony and spent the day with them.

Then we went to a wedding with Thong and Paet for the son of the largest hotel owner in town.  It was exceedingly lavish with a Chinese stretch 4WD limo and a lot of non-Lao alcohol on every table.  It was quite different to other Lao weddings we’ve been to, and a good time was had by all.

Lao wedding in Luang Namtha

After this we moved into our new home, which is so big and with beautiful views of the mountains and valley of Luang Namtha.  We also spent a couple of days repairing the pizza oven, with new thick stone tiles so now the pizza is even better.  Homemade bread from the oven is now really popular too.

Forest Retreat Laos Christmas

Christmas was celebrated with the customers and staff with christmas pizza and turkey in the pizza oven.

Japanese food in Chiang Rai

We made a trip to Thailand for Dre’s birthday where we stayed in flash place and went to our favourite sushi restaurant.  This was combined with finally picking up our new sofas and chairs!  We were so excited to get the long awaited furniture for upstairs in the shop and also stopped to get some more plants to move ever closer to our Forest Retreat office in town becoming very foresty.

Forest Retreat Laos new couches

We are super excited about the upcoming months when we finally have some westerners coming to help us with the business here and having some more time to work on our next upcoming project and visit some awesome places!

Return to Luang Namtha

Our return to Luang Namtha was, as expected, awesome.  We spent our first day riding around and catching up on the local news.  We visited Anic and Moneylins new restaurant out of town with a lovely view, the temple to see the new Buddha being built, and the rice fields for a lovely sunset over the paddies.

Food in Luang Namtha

After spending a few days around town and getting to know everything that had happened at the shop while we were away, (during which time a berry tree got cut down just beside Forest Retreat Laos and we scored hundreds of sweet red Old Stupa, Luang Namthaberries), we headed up to the old Stupa and saw all the awesomeness of wet season staring to happen – so many different insects everywhere we turned. We ended up seeing 15 different insects in about an hour, and then went back down the stairs and found some kids who proudly showed us their find of the day, a large black water beetle.

We spent some time setting up another website Living In Laos where  you can read about daily antics involved in living here, and also continue to write more information on Luang Namtha Guide for people coming to the area.

We then decided to head up to Muang Sing for a few days for another mini-holiday while getting back into life here.  Beautiful Nam Ha NPA on the way to Muang SingWe ended up mostly just chilling out up there, and didn’t visit any villages or any of our usual places.  Even the restaurants in Muang Sing seemed to be on holiday with almost everything closed for low season, so we ended up eating mainly at the market and the Chinese supermarket.  We headed up to the Muang Sing Stupa, which is the most important stupa in Luang Namtha province, and spent most of our time up there not admiring the stupa but the abundance of wildlife that we once again found.  Wet season wildlife in Luang Namtha provinceWe found awesome spiders, beetles, lots of different kinds of ants, butterflies, dragonflies, grasshoppers and other insects.  We also found a little hut to hang out in surrounded by huge old trees so we decided that this is a good hang out spot for wet season.

Wet season so far has actually been awesome, we’ve only had rain a few times per week and then for an hour or half an hour a day usually.  So it’s enough to bring out all the cool animals but not yet enough to put a damper on daily activities.

Namha NPA Luang Namtha

On the way back to Luang Namtha we decided to stop at the Nam Ha NPA at the river that borders the Natinal Park.  It was awesome to just relax and hear sounds of nature and nothing else.  Road to Muang Sing from Luang Namtha

Then it was time to drive back through the National Park, dodging the usual traffic of cows, goats and water buffalo.  The drive is so stunning and we’re probably said it a hundred times but it’s so hard not to stop and take in the beauty of the National Protected Area.Namha NPA in Luang Namtha  When we returned to Luang Namtha town, we got back into the swing of things and got the progress for Forest Retreat underway.

Our pizza oven has been planned for over a year and with one delay and another, and then being so busy during high season that we couldn’t really use our precious courtyard space to build it (with the building materials and process taking up so much space we had far too much foot traffic and customers to even think about starting in high season), it has taken us until now to see a window of opportunity to actually make it reality.  It began with taking the time to learn exactly how to build it, and a couple of phone calls to Karen’s dad later, we were ready to go.  Forest Retreat Laos building our pizza oven in Luang Namtha LaosWe met 2 Canadians who said they were really excited to help us, so we thought we’d get started right away.  As it turned out, the next day they changed their minds, in a lot of ways though it was good because it meant that we were mentally ready to forge ahead.  We bought the materials and started fumbling around making attempts to lay the base of the oven, when we met Ella and Grant.

Delicious pizza is coming to Luang Namtha!This was a hugely fortunate meeting, because Grant helped us in so many ways to understand the building process, even little things that were super important like how wide to make the base to be strong enough to support the concrete slab on top, cementing the bottom layer of bricks to the ground (OK so now this really does seem like common sense, we still didn’t think of doing it until Grant suggested it though!) and just knowledge on how to make cement, and make it stick to the bricks.  He even rigged up his iphone as a make-shift spirit level when we couldn’t find one in town.

Building a pizza oven at Forest Retreat Laos

So day by day we managed to increase the height of the oven base. In between all of that, we managed to have a day out for Karen’s birthday. We had planned to go to Muang Noi for a few days, but with all the pizza oven progress Karen didn’t want to leave the shop for that long. So we spent a day out in the rice paddies soaking in the beauty.

Luang Namtha's beautiful rice fields

Being surrounded by mountains in the huge valley of newly planted rice was definitely an awesome way to spend the day, and the sunset was stunning.

Luang Namtha - another awesome sunset

Sticky rice growing in Luang Namtha valleyDuring this time we also had the privelege to meet Lincy, a lovely Dutch girl who we really hope to meet again in the future. She ended up staying in Luang Namtha a lot longer than she originally expected when she broke her leg.

Lincy’s daily visits to our shop were great, with her cheering us along with our pizza oven progress and generally being great company.  When her insurance company finally figured out that she was in Luang Namtha, and not Vientiane (even though she had never mentioned Vientiane to them, they just assumed that since she was in Laos, she must be in the capital!), they decided to transfer her to Bangkok to receive proper medical attention.  We were stunned Meeting Lincy at Forest Retreat Laos, Luang Namthato hear from Lincy the next day telling us that her x-ray in Bangkok had revealed not a broken leg but in fact a broken ankle, and the cast that had been put on in Luang Namtha had probably hindered her healing process.  So she how has a proper cast and has returned home to Holland to heal for the next month before continuing her Asian travels which will hopefully include eating some awesome pizza in Luang Namtha!

We are so lucky to constantly meet so many new friends here.  Definitely a percentage of the people we meet at Forest Retreat will remain friends in one way or another, whether by email or by future meetings somewhere in the world.  We are now in Chiang Rai, taking a few days out, buying more stuff for the shop and mainly taking the opportunity to relax and see some English movies.  On our return back to Luang Namtha we will continue on the pizza oven, and hopefully get to hang out with Grant and Ella a bit more.  Here are some more photos of the past month’s antics.

Paul and Nedsy visit us

Our good friends from Sydney Nerida and Paul arrived from Luang Prabang and after showing them their room and the shop, as well as heaps talking to catch up, we went to Thong and Paet’s for dinner to introduce them to real Lao food.

We spent a day biking around Luang Namtha, visiting the Nam De waterfall (which has much more water now after all the rain) and driving through the rice fields and seeing the temples.

The following day we went up to Muang Sing again, and although we weren’t quite as lucky with the weather as we have been in previous times, it was still awesome; we saw the usual groups of kids and handed out pens and pencils, admired the forest in the national protected area and the rice fields, visited a waterfall we haven’t been to before on the way there, and went to our favourite restaurants.

We also visited a village that we think hadn’t seen westerners before, they were quite curious about us but were very shy and not too sure about us. We gave them some fruit which they accepted and offered some pencils which we think they didn’t know what to do with so they didn’t take them. The sky was getting pretty black so we decided to try to beat the rain and get back to Muang Sing town.

The next day we left before 7am to go to the opening party of Forest Retreat’s new confluence camp, where the Nam Ha and Nam Tha rivers meet. We were intending to stay the night in the jungle there, but in the late afternoon Nedsy got sick, so the 4 of us joined the next boat back to town and returned to the comfort of our hotel for her to recover.

It seemed like we Paul and Nedsy were only here for seconds, we spent so much time riding around and seeing the beauty of the area that we didn’t really get time to chill out as well, but we still had an awesome time. We miss our friends so much so it was really nice to have them here for a few days. Our photos of the few days are here.

Shop Life

Life outside the shop hasn’t really existed too much in the past week or two. We have achieved so much in the shop such as getting new shelves put up, varnishing them, finishing the kitchen benches and getting all appliances set up, painting the toilet floor and door, cleaning upstairs so we have a nice lounge and work area (for now, before we open it to customers), getting our new signs made and putting more information on the website.  We also got given our first pet, a Rhinocerous beetle, which we kept for about a week, got it a friend, but then they were so smelly that we let them go into the wild again.  (Who knew beetles could smell so bad?)

We have managed to get a cleaner, someone to work in the bar, and hopefully someone to cook for us. We have been advertising around town for more staff and hopefully soon we can find more people who have some English to come and work with us.

We are super excited about our friends from Australia coming to visit, Paul and Nerida arrive tonight so we will have a few days off and show them around the area. A few photos of the shop progress are here.