North-western Laos

Overview

Mountains, rivers, forests and small villages cover the landscape of Northern Udomxai and Luang Namtha provinces. Home to over 40 ethnic minorities, the area is extremely diverse and offers travellers with a lot to do, both in the main towns of Udomxai and Luang Namtha, as well as in the smaller villages inhabited by various ethnic groups. Luang Namtha province also contains the country’s only border crossing to China accessible to foreigners.

Luang Namtha provinces
North-western Laos is properly off the beaten track.
 
See and Do

First up is Udomxai. This flourishing city serves as the centre for trade between Laos and nearby China, and walking down its dusty main street, it’s impossible to miss this fact. Signs in Mandarin litter the sides of the road, and as many as 25% of the population is Chinese, making the Yunnanese dialect almost as common as the Laotian.

The main attractions are several religious buildings, including Phu That Stupa where religious ceremonies are held every full moon, Wat Phu That, a charming hilltop temple well suited for cooling off in the hilltop wind, and Banjeng Temple, the most important monastery in the province sporting a “Tree of Life” made out of concrete and metal.

Phu That Stupa
The Phu That Stupa is an imposing sight.
 
A stop at the Lao Red Cross office is also worth your time if you’re looking for a massage or a steam bath and want your money to go straight towards helping the local community.

While the city doesn’t have much in terms of a traveller atmosphere, many must-see locations can be reached from here with minimal effort. Foremost among these are the Chom Ong Caves, Udomxai’s main attraction. The caves often reach gargantuan dimensions, as high as 40 meters, and ancient stalactites extend down from the ceiling into the cavernous space.

Chom Ong Caves
The Chom Ong Caves are the main attraction of Udomxai.
 
Nearby Nam Kat Waterfall, a favourite picnic spot for the locals, can be reached by motorbike or with a 13.5 kilometre hike. The hike is a relaxed one however, with the only challenging part being the final 500 meter climb to the waterfall itself.

Finally there is the Nam Kat Yorla Pa Adventure Park, where numerous activities like cycling, trekking, ziplining, abseiling, rock climbing and shooting can be taken part in. The packages also include accommodation in comfortable modern rooms, or alternatively in tree houses among the branches.

All of these treks and tours can be arranged from Udomxai’s excellent tour office, which is possibly the best organized one in the entire country.

Nam Kat
Nam Kat is a wonderful trekking destination.
 
Just 28km from Udomxai on the road to Phongsali, Muang La is host to the most celebrated Buddha Statue in all of Northern Laos, the famous Pra Singkham Buddha. Local legend claims it was crafted in Sri Lanka shortly after the Buddha’s death, and was subsequently transported to Laos in 838AD where it found its original home in Singkham Cave. The cave can still be visited, but it now houses a replica, as the real statue was moved to a temple constructed specifically for its housing by 1457AD. Local custom says that you can make any wish to the Buddha and it will be granted.

Further north again, Boten serves as the country’s only way for foreigners to cross the border into China. Before 2011, the town was a booming hub due to its nightlife and casinos catering to Chinese citizens. However, in 2011, China banned its citizens from gambling here, and the local economy was devastated. Due to this the only real reason to visit anymore is to cross into China, and as options for accommodation and food are sparse, it’s recommended that you cross the border instead of staying in Boten.

Lovely Luang Namtha however is packed to the brim with activities for all kinds of travellers. The most visually striking element of the town is the Golden Stupa, resting on a ridgeline northwest of town; it glitters majestically in the light of the sun.

Nam Ha National Park
Small tribal villages are common in Nam Ha.
 
Easily the most welcoming town in Northern Laos, it’s an excellent base for exploring nearby Nam Ha National Park. The Park is the one of the most accessible of all the natural preserves in the country, and many small villages dot the park. To ensure ecologically responsible tourism, tour groups are small, and the local villagers are receiving assistance in improving their forestry and farming techniques to protect the natural glory of the park. Nearby Vieng Phuka serves as an alternative to Luang Namtha for visiting Nam Ha, and may appeal to the more enterprising traveller searching for a less crowded and touristic tour.

As you approach the Burmese border, you are entering the territory of the Golden Triangle, the biggest source of Opium in the world. As you can imagine, being on the former Opium Trail, towns here can get somewhat shadier than is normal for the region, with smugglers and drug traffickers active in Xieng Kok and decreasingly in Muang Sing, where thankfully trekking has moved in to replace smuggling as the primary economic activity. Said trekking is usually to nearby Minority Villages, which are the main motivation for travellers to visit the town. These treks can be done alone on a motorbike, or if you wish for a more engaging experience, a tour guide can be hired for a relatively low price.
 
Culture & Arts

A good first stop to learn about the local culture and customs is the Udomxai Museum. While most of the museum is dedicated to communist propaganda, there are also ethnic costumes and local rural tools on display.

Local woman producing fabric from jungle vines.
 
You can then pay a visit to PMC (Productivity & Marketing Centre of Oudomxay) for an introduction to local products such as fabrics made from jungle vines and handmade paper products and bags as well as incense. The centre is funded partly by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in an effort to strengthen non-drug based commerce in the province.

For people interested in arts and crafts, the local tourist office organizes courses in paper making in the local fashion, as well as a cooking course including a trip to the market to purchase ingredients.

Another museum can be found in Luang Namtha, this time dedicating more floor space to local artefacts, like ethnic clothing, Khamu bronze drums and ceramics made by various ethnic groups.

Lao Huay women
Local women hard at work.
 
There is also the nearby village of Ban Nam Di where you can see the local Lao Huay women still wearing their traditional indigo tunics with purple belts and silver jewellery.

For a taste of the country’s colonial past, a walk down the main road of Muang Sing lets you view spectacular 1920’s mansions built in a Lao-French hybrid architectural style. The most distinctive of these buildings plays host to the Tribal Museum where costume displays and cultural artefacts are centre stage. You can also watch a 40 minute documentary on the Akha people.

Tribal Museum
The Tribal Museum contains a wealth of cultural artefacts.
 
While nearby Xieng Kok doesn’t have much going for it in terms of attractions, its market days are a fascinating experience for any traveller. Taking place on the 14th and 28th each month, the markets attract people from the surrounding hill tribes as well as foreign traders.
 
Food and Drink

In Luang Namtha, various ethnic dishes from the Khamu, Tai Dam and Akha peoples can be sampled, should you not feel quite brave enough to order a full meal.

Luang Namtha food
A typical meal in north-western Laos.
 
Different regional variations of Jqaou can also be had here, which are different kinds of dipping sauce for sticky rice.
 
Festivals and Events

On the full moon of the 12th lunar month (between late October and mid November), you can head to Muang Sing to experience the local full moon festival, with a lively carnival atmosphere and traditional dance performances everywhere.

 
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