This area has firmly established itself as a major player in Laos’ ecotourism industry, primarily due to the Nam Ha Ecotourism Project, which was established in 1993 by NTA Lao and UNESCO to help preserve Luang Namtha’s cultural and environmental heritage in the Nam Ha National Protected Area. The Nam Ha NPA is one of the largest protected areas in Laos and consists of mountainous areas dissected by several rivers. It is home to at least 38 species of large mammal, including the black-cheeked crested gibbon, tiger and clouded leopard, and over 300 bird species, including the stunning Blythe’s kingfisher.
Heading northwest from Luang Prabang, travellers will reach Udomxai, the capital of Udomxai Province. It’s a hot and dusty town, with a truck-stop atmosphere that doesn’t enamour it to tourists and unfortunately, the other bad elements that come with major transport thoroughfares seem to be raising their heads here too, such as prostitution and increased HIV/AIDS. However, the town does make a decent stop-off point at a convenient junction; it’s one of the biggest settlements in northern Laos and has excellent facilities. One only has to look around at the presence of Chinese flags on shop fronts to get an inkling of the large presence of Chinese workers and businesses in town.
Luang Namtha Province has witnessed the rise and decline of various Tai Kingdoms and now more than 35 ethnic groups reside in the province, making it the most ethnically diverse in the country. Principal minorities include Tai Lu, Tai Dam, Lanten, Hmong and Khmu. The provincial capital was obliterated during the war and the concrete structures erected since 1975 have little charm but there are a number of friendly villages in the area. As with all other minority areas it is advisable to visit villages with a local guide or endorsed tourism organization. The Luang Namtha Museum houses a collection of indigenous clothing and artefacts, agricultural tools, weapons, textiles and a collection of Buddha images, drums and gongs. In the centre of town is a night market with a range of food stalls. It is only in its infancy but the local authorities have aspirations to expand the market to include ethnic handi- crafts, making it similar to the one in Luang Prabang.
Ban Nam Chang is a Lanten village, 3 km along a footpath outside town; Ban Lak Khamay is quite a large Akha village 27 km from Luang Namtha on the road to Muang Sing. The settlement features a traditional Akha entrance; if you pass through this entrance you must visit a house in the village, or you are considered an enemy. Otherwise you can simply pass to one side of the gate but don’t touch it. Other features of interest in Akha villages are the swing, located at the highest point in the village and used in the annual swing festival (you must not touch the swing), and the meeting house, where unmarried couples go to court and where newly married couples live until they have their own house. Ban Nam Dee is a small bamboo papermaking Lanten village about 6 km northeast of town. The name of the village means ‘good water’ and not surprisingly, if you continue on 1 km from Ban Nam Dee there’s a waterfall. The trip to the village is stunning, passing through verdant rice paddies dotted with huts. A motorbike rather than a bicycle will be necessary to navigate these villages and sights, as the road can be very rocky. Villagers usually charge 3000 kip for access to the waterfall. The small Tai Lue village of Ban Khone Kam is also worth a visit. The villagers offer homestays here (30,000 kip per night, includes meals), for one or two nights. For trips between Luang Namtha and Houei Xai contact the Luang Namtha Boat Station, or the environmentally friendly Boat Landing Guesthouse in Luang Namtha. Ban Vieng Nua is a Tai Kolom village, 3 km from the centre of town, famous for its traditional house where groups can experience local dancing and a good luck baci ceremony. Contact the tourist information office to make a booking. Dinner can also be organized here at a cost of US$6 per head.
Nam Ha National Protected Area
Both Luang Namtha and Vieng Phouka are great bases from which to venture into the Nam Ha National Protected Area, one of a few remaining places on earth where the rare black-cheeked gibbon can be found. If you’re lucky you can hear the wonderful singing of the gibbons in the morning. The 222,400 sq km conservation area encompasses more than 30 ethnic groups and 37 threatened mammal species. Organizations currently lead two- and three-day treks in the area for small groups of four to eight culturally sensitive travellers. Treks leave three to four times a week; check with the Luang Namtha Guide Service Unit or Green Discovery for departure days; an information session about the trek is given at the Guide’s Office. The price will cover the cost of food, water, transportation, guides, lodging and the trekking permit. All the treks utilize local guides who have been trained to help generate income for their villages. Income for conservation purposes is also garnered from the fees for trekking permits into the area.
Several vendors on the main road offer inflated inner tubes for tubing on the Nam Ha River, though this is organized without the expertise in tubing and river awareness in other places in the country and is not always safe, particularly when the waters are high.
Muang Sing and around
Many visitors consider this peaceful valley to be one of the highlights of the north. The only way to get to Muang Sing is by truck or pickup from Luang Namtha. The road is asphalt but is sometimes broken and the terrain on this route is mountainous with dense forest. Muang Sing itself is situated on an upland plateau among misty, blue-green peaks. The town features some interesting old wooden and brick buildings and, unlike nearby Luang Namtha and several other towns in the north, it wasn’t bombed close to oblivion during the struggle for Laos. Numerous hill peoples come to the market to trade, including Akha and Hmong tribespeople, along with Yunnanese, Tai Dam and Tai Lu.
Muang Sing Ethnic Museum, is a beautiful building housing a range of traditional tools, ethnic clothes, jewellery, instruments, religious artefacts and household items. The building was once the royal residence of the Jao Fa (Prince), Phanya Sekong. The population of the district is said to have trebled between 1992 and 1996, due to the resettlement of many minorities, either from refugee camps in Thailand or from highland areas of Laos and, as a result, it is one of the better places in northern Laos to visit ethnic villages. The town is predominantly Tai Lu but the district is 50% Akha, with a further 10% Tai Nua. The main activity for visitors is to hire bicycles and visit the villages that surround the town; several guesthouses have maps of the surrounding area and trekking is becoming increasingly popular. However, do not undertake treks independently as it undermines the government’s attempts to make tourism sustainable and minimize the impact on local villages. From Muang Sing, trek uphill past Phoutat Guesthouse for 7 km up an 886-m hill to reach That Xieng Tung, the most sacred site in the area. The stupa was built in 1256 and is believed to contain Buddha’s Adam’s apple. It attracts lots of pilgrims in November for the annual full moon festival. There is a small pond near the stupa, which is also believed to be very auspicious: if it dries up it is considered very bad luck for Muang Sing. It is said that the pond once dried up and the whole village had no rice and starved. Most tourism operators will run to treks up to the stupa and will also stop at Nam Keo waterfall, a large cascade with a 10-m drop that trickles down into a little brook.
Saigon, Cat Tien National Park, Dalat – Lak Lake, Buon Ma Thuot, Pleiku, Kon Tum, Hoi An via My Son Sanctuary, Hue – Da Nang – Hoi An, DMZ & Khe Sanh, Phong Nha Caves, Tan Ky, Cuc Phuong National Park, Mai Chau, Hanoi