Surrounded by forested hills that remain lush even when the rest of the countryside is a dusty brown in the hot season, LUANG NAMTHA is the north’s most touristy town, though it still has a quiet local charm, away from the travellers’ cafés and tour operators. The town is a popular base from which to access beautiful Nam Ha NBCA, with a whole range of activities available, from rafting and kayaking on the Nam Tha, to exploring the surrounding area by bike and trekking to hill-tribe villages. Most of the tourist services are situated in the new town, 6km north of the old town – exploring the latter gives an idea of what Luang Namtha was like before the advent of tourism. It’s a great place in which to hire a bicycle or motorbike – just a few kilometres’ ride will take you into small traditional dusty-street villages, surrounded by rice paddies and grazing buffalo.
In the town itself, the only formal attraction is the Luang Namtha Provincial Museum, now housed in Lao–Vietnam Friendship Centre, where you’ll find displays of traditional hill-tribe costumes and artefacts, a model depicting battles that took place in the area during the civil war and a rusty collection of weaponry.
There are a number of places offering Lao sauna and massage in town – the perfect way to relax after a few days’ trekking. Opposite Panda Restaurant, just west of the main street, is a good but basic place offering both, while further north Manyvone Massage offers a range of massages, including a welcome post-trek foot massage.
The new nightmarket, opposite Manychan on the main street, is rather disappointing, though it’s a good choice for a cheap dinner. The main bulk is made up of a rather tacky mix of clothes, houseware and pirate DVDS, aimed largely at a local crowd. Much more interesting is the daily fresh market, five minutes’ walk west of the main street, where stalls groan under the weight of fruit and vegetables.
The best way to spend a day in Luang Namtha is to hire a bike and explore the local area – the map provided with all hire bikes details some good routes. The best takes you south through the old town to The Boat Landing (a good stop for lunch), from where you head east into the Black Thai villages of Ban Pasak, Ban Pong and Ban Tongkwa, following dusty streets through paddyfields with children shouting sabai di (hello) as you pass. The last stretch is on a generally very quiet main road, which loops past a few more villages before taking you back to the town.
Luang Namtha was heavily contested during Laos’s civil war and was razed to the ground. Once the fighting stopped, the surrounding hills were stripped of their trees and the mammoth logs were trucked away to China. Today, the once devastated and depopulated valley is thriving again, and from the lush surroundings you’d be hard-pressed to believe how recently it had taken place.Read More
Nam Ha NBCA
Nam Ha NBCA
Established in 1993, the Nam Ha NBCA is one of Laos’s most convenient and easily accessible conservation areas. Covering 1470 square kilometres contiguous with the Xieng Yong Protected Area in Yunnan, China, the park straddles two high mountain chains and boasts two peaks in excess of 2000m. The NBCA is an important biological habitat for many forest creatures, including 37 species of large mammals and 288 species of birds. However, it’s unlikely you’ll see much in the way of wildlife on a trek into the park – though the forest teems with birdsong. The best known of the park’s rivers are the Nam Ha and the Nam Tha, both of which are developed for kayaking and rafting trips.
The park is accessible by car, with Route 3 crossing the NBCA in two separate places. Within the NBCA itself are some 25 hill-tribe villages, the most populous ethnic groups being Akha, Hmong, Khmu and Lantaen, and multi-day trekking tours between these settlements are also possible. More information, as well as bookings for organized tours within the NBCA, can be obtained through the Luang Namtha Guide Services Office, Green Discovery or the Boat Landing Guesthouse.
Trekking and boat trips
Trekking and boat trips
At times it can seem as though every other business in Luang Namtha is offering some kind of trek, so it can be difficult to know which company to choose. The best thing is to talk to other travellers who have returned from trips to find out what their experience was like, and to visit a number of operators to gauge what’s on offer. In low season, you’ll probably find that your choice of treks is limited by those that have already been signed up for by other travellers – most companies have whiteboards outside detailing which trips are in need of people joining them.
Green Discovery (t086/211484; wwww.greendiscoverylaos.com) are undoubtedly one of the best set up and well-regarded operations in town, offering an excellent range of trips and treks, from a two-day kayaking adventure on the Nam Tha, to overnight treks into beautiful Nam Ha NBCA, staying at hill-tribe villages. They are committed to low-impact, eco-conscious tourism, using local staff, and the office staff will help you choose the right trip for you.
Another well-established option is the Nam Ha Eco Guide Service at the tourist office, whose options include a one-day biking tour taking in local villages and waterfalls and an intensive four-day trek to near Sam Yord Mountain.
Note that for all treks and activities, the price you pay is dependent on the number of people on it, and you should make sure that if you’re visiting a local village, a percentage of the money you pay goes towards supporting the community.