MUANG SING, located some 60km northwest of Luang Namtha, has developed a small, low-key tourist scene based around the trekking opportunities in the beautiful surrounding valley. The town makes a nice alternative to Luang Namtha, retaining a much more local feel, and with the market drawing people from the local tribes, you’re likely to encounter a number of women in traditional dress. Though the opportunities for trekking are not quite as developed as in Luang Namtha, for many this remains the premier hill-trekking destination in Northern Laos.
Muang Sing, though small, is fairly spread out; that said, most tourist facilities lie on the main road, though it’s worth exploring the quieter roads behind for a glimpse of local life. On the main road, the tribal museum, a simple but elegant wooden building, houses local textiles, tribal costumes and some Buddha images. Unfortunately, it’s rarely open during its advertised hours – though you might be able to find someone who can let you in if you walk around the building. Tucked behind the museum is the town’s principal temple, the ancient-looking Wat Sing Jai, which has a wonderfully rustic sim painted in festive hues. If you come in the morning there’s usually a lot of activity, mostly the village ladies coming to pray and make offerings.
The principal sight in Muang Sing is its large morning market, situated opposite the bus station in the northwest of town. Clustered around the gates you’ll often find women selling mounds of bright green watermelons, beyond which is the covered food market, a good spot to pick up snacks, such as melt-in-the-mouth fried bananas. A few tribal ladies sell textiles at the far end of the food market, though expect some hard selling, even if you’re just looking. If you want to take a photo of a vendor, it’s only polite to buy something first and ask permission. The market kicks off very early, just after sunrise, and though goods are on sale throughout the day, it’s best to get there before 10am in order to see the best of it. Many wandering street vendors in hill-tribe costume hang around the main street; they aren’t rude but they are extremely persistent. Practise your Lao with them until they get bored and go away.
One of the nicest things in town is the herbal sauna attached to the Puoiu 2 Guesthouse; massages are also available here.
You can explore the surrounding countryside and traditional villages on foot or by motorbike or bicycle. However, to get the most out of the area, join a one- to three-day trek through the surrounding mountains to remote and unspoilt villages where life has barely changed in centuries. A number of tour operators now offer treks in Muang Sing.
Lying within the boundaries of the region known as the Golden Triangle, Muang Sing has a long connection with opium. During the late French colonial era, Muang Sing became an important collection point and way-station for the French colonial government’s opium monopoly. In the post-colonial period and before the communist takeover, quantities of local opium found their way to RLA-controlled refineries near Houayxai. There was a brief tourist rush to Muang Sing during the 1990s, which saw opium dens reappear for a brief period, but the town now, though increasingly well set up for tourists, is a quieter choice than Luang Namtha, and has retained a definite local feel.Read More
Villages and treks around Muang Sing
Villages and treks around Muang Sing
Muang Sing is located in the centre of a flat, triangular plain surrounded on all sides by high mountains. The Nam Youan River flows down to the plain from China, and numerous other streams water the valley. Scores of hill-tribe settlements are located both in the valley basin and all through the surrounding mountains; ethnic groups in the region include Tai Leu, Tai Dam, Akha, Mien, Hmong and others.
A number of places along the main road now offer a range of treks in the area – it pays to shop around before putting your name down for anything, and make sure you know exactly what you’re signing up for (and paying for) in advance. At quieter times of year, you will probably find that what trek you do is dependent on what other people are signed up for – prices reduce according to the number of people on a trip – though if you can get a group of four or more people together in advance you’re options will be a lot more open.
While it is possible to organize trekking entirely on your own, if you arrange to be accompanied on your trek by a local who will act as a guide and interpreter, your experience will be greatly enhanced. Do-it-yourself trekkers often find that their visit to a hill-tribe village degenerates into an exercise of mutual gawking. A good guide will be able to explain customs and activities that you might otherwise find incomprehensible and can help you to interact with the hill folk, who may be unaccustomed to or apprehensive of outsiders. If you do decide to do a trek independently, using a bit of common sense and following a few rules should make for a smooth, memorable visit.
(1) Never trek alone. While Laos is a relatively safe country in terms of violent crime, there have been robberies of Western tourists in remote areas. Owing to the government’s total control of the Lao media, word of these incidents is suppressed, making it impossible to ascertain just how much risk is involved in solo trekking. Encountering armed men while hiking through the woods does not necessarily mean you are going to be robbed, but it is best to treat all such encounters with caution. If you are approached by armed men and robbery is clearly their intent, do NOT resist.
(2) Most hill-tribe peoples are animists. Offerings to the spirits, often bits of food, left in what may seem like an odd place, should never be touched or tampered with.
(3) The Akha are known for the elaborate gates which they construct at the entrances to their villages. Far from being merely decorative, the gates are designed to demarcate the boundaries between the human and spirit worlds. If you come across a spirit gate at the entrance to a village, you should find another way to walk, skirting the village to avoid disrupting it while it is being “cleansed” of bad spirits. It goes without saying that climbing onto such a gate to pose for a photograph is poor form.
(4) Many hill folk are willing to be photographed, but, just like everyone else, do not appreciate snap-and-run tactics. Old women, particularly of the Hmong and Mien tribes, are not always keen on having their picture taken. It’s best to make it clear to a potential subject that you wish to photograph them and to gauge their response before taking a photo.
(5) Don’t give out sweets or pens to village children, which often leads to them begging the same things off future tourists, and insults the self-sufficient nature of these tribal peoples. Likewise, the indiscriminate handing out of medicine, particularly antibiotics, does more harm than good. Unless you are a trained doctor, you should never attempt to administer medical care to hill people.