While the vast majority of visitors use Route 13 between Luang Prabang and the capital, it is possible to swing through Laos’s northwestern frontier provided you’re willing to allow three to four days for the journey. You can make the entire journey by slow boat, but if you opt for the road-and-river journey, Paklai and Sayaboury are the best places to make stopovers. As there are still only rugged tracks between Vientiane and the south of Sayaboury province, river travel is the best way to do that section of the trip – if you can find a boat to take you. Route 2, running the length of SAYABOURY PROVINCE between Luang Prabang and Kenthao, is especially beautiful, particularly in the rice-growing season (June–Nov), with the electric-green paddies set against a sea of bluish mountains – some as high as 2000m – receding in waves towards Thailand.
Something of a Lao Wild West, this remote, densely forested and mountainous province is home to elephants, tigers and the Sumatran rhino. Recognizing it as the perfect place to disappear, CIA operatives active in the Second Indochina War saw Sayaboury as the escape route for Vang Pao and his band of Hmong irregulars should their “secret war” go wrong. They figured the Hmong would be at home in this province peopled by numerous hill tribes, among them Mien, Khamu and Akha, who migrate freely across the western border with Thailand. The untamed nature of the province is perhaps best illustrated by the traditional lifestyle of the Mabri, a tribe of nomadic hunter-gatherers numbering only a few hundred, who are known to the Lao as kha tawng leuang or “slaves of yellow banana leaves” – the name is derived from the tribal custom of moving on as soon as the leaves of their huts turn yellow.
Some of the villages are so remote that they hardly feel part of Laos, finding it far more convenient to trade with Thai towns across the border, or to simply exist in relatively isolated self-sufficiency. Seizing upon the Lao government’s seeming neglect of its far-flung villages, the Thais claimed three Lao villages near the border as their own in a land grab during the 1980s – an incident that sparked two skirmishes between the historic rivals during the course of four years and highlighted the vagueness of the border.
These days the line separating Laos from its larger neighbour has been sketched somewhat more permanently on the map, and it’s business as usual for traders on either side, with the bustling border town of Kenthao functioning as a gateway for goods flowing across the Nam Huang River. A fair number of smuggled cars, sparkling new and without plates, also pass through here and continue on to Vientiane, where they change hands for a fraction of their tax-heavy cost. Amphetamine production is another thorny cross-border issue, with Thai police accusing clandestine factories on the Lao side of producing ya ba, or methamphetamine, which ends up on the streets of the Thai capital Bangkok.
A 150km-long section of the border with Thailand consists of the massive Nam Phoun NBCA, Laos’s westernmost bio-conservation area. The chain of mountains forming the park’s spine includes peaks as high as 1790m. Two significant streams, the Pouy and the Phoun, flow down from heights above and cross the width of Sayaboury province before flowing into the Mekong. Although the town of Nakong on Route 2 sits right on the edge of the park, the NBCA has yet to be developed for trekking.
As you might expect, getting to Sayaboury’s remotest corners isn’t easy. Secluded caves and waterfalls are out there, but none lie on the tourist route. The region will probably be one of the last places to benefit from the country’s improved tourist infrastructure, which is inspiration enough to try this route.
SAYABOURY, a dusty, independent-minded town, sits on the Nam Houng River, with the massive grey and white Pha Xang limestone cliffs – so named because they bear a passing resemblance to a herd of elephants in motion – providing a distant backdrop. At the centre of the town, there’s a massive thirty-room hotel, an aborted government building begun by a former governor whose political largesse mocks the decidedly rustic atmosphere of Laos’s most remote provincial capital.
People from the local hill tribes often come down to buy and sell at the town’s bustling market, spreading out their weird and wonderful range of produce (roots and forest creatures among other things) on swaths of cloth in neat rows around the fringe of the market proper, while members of the Mien tribe run the more established stalls. The textiles available in this section of the market are mostly from Vientiane, so you won’t find many treasures here.