While history has seen the rise and fall of a Lao dynasty enthroned at Luang Prabang, little has changed on the elevated northern fringes of the former kingdom. Decades of war and neglect have done their part to keep this isolated region of Southeast Asia from developing and have unwittingly preserved a way of life that has virtually vanished in neighbouring countries. While the fertile valleys of the Upper Mekong and its tributaries have for centuries been the domain of the Buddhist lowland Lao, the hills and mountains to the north have been the preserve of a scattering of animist tribal peoples, including the Hmong, Mien and Akha. Anthropologists, gleaning evidence largely from oral tradition, speculate that some of these tribal peoples, such as the Khmu, were actually here before the lowland Lao migrated onto the scene; others, such as the Akha, are relative newcomers. The highlanders make their living by painstakingly clearing and cultivating the steep slopes while bartering with the lowland Lao for anything that they themselves cannot harvest, hunt or fashion with their own hands. It is largely the chance to experience first-hand these near-pristine cultures that draws visitors to the region today.
Continue reading to find out more about...
The far north still has an air of being untamed – and nowhere is this more evident than in Phongsali, a remote, mountainous district where the provincial capital feels as though it hasn’t changed for decades. Improved transport means that it’s now easier to explore the region than ever before, though you can still expect long journeys on endlessly windy roads. The trekking scene in Phongsali is relatively new, which makes it a great opportunity to visit hill tribes that retain a very traditional way of life. Many people come this far north in order to do the amazing boat trip down the Nam Ou, which can take you as far south as Luang Prabang, and allows you to visit otherwise inaccessible Muang Ngoi, long a favourite with visitors to the region wanting to kick back for a few days. An hour south of Muang Ngoi, Nong Khiaw straddles the river, nestling among some of the region’s most dramatic scenery, with limestone mountains all around, and excellent opportunities for exploration.
Striking east from here takes you to Oudomxai – a town with little to recommend it other than as an important transport hub; from here it’s possible to connect to most other places in northern Laos, as well as Vientiane. The most popular northern town is undoubtedly the tourist centre of Luang Namtha, a good place to relax for a few days if you’re after some home comforts. More laidback is nearby Muang Sing, reached by a stunning road journey through Nam Ha NPCA, a pristine and beautiful protected area of the country. Both towns have become popular bases for trekking, due to their comfortable accommodation and easy access to nearby Akha, Mien and Tai Dam villages.
While boat traffic on the rivers isn’t quite what it used to be, the border town of Houayxai is the popular starting point for the memorable slow boat down the Mekong, via the port town of Pakbeng, to gracious Luang Prabang. It’s now also the starting point for the fantastic Gibbon Experience, which provides a great opportunity to explore the jungle, on foot and by zip line.
Many visitors see comparatively little of the region, travelling from the Thai border down to Luang Prabang on the Mekong, perhaps swinging first up to Luang Namtha for a couple of days’ trekking, and then maybe travelling up to Nong Khiaw and Muang Ngoi from Luang Prabang. But if you’ve got time, the area deserves further exploration, and can easily be covered in a broad loop that covers both river and road, beginning with the wonderful journey up the Nam Ou from Luang Prabang to Phongsali (via Nong Khiaw, Muang Ngoi and Muang Khoua), then dropping down to Oudomxai to reach Luang Namtha and Muang Sing before heading to Houayxai to pick up the slow boat back to Luang Prabang.
Any prolonged travel in the north will eventually involve a stop at the rather charmless town of OUDOMXAI, sitting at the junction of routes 1 and 4. However, with good facilities, a few decent places to stay and excellent transport connections, it’s not a bad place to spend the night.
The best way to spend your time in Oudomxai is with a visit to the Red Cross Herbal Sauna and Massage – the perfect way to relax after a bone-numbing bus journey. The money goes towards supporting the Red Cross’s work in helping and educating local people. To get here, bear left off the main road (if coming from the bus station) and follow the signs.
Head up Phou Sai Hill, just southeast of the centre, for a good view over the town; the hill is crowned by a white stupa with a golden spire. The tourist office runs a number of interesting tours and treks in the area, including a walking tour of the town, a one-day visit to beautiful Muang La, stopping at hot springs along the way, and a three-day trek to Khmu villages.
Eating in Oudomxai
There are lots of places to eat along the main road, including a number of Chinese restaurants and the usual fõe places around the bus station. For breakfast, the bus station is the best option, with women selling baguettes, sticky rice and bags of fruit for 2000K each. Alternatively, Sai Jai serves breakfasts, sandwiches and coffee. For dinner, Sinuphet, has a reliable menu of Chinese–Lao dishes including fried fish with chilli (20,000K) and a tasty veg curry (10,000K), served in pleasantly homely surroundings. A good spot for a drink is Khaemkor, with a scattering of tables in a nice position by the river.
Luang Namtha and around
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.
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
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; www.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.
Muang Sing and around
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.
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.
Houayxai and around
HOUAYXAI, sandwiched between the Mekong and a range of hills, is for many visitors their first introduction to Laos, lying across the river from Thailand. It was long an important crossroads for Chinese merchants from Yunnan, who, driving caravans of pack-ponies laden with tea, silk and opium, would pass through Houayxai on their way south to Chiang Mai, and again on the return north with their loads of gold, silver and ivory. Today, Chinese goods are still much in evidence, but exotic cargoes of silks and opium have been replaced by dirt-cheap hand tools and brittle plastic wares that are floated down the Mekong by the barge-load.
Houayxai’s only real sight is Wat Chom Khao Manilat, situated atop a hill, and reached by stairs across the road from the ferry landing. The gaudy modern sim is barely worth doing a lap around, but the adjacent, tall, Shan-style building, which was originally a sim but is now being used as a classroom for novice monks, is made of picturesquely weathered teak. Behind the modern sim is a collection of heuan pha, literally “cloth houses”, built to store belongings of the dead. Originally, these homes for the spirits were fashioned from cloth or mulberry paper, but nowadays many are constructed from plywood – a practice unique to parts of northern Laos and northern Thailand. The top of the stairway leading up to the monastery from the main road is a perfect place to watch the sun set.
There’s a traditional Lao herbal sauna run by the Red Cross, located just past the wooden bridge as you go north up the main road.
Most tourists hurry through Houayxai, either rushing through to Thailand at the end of their visas or entering from Chiang Khong and immediately heading downriver by slow boat. Despite being a border town, it’s not completely devoid of charm, though the main reason to stop here now is to take part in the acclaimed Gibbon Experience.
Down the Mekong
Originally, the Mekong’s slow boats (heua sa) were primarily for cargo and the occasional Lao passengers who relied on them for trade and transport in a part of Laos where roads are sometimes impassable. Since the Lao government eased travel restrictions allowing foreigners to ride these antiquated diesel-powered boats, thousands of tourists have made the two-day journey between Houayxai and Luang Prabang (and vice versa), stopping overnight at the village of Pakbeng.
Many travellers agree that the journey is one of those definitive Southeast Asian experiences. The riverbanks along the Mekong are sparsely populated, though the forest is not as pristine as one might imagine. Logging and decades of slash-and-burn agriculture have left their mark, and, on the more accessible slopes and summits, trees have been supplanted by rows of corn stalks and banana plants. Of as much interest are the glimpses into local village life. Fisher-folk utilizing bamboo fish-traps and prospectors panning for gold can be seen among the sandbars and jagged rocks that make this stretch of the Mekong a treacherous obstacle course. Along the way, boats often call briefly at tiny villages situated at confluences, and the villagers take the opportunity to hawk fish, game and other local products to passengers and crew.
The boats usually carry far more passengers than there are seats – take a cushion with you if possible, which will really make a difference on the long journey, as well as plenty of drinks and snacks. Turn up at the boat landing as early as you can – you may need to sign up in advance so check locally what the situation is.
A couple of luxury tourist boats also make the journey up the Mekong, the pick of which is Luang Say (wwww.luangsay.com), run by the same company as Luang Say Lodge in Pakbeng. The price includes overnight accommodation in Pakbeng, meals and drinks, plus stops at Pak Ou Buddha Cave and minority villages along the way. If you can afford the splurge, its definitely worth it to do this wonderful journey in more comfortable surroundings.
You’d be foolish to risk your life travelling the river in one of the speedboats (heua wai) which also make the journey from Houayxai to Pakbeng (4hr) and Luang Prabang (6hr); crash helmets and life-vests are supposed to be provided, and don’t forget to bring earplugs.
Note that in February 2010, water levels in the Mekong were so low that boats were suspended for a few weeks – those that did run often ended up with tourists having to camp on riverbanks and in nearby villages when the boat couldn’t make it as far as Pakbeng for the night. There seems to be no clear answer about whether it was due to low rainfall or Chinese dams further up the river limiting the flow, so it could certainly happen again. If it does, your best option is to take the bus back to Luang Prabang, rather than risk a very slow, uncomfortable and potentially dangerous journey.
Eating in Houayxai and around
Houayxai is unsurprisingly well set up with eating options. In the evenings, a number of places along the main road sell freshly barbequed fish and chicken.
The Gibbon Experience
One of the country’s pioneering eco-tourism projects takes place just outside of Houayxai in Bokeo Nature Reserve, a pristine area of jungle that had previously been unexplored by tourists. The acclaimed Gibbon Experience (t084/212021, wwww.gibbonexperience.org)is unlike anything else on offer in Laos, and has quickly become a must-do among backpackers (and others), despite its rather high price tag. Groups of no more than eight spend two nights in the reserve, on one of two trips – “Waterfall”, which involves two to three hours of trekking a day and thus gets you further into the reserve, and “Classic” which is a little more relaxed, with only an hour of walking. Each tour runs on alternate days.
Regardless of which tour you do, days are spent zip-lining through the forest canopy (an exhilarating experience) and exploring the reserve (with guides), while nights are spent in the specially crafted tree houses. Guides can be a little hit and miss, but most people say that the overall experience makes up for this. Don’t expect to see the eponymous gibbons, however, though you may hear them calling in the early morning.
Bookings should be made by telephone or in person at the Houayxai office (on the main street); the price includes all meals, accommodation, local guides and transportation to and from Houayxai.
Pakbeng and around
The bustling, river port of PAKBENG is the halfway point between Houayxai and Luang Prabang, and the only sizeable town or roadhead along the 300km stretch of river between them. As slow boats don’t travel the Mekong after dark, a night here is unavoidable if you’re travelling this way – a taste of backcountry Laos complete with hill tribes and rustic accommodation. As you stumble off the slow boat at the end of a long day, the ramshackle settlement of wood-scrap, corrugated tin and hand-painted signs that constitutes the port area can be a bit of a culture shock. Since Pakbeng is many travellers’ first night in Laos, the expression on a lot of faces is one of “What have I got myself into?” Don’t worry: Pakbeng is typical of the northern backwoods only, and provided you don’t miss your morning boat you’ll be sipping lattes in Luang Prabang in no time.
Although first impressions of the town are generally unfavourable, Pakbeng is actually a very interesting place. Once extremely poor, it is now growing rapidly, with even a few big mansions going up. The town’s change of fortune is due to its role as an important trading post; goods from Thailand come down the river from Houayxai and then make their way up into the interior from here. Tourism has also been a big boon for the town, with the slow boats alone disgorging up hundreds of hungry backpackers a day.
Since most tourists to Pakbeng come by slow boat, arriving late and leaving early, many people think the port area around the landing is Pakbeng. In fact, the real town lies past the top of the hill and stretches for a good kilometre along the main road that follows the Mekong before turning north to Muang Beng and Oudomxai. The town is well worth a wander and has a couple of pleasant wats overlooking the Mekong. There’s no accommodation or restaurants in the old town, although you will find a few noodle shops and some stalls selling sausages and sticky rice.
The small market is located right at the top of the landing road past the Donevilasak where the road turns sharply right towards the town proper. There’s not a lot happening here but it’s worth visiting and there are some fõe stalls. The market convenes every morning and goes most of the day, and is frequented by Hmong women and children, although it appears that traditional dress has gone out of fashion among the Hmong in this vicinity. Heading out of town in either direction will quickly take you to very poor, traditional villages where you’ll soon be the centre of attention.
MUANG LONG is an up-and-coming Tai Leu town surrounded by Akha and Hmong villages. If you’re looking for good trekking in unspoilt areas and don’t mind basic food and facilities, then this is the place for you.
In town itself there are a few “sights”. At dawn a parade of tribal peoples comes down from the hills to trade at the makeshift market. Besides the usual basketloads of peppers, tubers and gourds, villagers bring pieces of rare eaglewood which they gather from the dense forest. This resinous wood, used in Middle Eastern countries in the manufacture of perfumes and incense, is warehoused here before being shipped off to Bangkok, where it fetches astonishingly high prices at shops in the small Arab quarter off Bangkok’s Sukhumvit Road. There’s also a diminutive Tai Leu stupa resembling those found in China’s Xishuangbanna region, which stands a few metres off Muang Long’s main road. If you look closely at concrete tablets built into the stupa, you’ll see examples of the Tai Leu script, which differs greatly from written Lao.
Buses going in both directions stop on the main road in the morning before noon. There are a few decent guesthouses in Muang Long, including Ouseng (40,000K and under), near the market, and Jony (40,000K and under); both have basic rooms, and the latter is attached to a decent restaurant.
Around Muang Long
Muang Long lies in a flat narrow valley bottom, with the Nam Ma River flowing right down the valley to enter the Mekong at Xieng Kok. Two tributaries intersect the Nam Ma right at the junction of Muang Long: the Nam Dok Long flows down from the north while the larger Nam Luang River enters from deep in the mountains to the south. Together, the two river valleys, heavily populated with ethnic tribes, form corridors into the mountains north and south of Muang Long.
There are several easy areas to explore around Long, which can be done as day-trips. To the south of town, you can follow the main road up into the mountains to a scenic waterfall and tribal villages. To the north of town is another road leading to Ban Jamai, which will eventually go all the way to Ban Chak Keun. Another option is to take Route 322 south towards Xieng Kok to the village of Somphammai where you then take a dirt road south into the mountains which leads to a number of Akha villages.
Another good location near Long is up Route 322 to the village of Ban Cha Kham Ping near Kilometre 35. This is the narrowest section of the Ma River valley and the steep mountains come right to the edge of the road. At Ban Cha Kham Ping there’s some amazing pristine subtropical rainforest which, with a guide, is well worth the effort of reaching. Regardless of what routes you take, if you do go for a do-it-yourself trek in this region, keep in mind that wandering around on remote trails in these mountains without a guide is foolhardy – ask around town.
Many people travel to Muang Long from Luang Namtha and Muang Sing by motorbike, which is probably the best option if you want flexibility and independence.
Xieng Kok and around
A rowdy frontier town on a remote stretch of the Mekong, XIENG KOK is the last river-town stop before China. The Upper Mekong scenery here is fantastic, the river narrow, fast and studded with islets of craggy stone, and the region’s remoteness gives it a real wilderness feel. Xieng Kok is right on the border with Myanmar, though the crossing isn’t open to foreigners. The town itself has a ramshackle charm, not least because few tourists make the trip out here.
Buses to and from Muang Long and Muang Sing depart around 7/8am, though it can be much later if there aren’t enough passengers. From Xieng Kok it is possible to travel downriver, but note that the boatmen, who know well that many travellers need to get down to Houayxai and exit into Thailand before their visas expire, have a reputation for extorting money from tourists. Expect to pay upwards of $90 for a boat. Unless you can get onto a cargo boat making its way downriver, the only other option is by speedboat, which is not recommended due to their appalling safety record (see Down the Mekong).
Some boats will only agree to travel as far as Muang Mom, about an hour’s trip north of Houayxai by speedboat, from which it should be easy enough to arrange a boat for the final stretch. There’s basic guesthouse accommodation available here (40,000K and under), and the usual noodle stalls.
There’s a handful of places to stay in Xieng Kok, the best of which is the Xieng Kok Resort (40,500–80,000K), on the embankment overlooking the river and landing. The self-contained wooden bungalows all have en-suite bathrooms (with squat toilet) and charming balconies overlooking the Mekong. Another popular choice is Khemkong Guesthouse & Restaurant (40,500–80,000K), above the boat landing and close to where buses normally drop off. The double rooms here are passable; some have en suites with squat toilets and bucket showers. All guesthouses have attached restaurants, though don’t expect any culinary marvels. Electricity in Xieng Kok is from private generators and generally available from dusk until 9pm.
A brief history of opium
Opium was introduced to Laos from two directions. Opium cultivation and use was known among tribal peoples such as the Hmong and Mien, who brought the poppy’s seeds with them as they migrated south into Laos during the nineteenth century. Because the best parcels of arable land in Laos were already occupied by the lowland Lao and Tai Leu, the tribal immigrants were forced to live at high elevations. But the newly arrived minorities soon made an important discovery: opium poppies used up less of the soil’s nutrients than other crops, reducing the frequency with which farmers had to perform the labour-intensive slash-and-burn technique. Growing opium and trading it for rice made their lives easier. By the early twentieth century, the government of French Indochina began encouraging the migration of Vietnamese and Chinese to Vientiane and the cities of southern Laos, primarily to stimulate trade, and opium addicts among these immigrants created a demand for the drug. Despite these subsequent developments, it is doubtful that the small amounts of opium grown in the hills of northern Laos ever reached the opium dens of the south. Indeed, the French opium monopoly, Opium Régie, suppressed cultivation of the poppy among the tribes of northern Laos in order to tax and control the supply of opium to the licensed dens of Indochina.
By the beginning of World War II, taxes on the sale of opium throughout French Indochina made up fifteen percent of the colonial government’s revenues. When global war disrupted the traditional maritime route of opium into Indochina, Opium Régie turned to the Hmong farmers. Past French attempts to deal with the Hmong on the issue of opium had been disastrous, leading to Hmong uprisings in the provinces of Hoa Phan and Xieng Khuang. Their fear of provoking the obstinate Hmong led the French to select tribal leaders to act as brokers. The result was an eight hundred percent increase in Hmong opium production within four years. By the close of World War II, a weakened France had lost control of much of Laos to the Viet Minh and their protégés, the fledgling Pathet Lao. A rivalry formed between two powerful Hmong opium brokers and they took opposing sides, one supporting the colonialist French, the other the communists. The defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 put them out of the picture for good, but the Americans were soon to fill the vacuum.
America’s efforts at combating the spread of communism in Southeast Asia created what has been termed a “Cold War opium boom”. US involvement in the civil war in Vietnam escalated during the 1950s, leading to all-out intervention and the commitment of American troops in the 1960s. In Laos, a similar situation was occurring, but with a crucial difference. Instead of sending troops into “neutral” Laos, the US sought by unconventional means to preserve the illusion of non-intervention; CIA operatives trained the Hmong guerrillas who had previously sided with the French, using their cash crop to fund their operations. A Byzantine alliance between the Royal Lao Government, opium warlords and the CIA was formed. Utilizing its own fleet of “Air America” aircraft, the CIA coordinated the collection of opium, which was transported to refineries in the Golden Triangle, the resulting heroin eventually finding its way to markets all over the globe. By the war’s end, the production of opium in the Golden Triangle, which overlaps into Myanmar and Thailand, had reached epic proportions.
Opium eradication programmes in Thailand have had much success in curtailing cultivation of the opium poppy there, and although Myanmar and Laos continue to grow opium, most experts agree that the once lucrative poppy crop has been largely replaced by the production of methamphetamine, which is in high demand in Bangkok and other urban centres in the region.
Top image: village near Luang Namtha © Bitfoto/Shutterstock