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.