While Luang Prabang is without doubt Laos’ top destination, Champa Meuanglao encourages travelers to go ‘one step beyond’ to Oudomxay.
Referring to someone as ‘provincial’ is a somewhat derogatory term, but when travelling in Laos it’s a label I am happy to wear. I consider myself provincial in the truest sense of the word – not uncultured, narrow-minded or lacking the sophistication of urbanites (although a few of my detractors might accuse me of such) – but as one who takes great pleasure in exploring the smaller towns and villages in this stunningly beautiful country.
And so, embracing the opportunity to enjoy the north’s cool season, I decided to fly direct to Oudomxay. More commonly referred to as Meuang Xay by locals, it’s a typically ramshackle provincial town; an incongruous mix of old and new, from tumbledown noodle shops to the most ostentatious homes, and a huge influx of Chinese businesses and construction supply merchants.
The most noteworthy attraction in the town centre is Wat Phou That. Timing my visit for late afternoon, I climbed the steep stairway and was rewarded with the sight of the sun setting behind an 18m standing golden Buddha image. From this elevated vantage point there’s also a good view across the rolling hills that encircle the town.
In the cooler months, mornings in Meuang Xay are pleasantly chilly and often cloaked in mist. A lover of local flavors, I left the hotel and went in search of a warming soup. Elsewhere in Laos, pho noodles are the most popular way to start the day but in the north khao soi is the dish of choice. I found what I was looking for at an open-fronted coffee and noodle joint called Om Yim, directly opposite Leu Xay market. Khao soi is a nest of rice noodles topped with a Bolognese-type mixture made with pork, tomatoes and fermented soy beans. Add a squeeze of lime, a teaspoon of dried chilis, a handful of bean sprouts, and a scattering of fresh herbs and you have the breakfast of champions.
Appetite sated, it was time for me to take a leisurely stroll to Thin market. Laos’ fresh markets offer the opportunity to experience the bustle of daily life and provide insight into local food culture. At this time of year in Oudomxay, nor khom bamboo is abundant. While most edible bamboos are harvested in the rainy season from May to October, nor khom shoots are in season from December to April. The large shoots are dug out before they emerge above the ground and are prized for their sweet flavour. Once the rains start, they grow larger and become extremely bitter and inedible, hence the name, nor khom or ‘bitter shoot’. This delicious ingredient is used in dishes such as kaeng nor khom sai kadouk moo, bamboo and pork rib curry. Thin market is open in the morning and afternoon. Market lovers should also head to the larger Maengda market, not far from the airport.
Another advantage of rising early is to witness almsgiving. The daily merit-making ritual of offering food to monks, known as tak baat, starts at around 6.30 a.m. Unlike Luang Prabang, here in Meuang Xay it can be quietly witnessed from a respectful distance and without the hordes of snap-happy tourists.
The road to Muang La
For many visitors, Meuang Xay is used as a base for exploring the natural beauty of the province. With a hired scooter as my trusty steed, I decided to venture out on a 28 km ride to Meuang La.
Heading north from Meuang Xay, the road winds its way through scenic forested mountain slopes and fertile valleys carpeted with rice fields, beans, pumpkins, and sweetcorn. Less than an hour away, Meuang La is an idyllic village at the confluence of two rivers, the La and Phak. There is a great little morning market where you can tuck into local favorites such as freshly grilled pa phap, folded fish stuffed with herbs. The village is also home to the diminutive Pha Chao Singkham temple known for a golden Buddha image thought to date from the 14th century. Meuang La makes for a great half day trip but the are also places to stay in the village if you wish to experience rural life.
Back in Meuang Xay I still had time for ambling around the side streets in search of somewhere to enjoy local food, plan tomorrow’s excursion, and raise a glass of Beerlao to the joy of being provincial!
Where to stay
For those wanting to stay in the town centre, there is no shortage of reasonably priced hotels and guesthouses such as Xaysana Hotel, all within walking distance of restaurants, markets and attractions. There’s also 3-star accommodation at Charming Lao Hotel.
The most impressive resort in the area, and one that has succeeded in putting Oudomxay province on the map as a getaway destination for families is Nam Kat Yorla Pa. Located on the edge of a protected forest area 17 km from Meuang Xay, the resort offers luxury pool villas overlooking picturesque river and forests, swimming pools, and a restaurant. The big attraction here, however, is its adventure park where guests, and also those not staying at the resort, can enjoy hiking, cycling and ATV tours, zip lining, rock climbing, and much more. There’s also a children’s activity center and a pool with slides.
The original settlers in the region were Khmu and they are still the most numerous ethnic group in Oudomxay. Nam Kat Yorla Pa employs a team of 150 Khmu and has built an onsite village for them. It also means that the resort is making an important contribution to the local economy. Whether you are seeking luxury and relaxation in a peaceful setting or action and adventure, this fabulous destination resort is a one-of-a-kind experience in Laos.
Further afield is Muang La Lodge, a lovely garden resort that will delight couples seeking seclusion, lazy mornings, candlelit dinners, and spa treatments with water from its own hot spring. Located beside the Nam Phak river there is also opportunity for exploring the area by bicycle or on treks. For those on a budget, there are also a couple of clean and comfortable guesthouses in town.
In you are in search of traditional textiles, silverware and other local crafts Khmu Gou Ler Handicraft has an eclectic collection in Meuang Xay.
Located near Sing Ha Hotel, at the end of the road, Tel: 02055785278.
Tuk-tuks are plentiful in Meuang Xay but for those who prefer more independence, scooters are available from Sunti Travel, located directly opposite Xaysana Hotel. They also offer tours and cars with a driver. Tel 020 55521579.
Lao Airlines flies direct daily from Vientiane to Oudomxay.
Text and Photographs by MICK SHIPPEN