Luang Namtha delivers a range of unique experiences
Located on the edge of the Nam Ha National Park, the town of Luang Namtha is an excellent base for exploring the far north.
A highlight for visitors is the Luang Namtha Valley Route, a self-guided loop that can be explored by bicycle or scooter. Created by the Lao Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism with the support of tourism professionals from New Zealand, the route’s 35 kilometers of tarmac roads and red dirt trails meander through scenic countryside, past vegetable gardens, across a rickety bamboo suspension bridge, and through ethnic villages. There is no shortage of interesting pit stops along the way, such as old temples, a handicraft center selling textiles, and Ban Nam Dee where Lanten women, their hands stained blue from indigo dye, sit in the shade spinning cotton and sewing, Ban Hat Yao, a Hmong village known for embroidery, a sacred forest with a Tai Dam cemetery, and much more.
Everything is clearly signposted along the way and there are information boards providing fascinating insights into the culture, traditions, and crafts that you will find in each village. The entire loop can be done in three to four hours, or one to two hours if you opt for the shorter route but with noodle shops along the way, and plenty of side trips, it is best to make a day of it…even two. Maps are available from most hotels and guesthouses.
Other sights of interest in Luang Namtha include a golden stupa that crowns the hill in the center of town and a small night market. Of course, the town was once well-known as a base for trekking but many businesses closed in the last year or only offer a limited service, so check when you are in town to see if guided treks are available. Scooters and bicycles can be hired from several shops on the main street.
A culinary adventure
Luang Namtha’s ethnic diversity, agreeable climate, fertile valleys, and abundant forests, make the province one of the most fascinating in Laos for those with an interest in regional cuisines and food producers.
In Luang Namtha town, the morning market has numerous stalls serving up the northern breakfast favorite of hand-cut khao soi noodles served in a broth topped with a ragu-type sauce of pork, tomatoes, and fermented soybean paste. There’s also the less familiar; namely, khao leng feun, a set boiled rice flour paste, cut into chunks and served in a refreshing light soup, often flavored with hibiscus, tomatoes, and tamarind, and enlivened with a spoonful of spicy ginger jeo.
At Sokxai restaurant, the cook and owner, Mae Ouan, offers a varied menu of delicious old-school northern Lao cuisine. Recommended dishes include oua paa, fried fish parcels stuffed with herbs, tom jeo paa, fish and aubergine stew, an exemplary or lam mou, northern pork and vegetable stew, a local favorite, kaeng nor wai, rattan soup, and soup phak, seasonal foraged vegetables. Aim to arrive about 5.30 pm and enjoy the lovely scenic sunset river view with a cold Beerlao and pork ribs with ginger, garlic, and lime leaves. Sokxai restaurant (tel: 020 58420555) is located a couple of kilometers north of the town center on the road to Meuang Sing.
Where to stay in Luang Namtha
There are several good guesthouses in town, including standard offerings at the well-run Thoulasith (086 212 166), and Phou Iu III Bungalows, a characterful and relaxing resort of wood and bamboo accommodation set in a lush garden (020-9944 0084).
Saddle-up and go
It’s worth hiring a scooter in Luang Namtha and heading further north to Meuang Sing. The winding 57 km ride takes you upward through beautiful mountain scenery, past ethnic minority villages, and a couple of roadside markets, before descending to the Meuang Sing valley. At first glance, the typically ramshackle town seems to have little to offer but dig deep and there are lots to hold a traveler’s interest for several days. Meuang Sing has a bustling fresh market where you are likely to see several different ethnicities, including Akha, Yao, and Tai Dam. For breakfast, there are khao soi stalls aplenty as the noodles are made in the nearby village of Ban Sili Heuang but look out for locally made tofu. Cooked dishes using this soft and silky bean curd are available at breakfast stalls in the market. For lunch or dinner, head to the Tai Lue restaurant, set in a faded claret-colored timber building on the town’s main street. There is no printed menu. Diners simply look in the large glass-fronted fridge and discuss the possibilities with the cook. You will not be disappointed but be warned, portions are enormous.
Where to stay in Meuang Sing
Phou Iu II Bungalows are built around the resort’s organic vegetable garden. The rooms are basic but comfortable and it’s pleasant to sit on the small veranda in the evening enjoying the peace and quiet. The staff is also friendly and a good source of information about what to do in the area. Tel: 020 55 985 557.
Lao Airlines has daily flights to Luang Namtha. For more information, visit luangnamthatourism.org
TEXT & PHOTOGRAPHS BY Mick Shippen