A short trip, but a good trip. Two weeks motorbiking through far northern Laos. As usual, I tried to do too much, but it was easy to pare my intentions back to something more reasonable — and importantly — enjoyable. Biking through parts of Luang Nam Tha, Udomxai, Luang Prabang and Phongsali provinces, I’d picked a mix of well trafficked and less travelled parts of the country and mostly got just what I was looking for — some feeling for the wilderness Laos offers along with a couple of cruisy days by the river supported by a steady supply of iced BeerLao.
Where I went
The trip took me through Huay Xai, north to Luang Nam Tha (where I did a two-day trek) then east to Udomxai, before heading north again via Muang La, Boun Tai and Boun Neua to Phongsali. From there east again to Hat Sa, where I threw the bike on a large sampan and boated south to Muang Khua — the northern most gateway to Vietnam. From Muang Khua, south to Muang La and Udomxai before taking a sharp left and east to Nong Kiaow, where I wound down for a couple of days before riding back via Udomxai to Luang Nam Tha, where I returned my trusty bike and back to Huay Xai and out. All up around 960km by motorbike and even now, a week or so later I can still feel every pothole.
Of all the above, Luang Nam Tha and Nong Kiaow — Muang Khua at a stretch — are the only places that could be described as having any kind of a traveller’s scene. The others are traditional Lao villages and towns where foreign travellers remain more of an oddity then a stable means of income. Public transport remains basic, unreliable and time-consuming — expect early starts and late arrivals — timetables should be treated a bit like a palm reading (I see in your future a bus leaving … sometime). Arterial roads are potholed and rutted, while secondary sealed roads are often excellent. Large stretches of really awful unsealed hardbase road remain — especially in Phongsali province.
Beds and stuff
Accommodation varied considerably. Promised hot water was only hot on two occasions — who makes these forever broken hot water heaters to stick on walls? Mosquito nets were the exception to the rule — only two places had them. An average room cost around 50,000 kip, with the cheapies coming in at 30,000 kip and a pricey one 100,000 kip. Often not a stick of English was spoken, but if you speak at least rudimentary Thai you’ll get by — though Lao would be better!
I ate a lot of pho. Every day in fact. Sometimes twice a day. I ate a lot of larp — something I’d happily eat thrice daily. Lots of fresh vegetables matched only by the copious amounts of MSG. There is no need to seek refuge in western food in Laos — the local food is great — but I’d pass on the bowl of fresh duck blood.
I drank a lot of water. A LOT of water. At least four litres a day. All day in the sun, on a bike, makes Stuart a thirsty boy.
I drank a lot of beer. BeerLao. Not four litres a day though — ok maybe once — and I found it doesn’t work as a water substitute.
I was offered laolao (local ricewine) all too regularly, at all times of the day. I don’t recommend it before breakfast, nor in the evening if you expect to be able to function (ie ride motorbike) before lunchtime the next day. I do recommend trying it — there’s more to laolao than getting pasted — it can also be a handy in with the locals.
Like anywhere, I met a typical mosaic of travellers — some great people — some less so. The good thing about travelling is when you finally escape the political lecture from a French nutbag in Phongsali, you can just travel in the opposite direction.
Special note of thanks to Harma, the British traveller who offered me her jacket.
Most travellers knew very little about Laos. “We came for the tubing but stayed” was a typical refrain. Most were having a ball and everyone said it was “like Thailand 30 years ago” — even those who hadn’t hit 30 yet.
On guides and gospels
Every single English speaking traveller I met was using either the Lonely Planet Laos, or the Lonely Planet SE Asia Shoestring book. On the dead-tree book front, LP own Laos as far as English speaking travellers are concerned.
Travellers complained bitterly about both — in my opinion, fairly regarding the SEA book, unfairly re the dedicated Laos book.
Most people I met had never heard of Travelfish — they all have now
I was amazed how little of the Lao language travellers tried to learn. Few ventured past “Sabaydee”. Counting, thankyou and basic Q&A are not difficult in Lao — don’t worry about the tones — just try it — you’ll certainly be the exception to the rule.
Words over pho: Muang Ngoi
Everyone I met who had been to Muang Ngoi had either been robbed there themselves or knew someone who had been. If you go to Muang Ngoi, don’t leave anything of any kind of value in your room.
Words over pho: Vang Vieng
Reports on Vang Vieng were mixed. People tended to start out scathing but came round to admitting they had a fun time there. Most were happy Vang Vieng was the only place in Laos that is, well, like Vang Vieng.
A lot of reports of assaults, robbery and fights alongwith some quite distressing stories of stupidly smashed people doing incredibly stupid things. Also most who had been tubing had the scars to prove it (cuts and abrasions).
Trekking in Luang Nam Tha is more expensive than in Thailand. Trekking in Udomxai is more expensive than Luang Nam Tha. Trekking in Phongsali is more expensive than trekking in Udomxai. The main challenge you will find is finding enough people to do the trek you want to do without it costing the earth — this is an acute problem in Phongsali where there are very few foreign travellers — despite there being what looks like some fabulous trekking.
There are now treks operating from Phongsali into Phou Den Din Protected Area — looked very very interesting, but a bit expensive (four-day trip starting at 1.6 million kip for two people). Your main challenge will be rustling up enough people to get costs down.
If you want to see Akha villages and Akha people doing their thing, but don’t want to go trekking, then get a motorbike and go riding — by the time I got to Boun Tai from Udomxai I’d been through a half-dozen or so villages and observed far more of the “Akha day to day living” than I saw on the trek out of Luang Nam Tha. Still, unless you’ve got an A-level in Akha don’t expect too much on the conversation front.
There are a growing number of travellers doing “apres trekking” where they just show up in an area and go for a walk in the woods to see what they find. This sort of thing is well established in Luang Nam Tha, Muang Sing and Muang Long but less so elsewhere. I would give a note of caution in this regard — especially in the remoter border areas near Boun Tai and Boun Neua in Phongsali.
I met two Europeans in Boun Neua who, having arrived by bus from Phongsali planned to ditch there bags at a guesthouse and go trekking off into the hinterland, with no guide and no language skills — I narrowly escaped being murdered by bandits an hour later. This is cowboy country — get a guide — and be wary of putting yourself in a situation (as I did) where you can easily be taken advantage of — not all locals are happy smiley people who want you to have a great and fabulous time in Laos.
Boats and stuff that floats
Boat travel remains one of the best ways to really take in Laos’ beauty in a comfortable manner. Travel downriver when possible — it is faster and more comfortable. The boat from Hat Sa to Muang Khua is more scenic than that from Muang Khua to Nong Kiaow. It takes the same time to get the later boat as it does to motorbike between the two via Udomxai (we had a race!).
There were two foreigners (including me) on the boat from Hat Sa to Muang Khua and five from Muang Khua to Hat Sa — it is still very much a “local experience” — and a striking contrast to the floating cattle trucks that used to ply the Huay Xai to Luang Prabang route.
I’d go as far as to say it is worth getting the bus to Phongsali just so that you can take the boat from Hat Sa to Muang Khua. Be sure to allow a day or two in Phongsali once you’re there.
The scenery (from a motorbike) is spectacular. Despite my mishap, the Boun Neua to Phongsali road offers tremendous mountain scenery, closely followed by Sin Xai to Boun Tai and, in particular, Boun Tai to Boun Neua. Much of the Udomxai to Sin Xai road follows a river and so is quite pretty.
Udomxai to Nam Bak less so and I don’t recommend leaving Udomxai at midday guaranteeing you four hours under a scorching sun. Luang Nam Tha to Udomxai is pretty rough and ready. Some good viewpoints, but heavy roadwork making for a lot of dust and distractions.
It gets cold. Very cold. No need to pack a jacket — just buy a cheap Chinese one in Udomxai or Luang Nam Tha. Try and get one with a cool phrase like “People say Cats green now please!” emblazoned on the back.
When planning your time in the north, bear in mind two things. Public transport is infrequent and it takes a long time to get from A to B. Trip times vary considerably. From Udomxai to Phongsali by bus I heard from travellers who saw the trip take 8, 10 and 12 hours — on consecutive days. Dien Bien Phu to Muang Khua was taking 12 hours (due to massive roadworks on the Lao side of the border).
Travellers reported Luang Prabang to Luang Nam Tha taking 7 hours, yet another saw Udomxai to Luang Nam Tha (roughly half the distance) taking 8 hours due to multiple breakdowns and a truck in front of them blocking the road when it dropped a load of rubble. Travel in Laos, especially in the north, is not a strictly timetabled affair.
If you’re looking for a more unadulterated Laos, this slice of north could be what you’re after. In the scheme of things there are few other foreigners (never more than about a dozen in Phongsali) but all the basic infrastructure is there — guesthouses, restaurants, even internet — to make it relatively easy travel.
There’s no boisterous party scene, but there’s always a wedding or streetside laolao session beckoning and you’ll struggle to come across locals that are particularly jaded and sick of stooopid falang antics. It’s not Luang Prabang when it comes to sights, but the hilltop stupa in Phongsali offers tremendous views and there is a great herbal steam in Udomxai — you know — it’s the little things that can make a trip so memorable.
The far north is a low key antidote to the better travelled central and southern regions of Laos. It’s difficult to put one’s finger on just what the appeal is, but most of the travellers I met were really having a good time. As an Israeli traveller I met said, “Laos lacks character but has a magic”. While I wouldn’t say it lacks character, it most certainly has a magic — go check it out for yourself.