Luang Namtha, Laos

Feb 21 - 23

From Huay Xai, Miguel and I took a minibus ride north to Luang Nam Tha (Luang Namtha), which is very near China and Myanmar. Here’s a map of Laos. Normally buses don’t leave until they have been completely packed full of people. But since ours only had a handful of tourists in it, we had to wait for a long time. Eventually the driver decided he didn’t want to drive us afterall (I guess it wasn’t worth the money to him), so he transfered us and all our stuff to a different minivan with a different driver who seemed happy enough to take us even though our minivan wasn’t crammed full.

I had read in some guide somewhere that the buses in Laos are really really slow and stop every few minutes so people can pee. I didn’t really expect that to be the case, as most long bus rides I’ve been on in other countries were the opposite (the drivers never seemed to stop - especially when I had to pee). But…this explanation of Laos turned out to be exactly correct, which I found to be kinda funny. We did stop a ridiculous amount of times in a few hours.

The road to Luang Namtha was long and winding, weaving through beautiful forested hills and country roads lined with tiny wooden shacks. Occasionally our driver would have to maneuver around naked babies, assorted farm animals, crazy looking tractors, and women walking up giant hills with baskets strapped to their foreheads. The minibus dropped us off about 6km out of town and we had to get a ride in a tuk tuk the rest of the way. We learned later that this is a typical theme in Laos.

When we arrived in Luang Namtha, it really did have “a remote, cowboy town feel to it.”

I can’t remember where we stayed, but I’m pretty sure it was this place. I do remember that it cost about $4, that the owners only spoke Chinese, and that the water in the shower was either scorch-your-skin-off-hot or icy cold. Each floor had a shared living room and balcony and you could hear the sounds of roosters and chickens in the morning, adding to the country town feel. Not bad for the price and it seemed to be cheaper than all the other places around.

Luang Namtha is a good place for organizing trekking excursions into the nearby forests (like the Nam Ha Protected Area). Rafting and kayaking are also popular activities. Unfortunately Laos isn’t the type of place where you can just wander off and do your own thing so easily. Laos only recently opened up to tourism and they don’t seem to be too thrilled about independent travelers who want to get off the standard tourist route. While this is kinda annoying, I don’t really blame them for being wary of allowing foreigners to inundate their country and wander around aimlessly. For this reason (well, and the fact that there are still landmines scattered around the country), you can’t explore the forest without an organized tour. But if you want to go into the forest, the ecotourism industry is certainly not a bad thing to support. Tourist dollars spent on wildlife tours and forest permits can hopefully help show the Laos authorities that the forests will bring more money into the country if left alive rather than cut down. Deforestation is a big problem in Laos, as well as Vietnam and Cambodia. Here is an article about deforestation in these countries.

Anyway, while I’m sure a multi day forest trek would have been fun, Miguel and I just decided to rent bicycles and explore the town that way. We didn’t need a guide for that….and it seemed more relaxing. Luang Namtha proved to be a great place to rent and ride bicycles. For one thing, it’s nice and flat.

We rode to the Boat Landing Guesthouse, where we had one of our first introductions to Laos food. Laos is not famous for its vegetarian cuisine, but luckily this place prepared veggie versions of standard Laos dishes. It was obviously more expensive since it catered to the tastes of foreigners, but the food was really good and I was glad to get to try some standard Laos dishes - vegetarian style. The Boat Landing also has great info on their web site and on display at their restaurant. And even if you don’t want to eat anything, it’s worth making a stop just to read all the helpful info they have about the area (which is much better than the info provided at the tourist information center). Not only do they have useful info sheets and photos about the flora and fauna in the area, but they aim to spread awareness - both to the Laos people as well as the tourists - about supporting environmentally friendly projects. You can read their environmental policy on their web site.

And as I said, The Boat Landing’s food was great. Here is a page on their site about Laos food.

A Laos meal is not complete without sticky rice. To eat it, you grab a little bit of rice and roll it in your palm to make a ball. Then you can dip it in chili paste or mix it with other stuff and pop it into your mouth. It’s traditionally steamed in a bamboo steamer.

I loved the sticky rice. When I couldn’t finish all of it, I’d make little balls and wrap it in my bandana for later.

Another standard component of Laos food is jeow, which is like a roasted chili paste. So delicious! There are many different types of jeow, each with its own set of flavors (some spicy, some sweet, some sour). Fish sauce is a common ingredient in some of them, but not all of them. You just have to ask.

This was a roasted peanut jeow

And here’s a green pepper jeow (which kinda tasted like salsa)

The Boat Landing had so many different things we wanted to try, that we ended up ordering way too much food one day.

Afterwards we were miserable (but in a satisfied kind of way). And I was burping fennel for the next two days.

While riding bikes one day, we passed an old temple and decided to stop by and take a peek. I thought it was more interesting than many of the temples I’ve seen. Definitely a nice contrast to all the glittery, shimmery temples in Thailand.

My favorite part was all the morbid drawings on the walls. People being decapitated, thrown into boiling pits, being speared to death or pecked by birds. I’m not sure what all that is about….but I loved the drawings.

We also rode our bikes to the Ban Nam Dee waterfall, just a few kilometers out of town and accessible by a dusty, bumpy path. The waterfall itself was disappointing.

But the bike ride to the fall was definitely worth it, as we got to see the Laos countryside up close.

After riding for a while, we stopped to swim with a bunch of kids in the stream. The kids were thrilled about this, but their parents all came out of their houses to stare down at us with skeptical eyes….so I didn’t take any photos of the children. Wasn’t sure the parents would approve.

These people were making massive amounts of bricks.

There are many different hill tribes in Laos, such as the Hmong, Lahu, Akha, Yao, and Black Thai. I’m not sure what tribe they were from but some of the women in the town were chasing us around trying to sell us opium. When we wouldn’t buy that, they tried to sell us their trinkets. One woman was persistent and seemed to really want me to buy a tiny woven hat for a child. When I told her that I didn’t have a baby so didn’t need the hat, she pointed to Miguel and made crude gestures showing that we should go make a baby and then come back and buy her hat. Funny.

These women from the Yao hill tribe were making paper out of bamboo. It is one of the many handicrafts made by the ethnic minorities of Laos. They paint a thin layer of bamboo pulp onto mats and peel it off once it has dried in the sun. Miguel bought some.


  • Laos is the home of lots of sad animal stuff. In one day, I saw a cock fighting match, a live baby pig tied up and blindfolded and ready to sling onto the back of a motorbike, a monkey tied to a pole on top of a latrine in the back of someone’s house, and the owners of my hotel ripping feathers out of ducks to prepare them for dinner. In my opinion the ducks got the best deal. At least they were dead already.

  • Too bad we didn’t read this sign before the wedding in Huay Xai.

  • People don’t like trumpets in Laos either. It’s a conspiracy!

  • The only snake I saw in Laos was a dead one. :(

  • Looks like Rambo has a restaurant in Laos! Also…Beerlao seems to have a monopoly here. Its the country’s only national beer and and all the restaurant signs use these same Beerlao advertisements.

  • So this is how they dry rice noodles!

  • In honor of Kasia, here is a picture of me eating a strange bean!

  • It can be difficult to find English books in certain cities in Laos. I wandered all over Luang Namtha trying to find a small book store or a hotel with a book exchange. Most of the hotel owners looked at me with blank faces as if they had no clue what a book was and didn’t understand why I would want one. I ended up finding one hotel that had a few English books lying around. I honestly don’t think the owner even knew they were there or would have cared or noticed if I had swapped my book for one of them (he didn’t speak much English anyway), but once I took an interest in his book….he decided he should use this opportunity to make some money. After inspecting my book and seeing that the the publishing date was older and the initial retail price was about $6 less than the book I was swapping for, he decided my book was not worthy of an exchange unless I paid the difference. I was trying to explain to him that this isn’t a fair assessment of a book’s value, but he didn’t get it. And my book, Girl in the Picture, about a famous Vietnam War survivor, would have been much more interesting to Southeast Asia travelers than the book I was trading it for. Anyway, I was annoyed and didn’t end up getting his book. I ended up bookless for the next week.
  • Speaking of books, Big Brother Mouse is a publishing project aiming to inspire the children of Laos to read. Reading is not a popular activity in Laos and children’s books are not commonly available in the Laos language. This non profit company aims to change all that. I think it’s a very cool project.
  • Here are some of the lovely things we found under our mattress.

  • Yummy! So that’s what they use all those buffalo for…

  • Here is a page about the Lao language. I think the characters are very pretty.

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