Into the fog of Northern Laos – Luang Namtha

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As our bus departed Ban Houayxay and began up the windy roads into the hills we could feel the difference from the developed country of Thailand right away. And while having the development had been nice in some ways over the last few weeks, we were both now fully ready to immerse ourselves back into a less developed country and natural surroundings. Peering our our bus window we could see nothing but beautiful lush green mountains on either side of the road. Occasionally there would be little communities of thatched hut homes with outdoor fire-pits for cooking. The simplicity of it all was like a breath of fresh air to us. We watched the sun set over the hills and eventually let the bus rock us to sleep after the long day.

When we arrived in Luang Namtha it was quite late into the night and completely dark outside. Again, the bus station was roughly 5km outside town so we were left to the mercy of the tuk-tuk drivers. Knowing it was late they tried to take advantage of the situation and charge a higher amount than was the normal rate. It was a funny scenario. Of the maybe fifteen travelers that had arrived via two buses maybe half immediately climbed aboard one of the tuk-tuks without a second thought. The other half (us included) kind of just waited and slowly thought about the options and if we wanted to pay a higher price.  Along with others gathered there, we were in that traveler’s mindset of ‘it’s not about being cheap, but about being fair.‘  A couple people began conversing with the drivers and the rest of us lingered, apparently in no hurry. We had caught on to the way things were done here – which was slowly. We happily sat around and pondered things (much like children who don’t know an answer to a question) while the drivers sat  wondering when (or which of us) would cave in first. Eventually they came down a bit in price and we compromised by still paying slightly more than the going rate. Both sides felt they had won a small victory. By the time we reached the town it took a few minutes to find a guesthouse that had space. After checking at a couple places unsuccessfully, a local guy directed us to the new Kingmala Guest House down a small street. It was definitely new, modern, and very nice as far as SE Asian backpacking standards go – they had plenty of rooms and the rate was $8/night for an en-suite (and very nice) room. It looked like we had found our sleeping quarters for the next couple days.

“We Like to Ride Our Bicycles, We Like to Ride Our Bikes”

We decided to spend a full day in Luang Namtha rather then push onward. We wanted some time to relax and begin to take in what Northern Laos had to offer. We were surprised to find that when we awoke in the morning the entire town and surrounding area was sleeping under a thick layer of fog. It was strange for us as we hadn’t experienced fog much since we had left our little home in San Francisco. Fog always brings a bit of whimsical mysticism to anyplace and we welcomed it, even if it did mean wearing our jackets in the brisk morning air. The town itself of Luang Namtha was fairly small, but the signs of construction and expansion were everywhere.  Just across the road from our newly built hotel was another very large and nice looking hotel being built as well. Between the new large border crossing and now witnessing these construction projects we guessed that Northern Laos is expecting a tourism boom in the upcoming years. After taking a quick stroll down the one main road (which is actually part of the 2-lane ‘highway’) we decided to rent bikes for the day and explore the area with Nick, the Danish guy we had met at the border crossing the day before. For $1 each we got some old single speed bikes, which seemed to be in fairly good shape. The bikes being single speed wasn’t a problem since the surrounding landscape was fairly flat. The friendly old man who owned the bike shop made sure we were equipped with a copy of a hand-drawn map before we headed out. Ben and Nick took the lead with navigation for most the day while Amanda happily followed along.

Biking - Luang Namtha

Poum Pouk Stupa Entrance - Luang Namtha

 

We decided to make a large loop heading southwest  from the main town. Fresh air breezed through our faces as we slowly pedaled along the one paved road that intersected rice-paddy fields, groves of rubber trees, brick kilns, and small villages with chickens running around between the bamboo-thatched huts. Luang Namtha is perhaps the most diverse province in the entire country with over 30 distinct ethnic groups living in the areas surrounding the town.  Even in the town and surrounding area you could see this in everything from the dishes cooked to the faces of the people in the villages.  Biking was the perfect way to start the morning and it filled us with a feeling of pure simplicity and relaxation. We made a stop at the Poum Pouk Stupa (the old stupa) near the village of Nam Ngaen.  This stupa was constructed in the early 1600’s as symbols of friendship and neutrality between two rulers of the neighboring kingdoms during the time.  Like many things in Laos, this ancient stupa was destroyed when a bomb was dropped on it in 1966 during the Vietnam War.  The new monument was built next to the ruins of the old stupa in 2003.  We took a moment to admire the views and some of the ruins before turning east again and circling around the southern edge of the airport back to the main ‘highway’.

Chinese Tractor - Luang Namtha

 

Highway 3A would be the equivalent of a small country road back in the United States. One of the things we actually noted after biking for a couple hours was the lack of motor vehicles. There weren’t very many vehicles on the roads other than the occasional old Chinese tractors that are now used by families as a type of ‘truck’ and a handful of scooters. The lack of cars added to that sense of simplicity and relaxation. For lunch we spotted a small temporary market-like cluster of booths set up with both food and other items for sale. After taking a quick passthrough of the options we settled on having another noodle soup (feu), just like the one we had the previous day before our bus ride. The freshness and warmth of the soup was exactly what we needed after biking through the cool air of the morning fog. Temperatures were slowly warming up and the sun was beginning to shine through the fog as we finished our lunch. Taking a look at our hand drawn map the guys made the decision to continue north on the ‘highway’ through the main town again toward the That Luang Namtha (appropriately named after it’s location).

 

Phra That Luang Namtha is the nearest temple to the main town and also the newest in terms of restorations and construction. The temple was built in 2004 to replace an ancient temple that that was constructed at the same time as Poum Pouk Stupa but became lost in the forest over the many years that passed. In fact, there was expansion being constructed when we arrived. This wat, situated next to Wat Samakyxay, is perched on the top of a hill which overlooks the town and valleys beyond. Our timing was perfect as the sun had began to shine brightly just as we reached the hill leading up to the wat.  We could feel the difference in temperature as we climbed, which actually felt nice, even if it did mean breaking a bit of a sweat. Our reward at top was a stunning view of the area.

 

Namdee Waterfall

Now that the temperatures were rising and it actually felt warm outside we headed in the direction of Namdee Waterfall. From Phra That Luang Namtha it would be roughly 5km. We had been warned by another couple that 4km of this road was a very rocky (which means bumpy via roadbike) dirt road. They reassured us the scenery along the way was outstanding and it was well worth the journey, even with the bumps.

Lantern Paper Making - Luang Namtha

They had been spot-on with their description of the very bumpy and hard to manage dirt road. At first it wasn’t as much of a problem but at times the amount of rocks and grooves we were traversing definitely tested our patience. There was also a bit more elevation changes along the road than what we had experienced earlier in the day. Trying to pedal a single-speed bike up a gently sloped hill of a rocky dirt road is not easy. This would be our official lower body strengthening workout for the day. If the scenery hadn’t been as enticing then we may have decided to turn around. But again, just as the couple had described, the surroundings alongside the road were captivating and made up for all the extra work of the dirt road. There were many little villages (which are really just clusters of a handful of homes with maybe one little shack-like shop selling things like cigarettes, sodas, small supplies of local produce, and other items that those in the homes may come to buy last minute). Wild geese, pigs, and chickens roam around these villages between the houses while those living there would go about their day either weaving, repairing something, cooking over an open-air fire, feeding the animals, or whatever else needed to be done.

After a couple kilometers of riding along the dirt road a stream began to run parallel to the road. From this point we began to see many people stream side washing cloths or bathing. At one part where we crossed the stream there was a man making handmade paper for lanterns along the banks of the stream, laying the large screens of the new paper out in the sun to dry. Each corner we turned we soaked in our surroundings and smiled and waved at those we passed along the way. We took our time as we peddled the ups and downs, frequently bumping out of our seats.

Eventually we arrived at the entrance to the Ban Nam Dee waterfall. We knew that since it was dry season the flow of water would probably not be as magnificent as other times of the year, yet despite this we had decided to still pay the small entrance fee and find some space in nature to deepen our state of relaxation and connectedness to life that had seeped into our subconscious throughout the day.  The area was well kept and a fairly new path had been constructed making it easy to walk along the stream that flowed below the waterfall. They even had a small bathroom we could use to change into our swim gear. Once we reached the falls we saw that they weren’t so big – as we had suspected. But we used these current low water levels as a chance to climb above the falls and continue our exploration along the stream. Since we had worked up quite a sweat on our ride there we had expected it to be fairly warm, making the cold waters inviting. Instead we found that alongside the water the abundance of trees and shade they provided made the air much cooler. It was a comfortable temperature for sitting along side the water on the rocks, but not really a great temperature for diving into the icy cold waters. Nick braved it and jumped into the water for a bit anyway, finding a sunny spot to warm up in afterwards. Being the wussy chihuahuas we are, we didn’t go into the water and instead read our book and did some meditation.

Namtee Waterfall - Luang Namtha

On the way back toward the entrance we passed a large submerged bottle of BeerLao. It was placed between rocks and looked as though someone had put it there to chill. We had seen it on the way up thinking it probably belonged to someone hiking or atop the falls. Since we had been there almost two hours now, hadn’t seen anyone else around, and it fast approaching sunset, we figured it had been left behind. We took our chances with karma, sat atop the waterfall, and cracked open the ice cold bottle. Together we conversed about life, direction, desires, connection and other things that we had all silently reflected on as we passed through the day and Luang Namtha area. Nick had lived in the Bay Area for a portion of his life, and the majority of his family was still there. It was interesting to hear his story, how he ended up back in Denmark (the original home of his family) and the many turns he decided to make in his life direction. It was great that we were all in such a reflective mood and in such a natural and beautiful surrounding to share our thoughts and ideas with each other. We finished our beer and began the bouncy ride back toward town. This time passed by much faster since we didn’t stop as much to look at the views and knew what to expect on each turn of the road. Our timing was perfect and we arrived just as the sun was beginning to set.

Luang Namtha Night Food Market

Luang Namtha - Night Market

To end our day in Lunag Namtha we headed to the Night Market for dinner about an hour after the sunset. The Night Market was a well known and popular gathering spot for visiting foreigners. Surprisingly, we had seen very few other foreigners during our day outing, but we soon realised that this didn’t mean there weren’t a handful of them in town. The night market was set up in the center of the town off the main street (or ‘highway’) that ran through the middle of the tiny six by seven block town. The main section was a cluster of permanent tables and benched seating around them with various food booths around the outer edge of the seating area. In the back there was a large covered area (similar to the size of a small parking lot) but instead of cars it had long tables where other vendors could set up their foods to sell.   These tables were set up with not only ready-to-eat dishes but also some veggies, spices, and other food items people could use as cooking ingredients. The entire market was clearly built for and catered to visitors.  This section in the back was the only place we spotted a couple of locals picking up items to go.   There was plenty of options to choose from: fresh papaya salad, fresh or fried spring rolls, larb (popular Laos minced meat salad), curries, pork belly, sticky rice, grilled duck, fried bananas, and much more.

Since we were a larger group we decided to get a plate of cooked snails (that looked similar to caracoles from Spain) to share with everyone. To our surprise it wasn’t all that bad, but we still think Spanish caracoles taste slightly better. We then opted for our favorite: noodle soup (feu) with a side of fresh spring rolls.  Many of the vendors were also selling BeerLao, the only beer that we had seen available for purchase in the country. The beer is produced by the Laos Brewing Company, which was originally founded in joint ownership between a Frenchman and a Laotian.  This company become nationalised into a state-owned enterprise after the establishment of the Laos PDR in 1975.  Which may explain why it was the only beer we saw in a majority of the country; being it was owned by the government.  Ben also kept his eyes open for some Lao-Lao (a local rice whiskey). This particular whisky is homemade by 100% fermented sticky rice.  It has become quite popular now to sell bottles of Lao Lao with a snake or scorpion in them.  We had read and heard quite a bit about this unique local whisky and we were eager to see and perhaps try it. We didn’t find any whisky bottles with snakes, but we did find one booth that sold various locally made whiskies by Auntie La.  Both Ben and Brandon explored the whisky flavors that were being sold at the booth: Mojito, Phongsali, Eleven Tigers, Berry and Original (of course). All the whiskies were stored and displayed in huge five gallon jars and then ladled into a smaller bottle upon purchase. Ben ended up buying a small bottle of the Mojito Lime Whiskey, which we decided to save for a later date to consume.

Yes, that is a plate of frogs in the middle.  No we didn't eat it.  We opted for snails instead.
Yes, that is a plate of frogs in the middle. No we didn’t eat it. We opted for snails instead.

The other funny thing we experienced at the night market was the local women selling their handicrafts or other trinkets. They would walk around the main area (which again, was primarily tourists) with a box around their neck like a cigarette/candy girl at a bar, only these were older tribal women with worn and wrinkled faces. One particular woman had a very strong interest in Ben and Nick. She continued to come to our table every ten minutes or so as if she had never seen us before or we hadn’t already kindly told her we didn’t need to buy anything.

Tribal Woman Night Market - Luang Namtha

 

It got funny around approach number four. She started to feel comfortable enough to sit on the benches right next to the guys and instead of whispering her offerings (of bracelets and beaded hats for sale) from a safe couple feet as she had done before, she came right up to their ears as if telling them a secret. “hoooowww muuuuuccccchhhh…..” Then she tried Nick and added in casually at the end the word ‘weed’ and ‘opium’. Nick kindly shook her off and we all giggled at what has now become an intimate affair with the local tribes woman. We had heard some stories about how these woman also sell ‘herbal remedies’ and now we understood how that could be so. The entire atmosphere of the place was relaxed and there was absolutely no police or military presence that we noted at all throughout the entire day. For now it is a small enough town that things like this don’t seem to matter all that much to the draw too much attention to the government. This could very well change if that influx of tourists they seem to be expecting in the future arrives. This tiny, quiet, and charming town could easily become a larger mark on the map at which point this casual sale of drugs could become more scrutinised.

 

A Final Sleep in Luang Namtha

Our time in Luang Namtha had been quick but very fulfilling. We had definitely  jumped feet first into Northern Laos and we loved it. The lush green hills, fog covered mornings, friendly people, amazing food, simplicity of life; we were like dry sponges ready to absorb as much of it as we could. Nick had decided to do a three day trek from this point into the mountains with a local tour group. We would be continuing onward the following morning to Nong Kiau with the Canadian couple (one of the Thailand/Laos border crossing friendships we had made). With that our little group went back to the new Kingmala Hotel and had a cigar and a beer on the balcony before enjoying a glorious night’s sleep to recharge our batteries before trudging on to our next, more remote destination.

View our photos from Luang Namtha HERE.