Laos is the country I really wanted to see from South East Asia, the one I was looking forward the most (this is the reason of my brief stay in Thailand – sorry Thailand, it will be next time). From what I had read I imagined it as a slow, peaceful country where you can forget about your watch, with small villages, plenty of nature and smiling people. The kind of place I like.
I rarely enter a country from the countryside since most of the planes land in big cities. My arrival to Laos was different since I crossed by land from northern Thailand, and it was exactly as I had imagined it. I realized that from the beginning.
From the border I got a bus to Luang Namtha. I arrived at the station two hours before the bus left, and it was already there. When we left, the first place we went was the gas station. Wow. The bus had been in the station for two hours, they had plenty of time to go to the gas station before the departure. But, why, are we in a hurry? Welcome to Laos.
Luang Namtha was a good introduction to Laos. It is a small town of about 18000 people and wide streets, but it feels like a village. Houses are small, some are colonial style, and it is quiet. There are animals in the streets, specially dogs and chickens, but also ducks and gooses. There is very low traffic, just a few cars and scooters. I even had the feeling that scooters were going slower there.
Luang Namtha is surrounded by green hills and tribe villages. Most tour operators organize trekkings from 1 to 3 days in the nearby National Park or surrounding area, and most of them include visits to the hill tribe villages. I hesitated about it. I read a lot of reviews in internet: some people described the experience as the best they had in Laos, some as the worst, some said they felt like in a zoo when visiting the villages, others had been eaten by leeches, others enjoyed the trek.
At the end, I decided not to do a trekking and explore the area by bicycle, which is another popular option. I saw in a map that some of the tribe villages were quite close to Luang Namtha so I could go on my own. I had not used a bicycle for several months so it was challenging but definitely fun.
Laos is very rich in ethnic diversity and in Luang Namtha province there are more than 20 ethnic tribes. Some of them live in villages very close to Luang Namtha, and these are the ones I visited by bike.
The houses were made of wood and bamboo and were elevated from the ground (I imagined it was because of the water during the rainy season). Some rivers flowed nearby so it was all lush green with banana trees and other vegetation. There were a lot of people and animals in the streets. I passed by a house with lot of people and music, there was probably a party.
There was also electricity, scooters and TV antennas. Did I expect it? I do not know. But, well, why not? Progress is getting everywhere, and being a tribe does not mean being stuck in time. I wonder if the villages which are farther from Luang Namtha are similar to these or not…
After the villages there was a waterfall which I did not visit. Instead, I kept following the path which became more and more difficult, up the hill (yes, I admit it, sometimes I got off the bike and went up on foot and pushing the bike… if you saw the “path” you would understand!). And so I went to the other side of the hill and found a beautiful green valley filled with rice fields.
At some point I found a river – well, a stream – and stopped there. I sat down. I was all alone there in the middle of the hills. So peaceful and silent. Green rice fields with small wooden huts. Calm. The only sign of human presence was my bike and a scooter parked nearby. Later, a woman carrying a huge basket on her back passed by, and some teenager girls on a scooter. ‘Sabaidee’, ‘sabaidee’ (hello, hello). They were smiling.
Luang Namtha, its surroundings and its people were exactly as I had imagined Laos would be. And that was just the beginning, on the next days I visited really small villages in northern Laos… and that was even better.
** USEFUL INFORMATION **
- Money: there are two banks with ATM in the main street, and two more in the parallel street which lies behind the museum.
- Buying a Lao SIM card: Lao Telecom is on the main street near the tourist information office. There is a UNITEL shop in the parallel street behind the museum. If your phone uses a microSIM I recommend Lao Telecom (the SIM is pre-cut to microSIM).
- Shops: there are plenty of small local shops and a day market. There is a supermarket in the mentioned parallel street behind the museum.
- Bicycles: city bikes and mountain bikes can be rented in several places in the main street for 10000/15000 kips a day.
- Internet: I think most guesthouses have internet
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