With the opening of Friendship Bridge No. 5 in December 2013, the border crossing from Chiang Rai to Laos changed and is now straight-forward, easy, and not as convoluted as still published in the guide books.
Leaving Chiang Rai for Bokeo (Laos)
Most guide books state that travel from Chiang Rai to Laos is long and difficult involving a bus, Tuk Tuk, boat, another Tuk Tuk, and more. This is wrong and couldn’t be farther from reality. It’s slack and sloppy that guide books don’t do their homework before publishing, but still charge you for old information!
Tip: WikiTravel seems to be much more up-to-date with transport schedules.
You can only buy a ticket on the actual day of travel from the International bus station (Chang Rai No. 2 Bus Station – new station 3 kms out-of-town; catch a Songthaew for 20B).
Comfy buses bound for Laos leave Chiang Rai at 10:00hrs and 14:00hrs and wait at the border on the Thai side until everyone is stamped out of Thailand. The bus then drives across the bridge to the Laos side and waits there until you finish checking into Laos; and then drives a little way to the Houay Xay International Bus Station. Visa on arrival in Laos is US$30 for one month.
Note: You cannot walk or cycle over Friendship Bridge No. 5; only drive or on a scooter.
The trip takes about 2.5 hours in which time you arrive at Houay Xay’s bus station at 12:30hrs and find the 12:00hrs local bus has already gone, but that’s another story in Laos! Although timetables are displayed on the ticket window as leaving at 12:30hrs, the bus left a half-hour early. The ticket vendor advised times were “reset” and after some laughter, this became the slogan in Laos for the rest of the 2 months, as it wasn’t the last time for a reset!
If you’re desperate for a place to stay on arrival to Houay Xay, there’s a guest house across from the terminal, otherwise, there’s not much else around the station. Or do as we did, wait the 4 hours for the next local bus (30,000K) at 17;00hrs, which takes 4 hours to Luang Namtha. Minibuses go at an incredibly inflated price if you have the surplus cash and are impatient, or can’t wait 4 hours. Be warned, drivers do not budge on price as they know they’ve got you!
During the next 4 hours, you travel through some absolutely spectacular scenery but shame it was late in the day so only glimpsed a small window of what was to come whilst travelling in Laos. If you suffer from travel sickness, take some meds beforehand as the roads are very windy. At least the locals travelled well on this trip, without too much throwing up on the bus at all!
Luang Namtha (Namtha)
This is the first introduction to gorgeous Luang Namtha province (and to Laos since I visited in 1989). Surrounding vistas boasts fluorescent green rice fields back-dropped against spectacular blue-green serene mountains; a leisurely-paced town, which is contagious.
The main street overflows with restaurants, bicycle and scooter rentals, and tourist agencies offering the trekking experience of a lifetime! Shop around for the best price, which at the time of writing, was through Zuela’s Guest House.
The Tourist Office
This office was an experience. The front door was open but the office inside was closed even though it should have been open. Once inside, a stairwell went up to the next floor.
As I could hear voices and wanted to know when we could visit the office, I took the stairs, which led straight into a conference room full of about 20 uniformed and slightly annoyed men! It was almost like they had never seen a ‘Falang’ (foreigner) female before. Surprised (as I was) to see me, one guy that spoke minimal English came out and took me back down the stairwell to the office and told me to wait. Finally, the tourist info lady waltzed in with a child on hip and soon the room became a crèche, full of toys and a loud baby. The lady had minimal English, wasn’t willing to help at all as ‘busy with child’, so I grabbed a couple of brochures and left.
Zuela Guesthouse and Restaurant – is on the main Street, across from the Night Market. Lovely timber room, serviced daily (including water); room came with a good “Standard” (option in menu) breakfast. Wi-fi is a bit sporadic in the room but okay in the restaurant and outside. Laundry offered at 10,000 K/kg, which is the going rate in Laos.
As our room was directly next to the restaurant and kitchen, the noise started around 5:30hrs and went throughout the day until night time. The cooking and garlic fumes were so pungent in our room and bathroom that I felt as if I was continually bathing in garlic, chilies, and other food aromas! Don’t get me wrong, I love the smell of food cooking but not in bed or with me in the shower!
The thing that really annoys me most is that the guesthouse and restaurant allow the women (touts) selling their bracelets into the restaurant and guest house grounds. There’s 7 women that work the streets in a group and are relentless. You will be badgered whilst you’re eating, talking, working on your laptop, trying to rest, and also if you sit outside on your porch; especially as our room was next to the restaurant! They get a little nasty and annoyed if you don’t buy something, and be warned, they arrive at 07:00hrs and are continually in and out of the guest house until 21:00hrs. This happened for the whole 4 days we stayed at Zuela and to everyone. It’s more than enough to get the badgering on the street, let alone at the guest house and its restaurant.
Other restaurants in Namtha don’t allow touts in forcing them to pace up and down the street until you exit, then pounce…they also avidly work the night market. Remember, these women are professionals and work for a “boss”, as we saw the transactions in the night market.
In addition to cheap local food at the markets, as always, they’re great for people watching and taking photos.
Most restaurants in Namtha serve similar menus offering Lao, Thai, and various Western dishes at very similar prices; I’ve listed only a few here:
- Night Market – average compared to other night markets in SE Asia, especially my favourite in Brinchang (Malaysia). Ate here a couple of nights and some stalls offer better quality food than others. However, you can try some exotic food such as BBQ frogs legs, fried insects, many different types of fruits, salads, vegetables, wasp larvae, and other unusual selections. It’s cheap and basic. Remember, much of the food at this market comes directly from Namtha’s enormous surrounding jungled mountains.
- Morning Market – apart from the usual fresh produce such as freshly slaughtered meat on the day and vegetables, many jungle delicacies such as crispy Rhino Beetles, grubs in cocoons, and much more are also on the menu! Again, the prices are pretty cheap.
- Zuela Restaurant – good food but average service. The baguettes, ‘Standard’ set breakfast, and noodles are good. Price is a little higher than the bakery next door to Zuela (think it’s called Happy), which serves very good homemade Laotian food at cheap prices.
- Forest Retreat Bamboo Lounge – average cappuccino although the coffee is freshly ground. After 5+ months travelling through SE Asia, we were going to indulge here and have a wood-fired pizza on another traveller’s recommendation, but alas, the cost was too pricey for a pizza. However, the reason to stop here is that this place provides a school for young Lao women where they can learn food hygiene, English, standard western food preparation, and hospitality service.
Apart from being known as a stopover point on the backpacker trail from China or Thailand to Laos, this spectacular region is fast becoming a hot spot for hill tribe trekking and tourism; see it before it’s inundated! It’s the wet season and already quite busy for a small pleasant town as Namtha.
Trekking around Namtha
Tour companies in Namtha offer a myriad of trekking experiences (1, 2, 3, or more days) at varying prices. Shop around and bargain hard.
My preference always is to go with locally owned companies (not western-owned) and a company that isn’t afraid of displaying their breakdown of where your money is going. Typically, with these companies, most of if not all of the money stays in the country and goes to the locals. I’ve also found that if a company includes “eco” in the name or offers “eco” tours the price is always much higher; interesting…
Green Discovery seems to have everything sewn up in Laos, which for me, is a good enough reason not to go with this company, not to mention their price seems to always be much more than other companies.
As it’s the wet season with torrential rain most days, we decided to only do a 2 day, 1 night trek to the Lahu hill tribe Village, which is one of the less visited by foreigners.
Leaving Luang Namtha
As this is one of the most northern towns in Laos, decided to make our way slowly south and head for the less frequented Nong Khiaw whilst enjoying the country’s wonderful scenery! Unless you’re flying everywhere, Laos is not a country for fast travelling or if you’re in a hurry…be patient and enjoy the pace!