Lazing in Luang Namtha’s contagious laid-back pace but also its dazzling breathless vistas, force any traveller to explore this northern-most town in Laos.
Where is Luang Namtha?
An easy 2.5-hour bus journey across the border from Chiang Rai in Thailand sees you landing in another fabulous SE Asian country – Laos.
One of the northern-most towns in Laos, Luang Namtha (Namtha for short) borders the landlocked province of China’s Yunnan.
Dating back 6,000 years, Luang Namtha is also a province in Laos and is renowned for rubber and sugar cane plantations.
Luang Namtha is the gateway to fabulous trekking and it’s not hard to see why with such incredibly stunning scenery.
This is the first introduction to the gorgeous Luang Namtha province in Laos, as I never had the chance during my brief two-week brief to Laos in 1989. Buses were non-existent back then and Laos only had around 30-kilometres of bitumen road, which ran north-south of the capital Vientiane. The rest was severely pot-holed dirt tracks that washed away with any sprinkling of rain and hoping that travel in 2014 is not as difficult. But I digress…
Surrounding vistas boast striking fluorescent green rice fields back-dropped against spectacular blue-green and serene mountains in a leisurely-paced town. Namtha’s relaxed atmosphere is intoxicating and makes it easier to linger even longer.
The main street overflows with small restaurants, bicycle and scooter rentals, and tourist agencies offering the “trekking experience of a lifetime”. Of course, touts also latch on to tourists.
Known as a stopover point on the backpacker trail from China or from Thailand to Laos, this spectacular region is fast becoming a hot spot for hill tribe trekking and tourism – see it before it’s inundated and spoilt.
With around 20 temples only 60-kilometres from the town and the anthropological Luang Namtha Museum in Luang Namtha itself, there is certainly enough to keep any traveller busy on a visit.
As it’s currently the wet season and still busy for this pleasantly small town, the main reason for stopping here (apart from the border crossing) is to do a little trekking.
Trekking around Namtha
Tour companies in Namtha offer a myriad of trekking experiences from one to three days, or even more, at varying budgets.
Shop around and bargain hard as this town is savvy to tourists. At the time of writing, Zuela’s Guest House offered the best price.
My preference always is to go with locally-owned companies, not western-owned, and a company that is not afraid of displaying its breakdown of where your money is going.
Typically, with locally-owned companies, most of, if not all of the money stays in the country and filters back to the locals, eventually. I’ve also found that if a company includes “eco” in the name or offers “eco-tours”, the price is always much higher – interesting. Has anyone else found this clever form of advertising in Laos or SE Asia?
Green Discovery appears to have everything sewn up in Laos, which for me, is a good enough reason not to go with this company. Not to mention the price seems to be much higher than other companies.
The wet season brings torrential rain on most days. So, decide to do indulge in only a two-day, one-night trek to the Lahu Hill Tribe Village, as this is one of the less frequented routes by foreigners – I’m advised.
Check out my separate post on the trek to the Lahu Hill Tribe village as it really is an amazing and memorable experience, including loads of photos – this post is a little devoid of photos.
Where to stay
Although Luang Namtha is not a large town, it’s surprising just how much accommodation is on offer. In 2014, accommodation was more low key and lacked 5-star resorts or hotels in town.
Zuela Guesthouse and Restaurant
The Zuela Guesthouse and Restaurant is on the main street and across from the Night Market, so a great location.
The lovely room graced with rich-coloured timber is serviced daily. Bottle water is included in the room each day as is a good “Standard” (option stated on the menu) breakfast. The wi-fi is a little sporadic in the room but found that it is okay in the restaurant and the external areas of the guest house. Surrounded by mountains, this is not surprising. Laundry is also offered at 10,000 K/kg.
As our room is directly next to the restaurant and kitchen, the noise of pots and pans rattling loudly starts at around 05:30 hrs and continues throughout the day, until nighttime, when the kitchen closes.
So pungent are the cooking and garlic fumes in our room and the small bathroom that it feels as though I am continually showering in garlic, chillies, and other sensual food aromas!
Don’t get me wrong, I love the smell of food cooking, but not in bed or with me in the shower!
Something that really annoys me is that the Zuela Guesthouse and Restaurant allow the women touts selling their bracelets into the restaurant and also the guest house grounds.
Seven women work the streets of Namtha in a group and are absolutely relentless. Make no mistake, you will be badgered while you eat, talk, work on your laptop, try to rest, chill, and also if you sit outside on the room’s porch, especially as our room is next to the restaurant.
The women get a little nasty and annoyed if you decide to ignore them and not buy something. Be warned, they start their day at 07:00 hrs and continue in and out of the guesthouse until 21:00 hrs, doing alternating shifts.
We experienced this during the whole four days of staying at Zuela. It is more than tiring to get the continual badgering on the street, but to also experience the badgering at the guesthouse and its restaurant is just too much – there is no peace at all.
Other restaurants in Namtha don’t allow touts and often shoo them out, which forces the touts to pace up and down the street until you leave the restaurant, and then they pounce. Of course, the women hassle tourists only.
These same ladies also avidly work the night market. Remember, these women are professionals and work for a “boss”, as we saw the transactions between the ladies and the same boss in the market every evening.
Where to eat
In addition to cheap local food at the markets – as always, the markets are great for people watching and photos – most restaurants in Namtha serve similar menus. Offering Lao, Thai, and various western dishes at similar prices, it’s almost as though there is a little price-fixing going on in town.
Average compared to other night markets in SE Asia, especially my favourite in Brinchang (Malaysia), but ate here a couple of nights – some stalls offer better quality than others. You can sample exotic foods such as BBQ frogs legs, fried insects, many different types of local fruits, salads, vegetables, wasp larvae, and other unusual selections. This market is cheap and basic.
Remember, much of the food at this market comes directly from Namtha’s enormous surrounding jungled mountains.
Apart from the usual fresh produce such as freshly slaughtered meat each morning and freshly-picked vegetables, many jungle delicacies such as crispy Rhino Beetles, grubs in cocoons, and more, also grace the menu. The prices are cheap.
The Zuela serves good food but average service. The baguettes, ‘Standard’ set breakfast and noodles are delicious.
Prices are a little higher than the bakery next door to Zuela (think the name is Happy), which serves very good homemade traditional food – my preference is always to go traditional.
Forest Retreat Bamboo Lounge
For an average cappuccino although the coffee is freshly ground at the lounge, check out the Forest Retreat.
After 5-plus months of travelling through SE Asia and on another traveller’s recommendation, we came here to indulge in a wood-fired pizza. But alas, as the cost is much too pricey for a pizza, we order coffee instead.
A great reason to stop at this lounge is that this place provides a school for young local women to learn food hygiene, English, standard western food preparation, and hospitality service.
Leaving Luang Namtha
As this is one of the most northern towns in Laos and the start of exploring this amazing country, decide to make our way slowly south and head for the less frequented Nong Khiaw while enjoying the superb scenery in Laos.
Unless you fly everywhere, Laos is not a country for fast travelling or if you are on borrowed time. Be patient, slow down, smile at the hick-ups, and enjoy the pace…