My Northern Laos Trip: Beginning to End
I travelled around Northern Laos for just under a month from the 29th September onwards, moving fairly slowly south through Laos beginning in Luang Nam Tha and ending in Vientiane. This is more about information than sharing stories of my trip.
I travelled from Kunming (capital of Yunnan province, China) to Mengla, where buses run to the border and beyond. There is a direct, overnight sleeper bus [more than one] from Kunming to Mengla for Y204, although a day option also exists.
Once in Mengla there is little concrete information available unless you happen to speak Mandarin Chinese for happen upon a local who is willing to help. At first there was a direct Luang Nam Tha bus then there wasn’t, then there was, then it was at a different time, then it was back to the original time...etc. In the end a direct bus took us all the way into Laos, setting off at 9a, taking 2-3 hours [including border time] and costing Y46. It seems that this bus only runs if there are enough people to make it worthwhile. The other option is to get a fairly regular [at least in the morning] bus to the border. From here you can exit China and catch another bus to the Lao border [you cannot walk] before hopping on another bus from the border to Luang Nam Tha. This option may be more time consuming but works out less expensive.
Exiting China was a smooth process, although i met a few people who had had some problems; bags being tipped out and passports checked and rechecked causing a long delay. The 30 day Visa cost $37 for UK and Australian nationals while Germans are charged $32. Japanese citizens gain a 14 day Visa for free while Chinese can obtain a day Visa. The border officials accepted Yuan and Dollars. One thing to note; Lao officials will only stamp the passport that contains the Chinese exist stamp. My friend is a dual national and wanted to enter on a different passport but was not allowed as he exit stamp was not in this passport.
I managed to take a snap of the bus schedule between Ubon Ratchathani and Savaanakhet while i was in Thailand too click here
Luang Nam Tha
I met quite a few people who were simply stopping off here for one night before heading to Luang Prabang which, for me, is a mistake. The town is good just to have a walk around by yourself, or cycle, and you can pop into Green Discovery to ask for a route map. There were various villages nearby and if you go down to the river you can cross via a local boat to a small village on the other side. There is a fairly average waterfall you can walk to but i found it more interesting to keep going along the path past the waterfall. This takes you on a hill path overlooking rice fields.
Accomodation: Zuela Guesthouse – a fairly new family run guesthouse just off the main street opposite the large BCEL bank building. They were in the process of building a restaurant that will serve Lao and Western food and also give them more rooms. A double/twin was 50,000 kip [bargained down from 60,000]. If you want something a bit cheaper they have one room with a bathroom next door [not ensuite] for 40,000 kip. The staff were very friendly and spoke good enough English for day-to-day questions but anything out of the ordinary and you might struggle. All rooms have good fans, hot showers and everything is very clean. If you walk out of Zuela G.H turn right and, on your right, there are two basic looking restaurants with simple Lao menus. I ate at both of these every day [breakfast, lunch or dinner]. It was fairly cheap, good food for locals and tourists alike.
There is a BCEL ATM in Luang Nam Tha located in a manned booth just outside the bank. Both BCEL and Lao Development Bank accept Amex traveller’s cheques. You can change Yuan but the rate was pretty poor.
There are two bus stations; one serves the rest of Luang Nam Tha province ( Muang Long , Muang Sing etc] and is just a 5-10 minute walk from the centre of town while the other serves destinations outside of the province and can only be reached by tuk-tuk [10,000 kip each for two people]
Bus Timetables taken from tourism office and bus station
Luang Nam Tha Region
Nam Tha Region 2
Other Provinces 2
Other Provinces 3
We arrived here in time for a full moon festival [unsure of the name] and it was well worth it. The town itself is quite small and easy to get around by foot, also, it’s easy to pick a direction and just start walking. We found various small villages/nice scenery this way. Muang Sing had quite a few tourists but no where near as many as Luang Nam Tha. All the locals where very friendly here and welcoming; we were invited in to one mans home for beers and, in general, were always greeted warmly. The tourism office is worth checking out purely for a good chat with the staff [at least at the weekend]. The guy in there seemed pleased to speak to us, probably because otherwise he’s just sat there alone all day, and spoke good English. He will tell you a few routes you can cycle/walk if you ask him and they offer various treks. It seemed that all the tourism companies offered similar treks and they were all the same price. We ate at Viengsay Restaurant a couple of times, it serves pretty tasty food for good prices and the owner speaks good enough English to deal with orders.
The first night in Muang Sing we stayed at Tai Lu which was recommended both on Travelfish and lonely planet, however, the room we stayed in wasn’t very nice. The bedding didn’t seem to be clean and there were cockroaches in the toilet. The owner was very friendly and did her best to help us if we had any questions. A fan room with warm shower and squat toilet was 30,000kip for a twin. We moved to another guesthouse that was in the other direction from Sing Chalern Hotel – at the cross roads, Sing Chalern is found by taking a right, while this place is found by taking a left. This is if you are facing toward Xieng Kok. A twin room with fan cost 50,000 kip if you bargain and came with hot shower, western toilet and fan. The guesthouse had great views over rice fields but the most of the staff are unfriendly.
The road to Muang Long had been damaged during the wet season which had meant a price increase from 20,000 to 25,000kip. The journey took 1 hour 30 minutes and was in a large bus.
My favourite place in Laos, although it is not particularly special when i was there i had a great time. See this post: http://www.travelfish.org/board/post/laos/8026_muang-long
We had a look at Jony Guesthouse – mentioned on TF and LP – but were pretty sure we could see rat/animal droppings on the floor of the room. We ended up staying in a place not yet in a guidebook or online. ‘Homephan Guesthouse’ can be found by walking up the hill from the bus station, at the cross roads the guesthouse is on the left at the corner. The front of the guesthouse is a shop selling a wide range of food and other stuff [nails etc]. The owner spoke no English but was nice enough. We paid 35,000 for a double room with cold shower, bucket toilet and fan. The room was very clean with large bed and the fan worked well. There was one twin room for 30,000 but it was essentially in a garage. Bottles of water were left outside the rooms on a communal table area for free which was a nice touch.
Muang Long does not really cater to tourists that well. When we first arrived we found no English menus and no English speakers in any restaurant. However, on our last night we did find one restaurant with an English menu [translated by Tui at the tourism office]. This restaurant had no name but was easy to find. Walk down the hill past Jony G.H toward the bus station, turn right toward the bus station office and keep walking past this. The restaurant should be on the left next to a phone shop. You’ll know you’re in the right place if there is a large white board with English names and prices of the dishes. The menu includes staple Lao dishes for good prices. Additionally, a restaurant with great views and good food can be found about 1km outside of town back toward Muang Sing . Again, it had no name when we went but was only recently opened. It stands on stilts overlooking rice fields and is not next to any other building. No English but we got a really delicious dish just by saying ‘chicken’ and ‘rice’ in Lao. The market is also a good place to get breakfast lunch; noodle soup for 5000kip, you can buy Laap here, sticky rice...etc etc
A minibus runs back to Luang Nam Tha at 9am and took three hours. I think there was also a bus to Muang Sing at 8am.
We took a bus to Udomxai from Luang Nam Tha simply in order to get another bus to Nong Kiaow . The bus to Udomxai leaves from the bus station far out of Nam Tha and set off at 8:30am taking 4 hours, despite a breakdown and heavy rain. Despite arriving to the station at 8:25 we still managed to get a seat on this bus.
Arriving in Udomxai we found out there is only one bus a day to Nong Kiaow at 9am. This essentially forces you to stay in Udomxai either the night before or, if you don’t know there is one bus, the whole day and a night. There is another option; charter a minibus. This cost 500,000 kip and took 3 hours. The fixer was unwilling to bargain; the price was 500,000 and that was it. Chartering a bus is easy; once you arrive in Udomxai guys approach you asking where you want to go, once you say Nong Kiaow someone will offer you transport.
I didn’t give this place enough time but i wish i had. On first impression i really liked it, it seemed that it was fairly touristy but once you walked 5 minutes away from the Bridge [especially on the bus station side] you encountered a more ‘authentic’ Lao experience. Even so, all the people here were exactly what i had come to expect in Laos; extremely friendly. I even had various people enquire where i was going, what i was up to etc in English and in Lao. There are good cycling and walking options here too with a map available with any bike rental or, if you are walking, just go and have a look at the large maps outside the bike rental places and take a photo of it! We moved on quickly because i had been told good things regarding Muang Ngoi but, for me, this place is definitely worth more time than Muang Ngoi. Nong Kieow seems to be less of an ugly mark on the landscape than Muang Ngoi, where there has been a proliferation of water front bungalows and guesthouses that did not work with the landscape but appeared only to be a blot on it.
We travelled with a Dutch couple who had a Lonely Planet so decided to try one of their recommendations. There were actually two sunset guesthouses but we went to the one in the location Lonely Planet provided on their map. The duplicate Sunset is actually one of the first guesthouses over the bridge, they had a couple of touts outside trying to encourage you to stay there but we ignored there persuasions and headed inland. Rooms with a view at Sunset cost 100,000kip and they were unwilling to negotiate. As soon as they realised we were going to leave they suddenly suggested we look at one of their cheaper rooms without a view. The twin room was a wooden bungalow on stilts for 50,000kip with fan, mosquito net and hot shower [although we never got hot water]. The beds were very good but i did stand on a cockroach when i woke up in the middle of the night to go to the toilet. The main downside about this place is they play really bad “western style” music at their bar until 10pm. I know 10pm is hardly late but it seems it when you’ve slotted nicely into the early-to-bed early-to-rise rhythm of Laos for the past two weeks.
There are plenty of eating options around Nong Kiaow but it was quite deserted when we stayed so most of them were empty. From the look of the menus they served Lao food at high prices and western favourites [burgers, pizza etc]. Even on the more touristy side of the Bridge we found a noodle shop that served a couple of fried meat and sticky rice dishes too. They charged a couple thousand more than usual but that was okay as at least their food was up to par. Just follow the road from the Bridge for about 10 mintes and it’s on the right hand side.
From what i remember there are around 2/3 buses a day to Luang Prabang but if you want to go back to Udomxai it is hit and miss. A girl on our bus was told there wouldn’t be a bus at all on that day or the next so she had to take a bus to L.P before taking another bus up to Udomxai.
I had heard good things but was disappointed. Muang Ngoi has been debated already on TravelFish and i don’t think i need to add to that too much. I just struggled to find much life beyond tourism and tourism was down, very down. The atmosphere just wasn’t good and the scenery, as much as it has been praised, wasn’t anything special. I think this may be a different story if your Lao trip amounts to Luang Prabang-Vang Vieng- Vientiane with Muang Ngoi as a brief interlude. The cave is worth a look if you do find yourself there, although i think we expected something a bit bigger but It was good for an ice-cold dip. The second cave, further along the path, was hard to find. There is no trail going to it or at least if there was it has been overgrown. We couldn’t enter as the grown was too muddy [shin-deep] and the cave mouth had the biggest swarm of flies/mosquitoes I’ve ever seen. I would definitely, whole-heartedly disagree with Muang Ngoi being ‘lovely’.
I have no idea what the place we stayed in was called as we happened upon it by chance. I was actually trying to find Aloune Mai Guesthouse and thought i had. There is another guesthouse on the right hand side of the main street called “Aloune Guesthouse/Bungalows”. We went to have a look at this place, it seemed okay, i think we turned it down because, at that time, i was experiencing some mosquito paranoia and wanted a concrete building and not whole-ridden wooden hut. The place we stayed was next to Aloune G.H; a large concrete structure set back from the river but upstairs rooms still have a good view and a nice balcony. The owner seemed okay but we heard him openly lying to a few guests [the old ‘that place is full’ ploy]. He also told us we had electricity from 3pm until 9pm when in fact it was from 7pm until 10pm. The room was good with decent beds and sheets but it had no fan and the shower was more like a dribble. A twin cost 30,000kip.
We ate in one place that was terrible and from then on only ate at Restaurant Nangphoneko. I only managed to have one meal there before food poisoning that i had carried from Nong Kieow truly kicked in and i was on sprite for a day then steamed rice. If you are from Israel and missing home, i have it on good authority that the Shuk Shuka is excellent here, at least for SE Asia.
Hop on the boat back to N.K and then the bus back to Luang Prabang. Expect delays.
For some reason i recorded the least here, perhaps because i was still dealing with food poisoning. This place is falang heaven; a good mix of culture [more Wats than even the most enthusiastic tourist would want to see, waterfalls], cheap western food in abundance [streets lined with fruit shakes and sandwiches] as well as top dollar cuisine [in dollars as prices in kip would be ridiculous] and everyone speaks English at some level. I think it must be quite hard to find bad accommodation here too, we just picked a place near the night market and for 50,000 [the bathroom was outside of our room] we had the best shower in Laos, an excellent fan and spotless rooms. There are a couple of dorms scattered around but i cannot see these as being good value at 20,000-30,000 kip unless you are travelling alone. Luang Prabang is a good place just to relax and have a mooch around, follow travelfish’s advice on which temples are worth it and you’ll see the best that L.P has to offer. We didn’t visit the waterfall, although it was a very popular trip, because we had already seen some amazing falls and it seemed like every man and his dog was going there at the same time – all tuk tuks left at 11:00 and 1:00 so unless you make your own way you will be going with the crowds. I think the price decreased the more people went but expect to pay around 30,000 kip.
The best value eats are found at the night market. One woman certainly knew what falang like; vegetarian all-you-can-eat [or pile on one plate] buffet for 5,000 kip. The food was surprisingly delicious and had lots of choice, although id recommend going fairly near the beginning as it didn’t seem the most hygienic set up. After i had recovered we usually bought some chicken from a BBQ and combined this with the buffet. It was quite funny to watch people walk past only to have there head turned by the “all you can eat buffet 5000 kip” sign. This place was by far the most popular stall.
From the south bus station it seemed like there were few options from Luang Prabang; Vang Vieng, Vientiane or Phonsavan.
Southern Station bus timetable
Overall, i didn’t really enjoy my time in Phonsavan. I wouldn’t dissuade people from going there, however, as it is not a bad place but just one that i didn’t enjoy at that time. The plan of jars are worth seeing if you take more than a casual interest in Laos but most people i met found them to be ‘okay’ and were only really visiting because it was something to do on the way out of or into Vietnam. This was the only place in Laos i felt like i had to be careful with the private guide companies, my gut instinct was that they couldn’t really be trusted. I found them to be not very genuine. This is a generalisation as, of course, i didn’t speak to every company nor to every employee but i did speak to the three on the main street and most a couple of times. At one point i raised the point that why should i pay to go and see Muang Khoun when i can hop on one of the public buses there for much less than an air conditioned minivan. The guide replied that i could get the bus but that there were “no buses back to Phonsavan” – so you can go there but you will be trapped there if you do?! Sure! I also noticed that many of the employees operating tours in town worked in the tourism office! Attempting to find anything out about using public transportation was hopeless and the girl in the office could not communicate. I wouldn’t let this put you off too much but i would be prepared either to pay around 100,000-120,000 for a 6 hour tour or to rent a motorbike.
In the end my reasons for leaving Phonsavan were nothing to do with Phonsavan but because it was my birthday and i wanted to be around people and have a few drinks. I thought that Vang Vieng would be the place where this was more likely to happen...
I have no idea where i stayed, i thought it was on TravelFish but none of the names ring a bell. The staff spoke very little English and the place was half finished but acceptable for 40,000 kip. The room was fairly clean, the bedding was too thin [it got very cold at night] but the shower was powerful and hot. I ended up getting a considerable discount on the room because i only had large notes and the guy didn’t have change so i just gave him what i had in small change. It worked out i paid 33,000 not 40,000 a night. Craters pub [listed on TF] was fairly expensive but there breakfasts are good. The best option i found was to head to the market, there are noodle shops and restaurants in there serving limited Lao dishes. You can also purchase 6-8 smallish baguettes for 5,000 kip.
The bus station’s transport options were pretty limited, i could either go back to Luang Prabang, move onto Vientiane or go against my initial misgivings and head to Vang Vieng. I went to Vang Vieng.
Bus timetable for other provinces
Bus timetable for areas within province
There has been much debate on TravelFish re:Vang Vieng but for me, it was a great place to spend a birthday and was definitely worth the 2 and half days i spent there. I didn’t feel the genuine warmth of the Lao people had been eroded, at least none that i spoke to regularly. The scenery is great; it is a good place to be active and a good place to relax and, you know what, after 2 months without TV i enjoyed sitting down to a bowl of fruit and watching an hour of family guy at breakfast. I did feel sorry for the bar/restaurant staff who had to work day and night to a family guy soundtrack but i’m sure if they had to choose Peter Griffen and money or silence and being broke they would chose the former. Despite this, most of the staff i spoke to seemed in good humour when i spoke to them.
Loads of accommodation options in Vang Vieng, i am surprised that so many are still in business! I presume that it is very busy during peak season. I imagine my opinions may be quite different if i had stayed here at those times. As it was there were enough people around for it not to be considered ‘dead’ but not too many. I stayed at ‘The Otherside’ which is located across the river; you must cross a homemade bamboo bridge to get there which, during rainy season, falls down quite regularly [or so I’m told]. The bamboo huts cost 30,000 kip for a bed with fan and you also get your own hammock. There are shared bathroom facilities which are fairly poor but i put up with these because of the really great bar area they have.
Just outside of town there is a large vibrant market that hardly any tourists seem to know or care about. There are also a few stalls within town that sell Lao food in large pots or BBQ but I only ever saw locals buy food from these stalls apart from myself. These are located on the road just past the hospital if you walk from the centre of town. Other than that just pick any place, most seemed offer the same food for the same price.
Pretty much anyone will book a bus ticket for you and they didn’t seem to add commission to most routes. I went to the bus station to book a ‘local’ bus but ended up on a bus with only tourists and no locals, some were told it would be a V.I.P bus but luckily they had paid the same price i had. I guess in Vang Vieng you may as well just book through one of the agencies in town rather than walk to the bus station as the outcome seems to be the same, at least to Vientiane. In fact, booking at the bus station was actually worse as all they do is send a minibus to collect you and take you to another bus station but as we were the last to be picked up we were lucky to get seats. A couple of Australian guys had to wait for the next bus.
I was told that Vientiane is a fairly poor capital city, not much to do, not really worth staying too long or, indeed, not worth going at all. I had mistimed by trip and actually ended up having to stay for 4 days in Vientiane. I think that this city just needs time to grow on you, you need to slow down and adjust to probably the most relaxed capital city in the world. Take some time out, spread one rushed day of sight seeing over two far more relaxed days, go to True Coffee and use their internet in a cool air conditioned space with a good coffee, head to the morning market, try and see some Lao boxing...
By far the best deal in town by far is Mixay Guesthouse but i would wholeheartedly disagree with the TravelFish review and it would seem they have made some changes since July 2008! There are dorm beds available for 40,000 kip a night which includes air conditioning and fans along with a shared bathroom AND breakfast. I am unsure of the cost of double/twin rooms but i seem to remember thinking they were pretty reasonable compared to the rest of Vientiane but even more so when you remember that all prices include breakfast. Breakfast is all you can eat and consists of toast [with different jams and butter], fruit, eggs, tea and coffee and on one day they included a chicken curry with rice too. Additionally there is free tea and coffee throughout the day until late afternoon. Cake is served around 2-3 o’clock. The rooms were spotless with very comfortable beds, the bathrooms were cleaned regularly and were only dirty when some inconsiderate guest went in there with dirty shoes on. There was an official curfew [standard practice] but the door was actually left unlocked so you could just let yourself in. It seemed most of the staff were English language students and were always willing to help even if there English ability sometimes let them down. Overall they were incredibly friendly and helpful. The location was excellent for pretty much everything in the city and was right next to the Mekong [a good place for cheap food]. The common area here is also nice as it meant it was really easy to meet other travellers.
I stayed in Sabaidy Guesthouse just for one night because Mixay was full that night. The beds are fairly uncomfortable, they provide no sheets, the toilet was disgusting and the shower did not work at all. The dorm room is open to outside [without those nets on the windows to stop mosquitoes] and there are no mosquito nets which mean you will get ravaged during the night unless you spray up or have brought a net with you. The staff were not unfriendly but nor were they friendly. Most people i saw around Saibady Guesthouse were only there to buy tickets. A dorm bed costs 20,000 but even for this price it isn’t worth it. Avoid.
A tuk-tuk to the airport cost 30,000 kip and took about 15 minutes. I think it should cost this regardless of how many people as there were three of us but a friend of mine did the same journey a week before on his own but for the same price. The airport has an exchange booth open from 8:30 onwards and a couple of cafes that serve western and Lao food at high prices. Once you go through security there is a book shop selling a good selection of books on Laos and another cafe. Both have highly inflated prices and were in dollars not kip. I think Air Asia fly in to and out of Laos just twice a week to Kuala Lumpur on Saturday and Tuesday.
Wow...thanks so much for taking the time to post so much information! I will definitely re-read before I get to Loas as I'm thinking more of spending time in the north.
#8 blackpepper14 has been a member since 23/11/2009. Posts: 23
Hell of a good write up.
#10 MADMAC has been a member since 6/6/2009. Posts: 6,957
bus tickets to Vietnam/Thailand, visas, that kind of thing
you can get them many places though but i guess they just have gotten a reputation for it. By the way, i believe various Guesthouses want U.S dollars for Visa services [including Mixay] but the Guesthouse next door to Mixay [to the left, when facing] accepts it in Kip, or at least it did when i was there
A good way to get rid of a load of Kip if you need to
Border Crossing extra
Some friends of mine did the China/Laos crossing before me but i only just heard from them. They were told that ATMs in Mengla do not accept VISA nor do the Banks so they could not withdraw any cash. This meant they had to hop on a bus to Jinghong [3 hours] to use the ATM there before getting back on the bus to Mengla. It was too late to cross and had to stay the night. I guess the lesson is, bring enough cash!
Great post! I have just travelled through northern Laos over three weeks from Vientiane to Phongsali (via Vang Vieng , Luang Prabang, Nong Khiaw, Oudomxay, Phongsali and Muang Khua ) and then over the border to Dien Bien Phu , and can add a couple of tips not mentioned above:
ATMs are available in Vientiane, Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, but after that they become SCARCE. I foolishly believed I would be able to survive on a mix of ATM access and travellers cheques north of Luang Prabang, but was rudely corrected in Nong Khiaw. No ATM there, and I couldn't exchange travellers cheques either. I was forced to use my emergency USD cash stash and detour to Oudomxay because there is an ATM there. Note that it's limited to 700,000 kip per day and was "closed for maintenance" early the next morning. I didn't have time to go again during business hours before my bus left, though I noticed it was working again when the bus passed it an hour later.
In Phongsali there are no ATMs, but the Lao Development Bank will exchange travellers cheques and cash. In Muang Khua there is no ATM and the Lao Development Bank there WON'T change travellers cheques (but will change cash). There are lots of ATMs in Dien Bien Phu if you're going that far.
The lesson: in the far north, make sure you have enough cash in either kip or USD to cover the whole time you expect to be there, plus a little extra just in case.
I won't re-hash anything covered in the original post, but can add the following extra bits of info:
Oudomxay is a charmless place, useful only for the fact it's a transport hub (and it has an ATM!). I stayed at the Vivanh guesthouse just across the road from the ATM, a bit bland but great facilities for the price (large clean bed, satellite TV, western bathroom, good hot water shower, 60,000 kip). It's a 10 min walk from the bus station.
Bus from Oudomxay to Phongsali: a very local, long and bumpy affair. You will certainly remember it! NOTE that there is a very long stretch (more than the half of the 9-10 hour total trip time) that is extremely dusty. I strongly recommend taking a mask of some kind to protect you from it, and sitting towards the front is definitely better than being up the back (get on early to score a forward seat). A sawng-thaew will be waiting at the Phongsali bus station to take you into town, if you don't use it (or it's too packed) you will face a 3km hike uphill to where the guesthouses are. After the bus ride I quite enjoyed stretching the legs, but you might not...
River travel between Luang Prabang, Nong Khiaw, Muang Khua and Hat Sa (Phongsali): highly recommended!! Each of the legs above will take 5-7 hours, I only did Luang Prabang-Nong Khiaw and Hat Sa-Muang Khua but both were great trips. The northbound Luang Prabang-Nong Khiaw leg is especially beautiful, and there were only six of us on the boat (max 10) so there was plenty of room. Expect to pay 80,000-120,000 kip for each leg (one-way price). That's about double the cost of a bus (where bus options exist), but for my mind boating on the Nam Ou is infinitely better than going by road.
Muang Khua - a nice enough place for a day or two, but note that electricity only operates from approximately 5.30pm to 9.30pm each day. There is no internet, telephone shop or other way to contact the outside world unless you have a mobile phone (and mine wouldn't connect to a network). The standout winner in terms of accomodation is the Chanasouk guesthouse, on the right hand side as you walk up from the boat ramp (about 150-200 metres from the river). Large clean bed, private bathroom with western toilet and hot water shower, large torch by the bed (nice touch), and best of all a huge common covered balcony to read on, chat on or just hang out. Cost only 50,000 kip a night. I checked out a couple of other places first, the Nam Ou Guesthouse charged the same but was nowhere near as nice, and the Serrnali Hotel offered the same facilities (minus the balcony) but wanted 150,000 a night for the privilege.
I loved my time travelling through the north, and highly recommend it to anyone! Phongsali takes quite a bit of effort to get to though, and unless you're really set on trekking or have oodles of time to fill I probably wouldn't bother. Guided treks including homestays in local villages are arranged through the tourist office on the main street, however at this time of year travellers are few and any treks I wanted to do would have to be on my own. I was quoted 350,000 kip PER DAY for a guided trek, they said that even if 2-3 others showed up the price would only drop to 300,000 kip per person per day. They didn't budge on the price.
Finally, crossing the border into Vietnam from Muang Khua is yet another bumpy ride across ridges with endless switchbacks, but no worse than other journeys in this part of Laos. A large landslide had blocked off a significant section of the road on the day I travelled, and we had to wait almost two hours while a couple of earth movers formed a new path. Other than that it was fine, note that like all Vietnamese borders you must have arranged your visa in advance.
#16 damienm has been a member since 13/12/2009. Posts: 5
Nice info damienm
#17 piranha has been a member since 3/12/2010. Posts: 18
Thank you everyone for the info! I had a question about the countryside around Vien Vang do you know if there are buses to go to the countryside?
#19 paradise2284 has been a member since 23/10/2011. Posts: 1
Firstly, thanks christay2009 for your original post - lots of useful info which was really helpful for part of a similar journey I have just completed – from Jinhong in China to Luang Namtha – Muang Long – Muang Sing – Udomxai – Luang Prabang .
Here are a few additional notes and updates on prices which may also help future TF'ers. I've tried not to repeat for the sake of repetition; in general I agree with the original comments and also really enjoyed Muang Long, probably for similar reasons. We didn't do a trek from there but instead did some day walks on our own. It seems that still not many tourists are visiting this area and we also didn't see any other falangs whilst we were there.
Crossing from China to Laos
We travelled into Laos from Jinghong (Xishuanbanna) in southern Yunnan.Currently there is only 1 daily departure to Luang Namtha at 10.40am (unfortunately the more preferable 8.40am departure isn't currently running) which costs ¥70. We passed through Mengla at 1.30 and stopped 40 minutes for lunch (the cost Jinghong to Mengla is ¥42 andonward Mengla to Luang Namtha is ¥46 so certainly no saving there and I figured a minimal saving, if any, by breaking the journey down further). A money changer who met the bus in Mengla offered 1,200 kip to 1 yuan which didn't seem too bad considering the official rate was1,260 at the time. At the border town of Mohan women were offering a poor 1,000 to the yuan! In Luang Namtha the banks money changer was offering around 1,250 so if you can't get a decent rate at the border, wait.
Arrived Mohan 3pm and 1½ hours later we were clear of immigration at Boten on the Lao side. The visa charge for a UK passport is US$37 (Yuan areaccepted but the rate was very poor). At this border it seems theyare officially ripping people off to the tune of US$2 - adding it to whatever the applicable nationality fee is - rather than the correct $30 or $35 and then scamming extra dollars on stamping fees etc. When it's all there on an official typed up document it's hard to argue ......
It is possible to get a Lao visa from the consulate in Jinghong but the1 and 2 day processing options cost more than getting it on the border and the 3 day option at ¥210 was around a $4 saving versus getting it at border, at least for UK passports.
Much more of a backpacker hangout than I was expecting but quite a nice change after China; a good choice of guesthouses and places to eat(try the grilled duck and sticky rice from the night market). By far the most touristy town in the area but because of this, if you are looking to join up with others for a trek/kayak/cycle to share costs this is probably the best place to do it. If you're looking for a more remote, off the beaten track (and potentially less organised) experience, not with others then head to Muang Long or Muang Sing.
We stayed at both Zuela (fan double with western toilet and hot water shower is now 70,000 kip) and Manychan (60,00 for the same deal but the hot water was unreliable). I preferred the Zuela for just a few more kip. The restaurant at Zeula is up and running.
From MLT we went directly to Muang Long (see below for journey info). It's one of those sleepy little towns with not a lot happening but a very typical small Lao town good for wandering about in. Not a lot seemsto have changed from christay2009's report – ordering food still requires a few words of Lao (or Thai) and a bit of luck. We found themarket to be more as reported in the original TF notes – i.e. not alot going on morning or afternoon so maybe it depends on the day ofthe week?
We stayed at the Thatsany Guesthouse which is one of the first places you reach walking into town from the bus station (on a the left alittle past the first junction and before the row of noodle shops).From the description and photo on the TF review it looks like this place has had a bit of an upgrade since the original report. The main building at the front of the property has been spruced up and although it looked like there may still be a couple of rooms there, we were offered a room in the newer building to the back of the plot which has 5 rooms - single story with a common verandah which has acouple of large tables and chairs. A fan double with squat toilet and good hot water shower was 50,000 kip. Rooms are a decent size and clean and drinking water, soap, towels and a couple of coffee sachets were provided (hot and cold water machine on theverandah). The lady who runs it doesn't speak any English but when we tried to ask about directions for walks she called over the guy from the house next door who happens to work at the tourism office and speaks a little.
From Muang Long we took the bus back to Muang Sing – there are 3 direct mini buses a day (8am, 10am and 1pm); we had planned to get the 8am but despite getting to the bus station 30 mins before it was packed and we had to wait for the 10am one). Compared to M. Long, Sing seemed initially felt like a bit of a let down but once settled in, we enjoyed exploring the surrounding area by bicycle and visited some traditional villages. Next time though I think I would rent a motorbike to get a bit further out as the villages close to town are fairly used to visitors (selling bags and bracelets etc, asking for sweets and money).
Many of the guesthouses seemed a bit run down and not very clean - we stayed in Phou Iu 2 bungalows after the original price of 80,000 kip dropped straight down to 50 as soon as we started to walk away. The fan double had a western toilet and decent hot water shower. The rooms themselves were simple and clean, the verandah space was a bonus and the style of rattan cottage was a nice change from more conventional guesthouses. The price we paid was a fair one but I wouldn't say it was worth the 80 thousand originally quoted. The rooms are set around a large lawn and only a couple of others were occupied so there wasn't really much of an atmosphere. The plus is it's away from the main road. Many of the cheaper options were pretty grotty looking so I would definitely suggest trying to get a good deal here.
There's a few places to choose from in town; we ate at the Tai Lu more than once solely because they have free wifi. There's an English menu and the owner speaks good English but the food itself was pretty average and they never got an order right; fried noodles instead of noodle soup (“sorry the cook must have forgotten”), no meat in the spring rolls (“we've run out of pork so only egg”), fried eggs instead of scrambled (couldn't be bothered to question that one!). We did rent bicycles from there as the other places with bikes were either closed or un-manned.
In order to break the journey to Luang Prabang up we took a bus to Luang Namtha and then another one to Udomxai and spent the night there. A medium sized town, not particularly attractive but also not that bad if you end up spending the night; decent accommodation options and a choice of places to eat and easy enough to spend the afternoon wandering around, visiting the wat on the hill and enjoying beers by the river. If you were to spend longer in the area, cycling tours appears to be a growing activity.
We stayed at Vilavong Guesthouse which offered us double rooms for 50,000 and 60,000 kip (the 60 grand option was brighter and not so damp) with western wc and luke warm showers and also rooms with shared bathrooms for 40,000. The room was large and clean and provided all that was required for a transit night. No complaints and I would stay here again should I find myself in Udomxai on future occasions. Having said that the Litthavixay Guesthouse across the road looked nice (and had wifi) but they were full so I couldn't get a price but I suspect it was probably a bit more pricey.
There's a few eating options including noodle shops and a couple of Chinese restaurants. Neung Muea is the falang restaurant of choice with an English menu with Lao, Thai and western options.There's also quite a few grilled meat places around the bus station. Next to the Dansavanh Hotel, right on the river there's a place that sells really cheap beer along with a few snacks - a great place for a sundowner.
From Udomxai we headed to Luang Prabang but if you're in the region I would definitely recommend taking the long way round via Nong Khiaw or up to Muang Khua to Muang Ngoi by river and then Nong Khiaw by river which I did a couple of years back and loved. Or even up to Phongsali and then by boat down to Muang Khua.
I also made some notes on bus schedules and updated costs etc, and once I sort through those and try and figure out how to link a photo I'll post those too.