I'm off on a short jaunt through some of Laos in Feb/March. Will be visiting Phongsali , Sainyabuli (particularly Hong Sa for the pachyderm party) and Hua Phan. These are all fairly little visited and off the main traveller trail.
If anyone will be in the region and would be keen to meet up for a couple of iced BeerLaos, let me know.
Plan wise I'm looking at entering via Huay Xai, then Xieng Kok and LNT, Hong Sa, Phongsali (some backing and forwarding) then across to Hua Phan prov, then south to exit via Vientiane (Rufus - beers perhaps!)
Any tips - especially regarding northern reaches of Phongsali and Hua Phan -- would be much appreciated.
was in Phongsaly & Sayabouly last Dec.
partly modified copy & paste from my posts on another forum...
PHONGSALY - Boun Neua & Nyot Ou districts
cat route: Boun Neua > Ban Ngay Neua > Ban Tha > Ou Tai > Ou Neua (& back to Boun Nuea)
v beautiful valleys, crap road between OT & ON (not sure how to describe but in wetter weather, i'd expect vehicles to skid quite easily - when not getting bogged down), views of 'sea of clouds' in mornings as bus travels along the mountain roads. at ~2 spots between BN & OT, the road appears to run along the 'spine of a ridge' such that there are steep drops into nothingness (all filled by clouds) on both sides of the bus. as it approaches OT (from BN), it zigzags down from the mountains, with great views across the valley & the town sitting in the middle of it. just before hitting the valley it passes a hill with a telecommunications tower - looks like a good spot for photos. part of the fun = locals on the bus who know practically everyone in various villages along that one road. some Akha & Haw, many Yao & Tai Lue. ON has only 2 Chinese families but OT is full of them.
OT & ON = many wonderful kind people. phrasebook useful if you don't speak Lao/Chinese. in this area they watch more China & Lao TV than Thai TV channels unlike in other parts of Laos.
new Saynamdaeng GH (clean, scoop/bucket shower) on the right of the bus station, no one around during working hours but just ask nearby shops & they'll hunt down the owner for you. they saw me with my bags, tried calling the owner, & eventually a boy disappeared on a motorbike. minutes later he reappeared with the owner riding pillion - he'd gone to get her from her (some government job) workplace. when she got home after work she came by to install a lightbulb in my room...together with the stack of brand new mattresses in the corridor, makes me wonder if i'd made her open the new GH before it was ready!
there is the grey Manyvang GH that is mentioned on the GT Rider's forum, but it's a bit away from the centre of town (market, bus station, restaurants, Lao Development Bank branch) in the BN direction, though near the local gas station & closer to the bridge over the Nam Ou & Kiu Ou stupa (little stupa atop a little hill).
restaurants seem unprepared for walk-in customers & might not always have food avail by evening time. they have pho in the morning...until they run out. along the main road leading to ON there were at least 3 Chinese places with signboards (1-2 handwritten, can't remember if all were in Chinese only) but only one - the hilariously named kuai4 can1 dian4 (lit. fast food restaurant) - seemed to have takeaway food available. but it's just some pots & plates of hard-to-identify stuff that's cooked in the morning & left there all the way till evening. also has chicken feet - grilled on request. when talking to Tai Lue locals about the Chinese places they wrinkled their noses in disgust :P
someone who'd been here before told me that the difficult thing abt travelling in this area was finding food - most useful advice. instant noodles avail in some shops, Saynamdaeng GH provides a thermos of hot water every evening. didn't explore the morning market cos was busy (together with fellow potential passengers) hunting down a bus driver.
limited electricity in evening from propellers in the Nam Ou, just enough for light bulb which flickers in tandem with flow of the river :P great for stargazing! felt like reaching out in front of me to scrape away some of the 'excess' stars in the sky to make space for more...
Wat Ou Tai has been given a new gleaming ceramic tiled roof...share local opinion that it's quite a mismatch with the traditional architecture. not seen this style of Tai Lue temple elsewhere except in ON - with 4 corridors leading out from each side of the 'sim'. & the altar has the Buddha statues within a golden 'box'-like structure. has the usual signature items of a Tai Lue temple e.g. set of wooden weapons beside the altar & banners hanging from the rafters.
went there on a daytrip from OT. about 45min-1h away by bus. has 2 old wats (Wat Jai & Wat Luang) & the little Ong Hai stupa on a hill, all well hidden from road, hafta ask locals. both wats have the '4 corridors' like Wat Ou Tai, & traditional Tai Lue-style wooden tiled roofing - one temple was being renovated when i was there, & locals said they chose to stick to wooden tiles, tradiion + aesthetics. some of the temple banners are made from small mirrors - first time ever seen this - & some of the mirrors come with pics of what looks like Korean film/music stars :P ON has many beautiful Tai Lue houses, with star-shaped holes in the walls serving as tiny windows.
has a GH by the little 'lake', that i only saw from afar so dunno what it's like. don't know the name either, locals just refer to it using the owner's full name. if it has a restaurant it'll prob be the only one in town. not sure if there's a bus station or market either, i was dropped off in Ban Don Nyaeng & told that 'this is Ou Neua'. forgot to ask about the abandoned casino that someone else who's been there mentioned too. the 'lake' is also hidden behind the east side of the road. if you can track him down, there's a local secondary school teacher who knows a BIT of basic English, having studied in Luang Prabang before.
there's a roundabout where the roads to Ban Yor, OT & Phongsaly meet. bus station & pharmacy are at the roundabout. airport, market & temple are along the road to OT.
Sivienkham GH next to bus station is OK, stayed there twice, plumbing problems once. owner runs the bus station, & bit of tourist info is pasted on the walls of the police box at one corner of the bus station compound next to Sivienkham. total 4 GHs in town - others are Houtxaiyalath (recommended on GT Rider forum but quite a walk away from the bus station, on the road towards OT), Inthaseng (slightly shorter walk than Houtsxaiyalath & overlooking a pond) & Sommaly (didn't see).
usual few food stalls at the bus station, & across the road a Chinese-owned place (apparently run by someone who trades not-so-legally in wildlife for cooking pots across the border), & a Lao-owned place next door that also runs one of the bus station stalls. also two food stalls that pop up at the roundabout. market is down the road towards OT. along the road to Phongsaly in Ban Bounpheuang, across from the provincial 'political/governance' college, there's a new peach-coloured building with a signboard saying 'Lao-China restaurant' (Haan Aahaan Lao-Jin/Zhong1 Lao3 fan4 dian4) with of all things, an outdoor swimming pool...!
(to be continued...)
Fab report -- many thanks. Did you do much in the way of wandering into the hinterland? and also, if you wanted to strike further north, what were the options (if any) I guess I could grab a motorbike somewhere along the way,
No worries on the food front -- three bowls of pho for breakie and warm BeerLao and a stale baguette for dinner -- works for me!
that is a very large post somsai
the next time im looking to fill a couple of hours i'll remember to head over the laobumpkin
I hope to be in Laos toward the end of this year, this area interests me a lot but scares me a little. Seems like a place where some language skills would come in more than handy
I didn't realize the Lionel journal would be so long or so good, I'll make a separate post about it some other time without thread jacking.
Some thoughts for Somtam or anyone else headed up to the areas mentioned.
It would be interesting to know local attitudes about lignite plant. It might well end tourism in affected areas.
I tried hard to rent a motorcyle in the Phongsali capital district three years ago and had no luck, I'd think the last rental on the way is Luang Namtha. Might be worth shipping a newish dirt bike out of Vientiane. I hate being without transportation in an area with so little public transport. Maybe check with that new trekking company before heading up. Bike or no bike most of Phongsali remains roadless.
Last baguette probably in Muang Khua, in northern areas Great Wall probably rather than Beer Lao, in Ou Tai I rememeber no Lao cell phone coverage but Chinese phones ok.
Look forward to expanded Huaphan Section, the province is huge and I've only done a bus ride through.
Look for email with maybe usefull contacts.
Thanks for the info -- I'm not sure I'm in any kind of fit state to walk across Phongsali , but we'll see!
I've ended up ditching Sainyabuli due to time constraints and will be mainly going to Phongsali and Hua Phan -- am hoping to do some night trekking with the tiger project in the latter -- should be interesting.
Cheers & will report back as trip progresses.
Did you do much in the way of wandering into the hinterland?
nope, took only public transport. limited time, so original plans didn't incl anywhere north of Ou Tai.
I guess I could grab a motorbike somewhere along the way
erm...do you mean legally rent/buy or...?
Nyot Ou & Boun Neua districts don't cater to tourists. GHs & restaurants there exist cos of businessmen, officials & locals who need to travel. treks all seem to be advertised & arranged in PSL town. could perhaps try hitching if you speak Chinese - most vehicles on this route had Yunnan licence plates.
places served by public transport out of Boun Tai, Boun Neua, PSL town, etc - have transliterated village/town names into English here, click around for largest versions of timetable photos. even if you have your own wheels, it could give you an idea of landmarks.
have a look at maps here. in Lao only, but gives overview of what there is to explore.
Pak Nam Noi to Boun Tai
a few of the landmarks (south to north direction):
1. junction with road to Samphanh district (not sure if this is the new US-funded road)
2. KM 37 Ban Namly: Meithousone GH (not sure if in operation)
3. Ban Sanomay: has dispensary
4. KM 62: junction with road through Samphanh district to Pak Pok
i passed Pak Pok along the Nam Ou when travelling from Hat Sa to Muang Khua. Pak Pok has a river crossing - road down to river on both banks, small pontoon bridge + tugboat, & a few longtail boats. on east side of river, dirt road runs south along the river (20min in slowboat travel time) to Muang Samphanh (with boarding school & new government buildings) & beyond. curious about this area - saw an old blog post by a falang who overnighted in Muang Samphanh at the invitation of a local he met elsewhere, but all else i've heard about Samphanh district seems to be about the proposed additional dams on the Nam Ou, nothing in way of tourism.
the Sugarcane Road
main HWY north of Boun Neua passes through these major spots (south to north direction):
1. Ban Ngay Neua
2. Ban Tha
3. Ou Tai
4. Ou Neua
5. Xieng Seo
6. Lan Tui (兰碓 lan2 dui4)
7. Say Daen (lit. 'border')
#1: ~33km north of Boun Neua. concrete bridge over Nam Ngay (Nam Ou tributary). has fortnightly market where villagers trek down to buy/sell stuff. very pretty setting in a valley like many other lowland villages along this road, bit of terracing of rice fields. police checkpoint here - locals all took out ID cards, but police who boarded our bus just looked around. their attention was focused on giving this lone falang (only one i saw in 4 days) on a motorbike (travelling in opposite direction) a hard time, my bus left before i could find out what eventually happened to him.
north of #1 is where little roads/tracks start to branch out from the main HWY.
#2: HWY crosses Nam Ou here. fornightly market like Ngay Neua, but larger market area incl concrete shelter. junction with unpaved road leading east to Yao Fang (75km from Boun Neua according to PSL town bus station timetable). signboard at junction announces roadworks project. GT Rider map marks this place as 'Yofam', perhaps they thought that this is Yao Fang when it's actually Ban Tha?
#3: GT Rider map shows road leading NW from here to Chinese border, forgot to ask about it.
#4: bit north of here is junction with road leading east to Bo Sao, supposedly possible to head to border with China. local here also mentioned a road to Vietnam from somewhere between south of here & Ou Tai that he plans to travel on by motorbike with his future wife on their honeymoon trip.
#7: actual border checkpoint - furthest north foreigners can proceed. daily bus from Ou Tai continues beyond here to 江城 Jiangcheng county in China.
on the whole, places along this road seemed relatively prosperous compared to those along the Pak Nam Noi-Boun Tai road - a lot of rice & sugarcane exported to China. Lao people from other parts of the country seem to think of Boun Neua & Nyot Ou districts as isolated & undeveloped...but though lowlanders in these districts might never travel to Luang Prabang (let alone Vientiane) in their entire lives, many have been across the border to get their fill of big city + bright lights in Jiangcheng county & beyond. plans are to get the Boun Neua-Jiangcheng road paved soon, & to shift the capital of PSL province from PSL town to Boun Neua by 2015.
PSL to Hat Sa
bus from PSL usually makes a stop before it turns right to go downslope to Hat Sa market & boat landing - before this stop there's a junction with a road that leads 18KM out to a dam 'on the Nam Ou' upriver from Hat Sa...not sure if something was lost in translation cos same person said that the Ban Tha-Hat Hin-Wa Tai-Hat Sa section of the Nam Ou is navigable by raft...
Hat Sa market comes alive every 15th & 30th of the month. mostly manufactured goods from China - after all it's a lot about uplanders coming down to get stuff that they can't (or is difficult to) make by themselves in their villages. similar fortnightly/monthly markets in Ngay Neua & Ban Tha (mentioned earlier), Ban Yor, Boun Tai, Pak Nam Noi & a few spots along the Nam Ou between Hat Sa & north of Muang Ngoi Neua. difficulty is figuring out the dates - there's some sort of 'rotation system' between some of the venues - even PSL tourist info office staff aren't sure.
a few minutes downriver from Hat Sa - cable bridge across the Nam Ou, GT Rider map shows this road leading into Phou Daen Din NPA. treks listed at PSL tourist info office don't seem to venture into this NPA at all. but i remember this entomologist's dream of a poster about Phou Daen Din NPA in the old office (they're now in new premises along a road leading downhill from the PSL town songthaew station, next to what looks like a new guesthouse).
Hat Sa to Muang Khua
still 80,000kip/pax for shared slowboat downriver (same as Dec 2006). police check ID/passport for downriver boats at Hat Sa boat landing, & again at Ban Khana further downriver (somewhere in Samphanh district between Ban Meuang Houn & Pak Pok). didn't encounter the Ban Khana checkpoint back in 2006.
No worries on the food front -- three bowls of pho for breakie and warm BeerLao and a stale baguette for dinner -- works for me!
think last baguette i saw was in LPB (as i headed north - LPB > Oudomxay > Boun Nuea). then again i only hunt for baguettes when in Vientiane, & from a specific stall opposite the Samsenthai Rd M-Point mart ;)
didn't see any food for sale north of Ou Tai. within Ou Tai, quite a bit of the packaged foodstuff in shops are well past expiry, in dusty packaging with colours equally well faded. am the sort who can eat 1000kip instant noodles either uncooked, or soaked in drinking water for a long time until softened like cooked noodles (when hot water unavailable)...anyway i carried 3 tiny tins of fish, instant Ovaltine & a few muesli bars. & there's always Lactasoy.
Many thanks again to all that posted -- special thanks to wandering_cat and somsai for the emails -- will be sure to toast you with some Hercules Wine in Udomxai. Plan to perhaps blog a bit as I go, but will report back in full when back in Bali.
Now off for a final bubur ayam before the final pack panic sets in.
Cheers & thanks!