Nestled in mountainous northern Laos, just a hop, skip and a jump from the Chinese border, Luang Nam Tha is an excellent base for exploring the many natural wonders of the same-named province. Tourism infrastructure in recent years has improved as the province makes a name for itself with trekking and other outdoor activities, particularly in and around the Nam Ha National Protected Area. Mountain biking, rafting and kayaking are some of the ways to enjoy the scenery and the wilderness.
The small town bustles in the high season with trekkers and you are almost guaranteed to have others join your trip, which lowers the price per person. Your money goes to employing the local community and to park fees that fund wildlife/forest conservation projects and maintenance. It also sends a message to villages about the value of protecting the environment.
Luang Nam Tha province has astounding ethnic diversity, being home to more than 20 ethnic groups. It is the most diverse province in Laos and one of the most ethnically diverse areas of Southeast Asia. The Akha, Yao, Black Tai and Lahu are a few of the ethnic minorities you have an opportunity to learn about and a village homestay is the best way to experience their way of life.
Centred on three long, straight and flat roads, the provincial capital is compact, easy to navigate and is a pleasant enough town to hang out in as you sort out a trek or de-jungle. Those who venture here during the rainy season months of June to September are in for a treat as the surrounding rice paddies, mere metres from the town centre, are a stunning vibrant green. A short bike ride will produce some excellent photos. We hope these paddies will remain but it is only a matter of time before they are taken over by rubber tree plantations and other cash crops destined for China, as has already happened across the province.
Luang Nam Tha is flat and easy to explore. Rent a bicycle or motorbike to outlying areas. Head south on the main street towards the bus station and follow the dirt roads that fan out in all directions leading to small villages. If you are up for bigger distances, we rate the drive to Muang Sing as one of the prettiest in all of Laos. The waterfall at Ban Nam Dee is just five kilometres outside town and an easy trip using pedal power. You can take a lazy boat trip along the Nam Tha River arranged through the tourism office or Green Discovery.
Luang Nam Tha’s geographic position has helped it thrive. It links the Chinese border town of Boten to the Thai border at Huay Xai and a steady stream of goods pass through here. Therefore it’s no surprise that Route 3 to Huay Xai would win the title of “Best Road in Laos” – smooth asphalt and only four hours by public bus. It’s a pity that so many backpackers bypass Luang Nam Tha by hopping on the slow boat to Luang Prabang. The town gives you a good reason to skip the slow boat. Wilderness and diversity await.
Luang Nam Tha is a junction. At the northern tip of the town, Highway 17 leads to Muang Sing (58 kilometres) and the Phanghai Laos-China border (not open to foreigners). At the southern end Route 3 takes you southwest to Huay Xai (174 kilometres) and Route 13 leads easterly to Boten (58 kilometres) and Udomxai (120 kilometres).
The town is centred on the main street Highway 3A and the night market. There are money exchange facilities and ATMs, including BCEL Bank which has international networks. Guesthouses/hotels have fast internet. The Tourism Information office is located behind the night market, open Monday to Friday 08:00-11:30,13:30-16:00.
The provincial bus station is 10 kilometres from town. The district bus station servicing local routes is at the south end of the centre. Luang Nam Tha also boasts an airport five kilometres from town with a daily flight to/from Vientiane.
All visitors will no doubt encounter the aged Akha women who make the long journey from their rural villages to sell handicrafts: hand-sewn bracelets, belts and bags creatively decorated with beads, embroidery and buttons made from recycled soda cans. They are formidable, tough, hardworking women — and relentless salespeople; they will find you any time you step outside. Buying a few bracelets helps support an entire village, but it’s also okay to politely say no.
By Cindy Fan.
Last updated on 12th October, 2016.