Just north of bustling Udomxai, small and picturesque Muang La sits nestled beside the Nam Pak River and surrounded by tranquil farmland, traditional Khmu villages and rolling mountains. Once an off-the-grid spot with no tourist accommodation, Muang La is gracefully making a name for itself, no doubt helped by the opening of a luxury lodge.
Muang La’s main attraction is the natural hot springs. Picture yourself soaking sore muscles in hot water while taking in the river scenery. The experience is tonic for both the body and soul – and it’s free. It doesn’t get much better than this.
Aside from the hot springs, there’s not much to do in town – and that’s its charm. Head up the road, cross the bridge to the other side of the Nam Pak and stroll through the Khmu village for gentle pastoral scenes and glimpses of daily life. Return via the charming 10,000 kip-a-ride bamboo “ferry” built by an enterprising local.
Visit Wat Pha Singkham, a pilgrimage site and home to a sacred 400-year-old Buddha, one of the most important in Laos. Ask a local restaurant to catch and prepare fresh fish from the river. Otherwise, content yourself with rest, relaxation and with taking it all in from your riverside terrace at Hotel Lhakham. This simple 100,000 kip a night budget guesthouse is a big reason why you should stay a night (or three!) in Muang La. There are few places left in Laos where you can get a location and view like this at such a great price.
If you’re really pressed for time and are staying in Udomxai, a day trip to Muang La is possible. Muang La is 28 kilometres from Udomxai on the road to Phongsali but the terrible road surface means the journey will take one hour. Large parts of the route north of Muang La have been repaved, part of a major road reconstruction project, so we, like the locals, are optimistic that this section will soon be done too.
Muang La has only a few local restaurants and if you stay longer than one night, meals will get repetitive. It’s not a bad idea to bring fruit and snacks with you from Udomxai to help tide you over. Menus aren’t in English so you’ll need sign language and pointing. Bieyjith Restaurant on the main road up the lane from Hotel Lhakham does standard Lao-style pho noodle soup and just OK stir-fry. Stop by the restaurant located at the top of the road beside the bridge to see what’s fresh and arrange for dinner, perhaps ask for fish (pa) from the river. With advance notice, you can also try to arrange for a tasty, simple local dinner at Hotel Lhakham; they’ll do it if they can. Not surprising, the restaurant at Muang La Resort is not open to outside guests, not even for a cup of coffee.
When we first visited Muang La a local guide (who is hopefully doing something other than guiding now) led us on a half-day long wild goose chase to see a cave and the river source. He led us through thicket and thorns and plants with incredibly itching leaves that made our legs feel like they were on fire (really). We did find the river source, but we never saw the cave. For those interested in hikes and who want to avoid an ordeal like ours, we recommend you book a trip and guide through the Provincial Tourism Office in Udomxai across from the market. A tour is recommended if you want to see the numerous ethnic groups throughout the district, notably the Khmu, Akha, Hmong and Ikhos.
We love Muang La. This pastoral paradise is so close to the beaten track and it’s only a matter of time before people realise it and start coming. But we wouldn’t be sad if Muang La stayed just the way it is.
Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Muang La. Want to know what to do once you're there? Check out our listings of things to do in and around Muang La. If you're still figuring out how to get there, you need to read up on how to get to Muang La.
By Cindy Fan.
Last updated on 12th October, 2016.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.