You can practically smell the fresh asphalt when you arrive at Udomxai, the transport hub of Northern Laos. Sometimes spelled Oudomxay, Oudomxai and also referred to as Muang Xai, the town has developed into a major transport and travel centre due to its location rather than its charm – it has about the same level of charm as a major bus station.
The town is booming, primarily because of Chinese business interests, and there are those who are definitely prospering – just wait until you see the monstrous Greco-Roman palace on the main street. Given the number of Chinese businesses, signs and license plates, you’ll sometimes wonder if you are really in Laos. Don’t be surprised if your “Sabaidee!” is not reciprocated.
While the distances in northern Laos are not huge, the roads are clogged with heavily laden buses and transport trucks chugging along at a slow pace, made even slower during rainy season. The routes now play a pivotal role in transporting goods between China, Vietnam, Thailand and recently, Burma. On the upside, roads that have not seen new asphalt for decades are finally being paved.
There are two kinds of roads in Udomxai province: really good or very, very bad. For example, the road to Luang Nam Tha is excellent. On the other hand, the road to Luang Prabang is horrendous. One notorious 80-kilometre stretch, from Udomxai to Pak Mong, is an excruciating four- or five-hour slog along a mountain road more akin to the surface of the moon. Thankfully they are finally fixing it, but it could be a long while before construction is finished.
The town itself is not very attractive: square concrete blocks of buildings, Chinese businesses and few places of immediate interest to the average tourist. Many travellers exploring the north will have to transit through here and will, at most, stay a night or two. With affordable accommodation and everything walking distance, it’s not a bad place for a stopover and if you have the time and inclination to look, Udomxai is home to a range of activities in its surrounding areas. And if you can look beyond the concrete and electricity wires, you’ll see that beautiful mountains and forest are within easy reach.
For a backpacker, Udomxai is the jumping off point for exciting possibilities: It is only an hour to the pastoral and charming Muang La. You can venture to Phongsali or head to Muang Khua where it is still possible to take a memorable boat journey down the Nam Ou to Nong Kiaow. Take a bus south to Pakbeng, where you can hop onto a Mekong slow boat to Luang Prabang or Hongsa.
A few years back, the provincial tourism office had a foreign consultant develop the area’s potential, and this has definitely paid dividends. Though the town is increasingly driven by business and less focussed on tourism, the surrounding area has attractions that are becoming more and more attractively packaged and better serviced. Trekking trips are now available, making visits to the many interesting local villages and national protected forests worth seeing. If you are looking for things to do, it is worthwhile to stop at the Provincial Tourism Information Centre.
A modest cycling scene is developing in and around the town, with bike touring companies offering various trips around the area. It is becoming increasingly popular due to the varied terrain on offer — there are hills, flats and rough terrain all within a few kilometres of town — and the fact that most of the major highlights can be reached by bike.
Route 13, the country’s most important highway, leads right through town and acts as the main street and throughway – watch out for the transport trucks barrelling down! It’s worth stopping in at the helpful Provincial Tourism Information Centre (Monday–Friday, 08:30–16:30), located directly across from the market. The office has a free detailed town map and brochures for suggested attractions, tours and village visits, all which you can book through them. There is also a noticeboard with bus schedules and ads for local activities.
One of Udomxai’s best features is that the town is compact and everything is walking distance – except for the new bus station. Opened in early 2015, the station is four kilometres from the town centre and you will need a tuk tuk to get to/from town. The new bus station services southerly routes such as Luang Prabang and Pakbeng, while the old bus station, conveniently located in the middle of town, still services northern routes. See our transport section for more details.
The town also boasts an airport with a daily flight to/from Vientiane. This airport is one of the few we have come across which you can walk to – it is virtually in the town centre.
Good banking facilities are available in town with currency exchange and ATMs. There is also a large post office with holding and forwarding facilities. Udomxai holds all the regional administration offices, which have helped to bolster the town’s growth and population.
Fast internet is available in many guesthouses in town and if you are using Unitel, Lao Telecom or ETL 3G, the coverage is great and the speeds very fast.
By Cindy Fan. Last updated on 12th October, 2016.