Photo: What is for breakfast?

Introduction

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You can practically smell the fresh asphalt when you arrive at Udomxai, the major transport hub of northern Laos. Sometimes spelled Oudomxay, Oudomxai and also referred to as Muang Xai, the provincial capital’s importance can be attributed to the fact that it’s within a day’s drive of Thailand, Vietnam and most conspicuously, China.


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Being the centre of all things has won Udomxai success as a commercial corridor but not for tourism—the city has about the same amount of charm as a major bus station. The key to Udomxai is getting out of the city and exploring the pockets of rural beauty the province has in bounds. There is also ethnic diversity to learn about. The province has approximately 12 different ethnic groups and the predominant one is not Lao Loum but Khmu, estimated to make up some 60 to 80% of the provincial population.

Bright lights big city. Photo taken in or around Udomxai, Laos by Cindy Fan.

Bright lights big city. Photo: Cindy Fan

But first, the gritty nitty-gritty. The town is booming, primarily because of Chinese business interests and there are those who are definitely prospering—just wait until you see the unsubtle Greco-Roman mansion on the main street. At times it feels like there are more Chinese signs and blue Chinese license plates than Lao ones, and you wonder if you really are in Laos. Don’t be surprised if your warm “Sabaidee!” is met with a blank stare.

The centre is not very attractive save for Wat Phu That, an oasis of calm on a hill that is a must visit for sunset. From the top, look beyond the concrete and electricity wires to see that beautiful mountains and forest are within easy reach.

Pop up to the stupa. Photo taken in or around Udomxai, Laos by Cindy Fan.

Pop up to the stupa. Photo: Cindy Fan

Nam Kat Yorla Pa is a new spot featuring both. The swath of forested area centred on the Nam Kat waterfall and river is 17 km northeast of the city. No longer a mere waterfall, there’s now a top-range nature resort and outdoor activities on offer. If a stay is not within your budget, the waterfall itself can be done as a half day trip or a full day motorbike loop with Muang La, one of our favourite spots in northern Laos.

Muang La is a village happily situated on the Nam Phak river 28 km north of Udomxai, an idyllic setting wrapped up in quiet farmland and rolling hills. There’s nothing to do per se, and that’s why we love it. Simply wander down country lanes, visit Wat Pha Singkham and soak in the natural hot springs with the locals.

Udomxai has a few spelling variations. Photo taken in or around Udomxai, Laos by Caroline Gaylard.

Udomxai has a few spelling variations. Photo: Caroline Gaylard

Guided tours and treks of Muang La and other villages are available. The main company (and as of 2018, the only locally based one) is the provincial tourism office. In 2005, an NGO helped them develop attractive programmes and infrastructure. It’s well organised, however, nothing has been updated since 2005. That’s not to say they aren’t good, it’s just that Udomxai has changed while the offerings have stagnated. One- to three-day long treks highlight natural wonders like Chom Ong Cave and ethnic villages, namely Khmu (who are famed for their basket-weaving skills and ceremonial bronze drums), Akha and Tai Lue. Buying handicraft is one way to help keep their traditions alive in the onslaught of cheap goods flowing in from China. Check out one of the shops we mention if looking for a small way to support and give back.

The office is worth stepping into whether considering a trek or independent exploration. The staff speak English, there’s information posted and if heading out on a motorbike to see sights like waterfalls, ask about road conditions and if sights are actually still there as development and damming is rapidly reshaping the province.

The surrounds are prettier than downtown. Photo taken in or around Udomxai, Laos by Adam Poskitt.

The surrounds are prettier than downtown. Photo: Adam Poskitt

Most travellers treat Udomxai as a transit point or layover. It can be a springboard to interesting experiences if you’re willing to slow down. Heading north to Phongsali? There you can start a two-day journey on the Nam Ou river to Muang Khua then Nong Kiaow. Short on time? Bus directly to Muang Khua for one day down the river.

Headed to Luang Prabang or Huay Xai? A bus can get you to either in a day but you can also bus to Pakbeng, the midpoint of the slow boat trip on the Mekong—here’s a chance to tick Mekong boat ride off the bucket list. While distances in northern Laos are not huge, travelling by river is the scenic and arguably the more pleasant option, especially during rainy season. Udomxai’s windy mountain roads go through a decade-long cycle where they must deteriorate completely, to the point where it resembles the surface of the moon before it is repaved. The province’s roads are either ok or notoriously very, very bad. In Laos, it’s all part of the adventure.




Orientation
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! The Provincial Tourism Information Centre (http://oudomxaytourism.blogspot.com open Mon–Fri, 08:00–11:30 & 13:30-16:30) is located directly across from the market. The office has a free town map and brochures for suggested attractions, tours and village visits, all which can be booked through them. There is also a noticeboard with bus schedules and ads for local activities. If the office is closed, there’s usually a list of mobile numbers of staff that you can reach out to. The centre also rents mountain bikes and one motorbike.

Sunti Travel (on the road that wraps around Phu That hill; open daily 07:30-18:00) has a fleet of motorbikes and automatic scooters for rent, 100,000 kip per day. He also offers transport by 4x4 truck or minivan for 1,200,000 kip per day, as well as a guided trip to Chom Ong Cave.

The town of Udomxai is compact and everything is walking distance except for the southern 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. It services southerly routes such as Luang Prabang, Pakbeng and Vientiane, while the old bus station, conveniently located in the middle of town, still services northern routes. See our transport section for full details.

The town also boasts an airport with a daily Lao Airlines 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.

Banking facilities and currency exchange are available in town, and there are ATMs everywhere on the main road including a BCEL beside the bridge, BFL (Banque Franco Lao) at Charming Lao Hotel and Indochina Bank near the roundabout.

Fast internet is now a standard feature in guesthouses and hotels. 4G, be it Lao Telecom, Unitel or ETL, the coverage is great and the speeds fast for Laos.

The city centre isn’t exactly what we would describe as a happening place. Most shops shutter up at dark though a handful of restaurants remain open past 20:00.

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