For many, the lofty mountains and sheer riverine valleys of northern Laos sum up the dreamy and exotic nature of the entire country. Situated on a promontory of the Mekong River, Luang Prabang is by far the crown jewel of northern Laos. The former royal capital and UNESCO World Heritage Centre remains one of the most charming and romantic cities in all of Asia. Until recently, it was not easy or cheap to get to but with a new international airport, improving roads and Chinese business interest, the city is becoming more crowded. Still, Luang Prabang should be considered an absolute must-see town for the first-time visitor to Southeast Asia.
The north attracts the bulk of backpackers and travellers who make it to Laos but few venture off the well-trodden “Banana Pancake Trail”, which includes infamous Vang Vieng, now tame after a clampdown on drug and alcohol-fueled debauchery, and capital city Vientiane. The towns in northern Laos are widely dispersed, and you need to be of hardier stock and have time to tackle the region’s rough mountainous roads and slow rivers. In return, getting off the beaten track is immensely rewarding.
Many choose to cross the border at Chiang Khong, Thailand/Huay Xai, Laos via the Friendship Bridge. Huay Xai is home to the memorable Gibbon Experience, a once-in-a-lifetime zip-lining trip that will have you soaring above jungle canopy and sleeping in tree houses — a special way to aid conservation in a country complicit in the global illegal wildlife trade.
The elephant-pant masses then hop onto the slow boat for a two-day journey down the Mekong (with a pitstop in Pakbeng) to Luang Prabang. We’d however skip the boat — at least for a while — to head to trekking centres that offer experiences with the region’s rich ethnic diversity and natural wonders. You’ll find an intense concentration of both in Luang Nam Tha and Muang Sing, an easy bus ride from Huay Xai.
The fun outdoor activities in the Nam Ha National Protected Area and hilltribe trekking could easily keep you entertained for a week. Roads north of regional hub Udomxai continue to be improved and the once notoriously bad journey to Phongsali is just a bit more civilised. We still can’t believe how unknown the pastoral paradise Muang La is, despite being only an hour bus ride north of Udomxai.
When it comes to the northeast, again, just going the extra miles exponentially gets you “out there”. Backpacker favourite Nong Kiaow and Muang Ngoi boast a gorgeous backdrop of imposing limestone mountains and picturesque views of the Nam Ou River. Those craving remoteness need time and mettle to get there: A loop through the northeast near the Vietnamese border has you deep in very interesting territory of ancient and recent war history, deep jungle and traditional handicrafts.
Visit the caves in Vieng Xai, the headquarters of the Pathet Lao and where 20,000 people survived in a hidden cave city. Sam Neua is famed for its exquisite weaving and textiles. Phonsavan is home to the mysterious megalithic Plain of Jars, and it was one of the most heavily bombed areas in Laos during the Secret War.
Though the distances you might wish to travel in Laos can seem small, don’t underestimate the amount of time needed to travel from point A to point B. Be sure to allow yourself enough time to slow down and enjoy the pace of life — the north is fascinating and one best not raced through.
The mountains, roads and limited tourist infrastructure have held mass tourism and change at bay. But change will hit northern Laos like a tsunami, very soon. Lands once used for rice paddies have been leased by Chinese companies and the land is engulfed with cash crops. Seven dams are being built on the Nam Ou River, affecting an untold number of villages that rely on the waterway. The massive Xayaburi Dam on the Mekong is set to be completed in 2019. A 23 billion dollar high-speed railway between Thailand and China (through Laos, of course) is a done deal. The country will undergo immense change.