Getaway to the other side
Published: 3rd December, 2018
Luang Prabang prospers with World Heritage architecture, boutique hotels, fine dining and tourism, yet a five-minute boat ride across the Mekong delivers you to Chomphet District and it’s like stepping into another world.
For a district so close to a bustling town, Chomphet is surprisingly rustic, rough and undeveloped. Roads are mainly unpaved and see little traffic, infrastructure is rudimentary. Those who complain of tourist crowds should come here—relatively few make their way over.
A visit to the Chomphet side of the river can be as brief as an hour, hiring a private boat on a whim to visit Wat Chomphet which sits high on a hill, or a whole day of hiking/biking/motorbiking. The cheapest way to cross is by taking the public ferry from the large boat landing behind the Royal Palace Museum. Ferries criss cross the Mekong every 10-30 minutes shuttling people, motorbikes, vehicles and livestock—we’re not sure how much a water buffalo costs but per person it’s 5,000 kip one way, 8,000 kip with a bicycle or motorbike. It arrives at a long, steep boat landing in Ban Xieng Man village, which is not recommended if you have limited mobility. Any regular boat can be hired privately to take you across, negotiate for 10,000 kip before hopping in.
You can bring a bike across, but it's just as easy to rent one from the small bike and tour shop in the village on the other side. Prices are slightly higher (30,000 kip for half or 60,000 kip for full day) but they're mountain bikes which are absolutely necessary on some of the bumpier and steeper sections of road. The operator can also arrange tours (bank on 150,000 kip per person—tours are entirely customisable and therefore prices negotiable) and has detailed maps of bike and walking trails.
So you’re on the other side, now what? Here’s the rundown of what to do in Chomphet.
Along the water’s edge heading upriver is a walking trail with a string of historic temples, most requiring a 10,000 kip ticket (only if you choose to enter the building). At the top of the boat ramp, turn right and walk through the village until it, along with the paved road ends, after about a kilometre. Veer right and continue along to the stairs with 100 steps up to Wat Chomphet.
The whitewashed temple is pretty in its simplicity. Restoration work has revived this 18th century temple and inside the red wooden ceiling has gold stencils of animals. The real draw to Wat Chomphet is the view to Luang Prabang.
Continuing on, Wat Long Khoun is one of our favourites because of its historic significance, the unusual fresco on the facade and the fact that you could easily be the only visitor. The 18th century temple was where kings spent three days in retreat before being coronated at Wat Xieng Thong, its grand staircase directly across the way sweeping up from the river. Flanking the front entrance of Wat Long Khoun are two stately looking Chinese figures, faded by age. Typical of many Luang Prabang wats, the inside murals show jataka tales of Buddha’s life.
The third easily found temple is Wat Tham Sackkalin or Wat Tham, literally “temple cave”. Caves are sacred in Laos and they often will contain a shrine, stupa or, like Pak Ou Cave, become a repository for Buddha statues. Buy the 10,000 kip ticket and someone, often a local kid, will unlock the door and guide you in. It’s more of interest for the atmosphere rather than its contents.
There are several more wats upriver and continuing on is a hike that requires a bigger commitment. The forested trail eventually moves away from the riverbanks and goes uphill before coming back to the river at Wat Khok Pab. There’s no one maintaining the trails and it can be disorienting. We recommend you download the Hobo Map, bring hat, mosquito repellent and plenty of water as there’s nothing in this area.
The Chomphet Loop
Looking for a scenic motorbike or challenging cycling trip in Luang Prabang? Chomphet has a 23 kilometre dirt road loop that will take riders through countryside, past rural villages, beautiful rice paddies and mountains. It’s lonely, bumpy and hilly with some very steep sections. It feels like stepping back in time.
To do the loop, a sturdy motorbike or a mountain bike is required, plus a lot of stamina. Pack everything you may need. Wear a helmet, and we’d also suggest plenty of water, drinks and snacks, sunscreen, a spare tube if on a bike.
From the boat landing, head up the steep ramp, keep left at the first fork in the road (the right leads into a village). Pass the petrol station. At the second fork keep right (the left will lead downriver to “the pottery village” Ban Chan).
After that it is fairly straightforward. The loop is clockwise so keep going right wherever it makes sense (while obviously trying to keep on the main road). Downloading Hobo Map’s “Luang Prabang Area Map” is helpful as it indicates minor landmarks such as wats and radio towers that will keep you oriented. Another clue is the power lines—they run adjacent with the main road. When passing through villages, a smile, wave and friendly “Sabaidee!” will be met with much fanfare.
It doesn’t take long to feel how remote and relatively undeveloped this area is. While the way up until the junction has been graded and will be paved, once on the loop the dirt “road” is difficult, warped from tractor tires and water run off. Be aware that there will be several stream crossings which can be impassable after heavy rain.
The best time to do this by bicycle is in cool-dry season, November to February, when temperatures are ideal for exercise. It’s not advisable from March to June when temperatures soar and it’s incredibly dusty. For those on a motorbike, set out early, slap on sunscreen and cover up—a face mask is helpful.
A beautiful time is during rainy season (approximately July to September) when the rice is growing and the mountains are lush and green, or in October when rice is being harvested and the roads are drier. However, conditions will be challenging. You will need a few solid days without rain for the road to dry.
Another interesting option by mountain bike which we have not tried: take a bike on one of the slow boats heading up the Mekong towards Pakbeng, get off at Ban Khang Khan and cycle south along the dirt road where it eventually joins the main road at the petrol station. See the way indicated on Hobo Map’s Luang Prabang Area Map.
Want to cycle but need support? Green Discovery does a multi-sport trip in Chomphet that includes trekking, mountain biking the loop with support van and homestay.
Walk, bike or boat to Ban Chan “the pottery village”, 3.5 kilometres by dirt road. Further downriver, Pha Tad Ke Botanical Garden is best reached by boat, which is included in the price of admission. Moving on down in Ban Pak Leuang, Green Jungle Park offers zip-lining with a rope course in a forested area with a waterfall. We have not tried it but have heard some positive feedback; if you want zip-lining, it delivers. The boat transfer takes about 30-45 minutes, the zip-lining package costs US$30 per person. T: (071) 253 889;
On a final note, after decades of suffering from dusty terrible roads, poor infrastructure and isolation, Chomphet District is going to be changing soon, and fast. As of 2018, construction of the high-speed railway is underway. The train will connect southern China to Vientiane with a stop in Luang Prabang and a vehicle/train bridge across the Mekong north of town. This forgotten other side of the river is developing a highway to link Nan, Thailand through Honsa and Chomphet Districts to Luang Prabang (and therefore to the railway station and China). This highway is expected to connect Luang Prabang to Thailand in just two hours by road.
Cindy Fan is a Canadian writer/photographer and author of So Many Miles, a website that chronicles the love of adventure, food and culture. After falling in love with sticky rice and Mekong sunsets, in 2011 she uprooted her life in Toronto to live la vida Laos. She’s travelled to over 40 countries and harbours a deep affection for Africa and Southeast Asia. In between jaunts around the world, she calls Laos and Vietnam home where you'll find her traipsing through rice paddies, standing beside broken-down buses and in villages laughing with the locals.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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