Highlights of a visit to this mountainous region are the colorful markets and villages of more than 30 different ethnic groups, such as Hmong, Iko, Khmu, Lanten, Mien, Samtao, Thai Daeng, Thai Lu, and Thai Dam. Since the late 16th century, the small town of Muang Sing has been a traditional Thai cultural nexus as well as a trade center attracting a large variety of hill tribes. With a stunning unspoiled nature, Luang Nam Tha province is also home to the 2,224 square kilometers Nam Ha National Biodiversity Conservation Area and to the UNESCO Lao Nam Ha Eco-tourism Project.
In the North Western part of Laos, near the famous Golden Triangle, Houei Xay is a bustling trading port between Yunnan and Thailand. The region is famous for its precious stones (sapphires and rubies) and gold mining. Various hill-tribe villages can be visited from Houei Xay, including the colorful Lahu, Mien and Lanten. Houei Xay is a major entry point for visitors planning to travel down-river to Luang Prabang. Travelers usually stop overnight at Pak Beng, a rustic town-village that sits on a steep hillside with spectacular views over the Mekong River. An alternative option is to continue the cruise to the small port of Tha Suang and from there, to travel overland to Hongsa, where Thai Lu villagers specialize in elephant breeding while women weave some of the most sumptuous Lao textiles. Elephant safaris to beautiful authentic Thai Lu villages and to the pristine White Elephant Forest can be organized.
Northern Laos is a mountainous region and fed by the waters of the Nam Ou and the Mekong Rivers. Traveling this region is filled with stunning scenery, as well as a way to observe the lifestyles of the locals who reside on the river banks and make their livelihood fishing and foraging in the area. Northern Laos is inhabited by several ethnic minority groups such as Khamu, Hmong and Akha. Although seemingly similar, these groups still retain certain traditions, way of dress, and dialects that delineate them from each other.
Northern Laos also features some of Southeast Asia’s most famous ecotourism destination such as at the Nam Ha Protected Area in Luang Nam Tha Province.
Heading north from Luang Prabang on the Mekong River, you reach Nong Khiaw. Set amongst dozens of limestone karsts, the town is full of stunning scenery. Within walking distance of Nong Khiaw are some Hmong villages where you can learn more about this ethnic minority.
Luang Nam Tha village is the gateway to the Nam Ha Protected Area, where trekking and outdoor activities abound. The town is a quiet and peaceful place to relax before or after a trek or bike tour in the region. Surrounded by ethnic villages and rice fields, Luang Nam Tha reveals plenty of hidden charms in its tribal museum, local market, pagodas, and friendly locals. In Luang Nam Tha, Boat Landing Guesthouse is a unique eco resort set amongst the fields on a river bank. Not only is the accommodation spectacular, but the restaurant serves up the best northern Lao cuisine we have ever tasted!
Located in a fertile valley in the mountainous north, Muang Sing is a very charming town that served as a garrison during the French era. Muang Sing is very famous for its local ethnic hilltribe market. Here, the area’s various hill tribes such as Akha, Lanten, and Hmong, gather to trade and barter their various wares. Also in Muang Sing, take your time to enjoy the local architecture consisting of traditional Thai Lü, Thai Neua and Yunnanese styles as well as the informative tribal museum.
Nam Ha protected area is the most famous and well-known ecotourism destination in Laos. Covered by primitive rainforests, valleys and mountainous areas, the park has a significant level of plant and animal biodiversity. In addition, this is the home of many hilltribes such as Akha, Lanten, and Khamu and one can learn about the unique cultures of these native people.
In the far northeast of the country, near the Vietnam border lies the town of Viengxay,the headquarters of the former revolutionary Pathet Lao. The town is surrounded by limestone karsts in which there are about 102 caves and during the American bombing campaign (1964-1973) some of these caves were occupied by villagers and politicians who were seeking shelter from the raids. For the truly adventurous, traveling from Viengxay in to Vietnam is a journey of a lifetime- mountainous roads, various ethnic minorities, and stunning scenery!
Where to stay?
Muang La Resort is unique resort in Udomxay with only 5 wooden villas and 10 bedrooms, built following traditional architecture; the notion of a retreat assumes its full meaning. An ambiance of peace and tranquility exudes from the lodge. The Boat Landing is the premier eco-lodge in Luang Namtha, Laos' most northwest province, with access to the Nam Ha Protected Area, the Namtha River and Lao ethnic villages for rafting, trekking, and biking trips. The Nong Khiaw Riverside stretches along the Nam Ou River and is surrounded by forests and Limestone Mountains. All 15 spacious bungalows have large, private balconies facing the river with views of the mountains.