sign in a cave in Laos

12 February 2009

Luang Namtha, Laos - Brunei Times

Roger posted a blog on OneAsean about the Luang Namtha area, and this was of interest to me as I've written a few things about this great area. One of these is below, see also
Published on The Brunei Times (

Eco-tour treats await in Laos

Hole-in-one: Among the many natural spectacles in the Luang Namtha province are the Tham Nam Eng cave (Top), with its 'cavernous' entrance and passageways, and local ethnic minority villagers, who have not forgotten their traditional costumes and customs.Pictures: Liz Price

Sunday, February 1, 2009

LUANG Namtha Province is one of the hidden secrets of Laos. It's an area rich in biodiversity and is unspoilt by mass tourism. All the tourists who go there have made the effort to reach this beautiful part of Laos. It's not the easiest place to get to as it isn't on any major routes. Tourism is still on a very small scale and fortunately the area is not on the itinerary of tour groups, making it a great place for eco-tourism.

Luang Namtha is in northern Laos, and borders China and Myanmar. The main city in the province is also called Luang Namtha and lies on the banks of the Namtha River. To get there by bus from the World Heritage city of Luang Prabang in the south takes between nine and 12 hours. Alternatively, it takes five to six hours to arrive from Huay Xai in Bokeo province, which is the border crossing to Chiang Khong (Chiang Rai) in Thailand.

Most of the eco-tourism activities are based around Luang Namtha. However, Vieng Phoukha to the south is a small town — or more accurately, a large village — which also offers similar adventure tours.

Trekking is the main activity, but you can also participate in mountain biking or kayaking. Any of these options gives you a chance to see the beautiful landscapes and meet the wonderful local people. I found the people fascinating. They belong belong to a whole range of ethnic minority groups and many of them go about daily life wearing colourful traditional outfits.

As we venture around the market, our guide points out the different tribal costumes and hats. There are about 14 ethnic groups living locally, with the main ones being the Akha, the Hmong and the Khmu. Over the years, local tribespeople have migrated throughout Burma, China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. This mix is reflected in the physical features of the local people. They all look quite different from each other as there are many different ethnic groups living here.

The women from different groups wear their hair in distinct styles, with or without ornaments. Some men sport colourful jackets, but generally the children dress in western-style clothes.

Trekking is strictly controlled and it is illegal to take an unlicensed guide or to trek independently. This prevents tourists getting lost, and more importantly it stops them from offending the local people's tribal customs. It also helps in that it sends the message to the local people that they, their culture and their natural resources are important and have value. They learn that tourists like to trek through forests, and therefore forests should be left uncut.

There are a couple of agencies in Luang Namtha that offer trekking and other tours. In Vieng Phouka, the Eco-Guides office arranges treks. This area is the newest trekking area in Laos, and the Eco-Guides service is a community-based scheme being helped by the provincial government and the European Union. They currently offer four treks, ranging from one to three days, which visit various ethnic minority villages.

Participating in these eco-tourism activities gives the villagers an income, and also contributes to wildlife and forest conservation projects through access permits.

Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world. As we start our trek, we meet a trio of girls carrying nets and baskets. Our guide explains that the girls are looking for animals to catch. These people eat virtually any animal that they can find, and so they search the rice fields and forests. They use bamboo traps to catch birds and small mammals and they go into caves to hunt bats.

Caving is another activity that can be done in the Vieng Phouka area. Tham Nam Eng is very impressive, with very large chambers and passageways, and lots of beautiful stalagmites and stalactites.

At night, you sleep in ethnic villages. The houses are basic: there are no bathrooms and no running water or electricity. You use the river for washing and the village has a communal water pump and toilet. The nights are noisy with people coughing, dogs barking and chickens clucking.

Luang Namtha's Nam Ha Protected Area was named an ASEAN Heritage Park in 2005. It covers 2,224 square kilometres of unspoilt land ranging from lowlands to 2,000-metre peaks in the northern highlands. The park includes some of the most significant and largest contiguous wilderness areas in the country.

The terrain is quite mountainous, and mountain biking is an increasingly popular activity. The roads are virtually traffic-free and it's a great way to see the countryside. Most tour companies rent out bikes.

For those who prefer playing on water, kayaking and rafting in the province is some of the best in Laos. Negotiate rapids whilst passing lush forests and ethnic villages, or for something more sedate, why not settle for a boat trip on the Namtha. From Luang Namtha, drift downriver to the Nam Ha Protected Area and see Khmu and Lanten ethnic villages along the river banks.

The area also offers much for lovers of flora and fauna, especially birdwatchers. In fact, there is something for everyone who has a love of eco-tourism. And as it is still unspoilt by mass tourism, now is the time to go. Once the new highway opens between China and Thailand, it will bisect this amazing corner of Laos and change the landscape forever.

The Brunei Times

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