FIRST, EITHER FLY OR TAKE THE overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, the heart of Northern Thailand.
Chiang Mai is the first stop on a well-trodden tourist trail that runs to Luang Prabang, south to Vientiane, and back to Bangkok. Thousands of travelers funnel through this route each year with hardly a glimpse out the window of their air-conditioned buses.
You are not just another backpacker. You are looking to experience something different, something that will push you beyond your comfort zone and provide a glimpse of the ‘other Lao’, a strange, exotic, and immeasurably beautiful part of the world that exists a mere hundred meters from the path so many travel.
We must first head north, away from Chiang Mai to Houay Xai, a small town situated on the Lao side of the Mekong River across from Chiang Khong, Thailand. Houay Xai is just a small port town, a jumping off point for people looking for boats down river to Luang Prabang.
You see the river boats crammed with locals and tourists that will chug downriver at a painfully slow pace, and you turn away. You look to the mountains and hills to the north of the town and can feel something pulling you inland, inexplicable and unrelenting.
The Gibbon Experience
In Houay Xai you will find the offices for the Gibbon Experience, quite possibly the most unique and exhilarating wildlife experience in Southeast Asia.
Located in the Bokeo Nature preserve, a 123,000 ha area of protected forest in one of the most remote corners of Laos, this project is fully operated by the local Lammet and Hmong communities giving visitors the opportunity to understand their dynamic relationship with the forests.
Mobility is granted through the thick forest via 11 zip lines spread out across three ridges with tree houses in the canopy as accommodations. The project is quickly becoming one of the more popular in the country, so making reservations a few weeks in advance is recommended.
Bookings can be made through the Gibbon Experience website.
Luang Nam Tha
A hard day of riding the bus through the forests of the Nam Ha Biodiversity Area on narrow dirt roads brings you to the small north western town of Luang Nam Tha.
Located in a broad valley on the Nam Tha River, and surrounded by tranquil rice fields and hills, Luang Nam Tha is one of the more scenic locations in northern Lao.
As a recipient of large amounts of funding from the United Nations Development program, Luang Nam Tha has developed into a major center for eco-tourism and is a significant destination for outdoor enthusiasts.
To many, however, the projects have begun to develop a somewhat “formulated” feel – superficial outings that focus on parading ethnic groups about in traditional garb while hawking cheap trinkets are quickly becoming the norm; experiences that provide little opportunity to gain any insights into the people’s lives.
Also, rapidly expanding rubber plantations are eroding the natural areas that once made the area so attractive. A quick browse among the tourist shops along the mainstreet, all sporting advertisements for identical sounding “tribal hill treks” says it all and you find yourself headed out of town on the first bus down the highway to Oudomxay Province.
Arriving in Oudomxay town can be a bit of a shock. A cursory glance will give the strong impression that this is not a tourist destination. Oudomxay is little more than a highway truck stop with a single strip of old buildings on either side of the highway covered in dust from recent construction and situated in a deforested valley.
Over the last few years, with assistance from a number of international non-governmental organizations, tourism opportunities have been slowly developing in Oudomxay.
Though lacking in the glamor and glitz of more established projects in Luang Nam Tha or Luang Phabang provinces, the tourism opportunities in Oudomxay are new enough to ensure a unique and genuine experience for intrepid travelers.
The most interesting option is an overnight hike to Khmu villages in the highlands of the La District. These communities represent the ‘other Lao’, the part of the country those of us who have lived and worked in the country refer to as the ‘working Lao’, the part that hasn’t been overtaken or transformed by monolithic tourism operations.
The working Lao is a place that has remained largely unchanged in the last 150 years. The best part about these communities is that visitors are still viewed and accepted as guests, not just as travelers, and certainly not as tourists.
Into The Heart Of Lao
The trip starts in the early morning at the offices of the Tourism Authority. (Backpacks and large bags can be safely stored in a locked room in the office).
You are met by a local Khmu guide in a truck and then taken 30km on the highway to the north into the La District, one of the poorest areas in the province.
From there the truck gets off the main highway and drives 12km down a dirt and mud road that barely clings to the side of hills overlooking extensive rice paddies.
Eventually the truck comes to a stop at an indiscriminate bend in the road, and you can’t help but wonder why the guide has chosen this spot to park the vehicle. The guide shows you the trail head hidden at the roadside, just a small, single track running into the forest.
For more than two hours you hike through the jungle, crisscrossing a small stream that leads to the village, cut through a narrow, steep valley with thick untouched patches of old growth subtropical rainforest obscuring the sun overhead. This path is the only access to the village, and you meet school children who nimbly pass you by on their way home from another week at school.
You arrive at the village site in a burst of sunshine and green as you step out from the forest and see the thatched and bamboo huts settled on a small hill at the center of the valley.
Idyllic and serene, are words that seem wholly inadequate to you as you walk the last few hundred metres into the village centre, seeing the sunlight slide down the greenery of the surrounding hills and settle around the community in a light golden haze.
The village is largely empty at this time as the residents are all still out working in the fields further up the valley. You are taken to the home of the Phorban (village father) and invited to sit in the shade under the house to wait, marveling in wonder at the magical place.
That night, after the villagers have returned from the fields, and everyone, including yourself, has taken their daily bath in the local stream, you share a meal with the Phorban and his family.
The food is simple, boiled chicken in a broth with vegetables taken from the forest, and a side of sticky rice all shared from a mat placed on the floor.
Through your guide, the Phorban tells you the story of his village, their daily efforts to eke a living from the surrounding hills and fields.
The floor, made from a woven matt of bamboo, dips and shakes with every movement, the vibrations tingling up your spine to the base of your neck, giving you the sensation that every person in the room is interconnected, inseparable.
When the women across the room rock back and forth screaming with laughter, or when the men holler and bellow, encouraging a friend to drink from the communal jar of rice whiskey, you imagine that you can feel their emotions, their joys, hopes and dreams for the future, pulsating through the strips of bamboo bark like notes on vibrating piano strings, tickling your feet, extolling you to release yourself and join them in this special moment of community.
You do, and in that moment you realize that, when you leave, a small piece of your heart will remain in this beautiful valley with these beautiful people.
After emerging from the forests you have a decision to make. You can return to Oudomxay and catch the bus to Luang Phabang, or you can continue your divergence from the beaten path and head to Phongsali province, a 31/2 hour bus ride to the north.
The town of Phongsali is no more pretty or entertaining than Oudomxay was, but that is not the point in visiting this area.
After a nights rest in one of the towns simple hotels, catch a sawngthiew (a truck with a cover and benches in the back for transporting large groups of people) to the town of Hat Sa, about an hours ride away. From here, numerous boats make daily trips down the Nam Ou River to Muang Ngoi Neau and a seat will cost $10.
(If pressed for time, Muang Khua is a good halfway point for catching boats on the Nam Ou between Oudomxay and Phongsali.) .
The ride is long, taking between 7 and 10 hours, and cramped, but this is among the most beautiful stretches of river in Lao, and you are almost guaranteed to be the only foreigner on board.
Muang Ngoi Neua
You will be thrilled and relieved to see this small village on the banks of the Nam Ou appear from around a bend. Muang Ngoi Neua, located one hour by boat north from Nong Khiew, is quickly growing in popularity among tourists, but it has managed to maintain its charming atmosphere none the less.
With mountains towering on each side, and a number of decent accommodations and restaurants, the village makes for a wonderful place to relax and recuperate after a long boat ride.
Editor’s Note: Check out Justin Landrum’s Guide to Muang Ngoi Neua.
Nong Khiew is a bustling town straddling the Nam Ou River and situated around the Highway 1 bridge. There are a number of hotels that have huts overlooking the river ranging from simple bamboo to upscale rooms charging as much as $18 US per night.
Western style food is available – a definite relief after so many meals of sticky rice and meagre soups of vegetables and broth. Charter boats to Luang Prabang cost about $100, or there are daily ferries that run downriver to Luang Prabang for $10.00 a seat.
It’s another seven hour boatride, though the views are still quite spectacular. For those in a hurry, Sawngthiews can be hired to take you into Luang Prabang within a few hours.
End of the line! A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Luang Prabang is a beautiful city replete with boulevards and French colonial architecture. Numerous restaurants and hotels offer respite from your many days in the forest.
Daily flights are available back to Bangkok.
This article was originally published on May 12, 2008.