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Luang Namtha

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Earth : Asia : Southeast Asia : Laos : Northern Laos : Luang Namtha
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View of the "suburbs" of Luang Namtha

Luang Namtha [1] (Louangnamtha, Luang Nam Tha) is the largest city in Luang Nam Tha Province, Northern Laos. It lies on the banks of the Nam Tha river, and the meaning of the name is "The area (luang) around the Tha river (nam Tha)".

Understand

Best known as a stopover point on the backpacker trail from China to Laos, and as an alternative to the long and cramped boat journey between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang, Luang Namtha has become increasingly popular as a starting point for hill tribe treks, especially those into the Luang NamTha NPA - National Protected Area. While short on jaw dropping sights, it's a compact and fairly pleasant little town, albeit one divided in two distinct parts: the "old" or original town near the airport (bombed out in the 1970's war), and the "new" or replacement town to the north where the trekking companies and most guesthouses can be found. The two are about 6 km apart. The "old" town sits aside Highway 3 - the modernised route from China to Thailand. The "new" town is located along highway 17A which serves to connect Muang Sing.

Get in

By plane

Luang Namtha Airport (IATA: LXG) has Lao Airlines flights to/from Vientiane 3x/week (1 hour, full fare US$120, Mon Tue Wed, 2011). Since 2009, there are no longer any services to Huay Xai or Luang Prabang, but the airport was renovated in 2008, with a 1600m paved runway, and there are distant plans to field international flights. Shared tuk-tuks wait outside for arriving flights and will take you to anywhere in town for 10,000 kip.

By road

To/from China

One of the Mengla-Luang Namtha shuttles (there are also larger buses)

From Jing Hong there is one maxi-bus (comfortable though not a coach) daily (10:40am) from the north bus station, stopping en route at the south bus station at 11:00 (choose which is closer to your hotel and buy a ticket a day before, as it usually sells out) - ¥77. Stops for lunch in Mengla, where one can change RMB to Kip (rates are negotiable and are fairly competitive, though check notes as they often pass 1,000Kip for 10,000Kip as they have similar colour). Border crossing requires carrying your baggage into Chinese Customs Hall for scanning. The same bus awaits on the other side of the hall. After ~100m further driving there is the Lao Visa on Arrival window. After Laos passport control, there are money changers (good rates for selling RMB). Arrival around 17:40 in downtown Luang NamTha. There are 2 BCEL ATMS and 1 LDB ATM in Luang NamTha.

Mengla (China) via Boten it will cost you about ¥46 for a bus to Luang Namtha. The first bus leaves Mengla north bus station at 9am and there is another one at 14:30 (June 2011). The trip takes 4-5 hours, depending mostly on the length of the border crossing.

Laos Visas are available on arrival at the border ($USD32 or Kip320,000 or ¥300 for EU/Australian; $37 for UK citizens; $44 for Canadians; $33 for Germans; $37 for Greeks; free for 15 days for Japanese). Note the poor rate for payment in Kip, RMB - currently paying in USD is cheaper.

If going to China, you will must arrange your visa in advance (nearest embassy/consulate is in Vientiane, Laos or Chiang Mai, Thailand). Agents in Luang Namtha can securely send your passport to the embassy in Vientienne with a turnaround of 3 days for around $USD60 - perfect if you're going trekking in the mean time. The daily bus leaves around 8 AM, costs 60,000 kip to Mengla and 90,000 kip to Jing Hong, you'll want to exchange/use up all your kip before you head off, as exchange rates at the border are variable, and Kip is useless outside Laos.

(In Chinese, especially at the bus station, Luang Namtha may be called "Nan Ta".)

Within Laos

The bus station for destinations inside the province is located on the main road west of the main guesthouse strip. The old bus station across from the market has now been demolished to make way for a 5-star hotel, and the main bus station for destinations further afield is now inconveniently located 10km out of town. A tuk-tuk should cost about 10,000 Kip per person or 20,000 if you're alone.

Buses for Huay Xai, on the Mekong River at the Thai border, leave at 9AM and 12:30PM and cost 55,000 Kip. Tickets can be bought from 7:30AM, and the journey takes only four hours now, due to improved road conditions, and you can therefore make it into Thailand on the same day. If you want to be assured of a seat, tickets can be bought in town the day before at the travel agent across from Green Discovery Treks for 75,000 Kip including tuk-tuk to the bus station. Like all bus travel in Laos, tickets bought at the bus station always have priority as for seating. The tuk-tuk leaves the travel agent at 8am. Alternatively, you can hire a minibus and ride comfortably Luang Namtha in 3-4 hours for 120,000 kip/person.

Trips to Luang Prabang take 8-12 hours, depending on road conditions, and cost 90,000 Kip [leaves at 9:00AM], 130,000 Kip for minivan (11 seater) [leaves at around 8.30AM or when everyone gets onboard] and 110,000 Kip for the (supposedly faster) VIP bus (22 seat version) [if running, at both 9:00AM & 2:30PM]. While the 10,000 Kip fare from the 'new' bus station to the main town centre appears non-negotiable, the fare from the town centre to the 'new' bus station can be negotiated for multiple pax. The bus station booking office (located at the 'new' bus station) sells tickets for tomorrow's journey from this afternoon. In Laos, it is wise to pre-purchase tickets to be more sure of a seat. The roads from Luang Namtha to Luang Prabang are in poor to fair shape with numerous potholes along the way. The bus stops at the Oudomxay bus station for lunch. Most bus drivers stop every couple of hours to check brakes, etc. And, at these times pax can also find a bush for bladder relief. The journey is not for the faint-hearted during the rainy season with the bus squeezing and weaving across roads collapsed due to the landslides. In parts, the scenery is fantastic. Like all buses in Laos, the earlier you arrive, the better choice of seat [try for at least 1 hour before] - the alternative is sitting on a plastic stool in the aisle for hours on end, or not being let on. While the Lao accept your bag on a seat as 'taken', Chinese do not! Sometimes they board Luang Prabang passengers to the bus leaving for Ventiane which leaves at 8.30am so its better to go early on the bus station to see which one will it be.

Buses for Vientiane cost 180,000 kip and leaves daily at 8:30am.

Buses for Bokeo cost 60,000 kip and leave at 9:00am and 12.30pm.

Buses from Muang Xay (Oudomxay) cost 40,000 kip, take about four hours and leave daily at 8:30AM, 12:00AM and 2:30PM.

Sawngthaew leaves for Muang Sing from the small bus station in town, 20,000 Kip, one to two hours, until 3PM.

By boat

It is possible to take a boat along the river, all the way to/from Huay Xai, but there is no scheduled service and only occasional cargo ships, so odds are high that you'll have to charter. From Luang Namtha, Boat Landing Guest House/Green Discovery can try to arrange boats, at an estimated (but highly variable) price of US$170-400 for a boat that can handle 4 to perhaps 10 passengers. The trip takes two days and requires overnighting in a village along the day (included, but take some backup food if the village dinner is not to your standard). In the dry season after November, the northern parts of the river (towards Luang Namtha) may not be navigable.

Get around

The two halves of Luang Namtha can be individually easily covered on foot, but you'll want to hop on a tuk-tuk (10000 kip/person) for going to the airport, the bus station or crossing over between the two.

You can get a good map of the city at K.N.T internet for 3,000 kip and some guesthouse will have a copy of it for free for guests.

You can rent really good mountain-bikes at a shop along the main road for 15,000 kip per day or 3,000 kip per hour.

Small semi-auto motorbikes (eg. Honda Dream copies) are now readily available (esp. across from the night market or at Zuela Guesthouse) and should cost about 30,000-50,000 Kip per day including helmets and a free map. With a motorbike, you can travel around to visit the many villages around and in Luang Namtha and also see the scenic countryside (eg. closer to Muang Nalae, Vieng Phouka or Muang Sing).

Do

Trekking

Luang Namtha Tourism Department

There are several companies offering trekking to the hill tribes in the area as well as nearby Nam Ha Protected Area.


  • Luang Namtha Tourism Department (Eco-Guide Service), located behind the night market. Offers up to four days trekking for an average of US$16 per day. Groups can be from 4-8 people and the cost per person drops the more participants there are. Other activities offered include kayaking.
  • Green Discovery [2] offers up to three days trekking trips, the price is a bit more expensive than in the tourist office. They also offer kayaking and other activities.

The mountainous and 'jungle' scenery in the area is a major attraction. If you are seeking to trek through this type of vegetation, make plain your preference as many treks take pax generally through the rural landscapes of farmland and rice paddy.

You can also take a tuk-tuk or bicycle and just go independently to some of the villages which are next to the roads and not in the jungle. A mountain-bike rental from a good shop will provide you with a not-to-scale map over villages and a nice waterfall. The surroundings are really pretty to cycle about in.

The quality of bicycling on the road from Luang Namtha to the Chinese border is excellent. The road is completely sealed with little or no traffic along the way. The route from Luang Namtha to Boten round trip is approximately 120 km long and passes through Laotian hill country and rice fields. The grades range from flat to moderate with one 2 km 10% grade stretch. Welcomes along the way are great.

With a motorbike, you can travel around to see the beautiful countryside and visit the villages in and around Luang Namtha (eg. closer to Muang Nalae, Vieng Phouka or Muang Sing).

Then there a number of waterfalls to be seen, closeby Namtha town is the Nam Dee waterfall and near Muang Sing is the Gneung Phou Ku Lom waterfall.

Other

There are several herbal saunas in Luang Namtha, the most popular being the one next to the Panda Restaurant, down the lane from the Lao Airlines office. It's a very simple rickety shack, but easy to spot (look for the stove) and equipped with separate male/female saunas, a changing room and lockers. The tourist price is 10,000 kip, with optional massages for 30,000. The newest massage and sauna is down the driveway of Minority Restaurant, the standard is slightly higher than some others. See Laos#Bathe for tips on herbal sauna etiquette.

Last but not least, if you liked what you saw, leave a compliment at the People's Complaint Box in front of city hall!

Buy

Money: There are two banks and one post office offering change for cash and travellers' cheques, all in the main street the bank next to the tourism office change travellers for 3% commission (minimum of $3). Banque pour le commerce exterieur Laos [BCEL] now has an ATM: but, all-too-often patrons complain of non-delivery of the cash. All BCEL ATM's have a high (20,000Kip) ATM service charge and low transaction limit (1.000,000Kip).

There are three sisters of the Akha people travelling from Muang Sing every day to sell their crafts and agricultural products (Opium and ganja) to falang. They are difficult to get rid of, and may follow you around town. Enjoy a bi-lingual conversation with them, it's great fun. If you refuse their wares they might offer you a special treat.

Eat

Bamboo shoot, pork and bitter herb soup at Minority Restaurant

Eating options in Luang Namtha are decent, but pretty much all restaurants serve the same menu of Lao, Thai and ersatz Western dishes at the same prices. Be aware that many restaurants in northern Laos find it cheaper (and perhaps easier) to employ Chinese cooks.

The night market is a good choice if you want to try something new after being on Phat Thai and Sticky Rice for a while. Lao market traders are learning that westerners readily buy their prepared meals, and so there is an option to supplement household income (when the rice paddy isn't otherwise consuming their time). The range on offer runs from soups, Laab, BBQ chicken, beer, good Lao coffee, and various fruits. During daytime, the good Lao food is always on offer at the 'normal' daytime market (opp. Sawngthaew bus station).

Alternatives to the western oriented restaurants include:

  • Coffee House. Open eatery with a comprehensive Thai Menu, lattes and cappuccinos, great fruit shakes, plus friendly atmosphere.
  • Minority Restaurant. One of the few options that stands out in any way, this little joint is run by a husband and wife from the Black Tai (Tai Dam) tribe and specializes in tribal cuisine, with Tai Dam, Akha and Lisu dishes on offer. Of course the menu also covers banana pancakes, French fries and other dishes for the western palate. Vegetarian and vegan selections and boasts "No MSG" in their dishes. Located a short walk from Zuela Guest House.
  • Papaya Restaurant [3] . Excellent Tai Dam, Kmhu and Lao tribal food. MSG free with some of the best milkshakes and very friendly staff. Probably the most vegan/ vegetarian friendly place in town. Also has tribal cooking classes. Just a few metres around the corner from Green Discovery.
  • Lai's Place Next door to Papaya, Lai's place is delicious, using fresh ingredients and very reasonably priced. Try the peanut Jaeow with sticky rice and vegetables, which is a savory, herbaceous dip that has to be tasted to be appreciated. Very friendly staff/owner.
  • Aysha Indian Restaurant. (Formerly Yamuna Restaurant) Offers great northern and southern India food as well delicious Indian breakfasts. A good alternative if you want to get a respite from Lao food. Owner is an Indian from Tamil Nadu who married a local Lao. 20 000-40 000 kips per person. Highly recommended to try his naan wraps, which are great as takeaway for day trips and onward travel. Very accommodating to vegitarians as well.
  • Panda Restaurant. Just a 2 minute walk away from the main area of town, with a nice second floor patio with views over rice paddies. It has a friendly owner and good food that's not overpriced. Make sure to try their fruit shakes as they are the biggest in town. [CLOSED] There's a space for rent sign on the permanently closed door.
  • Rambo Fusion. Just behind Panda Restaurant, next to the pond, but you have to walk around via the main street. Delicious Korean BBQ, popular with locals. A Portion (30000-50000 kip) serves 2 people.

A few steps away from Aysha Indian Restaurant (on the same row) there are two Chinese restaurants which are operated by Chinese who speak little English. There is no menu and you can only order by selecting your dishes in their kitchen. Dishes are a bit oily and the serving style is either plain or spicy. The taste is OK and the pricing is far better than at the restaurants in town.

Drink

Luang Nam Tha is not a party town, things must close by 11pm, but it's easy to find a cold Beerlao.

  • Manychan Guesthouse. Probably the most popular place in town, has a dedicated bar on the 2nd floor above the restaurant. Closes at 10:30.
  • Bamboo Lounge at Forest Retreat The new kids on the block. New Zealand run. Amazing breakfast menu - baked beans, jaffles, best coffee. Great cocktails. Great tunes. Fast WiFi. Offers trekking and kayak tours.

Sleep

Budget

There are a number of decent guesthouses in town. A few surround the large intersection that can be seen from the bus station. One guesthouse run by a Chinese family even lets patrons borrow bicycles for free.

  • Khamking Guesthouse, tel. 086-312238. Right in the center of the "new" town, this simple guesthouse is comfortable and squeaky clean. Rooms with fan, TV and attached bathroom from 50,000 kip.
  • Keusophone Guesthouse. Rooms starting at 20000 kip with no bathroom. Free water in the lobby.
  • Manychan Guesthouse. Rooms from 50,000 kip with attached bathroom. 24hr hot water and free wifi.
  • Zuela Guesthouse. 086 212059 / 020 5886694; Fax: 086 212058. This has become extremely popular with western travellers since it's prime listing in LP, esp. couples. Very good atmosphere and spacious rooms. Rooms start at 70,000 Kip, but like all places, the price increases as more mod cons are sought. Hotwater is solar, so good luck in the morning! (As of Feb 2012, many if not all of the rooms have on demand hot showers)
  • Yuranan Guesthouse. Just a little past the Night Market on the other side of the road. Clean with free wifi; rooms from 50,000 kip for a double with bathroom.
  • Adounsiri GH, owner Mr. Ketsana, 856 020 2991898. Lovely and clean family run place with individual rooms, double beds with inside bathrooms for 60000 kip. Fast and free WiFi. Bike rentals for 10000 kip/day available.
  • Thoulasith G.H, . Lovely and clean place with individual rooms, double beds with inside bathrooms for 60,000 kip. Fast and free WiFi. Hot shower.
  • Dokchampa Hotel [4], the biggest and best appointed hotel in town; located on the main street in the centre of town. Free fast WiFi and 2 computers for personal use in the lobby, free water (in coolers) in each room, off-street parking, 24 hour security and reception. 61 rooms ranging from pleasant single rooms to huge, plush VIP rooms with huge, nice beds and a bath/shower combo (room prices range from 60,000 - 100,000 kip). The new 3rd and 4th floor rooms at the back of the building have stunning mountain views. A lift is getting installed in January 2012 and the current solar water heating system is getting replaced with a much more efficient electrical heating system.
  • Tai Dam Guest House, from Green discovery, head south on the main street and take a right at the sign "Tai Dam". Keep going straight. The paved road will make a right turn; at this point continue forward on the (muddy) unpaved road. This place offers bungalows with a beautiful aesthetic that overlooks fishing areas, with the hillsides as the surrounding backdrop. The bungalows are designed and decorated in Tai Dam style. You can also stay in the main building. In either case, there are attached bathrooms with hot shower and a TV with access to Loation and Thai stations. The owners are also and foremost amazing! This place is the diamond in a one horse town. Bungalow in low season was 50,000 kip / hotel style room 40,000 kip.
  • Houng Heung Guesthouse, Luang Namtha Road, +856 (86) 212-099. checkout: 11am. This is a colonial styled three storey guesthouse with clean basic rooms and and great balconies for relaxing. Rooms have 24hr electric hot water, WiFi and fans. English speaking staff. 60,000 for a double room. (21.00408375263214,101.40902817249298)

Mid-range

There's only one even slightly upmarket option in Luang Namtha:

  • Boat Landing Guest House [5], about 7 km south of town. Beautiful eco-tourism bungalows on the river with quiet surroundings. Twin rooms US$20-30 (cash only).

Contact

There are a few internet cafes along the main guesthouse strip charging 200 kip per minute. Internet speeds vary. Many guesthouses and restaurants offer free WiFi service.

Get out

There is a bus station about 10 km south of the city center. It is readily accessible by Tuk-Tuk and should cost about 10,000 kip/person. Bus tickets can be bought at the bus station. If you buy tickets at a travel agency, they will charge about 10,000 kip commission/person and 20,000 kip/person for the Tuk-Tuk. The Tuk-Tuk driver will buy the bus tickets for you when you reach the bus station. Needless to say, it is far cheaper to buy the tickets at the bus station yourself, and barely any harder. (There is a small guest house and travel snacks at the bus station.)

  • Huay Xai, for the Thai border and Mekong cruises down to Luang Prabang. 75,000 kip including Tuk-Tuk to the bus station.
  • Mengla, to cross into China's province of Yunnan
  • Muang Sing
  • Muang Xay (Udomxai)
  • Jinghong, (Xishangbanna, Yunnan Province, China) There is a bus with daily service to and from Jinghong leaving Jinghong at 10:40AM
  • Luang Prabang, One bus daily leaving Luang namtha at 9am (72,000 kip).



This is a usable article. It has information for getting in as well as some complete entries for restaurants and hotels. An adventurous person could use this article, but please plunge forward and help it grow!


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