Inhabitants of Muang Xay giving alms to the monks in front of Phou That mountain
Muang Xay (Oudomxay, Udomxai etc) is the capital of the multiethnic province of Oudomxay Province, located in the Nam Ko River Basin and surrounded by scenic mountains. It's the largest city in Northern Laos and, if you're travelling by land, you'll probably end up here at some point.
The town is formed by small villages at an important intersection between China and Vietnam, and the city has a unique multicultural atmosphere.
A free city map can be obtained in the bus station, with basic information and "things to do". An online version you can get on the website of the Provincial Tourism Department.
Lao Airlines has three flights a week to/from Vientiane (1 hr, full fare US$98). The local ticket reseller is located in Litthavixay Guesthouse in the town center on the main street.
Buses from/to Luang Namtha cost 40,000 kip takes up to 4 hours. Departures from Muang Xay are at 08:30, 11:30 and 15:00.
Buses from/to Nong Khiaw cost 45,000 kip takes up to 4.5 hours. Departure from Nong Khiaw are at 11:00.
Buses from/to Luang Prabang cost 40,000 kip, leaves three times a day and take about 5 hours.
Bus to Kunming cost 350,000 kip (for sleeping bus) takes up to 15 hours. Departure at 12:00.
Further daily buses come from/go to Vientiane, Phongsali, Pak Beng, Muang Khua and Bokeo. Some buses also go to China.
Chom Ong Cave, 45 km from Muang Xay, gives the visitor a dazzling feeling of entering Tolkien's Mines of Moria. The biggest cave in Northern Laos is a recently discovered system of more than 16 km natural tunnels, adorned with pretty sparkling sinter formations, huge stalagmites and stalagtites. Passages have ceiling heights up to 50 metres and there is a stream course flowing in the cave. The natural attraction is accessible in a 50 minutes walk from the village "Ban Chom Ong".
Ban Chom Ong is an outstandingly beautiful village of about 500 people of the ethnic group Khmu. It is starting point to the biggest cave in Northern Laos. Surrounded by paddy rice fields, locked by mountains, it is still largely untouched by modern influences. There is no electricity nor mobile phone signal in the village, but as a compensation you'll get the chance to observe authentic village life as for example handicraft production - most of the people still wear their traditional Khmu clothes. For their scarce visitors, the villagers have a basic bamboo guesthouse with an outside Lao style bathroom (15,000 kip per night), and they will be happy to cook meals for you (10,000-20,000 kip per person). There is very little English spoken in the village, so prepare for communication problems or take a translator with you. The Tourism Office offers 2-day and 3-day guided tours to village and cave, including transportation (). If you decide to go on your own, you can rent a motorbike or a car to go on the (very difficult) 40km dirt road from Oudomxay to the village.
Chom Ong village, idyllic starting point to Chom Ong cave
Nam Heeng. If you're very adventurous, it is also possible to reach Ban Chom Ong going to a village called Ban Nam Heeng first. The village itself is not particularly interesting, but from it is a 16km walk to Chom Ong village, where the cave is located. So called "Packing" cars leave from a public transport station near the normal bus station, the cost kip to Nam Heeng is about 35,000 kip. The challenging hike from Nam Heeng to Chom Ong takes approximately 5 hours. It is advisable to ask the villagers for directions to Ban Chom Ong.
Nam Kad Waterfall and Pristine Forest. While visiting Nam Kad Waterfall you can not only swim in the ice cold basin under the waterfall but also see one of the most untouched and beautiful pristine forests in Laos. Rent a motorbike and follow the sign which says "Nam Kad". At a village called "Ban Faen", turn right, and then just follow the road. You'll have to cross the winding river 5 or 6 times, which might be slightly difficult in the rainy season. When the road ends, it is a 30 minutes walk to the waterfall in a wonderful jungle atmosphere. The distance from Muang Xay to Nam Kad is 23 km.
The stupa in Muang Xay
Oudomxay Museum. Unless in the Museum there are just few items to look at, the view you have from the top of "Phou Sebey" mountain is very nice. Go there early in the morning, when the sun is still low - you may watch the town centre waking up and enjoy the morning light as it starts caressing the roofs before the day gets too hot.
The stupa in Full Moon
Phuuthat-Stupa. Just opposite of the stairs to the museum there are similar stairs to climb, leading to an 18 meters high Stupa. The stupa was built in 14th century to allow all people of the region to come together, to celebrate religious festivals. When under French control, the area of the stupa was made into a war camp. During the first Vietnamese war the stupa was destroyed and only bricks were left. Reconstruction started in 1994 and was completed 3 years later. Religious celebrations are held at the stupa during the day of each full. Since April 2010 there is also a golden, 15 metre-high Buddha statue watching over Oudomxay from the top of Phou That, seeming to spur Oudomxay people to new religiousness. Enjoy the view over the town and see the stupa and Buddha shining in the sunset. The monks at the nearby temple are always happy to practice their English with foreigners.
The local Provincial Tourist Office (in Oudomxay City, or Muang Xay) has been offering since November 2006 some very nice hiking including nightstays in khamu family houses (not guest houses, as in other more touristy hike places, which makes the experience very special and intimate). Although not as colourful as other ethnic groups of Laos, the khamu people are very nice and happy to have foreigners visiting their villages.
Women selling handicraft articles in Oudomxay
The Thai Ly Handicraft Shop opposite the airport street has some attractive traditional fabrics, bags and clothes.
There are three banks and one post office offering change for cash and travellers' cheques, BCEL , about 1 km north of the bus station change travellers cheques for 3% commission with a US$3 minmum. It might be worth checking Lao Development Bank.
BCEL provides three ATMs, accepting international cards (BCEL charges 20,000 kip, be aware of charges of your own bank). Two are located by the bank itself, and a third is located 500m away over the bridge. There's a maximum of 700,000 kip per transaction.
Luxay market is the market building located opposite the Tourism Office. In this market you can find all sorts of products. Upstairs is the clothing and shoes section. Get your daily necessity stuff at the market. The market closes at 5 pm.
Around Luxay Market chinese clothing- food- and houseware shops can be found. In contrast to the Lao shops, most of the chinese market shops are open until late at night.
Go for a stroll there and be stunned by the great range of perceptions you will get: Rare animals are offered to eat, unknown smells fill the air and you will get to know the real everyday life of people of the province.
Oudomxay has three fresh food markets: Tin market, Nonmengda Market and Phoukhaiw Market. All these markets are an excellent place to discover the variety of unique foods that Oudomxay has to offer. Oudomxay has many food items and forest products that are either not available or in scarce supply in other parts of the country. The markets are open every day, however they are particularly colourful on Saturday and Sunday afternoon. At all the markets you will find products of different ethnic groups.
The markets close at 6pm.
Souphailin's Restaurant is next to the post office
A broad range of fresh Lao, European and vegetarian dishes are offered by Souphailin's Restauraunt. Portions are big, quality excellent and prices low. Be patient with cooking times or order in advance when she has many customers. The prices are similar to other noodle-dives around town; not too special but the portions are decently sized. On the main road across the steet are some women selling barbecue chicken and rice. Chicken 5,000kip, sausage 1,000-5,000kip. Excellent fried vegetarian spring rolls.
The "Siso Bakery" (on the street opposite the bus station) offers great sandwiches, homemade breads, cookies and - people say - the best hamburgers ("Oudomburger") in whole Laos (if you want a veggie burger with egg instead of meat just order an "Oudom-Khai"). Best choice for breakfast, and they even have homemade strawberry jam. You need to be patient for the breakfast, if the local is open and there no one inside, it means that owner went to the market for buying food and you have to wait for the moment.
International dishes and cocktails you can get in the nice garden atmosphere at Muang Neua Restaurant in the town center. Prices are a bit higher than usual and portions a bit smaller.
Just about 1 km from the bus station (road to Luang Namtha), there is one steamboat restaurant offering good Lao's style Korean BBQ.
On the Tourism Office's town map all restaurants are shown.
There are a number of decent guesthouses in town. Basic rooms with showers and hot water should cost around 40,000 kip. General room prices in the town center including TV are around 40,000-70,000 Kip. A few minutes from the bus station are places for 50,000 kip including tv and en suite bathrooms. Be sure to bargain if they claim no TV or hot water is 50,000 kip or more.
Vivanh Guesthouse is just over the central bridge near the market building and has very nice and clean rooms. 60,000 kip.
Vila Keo Seum Sack has beautiful light double rooms, including TV and air-con, for 100,000 kip per night.
Lithavixay Guesthouse offers, besides good rooms, free wireless internet access, bicycle rental and flight ticket bookings. Doubles 60,000-80,000.
Phanmixay Guesthouse - inside the bus station compound. Has clean and nice rooms. US$4 for a double room with shower, hot water and cable TV).
Beside that, just opposite the Sinphet restaurant, there are international bus from China plying the route from Kunming to Luang Prabang and Luang Prabang to Kunming. Time is around 12.00 p.m. The international bus will stop around 15 minutes for lunch at the Chinese restaurant just opposite Sinphet restaurant.
Bus all the way to Kunming leaves at about 11:30 and takes 3 hours to the border and (after immigration) further 11 hours. Cost 350,000 kip.
Be aware that buses will only leave on scheduled routes if there are enough passengers. During the low season this leads to frequent cancellations and may mean you need to amend your itinerary or spend another night in town.