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Luang Namtha  (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)".
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.
Luang Namtha Airport (IATA: LXG) has Lao Airlines flights to/from Vientiane 3x/week (1 hour, full fare US$120, Mon Tue Wed, 2011). Since 2009, there are no longer any services to Huay Xai or Luang Prabang, but the airport was renovated in 2008, with a 1600m paved runway, and there are distant plans to field international flights. Shared tuk-tuks wait outside for arriving flights and will take you to anywhere in town for 10,000 kip.
From Jing Hong there is one maxi-bus (comfortable though not a coach) daily (10:40am) from the north bus station, stopping en route at the south bus station at 11:00 (choose which is closer to your hotel and buy a ticket a day before, as it usually sells out) - ¥77. Stops for lunch in Mengla, where one can change RMB to Kip (rates are negotiable and are fairly competitive, though check notes as they often pass 1,000Kip for 10,000Kip as they have similar colour). Border crossing requires carrying your baggage into Chinese Customs Hall for scanning. The same bus awaits on the other side of the hall. After ~100m further driving there is the Lao Visa on Arrival window. After Laos passport control, there are money changers (good rates for selling RMB). Arrival around 17:40 in downtown Luang NamTha. There are 2 BCEL ATMS and 1 LDB ATM in Luang NamTha.
Mengla (China) via Boten it will cost you about ¥46 for a bus to Luang Namtha. The first bus leaves Mengla north bus station at 9am and there is another one at 14:30 (June 2011). The trip takes 4-5 hours, depending mostly on the length of the border crossing.
Laos Visas are available on arrival at the border ($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".)
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.
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.
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).
There are several companies offering trekking to the hill tribes in the area as well as nearby Nam Ha Protected Area.
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.
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!
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.
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:
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.
Luang Nam Tha is not a party town, things must close by 11pm, but it's easy to find a cold Beerlao.
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.
There's only one even slightly upmarket option in Luang Namtha:
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.
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.)