About Luang Namtha - Things to See and Do

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Lone Rider

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Jan 29, 2011
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Luang Namtha - Things to See and Do

Luang Namtha (Lao ??????????, literally "Royal Sugar Palm" or "Royal Green River") is both the name of the province as well as the name of the provincial capital. Luang Namtha shares its borders with Bokeo in the south-west, Oudomxay in the south-east, by Myanmar and the Mekong in the northwest and China's Yunnan province in the north-east with the border crossing at Boten. Three large rivers drain westwards/southwards into the Mekong: Nam Tha, Nam Fa and Nam Long.

The province covers an area of 9,325 square kilometers and over 85% of its terrain are low calciferous mountains that rise to between 800 – 2,000 meters above sea level. The highest point (2,094 meter) is found in Vieng Phoukha District and several peaks that approach 2,000 meters can be found among the province’s central mountains that separate Namtha and Muang Sing Districts.

The province has a population of over 152,000 people (2007). There are 39 different ethnic groups including Tai Dam (Black Tai), Tai Yuan (Kalom), Tai Deng (Red Tai), Tai Kao (White Tai), Tai Leu, Khmu, Oo, Lao Bit, Lanten, Mien, Hmong, Akha, Lahu, Phou Noi and Samtao with each group having its own dialect, culture and lifestyle, but coexisting peacefully - a reflection of traditional solidarity. Most people in Luang Namtha live in small rural villages and practice agriculture as their main occupation. From 1966 to1976, it formed with Bokeo, the province of Houakhong although in 1962 the north-eastern part came under the control of the Pathet Lao and was then maned Luang Namtha while the south-western part (which was under the control of the Royalists) was called Houa Khong Province. Between 1975 and 1983 Houa Khong and Luang Namtha were administered as a single province and then partitioned into what is present day Luang Namtha and Bokeo.

Covering an area of 222,400 hectares or nearly 30% of the province's land area and sharing an international border with the Xing Young Protected Area in China , the Nam Ha National Biodiversity Conservation Area is one of the country's largest protected areas and provides refuge for a wide range of wildlife species including tigers, sun bear, black-checked gibbon, and silver pheasant. In 2005 it was named and ASEAN Heritage Park. It is well known for a range of ecotourism activities and trekking activities in the area support natural resource conservation and traditional livelihoods.


The location of Luang Namtha province in Laos and the Nam Ha National Biodiversity Conservation Area

Due to its mountainous terrain the weather here can be quite cool, with temperatures generally not topping 30oC in the hot season (March-April) and dropping to as low as 0oC during the December-January period. During May-October, the southwestern monsoon brings the annual rains and marks the beginning of the new agricultural cycle.

Useful Contacts and Information

The Luang Namtha Tourism Office can be contacted at 086-211534. The Tourist Police can be contacted through the Tourism Office.
Muang Sing Tourist Office: Tel/Fax: 086-213021; Mobile: 020-55785775; 020-55786824, ms.touroffice@yahoo.com
Muang Long Tourist Office: Tel: 086-211534; Fax: 020-22443961, E-mail: tui-fat@hotmail.com
Viengpoukha Tourist Office: Tel: 081-212 392; Fax: 081-212 392
Nalea Tourist Office: Tel: 020-55363565; 020-96661108; 020-54417116

There are international ATM's in Luang Namtha as well as Western Union outlets.

For the history of Luang Namtha and many of its temples have a look at: "The Effects of Tourism on Culture and the Environment in Asia and the Pacific: Alleviating Poverty and Protecting Cultural and Natural Heritage through Community-Based Ecotourism in Luang Namtha, Lao PDR”. This publication can be downloaded from here:

Things to See and Do

There are lots of things to see and do in Luang Namtha Province and its districts but, as in most provinces in Laos, there is very little "hard information" available for most of the attractions. Trekking/eco-tourism seems to be one of the most important "tourist attractions" and the tourist offices in the province and districts are offering a range of 1 to 5/6 days trekking activities with most them involving the Nam Ha NPS and/or ethnic minorities. However, the use of the term “ethnic minority” is somewhat of a misnomer in Luang Namtha, as ethnic minorities by far outnumber the ethnic Lao that make up only about 3% of the population of the whole province. All ecotourism activities in Luang Namtha work on the community-based ecotourism model meaning that not only to the villagers benefit economically but they are also involved in the management of the trekking program. Please remember that it is illegal to go into the National Protected Area without a registered guide. For more information about the Nam Ha Ecotourism Project visit the website of the Nam Ha Ecotourism Project

To see remnants of the ancient forests which once covered the valley floor visit the sacred forests found near Tai Dam villages. These forests are the village cemeteries. In addition to (very) large trees, dense forest cover and bird life you will see the unique burial sites of the Tai.Dam. The Tai Dam bury the dead under small houses stocked with the items that they will need in the afterlife. A tall singular flag is a man's grave and one with a circle of flags is a woman's. The villagers may find it a bit strange that you are interested in visiting a cemetery but there is nothing that forbids it. Act respectful and reverent as you would in any cemetery or else the spirits may come to haunt you.


Tai Dam grave site and one of the big trees in these sacred forests

Tha Laeow – traditional tribal sign made from bamboo strips to warn people not to enter a village or a house. Please respect these signs!

Luang Namtha Museum The provincial museum has a variety of artefacts made by Luang Namtha's multi-ethnic people. They exhibit an extensive collection of indigenous clothing as well as agricultural tools and household utensils used in daily life. The museum has also an excellent collection of Buddha images, bronze drums, ceramics and textiles. In addition they have on display traditional hand-made weapons that were once used hunting and defending themselves.


The Museum in Luang Namtha (left) and Muang Sing (right)

Muang Sing Museum also known as the Tribal Museum. Close to the center of town, is a good place to start exploring Muang Sing's rich culture and history. The old wood and brick building was once the residence of Chao Fa (Prince) Phanya Sekong, who ruled over the area in the early 20th century. The building was restored in 2005. Due to its functional structure the façade was refinished, but the clay roofing tiles that covered the residence of Phaya Sekong before were converted to a mix of corrugated iron and asbestos tiles painted red.

There is an excellent collection of traditional tools from the major ethnic groups in the area. Displayed on the building's upper floor is an interesting variety of valuable 18 - 19th century historic and religious pieces that have been preserved by the people of Muang Sing.

Muang Sing is also home to one of the two French Forts in Laos (the other Fort is located in Huay Xay, Boten Province). The fort, located at N21.18829 E101.14824 behind the police station, is now occupied by the Lao army. It is off-limit to foreigners who also should refrain from taking photographs of the old buildings. You can try to find the old city wall and the moat which is now partly dry. From the Muang Sing museum walk down the dirt road for about 7 blocks and look around. For more information on the history of Muang Sing and the Fort including an antique map go to http://www.mp.haw-hamburg.de/pers/Kaspar-Sickermann/mgsing/emgs.html


Part of the old French Buildings and French Fort in Muang Sing

Stupa's and Temples
That Phoum Phouk (Phoum Phouk Pagoda) is a little known archeological site located 6 km from the Luang Namtha airport. The original stupa was built in 1628 to demarcate neutral territory between the Kingdoms of Lane Xang (centered in Luan Prabang) and Lane Na (Lanna - centered in Chiangmai). In 1966 the old stupa, which was once the most respected stupa in Luang Namtha, was damaged when an American plane dropped a bomb on its grounds. Since its partial destruction, the site has been pillaged several times. In 2003 a new stupa was constructed and dedicated beside the ruins of the old. To reach the stupa, turn right off the main paved road at the intersection just south of the airport, and follow the dirt track for about 5 km until you reach Ban Nam Ngaen: Location of the stupa: N20.97172 E101.38046.

The old and collapsed Phoum Phouk Stupa and the rebuilt Stupa

A long time ago Sy Sod So Tammikarad, king of Xiang Sean (Chiangsean in the north of Thailand) and Nalaetafai, king of Chantabouly (nowadays Oudomxay) built two stupas to symbolize their friendship. One stupa was That Phoum Phouk and the second stupa, once located on the eastern side of the Nam Tha river, has almost completely disappeared in the forest. However, it was rebuilt in December 2004 and was called the Luang Namtha Stupa. This stupa is easily accessible from the northern end of town: Coordinates N21.01000 E101.40201

There are a number of temples as well as ruin within the Luang Namtha area. Vat Luang Korn is one of the largest temples constructed in 1892, it is situated 7km from the city center - Coordinates N20.94943 E101.40252.

Tai Lue, one of the ethnic group common to the valley of Muang Sing, are devoutly Buddhist. Hence, there are 23 wats (temples) and monasteries in the area. Wat Luang (Wat Sing Yai), the most important wat in the area, is located off the main road next to the museum.

Wat (Vat) Namkeo Luang, which has a large monk residency, is also quite beautiful and is located on the road to Xiengkok, just as you turn off from the paved road to Namtha on the right. Wat Chiang In and Wat Chiang Lae are a short walk from Wat Luang.


Wat (Vat) Namkeo Luang

That Xieng Tung is the most important stupa in Muang Sing. It is said to contain the Adam;s apple of the lord Buddha. To the left of the stupa are some stairs which lead to a sacred fountain and a sacred stone. To the right is a dirt trail steep down which should lead (at least if you can find it) to the old moat and the wall of the stupa. During the full moon of the 12th lunar month, which usually occurs between late October and mid-November, all of Muang Sing and half of the province turns out for the That Xieng Tung Festival. Centered around a Thai Lue stupa on a sacred hill south of town, the festival combines Theravada Buddhism and animistic elements of worship and includes many of the ceremonies associated with the That Luang Festival in Vientiane (which occurs at the same time).

The Stupa itself stands around 10m high and is constructed in the Lanna-Lane Xang style, with a stepped, whitewashed octagonal base and gilded spire (Coordinates N21.14523 E101.17292). A shrine building off to one side contains a row of Buddha images mounted on a sarcophagus- like Thai Lue altar. The festival begins a few days before the official full moon day as merit-makers climb a broad winding path to the grounds atop the hill and pay their respects by carrying offerings of candles, flowers and incense around the base of the stupa - a tradition called wien thien, The morning of the Full moon Buddhist monks from around the province gather at the stupa for "tak baat", the collection of alms.

There are also traditional dance performances, carnival-style game booths, and plenty of food vendors selling khao leam (sweetened sticky rice baked in bamboo), noodles and other snacks. Many Chinese vendors cross over from Yunnan during the festival to sell cheap Chinese cigarettes, beer and apples. Festival activities spill over into town, where there are nightly outdoor Lao pop music performances with lots of drinking and dancing. Food vendors line the main street at night with candlelit tables.

That Xieng Tung

In spite of its Thai Lu origins, the That Xieng Tung Festival is celebrated by virtually all ethnic groups in the area ( including ) festival-goers from as far away as Xishuangbanna, the original Thai Lu home land in China's Yunnan Province), as much for its social and entertainment value as anything else. This is the biggest event of the year, and one of the best times to visit Muang Sing.

Vieng Phoukha was prospering by the eighteenth century as seen by the construction of dozens of Buddhist monasteries and pagodas in the Nam Jook (Chouk) and Nam Fa River valleys. Evidence of what must have been a large population in Vieng Phoukha can be seen just north of the district capital, where an extensive khou vieng (earthen rampart) surrounds the ruins of sprawling Vat Mahaphot and many smaller pagodas. Many people believe that these ruins are protected by spirits and if you take anything from the ancient sites you will suffer sickness and perhaps death.

The ruins of Vat Mahaphot

Southwest of Vat Mahaphot are a number of earthen mounds that were once kilns, believed to have been used to manufacture bronze drums known as Kong Bang in Lao. These drums, a symbol of status and wealth, can be seen in the Luang Namtha Provincial Museum. There are also a number of privately owned drums remaining in Vieng Phoukha.

Bronze Laotian “Kong Bang” drum and the area where the drums in ancient times were made

Directly behind the tourism office in Viengpoukha is the sacred forest that protects Bor Kung, the "Shrimp Spring". The area is renowned for its clear waters and abundant fish, crabs and of course shrimp. Another nearby spring is "Stewpot Spring" or Bor Kang. Like a stewpot it is always brimming with water. Bor Kang is the source of the Sai stream which remains clear and cool during all seasons, flowing into the nearby Nam Jook (Chouk) River.

“Bor Kung” west of the Tourism Office in Viengpoukha

Xieng Keang Region - is a largely unexplored, stunning region only a couple of hours from Muang Sing town. Due to its remoteness embedded between mountains and the Mekong River, its 13 villages (Akha and Tai Lue) are still very traditional and have remained largely isolated. This section can be accessed by boat from Xiengkok in Long District, but also by a gravel road which was recently rebuilt and leads over the mountains from Muang Sing. From scenic Xieng Kaeng village with its That Xieng Khaeng and That Hin Fou, a beautiful stretch of the Mekong can be explored by boat. It is strongly recommended to only visit Xieng Kaeng with a qualified guide as the villages have only recently started to receive tourists, and negative impacts can occur quickly. The organized tours ensure that a fair price is paid to the villages, and that every family can take part in the home stay rotation system.


Xieng Kaeng Hills

That Xieng Khaeng and That Hin Fou in Ban Xieng Khaeng

Waterfalls and Caves
Explore the Waterfall at Ban Nam Dee (Nam Di). Ban Nam Dee is a Lanten (Lao Houei) village roughly 6 km from Luang Namtha. The village accessible by foot, however it is recommended you either bike or hire a tuk - tuk in order to visit the village. To reach the waterfall follow the main path through the village for 500 meters, then turn right following the stream flowing from the valley at the far end of the village. Continue following this stream for 300 meters until you reach the waterfall (N21.01745 E101.44243).

Nam Dee Waterfall

The multi-tiered Namkeo Waterfall is located about 2 kilometers from the That Xieng Tung and should be visited as part of a guided tour (it is difficult to find) from the Muang Sing Guide office or while on the Akha Experience.

Nam Keo Waterfall

The Pha Yueng Waterfall is located in the Nam Ha National Protected Area in the north of the Luang Namtha Province on the road from Luang Namtha to Muang Sing about 40 Km - Coordinates of the trail head to the waterfall: N21.12066 E101.24346 . It is a nice place to visit but will require a 20 minute walk as it is located in the forest.

Pha Yueng also known as Phagneung Phoukulom Waterfall

The Caves in the Luang Nam Tha Province are also worth seeing. The caves in Vieng Phoukha District have some of the most beautiful underground formations in northern Laos. During prehistoric times many of the caves might have been inhabited by people, but today they primarily support nesting swifts and thousands of roosting bats of over a dozen species. Some of the most accessible are the caves near Nam Eng Village (Tham Kao Rao) and the network of caverns filled with bats at the base of the Phou Prasat limestone formation near Ban Tha Louang Village (N20.77167 E101.01478 - north of Viengphoukha).

Bats in the caverns of Phou Prasat

The Nam Eng cave system also known as the Kao Rao Cave (Oung Kao Rao in Khmu language) is among the longest mapped underground labyrinths in northern Laos. Within the cave is a small stream which runs from the mouth of the cave. Every year around 13 January locals gather to see a shaman summon the large fish from the cave, who then offer themselves up for a feast to the gathered crowd. One of the highlights of the cave is a large stalactite shaped like a bathtub. Local villagers believe that it was once a place where the Naga serpent took a bath.

The “Bath-Tub” Stalactite in Kao Rao Cave and the main passage in the cave


The Kao Rao / Nam Eng Cave


Other Caves in Viengpoukha
Nam Sing Caves - 20 km north of Vieng Poukha just south of the village of Ban Nam Sing there are two caves. No more info is currently available.
Sam Hee See Nom Cave - a 4 hour walk from Vieng Phoukha ( now accessible by car) near the village of Ban Nam Mai. This cave once held a sacred Buddha which has now been pillaged. The cave served as a hide-out and meeting place during the revolution.
Ban Boolahn Cave - located an hour or more walk up the mountain from the village of Boolahn (Phoulan) around 15 km north of Vieng Phoukha. Villagers of Boolahn harvest bats here for sale in the local market.
Phou Lek Cave - is reportedly a very large cave located 3 hours by foot through the jungle from Ban Nam Fa (south of Vieng Phoukha).

KARST MOUNTAINS IN LUANG NAM THA PROVINCE - Source:http://carsologica.zrc-sazu.si/downloads/381/6Kiernan.pdf
Located SW of Phongsali Province, Luang Nam Tha shares borders with China to the north and Burma to the west. Carbonate rocks occur in all but the westernmost part of the province. The best known karst occurs near Vieng Phouka (6), 120 km west of Huay Xai. Tham Nam Eng (Aeng), about 12 km north of Vieng Phoukha near Ban Aeng, consists of a fossil upper level cave system 3.1 km long and a lower resurgence stream cave of 3.5 km. At an annual ceremony each January a local shaman summons large fish from the cave that provide a feast for the crowd. Tham Phoulan in the same area contains a chamber estimated to be 250 m long, 80 m wide and 100 m high (Dreybrodt & Laumanns 2005 a) and LCP (2006) record several further caves up to ~400 m long near %am Nam Eng, frequently ending in sumps and siphons. Tham Pasat is a 2.6 km-long system on three levels linked by vertical shaft's. The caves in this area are seen as important tourism assets. Villagers harvest bats from Tham Ban Boolahn, an hours walk from Ban Boolhan 15 km from Vieng Phoukha. Two further caves occur another 8 km north near Ban Nam Sing. Near Ban Nam Mai lies Tham Sam Hee See Nom, which provided a secret meeting place during the years of revolution. South of Vieng Phouka and accessible from Ban Nam Pha is a reportedly very large cave, Tham Phou Lek (BLRGH 2007). Caves up to 2.5 km long occur around Phou Lek(7), located about 1.5 hours west of Vieng Phouka, (LCP 2006). Others include Tham Nam Lot, a multi-entrance, 1.4 km long stream cave with passages up to 20 m diameter that crosses beneath a ridge, and Tham Phou Pasat (645 m) (Dreybrodt & Laumanns 2005 a). Villagers also harvest bats from at least one of these caves, Tham Ban Tung.​

Handicraft in Luang Nam Tha

The handicraft village Ban Pieng Ngam (Phiangngam - N20.95509 E101.38503) and the distillery village Ban Nam Ngaen (N20.96661 E101.37902) have two ethnic groups, the Thai Deang and the Thai Kao. The villages are famous for their many different handicrafts. A small lodge built by the Nam Ha Ecotourism Project, offers accommodation for anybody who is interested to experience the rural Lao lifestyle. Not far, within walking distance from Ban Pieng Ngam is the Lao Lao distillery village Ban Nam Ngaen, where people can see the process of making the famous Lao Rice whiskey and probably even sample it.

For Lao-Lao in Muang Sing, head to Ban Koum which is located south-east of town off the road to Luang Namtha about 10 km from the center of town (N21.15941 E101.17447). Lao whisky is distilled in big drums outside. If you decide to try some be careful, as it is very powerful.

Another point of interest you may encounter in Ban Nam Dee (see Waterfalls and Caves) is the production of bamboo paper during December - March. Notice the bamboo baskets submerged in the river containing pulp, which is later spread onto large sheets of cotton fabric and left to dry in the sun. The Lanten have a written language based on Chinese characters and use this paper to record religious texts and other important literature.

Lanten people making bamboo based paper in Ban Nam Dee

Traditional Clothing & Textiles - Many ethnic groups have modified the methods used to make their traditional clothing to save time and labor but it is still possible to obtain authentic ethnic clothing and textiles in villages and handicraft galleries in town. Naturally dyed cotton and silk, embroidery and appliqué are used to make clothing, accessories and bags. Most of what you will see for sale is based on traditional Akha, Lanten, Hmong and Tai Dam designs, which may vary considerably depending on the creativity and skill of the producer.

While Laos supports and encourages the purchase of traditional textiles and ethnic clothing reproductions, please do not buy antique pieces and family heirlooms as each time one of these irreplaceable treasures is sold and leaves the country, Laos loses a little bit of its precious heritage.

Most of the photographs were taken from publications from the Lao National Tourism Association while some were taken from other sources.
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