Bokeo - Things to See and Do

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About Bokeo - Things to See and Do

Bokeo Province is located in the northwest of Laos. Bokeo shares 162 Km. of its border with Thailand to the west (35 km on Land and the remaining 127 km along the Mekong), a 98 km Mekong river border with Myanmar on the west, to the northeast with Luang Namtha, on the southeast with Oudomxay and on the south with Xayaboury.


The location of Bokeo Province

The province covers an area of 6,196 square kilometers and is the smallest province in Laos. It has a population of over 153,000 people (2007). There are over 30 different ethnic groups including Lanten, Hmong, Lahu, Yao, Akha and Tai-Lue. The province was created in 1983, when it was split off from Luang Nam Tha province. In 1992, Pha Oudom and Paktha districts, which belonged to Oudomxay province, were added to Bokeo and Bokeo as now has 5 Districts: Houay Xay, Ton Pheung, Meung, Pha-oudom and Paktha. The area has a long history and many historical sites can be found here like for instance the ancient city of Souvannakhomkham (14th century).

Bokeo Province is located on the path of ancient trade routes like for instance the "Tea Caravan Trail" from China to Thailand (Siam) and Myanmar (Burma). These trails were used extensively by Muslim Yunnanese traders and soldiers traveling south from China. In Laos, these people were known as the 'Haw' and still live here today in small numbers.

The name Bokeo (Laotian: ??????? [b??? k???w]) means literally "gem mine or sapphire mine" as sapphires are also called "Keo-Praseuth" and the province is a rich mining center for precious and semi-precious stones as well as traditional gold-panning.
Houay Xai is an international border crossing with Thailand. At present crossing the border is by ferry but a bridge between Laos and Thailand is scheduled to open in 2012. It is also known as the gateway to explore the rest of Laos often by boat to Pak Beng and Luang Prabang.

The town is a launch pad for the area’s activities and attractions including the historic Fort Carnot in Houay Xay itself, the Golden Triangle’s ancient city of Souvannakhomkham, the “Gibbon Experience” and treks in the Nam Kan NPA.
The province has one National Protected Area, the Nam Kan NPA. It was established in 2008, and covers an area of 77,500 hectares, mostly in the mountainous northern Meung District, at the southern reaches of Luang Namtha’s Nam Ha NPA.

The Nam Kan NPA is home to an abundance of wildlife including rare mammals such as the long-armed black-cheeked crested gibbon, Asiatic black bear, wide-eyed slow loris, and the world’s largest tree-dwelling rodent: the “giant squirrel”. The Nam Kan NPA is also the home of numerous bird-species like the lesser racket-tailed drongo with its narrow-stemmed fanning tail, scarlet minivet, blue-winged leaf-bird, green-eared barbet, and pale blue flycatcher. The NPA is rich in non-timber forest products (NTFPs) including honey and tea.

Useful Contacts and Information
Bokeo Provincial Tourism Office: Tel: 084-211162 and Fax 084-211162. Email: bkbounsavath@hotmail.com and http://www.bokeo-tourism.org

There are international ATM's in Houay Xay - BCEL and Phongsavan Bank both on the main road in town as well as Western Union outlets.

Things to See and Do in Bokeo Province

There are lots of things to see and do in Bokeo Province and its districts but, as in most provinces in Laos, there is very little "hard information" available for most of the attractions. However, the tourism department can provide you with information and can recommend the services of guides who can help you finding "what you are looking for".

Just like in other provinces, the Bokeo Tourism Information Center can provide additional information to help visitors enjoy the province’s Community Based Trekking or CBT activities and attractions which consist of:
• Souvannakhomkham Circuit (1-day)
• The Gibbon Experience (2- or 3-days)
• Sapphire Mines (1-day)
• Phou Nya Kha Mountain Trek (1-day)

Historic Souvannakhomkham

Legend and scant evidence tell the fascinating tale of Souvannakhomkham, the centre of an ancient kingdom stretching to Vietnam. Once a Mekong island until the river changed course, Souvannakhomkham occupies 10,000 hectares of the Golden Triangle. Historians suggest people began migrating to the fertile valley in the 5th century, and various civilizations occupied the area over the years. Archeologists have unearthed ramparts from a city established by a group of northern Tai over 1,000 years ago, but the civilization fell into disarray.

Historians believe that Tai from present-day Chiang Saen, Thailand, moved into Souvannakhomkham in the 11th century after their city “disintegrated into swamp”. Souvannakhomkham also played a significant role during the Lanna Era, but by 1545, the Lane Xang (Lao) Kingdom took control of the trade hub, and archaeologists state most of the remains at the site date from this era.

According to legend, Lane Xang Viceroy Ayakoumarn journeyed to the Golden Triangle’s Kheun Island, and had a son, Souvanna, but the palace believed the prince brought bad luck, so they sent him downriver on a raft. To save him, Ayakoumarn ordered a khoumkham ceremony, in which people offered lit candles to Phaya Nak, the mythical Mekong serpent-god, who returned the raft to Kheun Island. To honor Phaya Nak, Ayakoumarn named the city “Souvannakhomkham”, and some believe this is the origin of October’s Boun Auk Phansaa Festival.


Map of the location of Souvannakhomkham

According to initial surveys, in an area of 10,000 hectares, there are 44 archaeological vestiges and brick constructions such as temples, stupas, Buddha images, water reservoirs and other constructions. However, the only remnant left over from the looting by Lao and Thai bandits, is a Buddha image seated in the meditation posture. It is made of bricks and plaster, the statue is 7.22 metres high without the ushnisha (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ushnisha for the meaning of ushnisha). It can be considered as one of the largest Buddha images in Laos and in Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, only the body is left. The ushnisha has disappeared; the navel area and the throne were excavated by looters in search for treasures inside.


Ancient Buddha and Ruins in Souvannakhomkham

Another Buddha image, almost as large as the former one has collapsed. Pra Lan Tue or Pra Rasmi, made of bronze is thought to be in the bed of the Mekong near the small island of Don Haeng. Pra Lan Tue fell into the river due to the erosion of the Lao side river bank. There are a number of stupas left but all were excavated by looters for the treasures placed inside them and most of them are just ruins with only a few still standing.


The Buddha Image with holes where looters tried to find treasures.

The Cultural Service of Bokeo province and the Ministry of Information and Culture have taken measures to conserve the place and declare it as a national archaeological site, a preserved area and a park for research and knowledge, a tourist destination and a place for relaxation for researchers and scholars. Unfortunately, when you visit the area it is apparent that in practice not much has come of these measures. The Tourist Information Hut with some pottery and information material, close to the main Buddha statue, is located here: N20.24967 E100.16441



There are several variants of the legend and for those interested in it as well as other related issues can look here or do a search on the web: : "Lao history revisited - Paradoxes and problems in current research" - http://laos.efeo.fr/IMG/pdf/EFEO_Lao_History_Revisited_Lorrillard.pdf and "The spread of Buddhism in South-East Asia: Insights from Lao Archaeology" - http://laos.efeo.fr/spip.php?article40&lang=en

Other Attractions

Within the town of Houay Xay there are several attractive sites which can be visited easily by bycicle, motorbike or just by walking. You can start the morning by climbing the steep staircase to Wat Jom Khao Manilat across from the pier road and Hotel Gateway Villa in the center of town. Constructed around 1880, the teak temple remains in pristine condition, and is joined by a sizeable golden stupa, a majestic gong tower and a stele-house which dates back to the mid 15th century.


Wat Jom Khao Manilat

In Ban Khone Keo, at the southern end of the main town, is beautiful Wat Khone Keo Xayaram (N20.26789 E100.41813), thought to be around 1000 years old. Further out of town is Wat Phra Thad Souvanaphakham (Vat Phakham - N20.25113 E100.42675), which, according to legends, has a stupa containing 3 hairs of the Buddha. Originally built in 1022, the hilltop’s small temple has been restored several times. Also on the same grounds are a golden stupa and a row of eight golden Buddha images in different positions.

Within the town you can explore Fort Carnot, a French garrison build in 1900, and still in good condition (N20.27205 E100.41521). Fort Carnot was constructed by French colonial authorities around 1900 to monitor the river and border and for that reason it was positioned on a hilltop to overlook the Mekong and town. A similar French fort still stands in the town of Muang Sing, Luang Namtha province. However Fort Carnot is the best preserved French military building in Laos.

Still intact are two watchtowers, a kitchen and prison cell, and tunnels leading to external guard houses. Off limits to foreign tourists up until very recently, due to its use by the Lao army, the site is a picturesque relic of the region's turbulent history. The north block of the fort which is thought to have been the kitchen and jail, is being developed into a museum.


Further afield are more attractions but for this you need to have transport: Heading north from Houay Xay town by road and after about 14 km. you come to Ban Pak Ngao. Head a bit further and at a rest stop you will see in the rock formations a sculpture of a Lao princess, daughter of the Lane Xang King Chao Anouvong, who is believed to have died at this point in the river.


Rock shrine for the daughter of Lane Xang King Chao Anouvong

After about 20 kilometers from Houay Xay you will reach the bridge over the Nam Ngone (Nyon) river. Follow the road on the north side of the river for about 9 km. (it gets rough after Ban Lao Leuang) till you reach the small village of Ban Panna Tai of the Panna people (a small Sino-Tibetan ethnic group). From here you can walk southeast in about 15 minutes to the Tad Nam Nyon waterfall. The waterfall is small but quite nice.


Map of the Nam Nyon and Pha Houng Mountain



Also in this same area but north of Ban Panna Tai and Panna Neua is Phou Pha Houng also known as the "Eagle Mountain" and other scenic rock formations with beautiful mountain views.

The legend of the Eagles: Long ago before rocks were formed on the earth, near the Nam Nyon stream lived two gigantic eagles. They lived as husband and wife, sitting perched on the mountain where they could watch their prey from above, and easily swoop down to clutch whatever kind of meat they preferred; sometimes they even ate humans, and they delighted in cruelty, perverting their instincts to the thrill of the hunt. They reigned terror from the skies on all those in the valley below.

The Arch Angel had many times warned them that they must cease their aggressive behavior, but the two giant eagles refused to listen at all. This angered the Arch Angel, cursing the eagles by turning them to stone. The two giant stone eagles remained fixed on their perch on top of the mountain and were easy to make out their shapes when looking up from the valley below. The mountain was then called Phou Pha Houng (meaning Mountain, cliff, eagle) or Eagle Mountain.

Even after they became solid stone forms perched on the top of the mountain their spirits continued their aggressive behavior. When they were hungry, local people would hear the sound of the eagles’ spirits shouting and wailing for food, while only their stone heads could sway and spin. This still caused terror, because when the swaying head came to rest, all people in the direction it faced died, and animals would run away. The Arch Angel was so angered at this that a violent storm was sent and a bolt of lightning struck the male eagle causing him to fall, shattered into pieces before resting at the foot of the mountain. All that now remains is the female eagle, hanging on the cliff face, eternally lonely for her husband. Since the storm destroyed her husband, no aggression has come from her spirit, and the people lived without fear.​


The lone eagle on Pha Houng Mountain

Continuing along the main road to the west you will first pass "Souvannakhomkham" on the south and then reach the "Kings Roman Entertainment Complex and Casino" on the Mekong where, if you are so inclined, you can gamble away all your money.


The Golden Triangle Casino which is part of the Kings Roman Entertainment Complex

However just before the Casino you will find the "Don Xao" island and the Don Xao Hill Tribe Cultural Garden with lots of tourist shops and "tax-free" shops. You can head further north from here along the Mekong to Meung District (Bokeo) and Xiangkok on the Mekong in Luang Nam Tha Province but only on a bike.


Don Xao Hill Tribe Cultural Garden and Shops

The Gibbon Experience is one of Laos’ most sought-after adventures. You will need to book this in advance which you can do in Houay Xai at the Gibbon Experience office on the main road Phone: 084-212021, gibbonexperience.org, or email: info@gibbonexperience.org or conservation@gibbonexperience.org. While at the site you will stay in tree-top accommodation with a network of canopy zip-lines for an aerial opportunity to spot rare black-cheeked crested gibbons.


Tree top lodging, Zip lines and the view from the "Gibbon Experience"

Tours start at Ban Don Chai with a one-hour walk to semi-private tree houses, good for watching forest canopy wildlife, and access to nature trails and the zip-line highway. Surveys in the 20 km2 Nam Kan Valley within the Nam Kan NPA have found nine troupes of the endangered black-cheeked crested gibbon. During the rainy season the site in difficult to reach and you may have to walk 5 hours just to get there.

The Tea Caravan Trail (Bokeo and Luang Nam Tha Provinces)
Bokeo’s mountains supply many non-timber forest products (NTFPs) for food, tools, handicrafts, buildings, medicine, and rituals. Social collectives are preserving the traditional knowledge needed to harvest, process and store the materials, and market the finished product. A lot of these products you will be able to find in local shops as well as in places like the Don Chai Visitor Center - N20.41343 E100.85235. Roughly halfway between Houay Xai and Vieng Poukha on Rd 3 Ban Don Chai serves as a kind of collective market point for locally made handicrafts such as ornaments with intricate designs, wicker baskets, embroidered decorative fabrics, etc.


Map of the Tea Caravan Trail from Houay Xai to Luang Nam Tha with 10 selected attractions

In the Nam Chang Handicraft Village - N20.29941 E100.51589 the Lanten people produce several products from bamboo like baskets and other utensils as well as Bamboo based paper and cotton fabrics. The women in the village grind the young bamboo with sako leaves to a pulp which is then boiled. The resulting liquid is spread on framed cloth screens which are then left in the sun to dry.


Bamboo based Paper making in Ban Nam Chang

The Lahu in Ban To Lae in Meung District (approximately N20.72500 E100.43045) produce export-grade organic honey and bees wax lip balms from indigenous bees. More or less in the same area locals harvest tea leaves from ancient trees many hundreds of years old which are growing wild in the Nam Kan NPA.


Ancient Tea Trees in Meung District

Most of the photographs were taken from publications from the Lao National Tourism Association. Photos were made by Guy Bon, Kees Sprengers, Stuart Ling, the WWF, CPA media and the LNTA-ADB GMS Sustainable Tourism Development Project as well as others.
 
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