Little has changed in this part of the country over the time, mainly for its inaccessibility, that provides fertile conditions for wildlife. Indeed, fauna and flora here are exceptionally diverse and abundant. Apart from numerous ethical minorities, the Lao Highlands are home to leopard, panther, tiger and elephant, that widely benefit from the surrounded land: dense forests, limestone terraces, deep valleys and gorges and wild rivers. This is the Far North of Laos.

Deep jungle of Northern Laos

Nong Khiaw, limestone formations

STARTING THE TRIP

Northern Laos is definitely not a destination for city lovers. It is more rural beauty and rustic character what charms. The journey starts in Luang Prabang – the ancient royal capital of Laos. Rather a small, friendly town than a city, this beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Site is the pearl of Laotian Buddhist culture, with sophisticated temples and pagodas, monasteries and orange-robed monks.

Luang Prabang is the gateway to North Laos, and this is where the civilised world ends. From now on, adventure awaits on every corner.

On the way to Houay Xai

River journey from Luang Prabang to Houay Xai, Mekong River

HOUAY XAI (WHAT TO DO)

From Luang Prabang, the first trip leads to the notorious Golden Triangle. Historically, this vast zone overlapping the mountains of Burma, Thailand and Laos, has been main Asia`s illegal opium-producing area.

Today, the Golden Triangle is one of the most popular tourist destinations in South East Asia and it is worth the visit. To get to the sleepy town of Houay Xai, situated on the border with Thailand, you will need to catch a boat from Luang Prabang. This is a fantastic Mekong river journey accompanied with breathtaking scenery, hence don`t forget to take your camera!

When in Houay Xai, do not miss out on the spectacular Gibbon Experience; an ultimate treetop adventure that will soar you above the jungle canopy and give you the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to stay in the tree house and listen to the echoing squealing of gibbons.The tree houses are connected with the world`s highest zip-lines which are the only way to move around. The attraction might not be one of the cheapest ones, but you will surely have any regrets on spending $200 USD for a special night high above the ground. Check it out http://www.gibbonexperience.org/

The Gibbon Experience

The Gibbon Experience

VISIT LAO ETHNIC MINORITIES

Rent a bicycle or a scooter in Luang Nam Tha and Muang Sing and cycle along the Chinese border to interact with some of most isolated villages in the country. Especially, the children of Hmong & Leten hill-tribes are curious about strangers, so, bring simple presents like pens or pencils – they will be much appreciated.

Eco-tourism is definitely the major activity in the region but there is a lot of outdoor activities available, too. Trekking, mountain biking, kayaking and rafting on the Nam Tha and Nam Ha Rivers are well-recommended.

Yao Hill Tribe

Yao Hill Tribe

NONG KHIAW (WHAT TO DO)

Nong Khiaw is a unique place  “far from civilisation”. The small river town, situated amidst dramatic limestone landscapes, features lovely, rustic atmosphere. years ago, what attracted the visitors was rather the way of reaching the actual place – the access used to be by slow boat from Luang Prabang, taking the visitors through the most striking surrounds in Laos, up the Nam Ou River. Today, the only way to get there is by bus from Luang Prabang.

The region has much to offer: eco-tours, jungle trekking, river cruises, bamboo rafting, kayaking and village stay. It is easy to walk around and if you hire a bicycle you can explore the surrounds and visit the Pha Tok Caves, Khmu and Hmong villages, Buddhist temples and monasteries.

Hike up to the Phadeng Peak viewpoint for a wonderful 360° view on the nearby valleys. The 100 Waterfalls trek was rated one of the best hikes in Laos. There are numerous tour operators in the town where you can hire a private guide or arrange a group expedition.

Muang Ngoy, (1 hour upstream the river)  makes a wonderful extension to your trip. The isolated village is encircled by nothing but sheer wilderness and nature. It is considered as the most charming village in the region.

Muang Ngoy, Nam De River

Muang Ngoy, Nam De River

VIENG PHOU KHA (WHAT TO DO)

Northern Laos offers some of the most remote and spectacular trekking opportunities in the whole South-East Asia. It is the inaccessibility that makes the northern regions so pristine and untouched. The way of life is very naive and the locals are not used to meeting many Westerners. Yet, they are very friendly and generous.

Vieng Phou Kha is a mountainous province, not far from the Burmese border and it is the gateway to the  Nam Ha National Bio-Diversity Conservation Area, known for eco-tourism. The are is home to a variety of ethnic groups and exotic wildlife such as Assam macaque, tiger, clouded leopard, elephant and the rare muntjac.

Vieng Phou Kha Province, traditional hill-tribe village

NAM ET-PHOU LOUEY & NAM XAM (WHAT TO DO)

Another national park, rich in fauna and flora and great trekking, stretches along the eastern border with Vietnam. Nam Et-Phou Louey protected area is said to be the last remaining homes for tigers in Indochina.

Human access is generally prohibited but there are some jungle expeditions, safari tours, jungle camping available in Vieng Thong where the headquarters of the national park is and a small visitor centre.

Besides, there are good biking and walking trails, as well as hot springs.  The visitors can interact with the ethnic groups of Tai Dam, Tai Daeng, Tai Kao, Tai Puan, Tai Lue, Tai Yuan, Khmu, Hmong Kao, Hmong Lai, and Yao.

The nearby Nam Xam Bio-Diversity Reserve is instead known for a large number of Asian elephants living in their natural environment. Take a look at the Viengxay caves – an extensive network of limestone caves. 480 of these caves were used by the Lao soldiers during the Indochina War to protect themselves from American bombing.

Local children playing with a baby elephant, Nam Xam

PHOU DEN DIN (WHAT TO DO)

If you have some spare time pay a visit to the north-east of Laos and wander through the pristine forest of the  Phou Den Din National Park, stretching along the northernmost Vietnamese border.

This is the least accessible region of Laos and a wonderful extreme hiking destination. You will have to take all the essential equipment and a survival kit, sufficient food, some decent camping gear and preferably hire a local guide.

Access is from the town of Phongsali,  only by boat upstream of the Nam Ou and Nam Khang Rivers (a day trip) or on foot (2-day trip).

The untouched nature of Phou Den Din

Lao-Vietnamese border,  Phou Den Din

LAO CUISINE 

Food is a great part of every culture and in Laos you will be given unique opportunity to try some of the most bizarre meals in Asia. The north of the country is heavily influenced by the Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine – and the local goodies reflect that. Seeing the street food displays, you might often prefer staying hungry then having a taste, especially when it comes down to the local snacks.

Have you ever heard of “dried or grilled rat”, mouse skewers or fresh silkworms? Well, they are all edible… In fact, either of them is a protein bomb. It is time for you to get bold!

Lao popular snacks

Grilled rats, popular Lao snack

NOTE

Northern Laos presents an extreme off the beaten track adventure. This part of the country is fairly isolated, hence always consider some extra time for transportation. Many villages are only accessible by boat, the locals have a little time perception and everything here depends on weather and luck.


 WHEN TO TRAVEL

The best time to visit North Laos is between October and April. Weather in these months is usually drier than normal. However, Laos gets heavy rainfalls throughout a year.  Moreover, the temperatures in high altitudes can get quite low, especially at night time.


HOW TO GET THERE

Fly to Luang Prabang (via Vientiane).

Otherwise, you can take a shuttle bus to Luang Prabang from any other region in Laos. There are good bus connections with Thailand and Vietnam as well.

Luang Prabang is the gateway to the Northen Laos. Here you can arrange a local bus/boat or a package tour to any of the above-mentioned destinations.

For all international flights go to www.skyscanner.com or www.momondo.com

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Eva Bodova

By Eva Bodova

Wednesday 8 June 2016

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