Monday, 19 September 2011

Wat Umong (Suan Buddhadamma): Practical Information

I have found that the current information online regarding the mediation retreat at Wat Umong to be out of date. The official website at is mostly in Thai although I have found that the 'posts' on the right hand side do contain some English, although, it still took me time to find the right phone number and there are few details given. I have taken the information leaflet available at the centre and typed out the information below as well as adding some of my own comments or information.

Wat Umong has founded a Meditation Centre with the purpose of propagating both theoretical and practical Buddhism and aiming to promote peace and happiness of human beings. The centre was accepted as the seventh provincial meditation centre by the Royal Thai Sangha Organization since 2008.

The Centres Activities

Dhamma Preaching
The centre always responds to preach the Dhamma to both Thais and foreigners

Vipassana Meditation
Wat Umong Meditation Centre is a forest monastery in the foothills. Meditators can enjoy the peaceful nature of the forest scenery within the area of the monastery. Vipassama Meditation will be based on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness and is accorded with nature.

Preparing for the meditation course
  1. Wear modest white clothes (These are available for purchase at the centre and the cost for male trouser and shirt is 300 baht)
  2. Bring personal items; soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, towel, watch, razor, shaving cream
    Limited toiletries are available at the centre's office and there are some shops nearby but I definitely recommend bringing tea/hot chocolate/coffee. A wide variety of different coffee sachets are available at the office again, in addition to ovaltine. A 'tea break' is written into the schedule but no tea is provided – it is simply a time when you are allowed a short break. It definitely helps keep the hunger at bay and is something to look forward to! Hot water is available in the dorms and if you are staying for an extended period perhaps a flask / larger cup would come in useful also.
  3. Bring necessary medicine for self's disease retreat

Responsibilities of the meditator
  1. Must be in good mental condition
  2. Must have faith to practice meditation
  3. Must be willing to adjust to new environment
  4. Must be respectful, modest and posses and simple lifestyle
  5. Must not have distraction from major health concerns

You should remember you are coming into a monastic setting and be mindful of what that means. The monks will not hesitate to ask you to leave if you behave inappropriately. One couple left before they were asked to leave for being too much of a couple while at the centre. I don't mean touching or anything overt, essentially just continuing to act like a couple, pawing over each other constantly.

Registration upon arrival
  1. Providing an I.D card or passport
  2. Fulfilling an application form clearly
  3. To receive a certificate of course completion, meditators must be sure to indicate this on the registration form.
  4. Meditators also may register by mail prior to arrival at the centre

  1. Observe the eight precepts strictly
  2. Do not smoke, consume alcohol or drugs
  3. Please control the body, speech and mind.
  4. Please keep silence while eating
  5. Follow the meditation centre routine strictly
    In my limited experience, this is not strictly enforced. It is believed that motivation to meditate and stick to the schedule should be largely intrinsic. As a result, there will not usually be anyone looking over your shoulder all of the time. Then again, if you showed blatant disregard for the schedule consistently you could be asked to leave. For long term meditators there is probably more flexibility, especially as you may need time to study Dhamma at the temple library or in your room. By that time, they will probably also know you are serious.

  1. Please read books that focus only on meditation and the present meditation retreat
  2. If the meditator has tasks or responsibilities away from the meditation retreat, please report to the teacher.
  3. Maintain quietness, please do not play music with speakers or cell phones.
  4. Do not use cell phones will practising meditation.

The Schedule of Practice

Morning Session (am)
4:00 Wake up time
05:00 – 07:00 Chanting / Meditation Practice
07:00 – 07:20 Cleaning
07:30 – 08:00 Breakfast time
08:00 – 09:00 Relaxation
09:00 – 11:00 Meditation Practice
11:30 – 12:00 Lunch Time
12:00 – 01:30 Relaxation
Afternoon Session (pm)
01:30 – 03:00 Meditation Practice
03:00 – 03:15 Tea Break
03:15 – 04:30 Meditation Practice
04:30 – 06:00 Breaking time
Evening Session
06:00 – 07:00 Chanting / Dhamma Discussion (With main meditation teacher)
07:00 – 07:15 Tea Break
07:15 – 09:00 Meditation Practice
09:00 Bedtime

During 'meditation practice' you are free to do any kind of meditation – sitting, standing, walking mainly. At one point, I simply went for a long walk in the forest and tried to remain mindful of my surroundings and my monkey mind.

Contact Information
Telephone: 053-810965 / 085-1076045 / 087-2343833

Applicants should arrive at the centre at 8:00am. Meditation instruction time at 8:30am.

When I called enquiring about room availability I was told I could arrive at 12 noon but the official arrival time is 8:00am. As it happens, these times are the relaxation times that are scheduled after each meal. Note that the above number should put you through to the correct office where English is spoken. I am not sure what the 'meditation instruction' at 8:30 refers to as I never received any form of instruction when I arrived or the morning after. I was not told where my options for meditation were or where meals were eaten (or served) or, in fact, any information at all. I was just given the leaflet with the timetable on and pointed to my room. Do not worry though, it is not hard to work everything out for yourself.

How Do I get to Wat Umong?
The easiest way to get to Wat Umong is by tuk tuk as this will take you (and your potentially cumbersome bag) 'door to door'. Another option would be to hail a red bus to take you along the main road, from there it is quite a long walk up to the temple. I have seen some red buses at Wat Umong but I do not know how you would find one in Chiang Mai going directly there unless you charter one yourself. I paid 120 baht for a tuk tuk (original price 150) but I didn't really put much effort into negotiation.

What are the facilities like? (rooms / bathrooms)
The dormitory was more modern than I had expected with four individual bathrooms within the male dorm that included western toilets (bucket) and cold showers (rather than a Mandi / well). The bed is on the floor, although you have more than enough padding to make it comfortable and I am fairly sure you can request more if needed. You also get a standard pillow and fleece blanket. Each room has a ceiling fan and the dorms include a filtered water dispenser which has both hot and cold water. As far as I am aware it is up to guests to keep things clean and tidy which means sometimes they aren't. My room obviously had not been cleaned or swept by the previous occupants(s) so a good clean was the first thing I did when I arrived. If I had been staying longer than four days I would have probably got the mop out and cleaned the ceiling fan.

What do we eat and where?
As per the schedule above, meals are served at 7:30 and 11:30 respectively and you should not really eat past 12 noon. I found the food to be simple and delicious most of the time and I can only think of one dish that I did not like. The food is not vegetarian as such, although I can only think of two occasions when meat was involved and perhaps another two when tofu was included. Each person has a sort of metallic tray with different segments for each portion of food. This is prepared and served in advance for you (although there is sometimes the option of giving yourself extra) so you simply walk into the serving area and pick up a tray. Food is eaten on the floor in the same room as the monks. You should make sure you are always prompt to each meal to avoid keeping them waiting. There are a few shops and cafes near the temple where you can purchase additional food (meals, snacks, drinks) and other items (soap, washing powder).

Where can I practice meditation?
There are three main halls for meditation practice and all of these are fully or semi enclosed. The central hall seems to be the oldest and is very plain but peaceful and secluded. The newest hall is walled half way and has mosquito netting the remaining way up to the ceiling which gives it more of an open air, natural feel. There are ceiling fans in this hall and it is quite clean and modern. The foreigners receive meditation instruction and practice chanting here. The third hall is underneath the female dorm and is where meals are eaten. I did not practice meditation here and this is where Thai instruction and chanting takes place. You can practice both walking, sitting and standing mediation in each hall. In addition to the halls, there is a 'walking meditation garden' constructed outside the foreigner hall. Otherwise, you are free to wonder the temple grounds and practice in any suitable location.

Is there a start and end date to the retreat?
Essentially, It is a 'rolling' retreat where you can stay as short or long as you like. During my stay at Wat Umong there was a German resident who had stayed 6 weeks but did not intend to leave in the near future. They told me most of the other foreigners (and many Thai's) stayed on a more short term basis.

Can I practice other forms of meditation at Wat Umong?
I went to Wat Umong to continue practising Anapanasati introduced to me at Suan Mokkh (per Buddhadasa Bikkhu's teaching). I am very new to meditation and read the style taught at Wat Umong is very similar to that taught at Suan Mokkh but this is not the case. This did not seem to be a problem in itself, although the meditation teacher was not able to assist in my practice. The teacher did say that I was welcome to stay at the centre and practice for as long as I pleased. If you demonstrate that you are serious about your practice, I do not think it will be a problem. I was given some assistance by another monk at the centre after he asked how my meditation 'was going'.

Do I need to pay for my stay? how much?
The centre is run on a donation basis only. If you feel that you would like to donate to cover the cost of your stay you can do so at the office on the day that you leave. It is the first time I have donated so simply took the amount I would have paid at my guest house in Chiang Mai as well as a small amount for the cost of food. If I had been staying for longer than four days, I would not have used this method of calculation and the amount per day probably would have worked out much less.

How do I get back to Chiang Mai?
Getting back to Chiang Mai after the retreat is easier than getting to Wat Umong. At the main entrance (about 50 metres from the meditation centre) there are often one or two tuk-tuk drivers who will take you to old town for 100 baht (I didn't negotiate). The cheapest option would be to walk the 1 or 2 kilometres to the main road and hail a red bus. I was told by a monk that this should cost around 20 baht.

This information is current as of September 20th 2011

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Suan Mokkh: Five minutes that could have been

Hello Dhama Friends,

There are various reasons I decided to come to Suan Mokkh and try meditation but I guess you could say I just want to know my own mind. At times, it has felt like the only confusion I experience is from within, where there I often seem to have conflicting, overwhelming thoughts and feelings. I have been too anxious about life itself; confused at which direction I really want to take. There is no one event that has motivated to come here, I have suffered no great loss nor have I hit rock bottom. I do, however, feel the pressure of my situation and the weight of expectation. I cannot shake the feeling that I am supposed to have my future planned out, that I am supposed to know which path to take and how to take it. I know I am not alone in feeling this way.

I have tried to approach the retreat without any expectations which may have been easier as I have no prior experience with meditation or Buddhism. I am aware that meditation will not provide the answers to my questions but I hope that it will allow me to see which questions really matter. I hope that if I am able to let go of the anxieties and the distractions in my mind, the clarity of thought that will follow will enable me to move forward.

In terms of the retreat itself, I found that in the first three or four days my mind was surprisingly receptive to watching the breath. I did not feel I was constantly having to gently pull my mind back and found that my main issue was not being able to sit still long enough to go deeper into my breathing. This was not so much to do with pain but more to do with my own restless nature – it seems that if my mind is still, my body compensates. I also experienced something that really surprised me and showed the power of breathing in being able to relax the body. I had painful stomach cramps for around two days and was considering asking if I could just go to bed during evening meditation. I decided that I could at least attempt to stand at the back but when it came to it, I thought I may as well try and sit. This turned out to be one of my best sessions and the thirty minutes flew by in an instant. Once the bell rang to signal the end of meditation, I opened my eyes and was surprised that all the pain had gone.

The remaining days of the retreat had more of an erratic, roller-coaster quality about them . On one day It was as if someone had flicked the 'off' switch in my mind. I could not follow the breath or even day dream. It was on this day that I considered leaving and I think I may have exacerbated the situation further through anxiety and worry. A new day brings a fresh start and my meditation tended to be more variable from this point. I would feel as it meditation was going well one morning and by the afternoon feel as if I couldn't do it at all.

In the end though, however frustrating my meditation tended to be, I would simply rest for a few minutes then try again. This meant that sometimes my whole session was spent attempting to begin, failing, resting, then starting again. For me, this was the only option. I want my future to involve meditation and, if I had given up at this point, I would have essentially been giving up on that future. I imagine that most of the beginners here will have also struggled with the pain and I am no exception. On one particular day it felt as if everything involves in sitting or walking was on fire. The addition of one hour of yoga to the retreat was essential for me and I looked forward to it every morning.

During the past 10 days, when my mind has wondered, it has felt as if I experienced the full range of distractions; from food and drink through to replaying TV series in my mind. It really felt as if my mind was gradually increasing the intensity of these thoughts as I managed to regain composure after each wondering. By far the strangest 'monkey mind' episode occurred twice in the second half of the retreat. I would be seeing some fictional TV or movie scene (at least it felt like that) but from a first person perspective where the characters would be talking at me directly, often close to “my face”. This seemed to happen when I was on the edge between meditation and sleep so perhaps it was more of a dream than anything. I am sure I was never full asleep as I regained my mindfullness almost as soon as these started.

I enjoyed the Dhamma talks immensely and I think it is important to know some of the theory behind our meditation. I would also like to echo others sentiments in saying that the food here was excellent and, although I cannot claim to have liked every dish, I enjoyed being taken on a ten day Thai culinary journey through vegetarianism. Also, I found myself being quietly amused by how excited a group of fully grown men can become over hot chocolate. I would also like to thank all of the staff and teachers here who have made the experience so incredible as well as all of you for sharing the experience with me.

At the end of the 10 day retreat, on the 10th evening, each participant has the opportunity (5 minutes) to share their experiences and to provide general feedback on what they thought of their time spent at Suan Mokkh. Only 6 or 7 people were willing to stand up and speak to the rest of us and I was the last. It took me until the dying moments before I found the courage to take the lonely walk up to the microphone. The above is not what is said and probably only borrows one or two sentences from the original. In all honesty, after 10 days of minimal stimulation, having to step out of my comfort zone and speak in public was obviously too much for me to handle. Even immediately after stepping away from the microphone I could not have told you exactly what I had just said. All I know is that it would have been from the heart, very unpolished and punctuated with a multitude of 'errrs'. 

Official retreat website: 

Monday, 5 October 2009

My Favourite Place in Laos

My experience in Muang Long was probably my favourite in all of Laos. This statement is more accurate than Muang Long being 'my favourite place' as it was not necessarily just the town itself that made it so memorable. Let me begin...

We rolled into a small, fairly dusty town around an hour and half, maybe two, hours from Muang Sing. I had come to Muang Long because i knew they offered treks into the surrounding area and that few tourists came here. Our logic was that fewer tourists would mean a less well beaten trail, especially compared to Muang Sing or Nam Tha. As my purpose was to trek around Muang Long i didn't care too much what the town was like. I didn't expect to spend much time dossing around. As soon as we found a decent guesthouse (HomePhan G.H) and had put our bags down we headed to the tourism office located along the main road on the west side of town.

Muang Long (the sign on the left you can just about see if the hospital, where the main road takes a right leads to bus station/market. Where i am stood is toward the top of the hill next to Home Phan)

The Tourism office was closed. Luckily for us there was a jolly decent chap in the Planning office opposite, he spoke excellent English and was very friendly. He rang someone (the head of the office, it turned out) and told us to return at 2pm. Apparently they are planning to be internet enabled in Muang Long within the next two years. The head of Muang Long tourism office turns out to speak pretty poor English which fustrated my friend no end. I take a more laid back approach, i had no real questions to ask but if i had i knew there was little point in pushing this man to give us answers when he couldn't understand our questions. In the end we asked if Tui was around [head guide, famous in some circles - small ones] but he had gone to Luang Nam Tha for the boat race. We were told to return at 6pm when Tui would have returned. At 6 we were met by the manager again and told to return at 11am the next day, we balked at this and agreed 8am would be a more appropriate time. I think he was quite suprised that i knew of Tui but no more so than Tui himself, when he eventually turned out the next day at Breakfast. His boss had left him 8 voice messages telling him of two falang interested in doing a trek. I felt bad when i found out he had to leave Nam Tha at 8pm with his wife and motorbike all the way back to Muang Long.

We had arrived late afternoon the first day. The second day we dithered over a 2 or 3 day trek, So long, in fact, that we wasted another day. Annoyingly if we had just chosen a 2 day trek in the first place we could have done it that day Hesitation meant it got too late in the day to begin, too late to organise things. The trek cost 50 dollars each for two days. A small fee when you consider what you get in return.

Tui (translated as 'fat') turned out to be a great person and guide, we could not have wished for a better companion throughout the two days trek. The first day was fairly leisurely and involved a good amount of banter, some swimming/napping along the way and great scenery. We bumped into a villager heading into Muang Long who told us to hurry to the village as there was a party and lots of lao-lao being drunk. It turned out it was teachers day; celebrate your teacher by getting him, and yourself, ruinously drunk. We attempted to avoid the party at first, Tui was worried we would be drawn into the celebrations abit too much and it might ruin the next days trek. The village home brew Lao-Lao can be a variety of strengths; the one we sampled was probably around 60%. We were spotted by a few children and eventually followed by about 30, ranging from 3 to 13 years old, as we headed to our home for the night.

The Nambo Waterfall [day 2 of the trek]

The local policeman and afew other guys came to greet us and eventually convinced us to join the party; they had slaughtered a medium-sized pig that morning which explained the huge amount of pork being passed round. It was a very merry affair and i'm glad i attended, even if it did mean having to drink more lao-lao than i would have wanted [one for each leg and them some]. Everyone was very welcoming, as i've come to expect in Laos. They are very friendly drunks. We stayed in the ex-chief's house with his wife and son. We slept in their living area and were supplied with blankets and mosqueto nets. Unfortunately his house was the party house so we didn't end up sleeping untill quite late. The ex-chief, Ali, was also to be our guide the next day. I was impressed by his ability to finish off two whole lao-lao bottles himself and was suitably amazed when he necked two more shots the next day after breakfast. One for the road i guess. From what i can gather, Ali is the oldest man in the village and still carries alot of weight, he speaks 6 languages and knows the surrounding forest area very well.


The village near the Nambo waterfall ('Ban Nambo' - 'Nambo Village') is actually two villages twinned by the Lao government. As a result there are two ethnicities present; the Lahu and the Hmong. Ali is Lahu. Tui explained that the Lahu are the poorest of all the tribes in that region but that this situation has been brought about by there own attitude to work rather than any external circumstance. The most obvious indicator was firewood; in a Hmong house there is firewood piled high, to the ceiling but in a Lahu house there is just enough. When opium was widely cultivated the Hmong grew huge quantities for sale but the Lahu grew just enough to serve there own needs...

Day two of the trek began well enough, even with the promise of leeches ahead, but soon descended into maddness. At least it seemed that way at the time, in retrospect of course you can laugh and DO laugh about such things. We had arrived at the a stretch of river where we were required wade across to the other side. The river was the highest Tui had seen it; not level with our waists but with our noses. Plan A seemed to have failed as we could not wade across. The current was too strong and the water too high. This hadn't happened before. Bring on Plan B. Build a bamboo raft. Ali and Tui quickly set about building a raft out of bamboo and other materials provided by the forest; it was fairly awe inspiring and a truely impressive feat when, half an hour later, we had our raft.

Even Ali agreed; the raft idea was too dangerous. He barely made it back from the other side, it was only thanks to some rocks that he wasn't swept down river when he temporarily lost control. Plan C. My friend asked if Ali knew another way, he said yes. He promptly set off through the bush, there was no trail, just Ali. The route we took meant we had to walk on a 70degree gradiant for most of the way, up and down, up and down, up and down as we avoided the thickest areas of bush. All the while the ground, loose dirt, slipped below us and the threat of falling 50 metres down a hill became very real. As we weaved up and down the heavens opened. The rain made the mud even more unstable, i resorted to crabbing my way across the face of the hill/cliff in an effort not to slip. As this went on we began to question the wisdom of Ali. Did he know where he was going? These fears were real at the time, it was going to get dark sooner than we would have liked and it felt like we were endlessly being lead up and down. Looking back i think the language barrier didn't help. Ali obviously knew this forest well and definately knew the rough direction of where there was a bridge/trail but we mistook this for knowing 'the way'. When he had to stop and think, scout a head, come back, scout in another direction...this didn't fill us with confidence. After two hours we we reached the bridge. We were wet through. Tui was very apologetic and Ali was a lot richer, having been paid for the extra services rendered. The relief was short lived, it was still raining and we still had two hours of forest to walk through before we would emerge high above the road into Muang Long. It was a further couple of hours to make it down to the road. On the way we managed to see the funny side of what happened, tasted giant cucumber and dried off.

So, eating in Muang Long? There is one English menu restaurant in town (translated by Tui). If you are walking toward the bus station, its on your left, keep walking. There is a small unnamed restaurant next to a phone shop on the same side as the bus station but further along (past the market). You'll know you have the right one if you see a large menu on a whiteboard complete with english translation. Another good choice is about 500m out of town on the road to Muang Sing. The restaurant had no name when we went but served good food and had cracking views overlooking the rice terraces. The market is a great place to see some ethnic colours and to pick up some tasty lao snacks.

Tasty Lao food (does anyone know the Lao name of the meat? it was beef i think)

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Sabaidee Laos

As we left the border checkpoints behind, our bus rumbled on towards Luang Nam Tha town. The scenery opened up around us and we were met with jurassic-like greenery, surrounded by rolling hills and dense forest which only give way to lime green rice fields stretching far into the distance. It seemed that October was a good month for Laos, the worst of the rainy season was over yet the plant life flourished, lush with the recent rains. I could not put my finger on it then and I definitely cannot do so now but Laos smelled different too. There was just something in the air that had changed in the short distance between borders. No smell dominated, nothing was missing, there was just a noticeable difference. I did mention this to another passenger who agreed but in such a way as to make clear that we would not continue down this conversational hamlet any further.

The visual feast was quite overwhelming. I had never witnessed anything like what I was seeing as we weaved further into Laos. I fobbed off any attempts at chit-chat (beyond my above observation) and tried in vain to take in the scenery from both opposing windows of the bus at the same time. The contrasts between Laos and China could not have been made more apparent than when crossing from one to the other. I had moved from sprawling metropolises dominated by concrete to an agrarian economy where wooden huts were infrequent blips on the landscape. Yet these countries seem to be ideal partners, if only for tourisms sake, as they act only to accentuate each others features while forcing you to become more aware of your surroundings.

I will be honest, after being more inspired than I ever have been by a landscape I was left slightly deflated when we reached Luang Nam Tha. I am not sure what I expected of this large provincial town but when I arrived in the afternoon haze, met by small dusty strip of a town, I was caught off guard. I was worried that I had made a mistake in leaving China, that Laos could not occupy me enough to be worthwhile and that there would be no one around to converse with (should I wish to). Any negative feelings I was experiencing were compounded by my transport induced migraine which led to a complete system shut down. I barely continued to function and was in bed before dark. I am not sure I gave a great account of myself to my new found bus friends. I guess It was lucky that, like so many others, they were simply using Luang Nam Tha as a pit stop on the way to Luang Prabang (Many use it as an extension of the V-VV-LP loop too).

Any worries I may have had at first were gradually melted away as I got to know the immediate town and all it had to offer. I walked to a waterfall that had been recommended, passing through a Lantan village on the way, where I was met with a chorus of Sabaidees! The fall was not that impressive but I continued to follow the path over the hills until I was too far into the wilderness for my own comfort. On the walk back into town I was offered a ride on a motorbike and some of the best bananas I had ever tasted. I took a small boat across the river that makes a quicker connection for a Black Thai village to the west of town, on the way I accidentally walked through a school function and laughed with locals as I tried to figure out how to make the boat move. I would also recommend a walk up to a large Stupa towards the south west of town (behind the Chinese market) for pretty good views.

I soon realized that Nam Tha isn't really so small after all and my perceptions may have been warped by my experiences in China, where a 'small coastal city' has a cosy 5-6 million inhabitants. On first impression, the main road that runs through the northern part of town also caters very well to almost all of your immediate falang needs which lends itself to the belief there is not much else around. At least this was the case when I first arrived; the bus had stopped on an adjacent road outside the 'minders' relatives house (a good guess) but it was not had to find my way to the main road with the rest of the tourists and the three Chinese girls in 6 inch heels. In truth, this town offers plenty of opportunity for a nice long walk and I would recommend exploring the west of the town when you first arrive. There is a 'Chinese market' which includes a small food section, many clothing stalls and other various knick-knacks. If you are interested in the local ethnicities (you should be!) then the Luang Nam Tha museum is worth a look – it is small but worth the fee.

By far the best option when you arrive is to stroll down to Green Discovery (LINK) once you've checked in and ask them for a photocopied bicycle map (free). This will be your guide round town and enables you to explore the many surrounding villages. Renting a bike would give you the best range and allow you to see more but some can be done on foot too, although this would be a bit more limited (I know, I walked). Nam Tha is popular for the range of treks offered into the Nam Ha protected area which is one of many protected areas in Laos designed, in part, to promote Laos as an eco-tourism destination. Green Discovery are the most established company and you can read two experiences of trekking with them through the Nam Ha here and here.

There are various companies offering treks in Nam Tha so it may be worth looking around for the best deal as well as trying to find a company that has other people signed up to go on treks. Almost universally, the more people sign up, the less expensive the activity it. Each office has a board outside that lists the activity and the number of people signed up already. I had a good look at all of the options available and found many of the companies offer similar routes and experiences. At the time, there were too few foreigners in town and no one had signed up at any of the offices. As a result, the cost was far to prohibitive for me. I was keen to arrange a trek from Muang Long, a small town within Luang Nam Tha province, just past Muang Sing and pretty far off the beaten path. I had hoped that the villages en route during any trek from this town would have been less exposed to falang which would make it a more unique or worthwhile experience.

The Basics:

Accommodation: I stayed at Zuela Guest house which is family run and in the process of expanding; they are adding more rooms and a restaurant serving Western and Lao fare. I would definitely recommend staying here for the friendly staff, clean rooms, hot showers and decent rates. Just look for the large BCEL bank and opposite this is a small alley (if that) where Zuela is located. On the way through you might notice some old tribal ladies chattering under a barn to your right – they might try to sell you bracelets or opium but are harmless really! I stayed in a room for 40,000 kip as the bathroom was not en suite but I think 50-60,000 kip is standard.

Food: A short walk from Zuela are two basic look restaurants side by side. The one on the right was my favourite purely because of the Lao lady / cook who ran the place. I always appreciate a pot of tea too. The restaurant on the left had a more extensive menu and I'd recommend any kind of fried noodle. The Minority Restaurant is also worth a look as well as the market and surrounding area.

Transport: The bus station a short 10 minutes walk from the centre of town only serves the rest of the district (Muang Sing and Muang Long). For Luang Prabang and elsewhere you will have to hop on a tuktuk further south (10,000kip each for 2 people – not willing to negotiate).

Money: The Lao Development Bank is past the BCEL bank away from the centre of town and will exchange travellers cheques. The Chinese Yuan exchange rates were poor here. The BCEL bank has an ATM.