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.
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.