GOLDEN TRIANGLE: HILL TRIBE TREKS, OPIUM, LUANG NAM THAT AND MUANG SING

GOLDEN TRIANGLE

GOLDEN TRIANGLE was once the world's largest and most famous opium growing region but production has dropped dramatically—particularly in Thailand—and now Afghanistan is far and away the world’s largest illicit opium producer . Covering an area the size of Nevada and at one time the source of 60 percent of the heroin consumed in United States, it embraces the lovely green mountains and valleys of northern Thailand, western Myanmar (Burma) and northeastern Laos.

The Golden Triangle is an area of around 350,000 square kilometers that overlaps the mountains of three countries of Southeast Asia: Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. The Golden Triangle originally designated the confluence of the Sop Ruak River and the Mekong river and may have been coined to describe the payment of gold for opium. Later the term was used to describe the opium and heroin trade around the nearby junction of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar. Later still it was appropriated by the region’s tourist industry to describe the region where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar all come together.

Most of the opium and heroin is produced today in the region comes from Myanmar and to a lesser extent Laos. The section of the Golden Triangle in Thailand is pretty tame these days. Many former opium-growing areas are now popular trekking areas. King Bhumibol of Thailand has been active in promoting alternative crops to opium. Some hill tribe villages see a lot of foreign trekkers. Other are still remote and relatively untouched.

At one time about 70 percent of the heroin on the streets in the United States originated in the Golden Triangle. The region produced 3,000 tons of opium in 1996, 60 percent of the global supply. In the late 1990s, the Golden Crescent in Pakistan, Iran and particularly Afghanistan surpassed the Golden Triangle as the world's largest opium-growing area.

Myanmar produces 90 percent of the heroin and opium produced in the Golden Triangle. Laos produces some but much less than Myanmar. Thailand used to produce quite a lot but it doesn’t anymore. Many of the former opium growing areas in Thailand are now popular trekking areas. Sometimes opiums harvests are lower than they otherwise might be due to heavy rains and cold winters in the area. In addition, Chinese authorities have tried to crank down on the drug production and smuggling along China’s border with the Golden Triangle area.

In 1994, it was estimated the drug baron Khun Sa and the United Wa State Army controlled 75 percent of the heroin originating in the Golden Triangle. A Panthay Chinese Muslim from Burma, Ma Zhengwen, assisted Khun Sa in selling his heroin in north Thailand. In 1996, Khun Sa retired and the United Wa State Army took over many of the areas he controlled.

According to Wikipedia: “Over the two decades of his unrivalled dominance of the Shan state, from 1974 to 1994, the share of New York street heroin coming from the Golden Triangle—the northern parts of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos—rose from 5 percent to 80 percent. It was 90 percent pure, "the best in the business", according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. And Khun Sa, the DEA thought, had most of that trade. [Source: Wikipedia]

HISTORY OF THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE OPIUM TRADE

Opium was introduced to China by Arab traders during the reign of Kublai Khan (1279-94). The drug was highly valued for its medicinal qualities and was grow by some ethnic minorities in south China to raise money to pay tributes to the Chinese Emperors.

Opium as a major cash crop was introduced to the Golden Triangle by the British in the colonial period. It was grown as a cash crop for the French as well as the British. But it was Chinese who once fought for the Kuomintang troops with Chiang Kai-shek against Chairman Mao's Red Army that introduced big time production and smuggling.

The British aggressively marketed opium in China. The result: lots of addicts. Some smoked the drug in opium deans. Others took opium pills. Cheap pill known as pen yen gave rise to the expression have a "yen" for something. Chinese who came to the United States in the 19th century to work as laborers brought opium smoking with them. Opium dens opened in San Francisco and towns where Chinese railroad workers stayed. By 1890, there were a number of "smoke houses" in the basements in back-ally buildings in New York. The customers included prostitutes, showgirls, businessmen and tourist as well as Chinamen.

In 1949, the remnant's of Chiang Kai-shek's defeated Kuomingtan (Chinese nationalists) army retreated to the mountain of Burma along the Chinese border and tried to organize attacks against the Red Army. To raise money the Kuomintan encouraged peasant farmers to raise opium, which the Chinese nationalists sold for huge profits. Later the Beijing-backed Communist Party of Burma financed their operation with money from the opium and heroin trade.

Bert Lintner wrote on Asia Online: “Following Mao Zedong's victory in China in 1949, thousands of Kuomintang soldiers came streaming south, and, supported by the surviving Republic of China government in Taiwan—and the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)— they tried in vain to "liberate" the mainland from their new sanctuaries in Myanmar, then known as Burma. The Kuomintang invasion resulted in a reign of terror for the ordinary people who lived in the areas, as the nationalist Chinese collected taxes, forcibly enlisted recruits and encouraged poppy cultivation in the area to finance their "secret" army. At the age of 16, Khun Sa formed his own armed band to fight the intruders. In the early 1960s, his small private army was even recognized officially as the "Loi Maw Ka Kwe Ye", a home guard unit under the Myanmar army. [Source: Bert Lintner, Asia Online, November 1, 2007*]

"Ka Kwe Ye" (KKY), which literally means "defense" in the Myanmar language, was Yangon's idea of a local militia to fight the Kuomintang as well as local, separatist Shan rebels. The plan was to rally as many local warlords as possible, mostly non-political brigands and private army commanders, behind the Myanmar army in exchange for the right to use all government-controlled roads and towns in Shan state for opium trafficking. By trading in opium, the Myanmar government hoped that the KKY militias would be self-supporting. The warlords, who were supposed to fight the insurgents, strengthened their private armies and purchased with opium money military equipment available on the black market in Thailand and Laos. Some of them, Khun Sa included, were soon better equipped than the Myanmar milirtary itself. *

VIETNAM WAR, THE CIA AND THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE DRUG TRADE

The Vietnam War was a boon for the opium and heroin business. Americans in Southeast Asia not only provided a fairly well paid source of buyers they also provided ways for Asian drug producers to export their products around the world. Before that time Turkey and the Middle East were the primary source of opium. As time went on demand increased and to meet demand production increased as more drugs flooded the market more people had access to drugs. Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet Guide of Thailand: “As the cycle expanded opium cultivation became a full-time job for some hill tribes within the Golden Triangle. Hill economies were destabalized to the point where opium production became a necessary means of survival for thousands of people, including the less nomadic Shan people.”

As part of their effort to combat Communism, the CIA allegedly helped expand the opium trade in Southeast Asia—first in Laos, then in Burma and finally in Vietnam—to help groups fighting Communism raise money and sew instability. From 1960 to 1973, the C.I.A. allegedly trained Hmong tribesmen to fight against Communist in Laos and the Hmong in turn financed some of their efforts by selling opium. There is much controversy about how deeply the CIA was involved in the Southeast Asia drug trade. If the CIA was not involved in the drug trade, it did know about it. As former DCI William Colby acknowledged, the Agency did little about it during the 1960s, but later took action against the traders as drugs became a problem among American troops in Vietnam. The CIA's main focus in Laos remained on fighting the war, not on policing the drug trade. See Opium Under Southeast Asia.

William M. Leary, the University of Georgia historian, wrote: “For more than 13 years, the Agency directed native forces that fought major North Vietnamese units to a standstill.... As Joseph Westermeyer, who spent the years 1965 to 1975 in Laos as a physician, public health worker, and researcher, wrote in Poppies, Pipes, and People: "American-owned airlines never knowingly transported opium in or out of Laos, nor did their American pilots ever profit from its transport. Yet every plane in Laos undoubtedly carried opium at some time, unknown to the pilot and his superiors--just as had virtually every pedicab, every Mekong River sampan, and every missionary jeep between China and the Gulf of Siam."

According to Alfred McCoy, a historian at the University of Wisconsin, the French administration of Indochina had financed its covert operations with the drug trade, and the CIA had simply replaced the French, to finance similar operations. He said he was told by retired general Maurice Belleux, the former head of the French equivalent of the CIA that the French military intelligence had financed all their covert operations from the control of the Indochina drug trade: “The French paratroopers fighting with hill tribes collected the opium and French aircraft would fly the opium down to Saigon and the Sino-Vietnamese mafia that was the instrument of French intelligence would then distribute the opium. The central bank accounts, the sharing of the profits, was all controlled by French military intelligence. He concluded the interview by telling me that it was his information that the CIA had taken over the French assets and were pursuing something of the same policy.

“During the 40 years of the cold war, from the late 1940s to this year, the CIA pursued a policy that I call radical pragmatism. Their mission was to stop communism and in pursuit of that mission they would ally with anyone and do anything to fight communism. During the long years of the cold war the CIA mounted major covert guerilla operations along the Soviet-Chinese border. The CIA recruited as allies people we now call drug lords for their operation against communist China in northeastern Burma in 1950, then from 1965 to 1975 [during the Vietnam war] their operation in northern Laos and throughout the decade of the 1980s, the Afghan operation against Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

“Powerful, upland political figures control the societies and economies in these regions and part of that panoply of power is the opium trade. The CIA extended the mantle of their alliance to these drug lords and in every case the drug lords used it to expand a small local trade in opium into a major source of supply for the world markets and the United States. While they were allied with the United States these drug lords were absolutely immune to any kind of investigation. If you're involved in any kind of illicit commodity trade, organized crime activity like drug trafficking, there is only one requisite for success, immunity, and the CIA gave them that. As long as they were allied with the CIA, the local police and then the DEA stayed away from the drug lords.”

The CIA set up an airline called Air America that was involved in various activities associated with the war: moving fighters, flying reconnaissance missions, dropping and picking up spies and searching for downed aircraft. Some say Air American was involved in drug smuggling.

OPIUM AND HEROIN PRODUCTION AND THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE

Most of the opium produced in the Golden Triangle is grown by subsistence farmers on two acre plots of land. Opium is usually raised as second crop after their main food source rice is planted in May and harvested in September. On average the farms earned about $650 in the 1990s from five kilograms of opium crops. The money was used to buy everything from fertilizer to guns. In many places where opium is grown, the land is too high and too cold for rice and corn grown there doesn’t taste good.

A 2013 United Nations report said that just over 9 metric tons of heroin was seized in East and Southeast Asia in 2012, compared to 6.5 metric tons in 2010, while 2.7 metric tons of opium was seized in 2012 compared to 2 metric tons in 2010.

The opium harvesting season is in January and February. In Southeast Asia opium is usually in wrapped bundles called jois. Each joi weighs 1.6 kilograms (3.5 pounds), the amount of opium produced by 3,000 poppies. In Thailand about 2.2 kilograms of raw opium is grown on one rai of land (1,600 square meters).

Much of the opium grown in the Golden Triangle in the 1970s, 80s and 90s was refined into a super-pure form of heroin known as China White (also known Heroin no. 4). Favored by intravenous drug users in the United States, it was stronger and cheaper than heroin from Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan that circulated during the 1960s. Golden Triangle opium was also made into Heroin No. 3 smoking heroin, favored by addicts in Southeast Asia.

Most of China White has been refined from opium in remote but sophisticated jungle laboratories. In the 1990s these laboratories also began producing amphetamines such as "ice" which are very popular in Asia as well as in Europe and the U.S.

After the crackdown on opium and heroin production in Thailand in the 1980s most of production was done by opium farmers in Myanmar and heroin labs in Myanmar, Thailand and Laos. Thailand remained a key link in the smuggling.

There was a steady increase of opium production in the Golden Triangle in the 1980s and 1990s. About 4,000 tons of opium was produced in the Golden Triangle in 1995, most of it from northeast Myanmar. At that time it was estimated that two tons of f heroin was smuggled through Thailand, with only about two percent of it being intercepted by authorities despite a large DEA presence in the area.

Opium Production in Myanmar, Decline in Opium Production in Myanmar , See Myanmar. Opium Production in Thailand, See Thailand. Opium Production in Laos, See Laos

HILL TRIBE TREKS

HILL TRIBE TREKS are offered by travel agencies in Luang Prabang, Luang Nam That, Muang Sing and other towns and cities in northern Laos. They vary a great deal in quality, so it is worthwhile arranging one with a trekking company with a good reputation. Good treks are led by guides, fluent in English and the hill tribe languages, who introduce trekkers to the tribes in an intimate yet unobtrusive fashion. Bad treks are led by guides, who don't speak English or the hill tribe languages, and who take visitors to villages in the suburbs of a city, where the people quickly throw on their costumes before minibuses arrive at their appointed time, pose for snapshots, and then take the costumes off when the "trekkers" are hustled back into the departing minibuses.

Finding a descent trekking group can sometimes be a hassle but it is worthwhile investing the time to find a good one. Because recommendations in guidebooks quickly go out of date, you are best off asking travelers who have just returned from a trek for their thoughts and recommendations.

The treks range in length from one day to several weeks. The longer treks allow visitors to reach the most beautiful spots and unspoiled villages. Most travelers go on two-days-one-night treks, three-day-two-night treks or five-day-two-night treks. Trekking on your own is not recommended. You might get lost or stumble accidently on a backwoods heroin lab, whose owners might take offense to a surprise visit.

A typical $40-per-person, three-day two-night trek usually begins with breakfast at a hotel, followed by a four-hour minibus ride to the trail head and a three or hour walk to the village, where the trekkers spend the night. One the second day the trekkers walk to a another village and hike a little more and return on the third day. All meals are usually provided. You make want to bring some snacks in case you don’t like the local food.

The nights are usually spent in hill tribe village huts or communal houses and the meals are prepared by villagers. Porters that accompany the trekkers carry anything that is heavy and most trekkers only carry a small day pack. Before you set out, it is probably a good idea to make sure everyone in your group trek is fit. There is nothing worse than getting stuck with a bunch of complainers. Some of the treks are geared for drug travelers intent on smoking opium or marijuana. Keep that in mind when choosing a trekking company or group of trekkers.

The one- and two-day treks tend to touristy. A $20 one-day trip usually involves a drive to a waterfall and a hill tribe village. The best time for trekking is dry season between November and May. During the wet season between June to October, the rivers the remote jungle trails have lots of leeches. Remember that trekking areas are at higher elevation than most of Laos. In December, January and February it can get quite cold, especially at night. By the same token, when the weather is hot in the plains, the temperatures are reasonably comfortable in the mountains.

TREKS AND HILL TRIBES

In Muang Sing District, treks to Akha, Hmong and Tai Lue villages are offered by the Muang Sing Guide Association. A newly developed, upmarket trek, the Akha Experience has been developed with Akha communities and the German development organization, GTZ. Many of the dirt roads in Muang Sing are excellent for mountain biking. Closer to town and accessible by foot or bicycle are Tai Dam and Hmong villages that produce various textiles.

Vieng Phoukha District is an up and coming ecotourism area with programs operated by the local Vieng Phoukha Guide Service Unit, and supported by the EU. The guide unit offers treks to ethnic Khmu, Lahu, Akha and Tai Lue villages. Also in Vieng Phoukha is the Nam Fa River, a recently opened waterway with world class rapids and unspoiled nature, that flows 75 kilometers to the Mekong River.

The treks usually stop at villages of two or three of the hill tribes found in Northern Laos. Each tribe has a distinct language, a distinct costume. Some traditionally have had a distinct role in the opium trade. Some tribes mostly grew it for money; others raised it for their own consumption. These days opium is not as big a part of hill tribe life as it once was.

The Akha, who live mostly around Muang Sing, are the most colorful tribe and one that trekkers usually want to see. Ahka women smoke from bongs and wear intricately-woven black costumes and headdresses with yellow, red and white beads. During festivals and tourist visits, they wear heavy silver breast plates, bracelets and earrings as well as headdresses with dangling coins and silver balls.

The Meo (Hmong) sometimes wear costumes somewhat similar to the Ahka. Mostly they wear Western clothes. The Yao also have interesting costumes. Other hill tribes that live in the region include the tribal Thai (Thai Lu, Thai Kalom, Thai Daeng, Thai Khao, Thai Neua), Samtao, Shan and Khamu.

See Articles on Hill Tribes and Minorities

Accommodation and Food: On the treks to Akha villages trekkers stay at Akha ecolodges with common rooms (one for men and one for women) fitting up to 8 people. Mosquito net, blankets and sheets are provided. Common bathroom facilities are equipped with solar energy. Meals include sticky/plain rice, vegetables, meat, chili sauce. Meals on overnight treks are prepared using simple foods purchased in villages, typically rice, vegetables and on occasion some meat or fish. Bring your own snacks/sweets if you'd like Vegeterian food available upon request. (Note: during the trek there will be no western style breakfast.)

What to Bring: Two changes of clothes, long pants and shirt with sleeves during the trek, good hiking shoes, sunscreen/hat, mosquito repellent, sandals for village, sarong for bathing (required for women), camera. Group Size: Group size is often a minimum of 2 and a maximum of 8 persons.

Hill Tribe Etiquette: 1) Many hill tribes fear photography. Don’t photograph anyone or anything without permission first. 2) Show respect towards religious objects and structures. Don’t touch anything or enter or walk through any religious structure unless you are sure it is okay. If in doubt ask. 3) Don’t interfere in rituals in any way. 4) Don’t enter a village house without permission or an invitation. Sometimes you need to exercise caution entering a village by, for example, not walking through a gate reserved for forest spirits. 5) Error on the side of restraint when giving gifts. Gifts of medicine may undermine confidence in traditional medicines. Gift of clothes may encourage them to abandon their traditional clothes.

LUANG NAMTHA PROVINCE

LUANG NAMTHA PROVINCE is tucked in the northwestern corner of Laos in the Golden Triangle Area with Myanmar and China alongs its northern border. It covers an area of 9,325 square kilometers with more than 85 percent of its terrain being low calciferous mountains that rise to between 800 – 2,000 meters above sea level. The highest point (2,094 meters) is found in Vieng Phoukha District. Several peaks that approach 2,000 meters can be found among the province’s central mountains that separate Namtha and Muang Sing Districts. Like the rest of the country, Luang Namtha’s weather pattern is characterized by a rainy season lasting from May to October followed by a cool dry period from November to February. March and April are the hottest months. On average, daily temperature is a pleasant 25 degrees Celsius but during the cool season it can dip to zero on the coldest nights. [Source: Laos’ Official Tourism Website]

Luang Namtha Province has a population of 145,000 people. The main ethnic groups are the Akha, Sila, Hmong, Lahu, Yao, Lantaen, Khmu, Sam Tao, Lamet, Tai Dam, Tai Daeng, Tai Yuan, Tai Lue and Tai Neua. Namtha Province’s two major attractions are its ethnic diversity, with more than 20 ethnic groups, and its mountainous terrain, which is excellent for trekking and mountain biking. The Nam Ha Protected Area is the main destination for trekking activities. Namtha District is the primary starting point for treks and mountain biking tours into Nam Ha. This province is also the site of the Nam Ha Ecotourism Project, the longest running ecotourism project in the country.

To the north, Luang Namtha shares a 140 kilometer land border with the People’s Republic of China and its northwest frontier with Myanmar follows a 130 kilometer stretch of the Mekong River. Administratively, Luang Namtha Province is divided into 5 districts including Namtha, Nale, Vieng Phoukha, Long and Sing (Muang Sing) that are further divided into 380 village units. The provincial capital, which is also called Luang Namtha, is in Namtha District and is the most heavily populated town with nearly 45,000 inhabitants. Total population in 2005 was 145,310 with 78 percent classified as rural and 40 percent less than 14 years old.

Luang Namtha’s main industries are agriculture, wood processing, lignite and copper mining, handicraft production, transportation and tourism. In 2005 per-capita GDP stood at US$ 280 and grew at an annualized rate of 7.7 percent. In terms of employment, most people are engaged in agriculture, planting rice, corn, vegetables, cassava and peanuts. Other important agricultural products are buffaloes, cattle, fish, chickens, rubber, teakwood, watermelons, sugarcane and peppers. Forest products such as bamboo shoots, mushrooms, rattan, cardamom and ginger are also key sources of income for the rural population.

LUANG NAMTHA HISTORY

Archaeological evidence including stone tools found in the Nam Jook River Valley in Vieng Phoukha and cliff paintings near Nale suggest that Luang Namtha Province was inhabited as early as 6,000 years ago. The first local written account of the province’s history appears in the Xieng Khaeng Chronicles that recount the founding of Xieng Khaeng on the banks of the Mekong River in the early 15th century by Chao Fa Dek Noi, a Tai-Lue that originated in the court of Chiang Rung. Xieng Khaeng grew into a modest principality that later found itself under the influence of the Lanna Kingdom of Northern Thailand until the early 16th century and then become a Burmese vassal from the mid 16th to the early 19th century. Beginning in the first half of the 19th century, Xieng Khaeng fell under Siamese domination and suffered from numerous conflicts. In 1885 Chao Fa Silinor eventually led more than 1,000 Tai-Lue subjects to what is present day Muang Sing for both strategic military reasons and in search of more expansive agricultural land.

South of Muang Sing it appears that there were considerable population movements taking place from the 16th to the 19th century as well, in both the Nam Tha Valley and Vieng Phoukha. In 1587 a group of 17 Tai-Yuan families arrived in the Nam Tha Valley from Chiang Saen, settling near present-day Vieng Tai Village. By 1624 Muang Houa Tha was established under the traditional Tai Muang administrative structure, ruled by 4 nobles of the Saenhansulin family. In 1628, Pathat Phoum Phouk and Pathat Phasat were constructed as symbols of friendship and neutrality between Muang Houa Tha and Chiang Saen. The original Pathat Phoum Phouk still exists and is located south of Luang Namtha Township. The ruins of Pathat Prasat, on the other hand, are north of town near the source of the Nam Dee Stream but have almost completely disappeared.

Vieng Phoukha was also prospering by the 17th century, with the construction of dozens of Buddhist monasteries and pagodas in the Nam Jook 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.

Though Muang Houa Tha enjoyed peace and stability through most of the 17th century, beginning in 1709 a series of natural disasters weakened the Muang and it briefly came under the influence of the Sipsongpanna Kingdom centered in southern China. A population exodus to Muang Sing, Muang Nan (Thailand) and Muang Ngern (Sayabouli Province) ensued, eventually causing the Nam Tha Valley to become nearly completely abandoned for 155 years. During the late 1700’s prior to the reign of Chao Fa Silinor, one of the first main population movements into Muang Sing began with a group of Tai-Lue from Xieng Khaeng, led by a woman named Nang Khemma. Nang Khemma was the widow of Xieng Khaeng’s ruler at the time and went on to commission the construction of That Xieng Teung Stupa in 1787. Today, That Xieng Teung remains highly revered by Tai-Lue Buddhists throughout the region and is believed to contain a sacred relic of the Lord Buddha.

In 1890, the Tai-Yuan returned to the Nam Tha Valley under the aegis of Chao Luangsitthisan to re-establish Muang Houa Tha. Vat Luang Korn, one of Luang Namtha’s largest, was constructed shortly thereafter in 1892. However, the newly resettled Muang Houa Tha was to enjoy its independence for only two years. In 1894, following a meeting between the French, British and Siamese colonists, it was agreed that Muang Houa Tha would be administered by the French and the Mekong from the northern reaches of Muang Sing to Chiang Saen would serve as the border between French Indochina and British-ruled Myanmar. Not long after this divide took place the first group of Tai-Dam arrived from Sip Song Chou Tai in north western Viet Nam and established Tong Jai Village on the east bank of the Nam Tha River. At about the same time the Tai-Dam arrived, migrations of Tai-Neua, Tai-Kao, Akha, Lanten, Yao and Lahu originating in Sipsongpanna, Myanmar and northwest Viet Nam began to migrate to the area’s fertile valleys and the forested mountains surrounding them.

By the late-1950’s following France’s withdrawal from Indochina after their defeat at Dien Bien Phu, Muang Houa Tha again found itself embroiled in conflict - this time between the US-backed Royal Lao Army and the resistance government’s communist inspired Pathet Lao forces. On 6 May 1962, Muang Houa Tha came under control of the Pathet Lao and was renamed Luang Namtha Province, while the area between Houei Xay and Vieng Phoukha was called Houa Khong Province, nominally controlled by the Royalists until the establishment of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic in 1975. 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.

NORTH-SOUTH ECONOMIC CORRIDOR

In the early 2000s, Laos, Thailand and China agreed to build 1,260-kilometer road through Laos linking Thailand and China. The road runs from Chiang Khong in Thailand to Jinghong in China. It was originally estimated that the cost of the two-lane asphalt road, called the R-3, would cost between $60 million and $90 million and was expected to be completed in 2006.

In March 2008,Thomas Fuller of the New York Times reported from Luang Namtha in northern Laos: “The newly refurbished Route 3 that cuts through this remote town is an ordinary strip of pavement, the type of two-lane road you might find winding through the backwoods of Vermont or sunflower fields in the French provinces. But On Leusa, 70, who lives near the road, calls it “deluxe.” As a young woman she traded opium and tiger bones along the road, then nothing more than a horse trail.” In the spring of 2008, “the prime ministers of Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam officially inaugurate the former opium smuggling route as the final link of what they call the “north-south economic corridor,” a 1,150-mile network of roads linking the southern Chinese city of Kunming to Bangkok. [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, March 31, 2008 <=>]

“The network, several sections of which were still unpaved as late as December, is a major milestone for China and its southern neighbors. The low-lying mountains here, the foothills of the Himalayas, served for centuries as a natural defensive boundary between Southeast Asian civilizations and the giant empire to the north. The road rarely follows a straight line as it meanders through terraced rice fields and tea plantations. <=>

“During a weeklong journey through the cities and villages along the route from Kunming to Bangkok, rice farmers, tea pickers, businessmen, traders and government officials expressed satisfaction and some excitement that a project decades in the making was nearly completed. Chen Jinqiang, a Chinese government official from Xishuangbanna in Yunnan Province, said the road would help ensure that farmers get their vegetables and flowers to market, avoiding a problem he witnessed in the 1980s, when poor transportation left watermelons rotting in the fields. “Even the pigs refused to eat them,” he said. <=>

“The Kunming-Bangkok road is not a seamless experience. There are sections on the Chinese side that have yet to be upgraded. With the bridge over the Mekong still in planning stages, passengers must take ferries across the Thailand-Laos border. And formalities at border checkpoints, especially for freight, can sometimes take hours. But the road is an obvious improvement from the one Ms. On knew as a child. Her son drives her around in his Toyota pickup truck, but she is not interested in going very far. “I get carsick,” she said. <=>

CHINA AND THE NORTH-SOUTH ECONOMIC CORRIDOR

Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times: Southeast Asian countries “alternately crave closer integration with that empire and fear its sway as an emerging economic giant. China, in turn, covets the land, markets and natural resources of one of Asia’s least developed and most pristine regions. With trade across these borders increasing by double digits every year, China has helped construct a series of roads inside the territory of its southern neighbors. The Chinese government is paying half the cost of a bridge over the Mekong River between Laos and Thailand. It financed parts of Route 3 in Laos and refurbished roads in northern Myanmar, including the storied Burma Road used by the Allies in World War II to supply troops fighting the Japanese.” [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, March 31, 2008 <=>]

“But the road also excites old fears of the monolith to the north. Preecha Kamolbutr, the governor of Chiang Rai Province, in northern Thailand, said it might exacerbate what he calls a “Chinese invasion.” He is particularly concerned for Laos, he said, an impoverished country the size of Britain but with a population of just 6.5 million.“Chinese businessmen come in with their own capital, their own workers and their own construction materials,” the governor said. “I fear that in the future the Lao people might feel that they’ve been exploited. They will feel they’ve been invaded.” <=>

“For now, those fears do not appear to be shared by many Laotians. Residents of the sparsely populated Luang Namtha Province said they welcomed visitors and were counting on an influx of Chinese, Thais and others to help raise their incomes. Alinda Phengsawat, the head of tourism planning in the province, said the road would bring visitors to what has been a very remote part of the country.“Maybe they will stay overnight,” she said. “That would be better than just driving through.” <=>

“Li Hui, an official in the foreign affairs office of Yunnan Province, which borders Laos, says one segment of the journey from Kunming to the border used to take three days. “Half of the people were throwing up,” Mr. Li said. On the new highway the same segment takes only a few hours. The Chinese spent $4 billion building the highway from Kunming to the border. One particularly difficult stretch of road required the construction of 430 bridges and 15 tunnels. That portion of the road is also monitored by 168 cameras centrally controlled by highway department officials who watch for elephants “” there are an estimated 275 in the area “” and other stray animals. The cameras also assist the police in catching suspected criminals. <=>

“We’ve helped solve 130 cases of drug smuggling, robberies and murder,” boasted Zhang Zhulin, director of the Chinese segment of the expressway, which opened in April 2006. In a large room with a “Keep Out!” sign posted at the entrance, Mr. Zhang toggled a joystick to show how he could scan different segments of the road as well as zoom in on the faces of passengers as cars passed through toll booths. <=.

NEW ROADS IN NORTHERN LAOS AIM TO SPEED TRADE

New roads in northern Laos aim to boost trade and tourism between Thailand, Laos and China. In March 2008,Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times: “Taken together, these roads are breaking the isolation of the thinly inhabited upper reaches of Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, areas that in recent decades languished because of wars, ethnic rivalries and heroin trafficking. The roads run through the heart of the Golden Triangle, the region that once produced 70 percent of the world’s opium crop. [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, March 31, 2008 <=>]

“The new roads, as well as upgraded ports along the Mekong River, are changing the diets and spending habits of people on both sides of the border. China is selling fruit and green vegetables that favor temperate climates to its southern neighbors, and is buying tropical fruit, rubber, sugar cane, palm oil and seafood. “You never used to see apples in the traditional markets,” said Ruth Banomyong, an expert in logistics who teaches at Thammasat University in Bangkok. <=>

“Overall, even before the completion of the road, trade between China and the upland Southeast Asian countries Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam had risen impressively, to $53 billion in 2007 from just over $1 billion a decade ago.People are on the move as well. Wang Suqin, the director of express services at the Kunming bus terminal, says Chinese tourists are eager to travel overland to Thailand.“Every day we receive calls about this,” Ms. Wang said. Bus service to Bangkok, which has not yet started, will take at least 24 hours, but that is not a deterrent, Ms. Wang says; it is part of the fun. “We don’t want to miss the scenery along the way,” she said. <=>

“Since paving was completed late last year, people who live deep in the jungle have come to the edge of Route 3 to sell vegetables and forest products, residents say.“You have a huge hinterland that’s pretty badly served at the moment, from Kunming down through Laos and northern Thailand,” said John Cooney, director of the Southeast Asia infrastructure division at the Asian Development Bank, which financed one section of the road in Laos. “That suddenly is becoming a market.” <=>

“The main draw so far is not the factories or warehouses typically associated with these zones but a casino, which is off limits to Laotian gamblers, according to Ms. Alinda. “I went up there and everyone was speaking Chinese,” said Pansak Gardhan, a Thai engineer who is helping rebuild the small airport in Luang Namtha. “All the signs were in Chinese.” Chinese coming here to gamble will drive through what is probably the most beautiful section of the Kunming-Bangkok road, a four-lane highway that soars over valleys and clings to hillsides striated with rubber-tree and tea plantations. <=>

LUANG NAM THA TOWN

Luang Nam Tha (eight hours by bus from Luang Prabang) is small town with 45, 000 people at a junction between roads to Thailand and China. Many people stop here on their way to Muang Sing but don’t stick around and spend much time there. The main attractions are hill tribe treks, bicycle trips and river trips. There is a a museum with some anthropological artifacts, some wats and places that offer herbal saunas. Tourist Information: Website: www.luangnamtha-tourism.org ; http://www.luangnamtha-tourism-laos.org

When the water is high enough longtail boats make the two day run between Luang Nam Tha and Pak Tha, where the Nam Tha joins the Mekong River. Along the way there are some impressive caves, some with Buddhas in them, and waterfalls. Many travelers do this trip after entering Laos via Huay Xai and Chang Kong, Thailand. It easier and faster to do the trip downriver from Thailand towards Luang Prabang than upriver.

Luang Namtha town is the provincial capital of Luang Namtha Province and the province’s largest and most heavily populated town with nearly 45,000 inhabitants. Famous for trekking and ecotourism opportunities in the Nam Ha National Protected Area and home to over 30 distinct ethnic groups, Luang Namtha is perhaps the most diverse province in the entire country. Akha villages are located in the hills and some are easily accessible. If you are interested in kayaking and rafting, 1-3 day trips can be arranged when you get there or by advance booking through a travel agent. Motorized boat trips on the Namtha River are a popular activity, as is simply renting a bicycle to explore the lush countryside and rice fields surrounding the town. At Nam Ngaen Village, climb the hill to Phoum Phouk stupa for an amazing view of the Namtha valley. In Vieng Phoukha, halfway between Luang Namtha and Chiang Rai in northern Thailand you can visit the abandoned 16th century settlement known as the Khou Vieng Ruins. For cave exploration, don’t miss the Phou Prasat and Nam Eng caves in Vieng Phoukha.

In Namtha District, visit Tai Dam villages to see sericulture and purchase hand-made silk textiles. If you are interested in watching paper made by hand, stop at one of the Lantaen villages outside of the main town. Because of its concentration of Khmu villages. Namtha is a great place to purchase bamboo and rattan basketry – the Khmu are legendary basket-weavers. Here the bamboo and rattan are used for both handicrafts and food. Bitter bamboo-shoot soup and rattan-heart salad are two delicious local dishes. If you like rice noodles, the “khao soi” in Muang Sing is a must.

Getting to Luang Namtha : Luang Namtha is accessible by air, land and river. The most popular overland routes to and from the province start and end at Bokeo Province's Ban Houey Xay and Luang Prabang. There is an international border crossing at Boten (China-Laos) and regular air service from Vientiane on Lao Airlines. For adventuresome travelers, try a journey up the Mekong River from Ban Houay Xay to Xieng Kok in Muang Long, or a 2-day river journey up the Namtha River, which also originates in Ban Houy Xay. Once you reach the province, local transport by tuk tuk, the bus or a song taeow is inexpensive and easy to arrange. For short trips, many people get around by renting bicycles.

Luang Namtha Flight Schedule (Flight No; Days; Routing; Departure Time; Arrival Time): 1) Lao Airlines flight QV601; Monday, Wednesday, Friday; Vientiane to Luang Namtha; 12:30 13:30; 2) Lao Airlines QV602, Monday, Wednesday, Friday; Luang Namtha to Vientiane; 14:10 15:10.

Luang Namth outside bus timetable (Destination, Distance, Price, Departure Time, Approximate Arrival Hours): A) Luang Namtha-Oudomxay, 120 kilometers, 40,000, 08:3012:30 11:30, 15:30, three hours; B) Luang Namtha-Luang Prabang, 300 kilometers, 70,000, 08:30 17:30, eight hours; C) Luang Namtha-Vientiane, 700 kilometers, 140,000, 08:30, 22 hours; D) Luang Namtha-Houay Xay, 195 kilometers, 65,000, 08:30, 12:30 13:30, four hours; E) Luang Namtha-China (Muangla), 125 kilometers, 45,000, 08:00 10:00' two hours.

Luang Namtha inside bus timetable (Destination, Distance, Price, Departure Time, Approximate Arrival Hours): A) Luang Namtha-Muang Sing, 60 kilometers, 25,000, 08:00, 09:30, 11:00, 12:00, 14:00, 15:00 10:00, 11:30, 13:00, 14:00, 16:00, 17:00, two hours; B) Luang Namtha-Muang Long, 110 kilometers, 45,000, 08:00 12:00. 3.5 hours; C) Luang Namtha-Vieng Phoukha, 60 kilometers, 25,000, 09:00, 1.5 hours; D) Luang Namtha-Nalae, 75 kilometers, 45,000, 09:00, three hours; E) Luang Namtha-Boten, 60 kilometers, 25,000 08:00, 09:30, 11:00, 12:00 09:30, 11:00, 12:30, 13:30; 1.5 hours.

WATS AND STUPAS IN LUANG NAM THA TOWN

Luang Namtha Stupa can be visited with a short hike and is a stop on some treks originating in Luang Namtha. According to historical sources, the That Poum Pouk stupa was constructed as part of a competition between the Lanna Kingdom (based in what is now northern Thailand), and the Lan Xang Kingdom (based in what is now Luang Prabang). The competition was born out of a desire to prove which kingdom had the most merit. A long time ago Sy Sod So Tammikarad King of Xieng Sean (Xieng Sean in the north of present-day Thailand) and Naleatafai king of Chantabouly ( present-day Oudomxay) built two stupa for friendship. The fist Phoum Pouk Stupa and the second are located to the east of the head of Namtha River, The second Stupa was lost to the forest, but recently rebuilt in 2004. Now called the Luang Namtha Stupa. It is easy to access from the north end of town.

The stupa was bombed twice during the Second Indochinese War. The first time was in 1964 and villagers and monks in the area were able to restore the stupa. However, the second bombing in 1966 destroyed the two upper stories leaving only the ground level. Every year in February, villagers from three nearby villages clear away overgrown vegetation and a special Buddhist ceremony takes place there.

Wats in Luang Namptha: The Tai Yuan and Tai Lue are devoutly Buddhist. Hence, there are several vats (temples) and monasteries in the area. Vat Ban Luang Khon, the most important in the area. Luang Namtha Temple is located on the main road next to the airport. Vat Ban Vieng Nuea, Vat Ban Vieng Tai, is also quite beautiful and is located on the main road to airport too.

Ban Vieng Neua (Tai Kalom) (3 kilometers from Luang Namtha, close to the airport) is built according to the traditional style of the Kalom people (the Kalom are also known as the Tai Yuan), although some modern toilet facilities have been added. The house can be used by the local villagers for meetings, wedding ceremonies and other events. It also serves as a tourist attraction, where local and international tour companies are able to show visitors the traditional customs and food of the Lao people. The villagers of Ban Vieng Neua are very proud to keep their traditional customs and welcome visitors to see it. They are able to offer a range of services, ranging from baci ceremonies, dance performances, lunch or dinner and cooking classes.

The handicraft village Ban Pieng Ngam and the distillery village Ban Nam Ngaen are used by 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. You can go by bicycle following the map in this guide book.

SIGHTS IN THE LUANG NAM THA TOWN AREA

Boat trips down the Nam Ha River (inside the Nam Ha NPA) offer unique bird watching opportunities and can be arranged in Namtha District. Boats going down the Namtha River to the Mekong, with further connections to Luang Prabang or Houeixai (Thai Border crossing), can also be arranged in Namtha District and offer an alternative to road travel. Trips down the Namtha stop in Nalae District, an area with great potential for ecotourism with its national protected forests, caves and remote indigenous communities. Close to Namtha Town are villages that produce and weave silk, which can be visited by bicycle.

Luang Namtha Museum has a variety of artifacts made by Luang Namtha's multi-ethnic people. Of particular interest is the extensive collection of indigenous clothing as well as many agricultural tools and household implements used in daily life. The museum has an excellent collection of Buddha images, bronze drums, ceramics and textiles. Also of interest are the traditional hand-made weapons on display that were once used for hunting and national defense.

Ban Nam Dee (Lanten Village) (6 kilometers from Luang Namtha) is a good place to observe bamboo papermaking and traditional village life. Behind the village you will see the entrance to the Nam Dee Waterfall. The area around the waterfall offers good facilities, like a small handicraft shop managed by the villagers; toilets and a place for picnics. The village organizes homestays and teaches visitors how to make paper from bamboo.

Boat Landing Guest House (5 kilometers from Luang Nam Tha) is regarded as a model of ecotourism. Local ethnic groups are hired as guides and villages that welcome trekkers are paid for each trekker they put up. Groups are limted to eight so village resources are not pressed. Money is used for things like providing mosquito netting, medicine and wells. The efforts is believed to have reduced illegal hunting and logging. The project led by American Steven Schipani won a UNESCO award and is considered not only a model for Laos but for the developing world as a whole. In addition to treks, the guesthouse also sponsors bike trips and rafting and tubing river trips on the Nam Tha.

Huay Xai (across the Mekong River from Chiang Khong, Thailand) is a busy riverside town that has become a transit area for traveling between Laos and Thailand. There isn’t much to see in the town. Overland and river transport can be arranged to Luang Nam Tha. River trips are possible to Xieng Kok along the Myanmar-Laos border. Ferries run frequently between Huay Xai and Chiang Khong. Visa on Arrivals for both Laos and Thailand are available at the borders.

Fourth Thai–Lao Friendship Bridge over the Mekong River, linking Chiang Rai Province of Thailand and Ban Houayxay (Huay Xai) in Laos, opened in December 2013. About 480 meters long and about 14.70 meters wide, the bridge is about 10 kilometers from Amphoe Chiang Khong (Chiang Khong District) in Thailand and about 12 kilometers from Ban Houayxay of Laos. The Thais, Laotians, and Chinese have jointly invested about 1,900 million Baht in the budget for this construction project. The share will then be divided in half between the Thailand and China.

TREKKING FROM LUANG NAMTHA

Hill Tribe Treks from Luang Namtha visit villages of villages of the Hmong and Mien (also called Yao ) ethnic groups as well as villages of Tai groups such as the Lao, Tai Yuan and Tai Lue. The Hmong and Mien (also called Yao ) ethnic groups belong to the Hmong-Mien language family. They are the most recent arrivals to Southeast Asia, having left their homeland in southern China. The Hmong traditionally live in upland communities, where they practice swidden agriculture, cultivating rice, corn, vegetables and legumes and raising pigs and other small livestock. They practice a combination of animism and ancestor worship. If invited into one of the villager's houses, you may notice a thin pole for the house spirit and a small wall-mounted altar for the ancestors' spirits. Around the village you may also see seasonal activities or handicraft production,

Tai groups dominate the plains of Luang Namtha Province .They include the Lao, Tai Yuan, Tai Lue, Tai Neua, Tai Dam, Tai Daeng and Tai Khao. Members of the Tai linguistic family, they speak languages which are very similar, marked only by minor variations. The Tai are distinguished by their advanced political organization, called muang in Tai. The muang was a kind of principality or kingdom ruled by a hereditary elite class, and usually encompassing the land in one valley. Tai groups practice wet rice agriculture, cultivating glutinous (sticky) rice. Some groups also practice swidden agriculture. All Tai women dress in sin, long tubular skirts, with ethnic differences expressed through the design and weave of their costumes. Highly skilled in producing textiles, some Tai groups practice sericulture and weave in silk, while others weave in cotton.

Ban Don Kone (Tai Yuan or Kalom) was the earliest Tai group to settle in the Luang Namtha Valley, moving here from the Lanna Kingdom in northern Thailand in the 16th century. The Tai Yuan are Theravada Buddhists coupled with a belief in pre-Buddhist spirits. Ban Piang Ngam (Tai Daeng) and Ban Nam Ngean (Tai Dam)— subgroups of the Tai linguistic group— are a different kind of Tai. They originated from the Dien Bien Phu area of northern Vietnam, spreading westward into the area which is today Laos. Although these groups also form powerful muangs, they never converted to Buddhism. Instead, they practice a form of animism or spirit worship that includs veneration of the powerful spirit of the muang, village and house.

The hills surrounding Luang Namtha valley are forested by areas known as Village Use Forests. Management of these areas is the responsibility of those living in adjacent communities. Villagers rely on their forest areas to provide essential products such as timber and rattan for housing, and they also supplement their diet and income by hunting small animals, as well as collecting and selling non-timber forest products such as cardamom. However, pressure from an increasing population threatens the integrity of these areas. Giving local people direct responsibility for the management and protection of these vital tracts of land will help to ensure their existence for future generations.

Piang Ngam Trek (from Luang Namtha) is a relatively easy trek operated by the Luang Namtha Guide Service. It stops at interesting ethnic villages, where you can observe traditional village life. Overnight stays in Piang Ngam are available. The trek begins with a walk through rice fields around Luang Namtha before heading into the forested foothills. The trail passes through the villages of Ban Don Kone, Ban Nam Hoi, Ban Piang Ngam and Ban Nam Ngean.

Trekkers can observe traditional agricultural practices, community forest use, sericulture and silk weaving as well as the distilling of Lao Lao (rice whiskey) and eat a typical local lunch with villagers in Ban Piang Ngam. The trek ends with a visit to Ban Nam Ngean and the remains of That Poum Pouk stupa before trekkers are met by a tuk-tuk and return to Luang Namtha.

POPULAR MULTI-DAY TREKS FROM LUANG NAMTHA

Phou Sam Yot Three-Night Trek (from Luang Namtha) includes hikes on Sam Yot Mountain (Three Peak Mountain) and stays with three different ethnic groups Day 1) Depart Luang Namtha by tuk-tuk to the village of Ban Kok Mee. Hike through rubber tree plantations, mountain fields and community forests to the top of Sam Yot Mountain, taking in fantastic views along the way. Overnight in Old Sam Yot, a Hmong village. Day 2) Delve deep into the thick jungle and dense forests of Sam Yot Mountain, and enjoy a picnic in the woods hosted by the Hmong village guides. Descend into the fertile valley and rice fields of Nam Talan Village (Khamu and Lanten). Trekkers stay overnight in traditional Khamu accommodation and savor the flavors of Khamu cooking and earthen jar rice wine. Day 3) Follow the mountain trail under the cool, shaded forest canopy before a picnic with Khamu and Lanten villagers. Arrive at Nam Khon village (Lanten) in the early afternoon, where the journey makes its final overnight stay. Visitors learn about one of Luang Namtha's most unique and least known ethnic groups, the Lanten. Day 4) Start the day by partaking in village chores: collecting forest products, feeding livestock and pounding rice. After sharing a meal with the village, we return to Luang Namtha at the southern base of Sam Yawt Mountain. The trip is organized by the Luang Namtha Guide Service and supported by the LNTA-ADB Mekong Tourism Development Project

Akha Trail Two-Day Trek (from Luang Namtha) follows the Nam O River and heads up an old Akha trail to the mountain top Akha Phouli village of Ban Nam Lo for an overnight stay, before heading through a bamboo forest to a limestone cave on the way back. A three day option is also available. Day 1) Depart at 8:30 from the Eco-Guide Service office in a pick-up or tuk-tuk to Ban Nam O, a traditional Khmu Kwaen village. Hike along the meandering Nam O River and its lush valley. Pause for a Lao-style picnic lunch on the way before hiking across several ridges offering panoramic views of the Nam Ha NPA forests. The well-worn Akha trail continues past a temporary settlement of the upland rice farmers from Ban Nam O. Overnight in an Akha lodge on the top of a mountain at the Akha Phouli village of Ban Nam Lo. A traditional Akha dinner is cooked by the villagers. Day 2) Rise early to listen for black-cheeked gibbons. Tour the village before setting off to a second Akha and Khmu village, Ban Taleng, where lunch is served. The walk continues through primary and secondary forest to “Pa Mai Hok”, a bamboo forest area. Trekkers walk on a the rough road following the Nam Mai river. A pick-up takes them to Prasat Cave, the final stop before returning to Vieng Phoukha in the mid-afternoon. This trek is operated by the Vieng Phoukha Ecoguide Service, Vieng Phoukha District, Luang Namtha Province

Khamu and Lahu Trek (Nam Pa Man) (from Luang Namtha) follows trails around Vieng Phoukha and includes an overnight stay in a Lahu lodge. Day 1) Depart the Eco-Guide Service Office at 8:30 by pick up or tuk tuk for Ban Pa Daeng, a traditional village of the Khmu Yuan and Khmu Kwaen. While traversing a sacred forest, the guides explain the medicinal plants and other traditional uses of the forest and point out wild animal tracks. Arrive at a giant strangler fig tree for a break before continuing the journey to a limestone crag for a Lao-style picnic lunch. A short climb leads through the cave-like crag to a hilltop, before descending to the first Lahu and Khmu village, Ban Nam Kap Tai. After trekking through the mainly bamboo forest, the final leg of the trail passes through mixed upland agricultural fields and some forest. Arrive in the late afternoon at Ban Nam Paman and Ban Nam Noi, two Lahu villages nestled in the hills, and eat dinner with villagers before an overnight stay in the eco-lodge.

Day 2) The hike is through upland rice fields on a path traveled daily by locals on their way to work in the fields. Enjoy panoramic views of the area from the hilltops. The trek passes through swidden fields and secondary growth forest. The final descent ends at the Nam Fa River, a tributary to the Mekong River, where trekkers can swim and eat lunch. Situated near the river is Ban Vieng Mai, a Tai Lue village, where the group often stops before continuing to the road and a pick up or tuk tuk for the ride to the Eco-Guide Service office in the afternoon. The trek is operated by the Vieng Phoukha Ecoguide Service.

One Day Trek to Phou Mot and Ancient Ruins (from Luang Namtha) is a full-day forest walk to the Khou Vieng archaeological site in Vieng Phoukha. Operated by the Vieng Phoukha Ecoguide Service. Depart the Eco-Guide Service office in town at early dawn for the best viewing of birds, or after breakfast for those who prefer a relaxed pace.Arrive at Ban Nammang, a traditional Khmu village. From Nammang, ascend through rice fields and into a district forest conservation area to the top of a mountain ridge called ‘Mock Mooch’ (Ant Mountain) in Khmu language. This area attracts many bird species with its fruit-bearing fig trees. In the afternoon descend the mountainous conservation area to the plain and the site of the Ancient City and Temple of Ku Vieng along with Mahapot Stupa and Wat Mahapot. Return to the Eco-Guide Service office by mid-afternoon.

Nam Fa White-Water Rafting Trip is one of the most intense and thrilling rafting trips in Laos. This journey, loaded with rapids, wildlife and forest, starts in Vieng Phoukha and ends four days and 75 kilometers later at the Mekong between Laos and Myanmar. Sorry. There are no tour packages for this river. To request information on custom tours, contact Green Discovery Laos, Paddle Asia or Wildside

Nam Ha National Protected Area (northwestern border of Luang Namtha) embraces the Nam Ha and Nam Tha rivers, wildlife and a variety of tribes. Ecotourism activities include trekking, river rafting, camping, kayaking, bird watching, mountain bike tours and village home stays. Several treks are offered in the park. Rafting and kayaking are available through 2-3 grade rapids. Nam Ha National Protected Area is easily accessed from Luang Namtha Town, Muang Sing and Vieng Phoukha.

Nam Ha National Protected Area covers 2,224 square kilometers. Among the animals found there are: clouded leopard, leopard, and tiger. There are small populations of gaur, Asian elephant, and a possibly unique muntjac species. Habitat: Most of the area is covered by mixed deciduous forest. A range of mountains runs from “Phou 2094” to the China/Lao border. The top of this range is mainly dry evergreen forest and some grassland. Three large rivers drain southward to the Mekong: the Nam Tha, Nam Fa, and Nam Long.

Nam Ha National Protected Area Treks:

Ban Nalan Two-Day Trek is a two day-one night trek along the Nam Ha River, up mountains with spectacular views of Luang Namtha, and through pristine forests to Ban Nalan for an overnight stay in the village lodge. Villages along the way include: 1) Ban Nalan, Khamu village of approximately 35 families situated on the banks of the Nam Ha River, where visitors can see traditional Khamu culture, such as their method of pounding rice and the weaving of distinctive square-based baskets; 2) Ban Namkoy, a Lanten (Lao Huay) village; and 3) Ban Namlue, a mixed Lanten and Khamu village. During the day, most of the adults are away working in their rice fields, but trekkers will be invited inside a villager's house for refreshments. The trek is organized by Luang Namtha Guide Service.

Day 1)Ban Chaleunsouk - Ban Nalan: Set out from Ban Chaleunsouk, a Khamu village approximately 20 kilometers from Luang Namtha on a trail that ascends through 10- to 20-year-old secondary forest before emerging an the village's upland rice fields. In the afternoon, the trail enters the Ban Nalan community forest, and as the path begins to descend to the village, it passes a small clearing, which served as a gun position during the early 1960s, when Pathet Lao revolutionaries and royalist forces fought in the area. Arrive in Ban Nalan and enjoy dinner with villagers before relaxing and chatting with them to learn about Khamu culture and exchange. Spend the night in a Ban Nalan lodge overlooking the Nam Ha River.

Day 2: Ban Nalan - Ban Nam Lue: Begin the second morning with a pleasant walk following the Nam Ha River. Here, the forest varies from stands of large hardwoods to new growths of bamboo. The trail passes through the village of Ban Nalan Tai (South Ban Nalan) and the open cultivated areas of the Lanten village of Ban Nam Koy. Enjoy lunch in one of the village houses. The trail leaves the river and climbs for a couple of hours. This is the most challenging section of the trail, but also the most beautiful, as it passes through the least impacted forest of the trip. Trees up to four or five hundred years old create a dense canopy which provides a habitat for many From the top of the ridge, enjoy spectacular views to the north with Luang Namtha visible in the distance. The final descent goes past mountain rice fields and cultivated areas of the mixed Lanten and Khamu village of Ban Nam Lue. The trail here can be steep and slippery in places, especially after a rainfall. The trail ends at the Lanten village of Ban Nam Lue. Return to Luang Namtha by tuk tuk towards the end of the afternoon.

Nam Ha Forest Camp (Nammat Trek) can be done as a 3-day/2-night trek or a 2-day/1-night trek. The trek is led by Akha and Khamu guides. Trekkers spend the night in a bamboo and wood camp built by the villagers that is 3 to 4 hours away from the road by foot. The trek is organized by Luang Namtha Guide Service with Khamu and Akha Guides

Day 1) The Nam Ha Forest Camp: Depart Luang Namtha by tuk-tuk driving north into the Nam Ha Protected Area to Nammat Kao village, and hike into the mountains of Nam Ha, taking time to learn about the plants and animals. Collect wild herbs and vegetables for dinner, and cook over an open fire with Khamu hosts

Day 2) Akha Village: Wake early to watch the sunrise from atop the mountains above the camp. Explore nearby forests or help village cooks prepare breakfast. Learn how to make bird calls from the villagers. Depart on a moderate walk through the Nam Ha forest. Arrive at Nammat Mai village (Akha). Share a meal of fresh organic food with village hosts, and receive a traditional Akha massage. Sleep in the village lodge.

Day 3) Descend from the mountains of Nam Ha through colorful forests, catching sweeping views of Luang Namtha. Arrive in Luang Namtha by foot following the same path used everyday by villagers taking their forest products and crafts to the market.

Pha Yueng Waterfall (40 kilometers from Luang Namtha) is on the road from Luang Namtha to Muang Sing in Nam Ha National Protected Area.

Enjoy a traditional forest picnic prepared by Akha villagers next to the Nam Keo Waterfall, located deep inside the forests of Muang Sing district

MUANG SING

MUANG SING (12 kilometers from China and 58 kilometers and two hours from Luang Nam Tham) in the northern Laotian highlands has become a kind of mecca for hippie travelers and trekkers. Until fairly recently opium was smoked fairly openly here and young backpackers openly bought balls of opium for 50 cents a piece. Opium smoking and buying is now frowned up but still is freely done in the surrounding villages. Just rent a bicycle and ride to any village and the villagers will offer you some.

Many villagers smoke the stuff. By some estimates two third of the 4.5 tons of opium grown in the region is consumed in the area. Sometimes it is offered as payment for work. In some villages opium smoking has gotten so out of hand that women do almost of all the work because the men are too absorbed in smoking opium.

Muang Sing is nice enough in a shabby way. The town and the surrounding plains are dominated by Thai Lu. The Akha dominate the hills, with some Hmong and tribal Thai and a few Yao thrown in. Akha women wander the streets and persistently try to sell trinkets too foreign travelers. They can be a bit annoying. There is a reasonable choice of restaurants and guesthouses. Bicycles can be rented. Herbal saunas are offered at some places.

Sights in Muang Sing : On the northern end of town you can see some Thai Lu swan houses. The Akha wear traditional clothes but many of the other tribes and groups in the area wear Western clothes. The Akha make up about 45 percent of the population in Muang Sing District. Many of the Akha villages are located in the hills and require a guide to visit. However, Ban Nammdaet Mai is a traditional village with homestays that can be booked through the Phou Iu Guest House and Restaurant.

Muang Sing Museum has an excellent collection of historically and religiously significant pieces, located on the top floor. The building was once the royal residence of the Jao Fa (Prince), Phanya Sekong. Open 9:00 - 11:30 and 1:30 - 3:30, Monday-Friday. Admission 5,000 kip (plus 5,000 kip extra for Akha film).

Muang Sing Market is one of the best places to see ethnic groups in northern Laos. People from Akha, Lue, Hmong, Yao, Tai Dam and Tai Neua villages come to sell their fruits, vegetables, meats, non-timber forest products and crafts. The best time to visit the market is in the early morning. The market is also a great place to get to know local food such as soybean paste, waffles and local sweets ("canome") often made from sticky rice and coconut. Under the French, the main market was the largest opium market in the Golden Triangle. Today it has a good selection of fruits and vegetables and local foods. Try the delicious sausages. The market is also reasonable place to shop for hill tribe crafts.

SIGHTS IN THE MUANG SING AREA

Muang Sing Crafts and Lao Lao Whiskey: The handicraft village Ban Pieng Ngam and the distillery village Ban Nam Ngaen 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. You can go by bicycle following the map in this guide book.

Tai Dam Weaving and textile production is mainly performed in Ban Nong Boua and Ban Xieng Yun. Look for the large weaving looms located under or beside houses. Don't be shy to sit down and drink a cup of tea if you are invited into someone's home. Just remember: Ask before you take photos and remove your shoes before entering a house. To show your gratitude and support local crafts you may choose to purchase one of their handmade textiles.

Ban Koum is known for producing the best Lao whisky (lao lao) in Muang Sing. Lao whisky is distilled in big drums outside. If you decide to try some be careful, as it is extremely strong. Ban Koum is located off the road to Luang Namtha 4 kilometers from the center of town. Ban Nammai is a Yao village, also close Adima lodge. Yao tradition is quite strong here. Every year in November/December you can see the production of bamboo paper-used for making religious ceremonies and books-in this and other nearby Yao villages. The village has developed a small handicrafts cooperative which offers a good selection of traditional Yao textiles.

Watersfalls in the Muang Sing Area: About 6 kilometers northeast of the town centre, the Lao Huay (Lenten) village of Ban Nam Dee (Good water) is a good place to observe the progress of bamboo papermaking. Behind the village you will see the entrance to the Nam Dee Waterfall. The area around the waterfall offers good facilities, like a small handicraft shop managed by the villagers; toilets and a house for picnics, etc. The multi-tiered Namkeo waterfall is located about 2 kilometers from the That Xieng Tung and can be visited as part of a guided tour from the Muang Sing Guide office or while on the Akha Experience.

Ancient Kilns and Bronze Drum (Kong Bang)(southwest of Vat Mahaphot) refers to an area with 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— symbols of status and wealth—can be seen in the Luang Namtha Province Museum. There are also a number of privately owned drums remaining in Vieng Phoukha.

Kao Rao Cave (near Vieng Phoukha Town) is located in an of karst limestone mountains that have many interesting and beautiful caves. Vieng Phoukha’s caves have some of the most beautiful underground formations in northern Laos. Many of them are home to 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 at the base of the Phou Prasat limestone formation near Tha Louang Village.

Xieng Kok (75 kilometers for Muang Sing) is a somewhat busy port on the Mekong River. It used to be a major opium refining center and now is still regarded as a major smuggling center. Munga Long is small town between Xieng Kok and Muang Sing. Much of the opium cultivated in region is grown between here and the Myanmar border.

TREKKING IN MUANG SING

Over the last decade and a half Muang Sing has transformed itself from a Golden Triangle opium hub into a tourism and trekking center. A visitors center, which organizes treks, was set up in town by Peace Corps volunteers and the same people who established the Boat Landing Guesthouse in Luang Namtha. Many of the treks are to Akha villages and great emphasis is put on the running the treks so they are interesting to trekkers and have a positive impact on the ethnic villagers. Opium smoking is generally discouraged but can be done discreetly on the side.

I went a two day trek in 2003, organized by the visitor’s center, and had quite a good time. We did about five hours of walking each day, mainly through secondary forests. The scenery was good but not spectacular. The highlight of the trip was our overnigt stay at an Akha village. Not so many visitors had visited the village back then and the hospitality seemed genuine. We ate food a stew made from a freshly killed chicken and local herbs, and drank rice wine and sang songs with villagers. We received a back and foot massage as a welcome gesture from the local women and woke up the sound of rice being crushed in large wooden mortar and pestles. A French guy on the trek convinced the headman of the village to sell him some opium.

The Muang Sing Guide Service—which operates ot of the visitor’s center described above— is a cooperative run by local guides and the provincial tourism office of Luang Namtha. All guides are local and can help explain the local culture and environment; and instruct visitors on important cultural do's and don'ts. The service offers a choice of 1-, 2- and 3-day treks around Muang Sing with a local guide and stay overnight in ethnic villages. The guides look after the trekkers; ensure village visits are beneficial for both tourists and villagers, and arrange food, water and sleeping in the village. The guides speak English (and other foreign and local languages), however, many are still learning and improving.

Treks include: 1) Food: Lao food is served on all treks: sticky/plain rice, vegetables, meat, chili sauce. Meals on overnight treks are prepared using simple foods purchased in villages: rice, vegetables and on some meat or fish. Purchasing food in villages helps generate income for villagers. Vegetarians, vegans and other dietary restrictions can be accommodated. Tell the guide service in advance and remind the guide during the trek. Bring your own snacks/sweets. 2) Water: Water is provided. It is recommended that trekkers take at least 2-3 litres and drink plenty on the trail. Reusable water bottles are provided to reduce plastic waste, or you may use your own . On overnight treks, water is available in the villages and from streams. To reduce the amount of fuelwood used in the village, we recommend use water purification droplets. If you do not have any, you can purchase Providone Iodine at most local pharmacies in Laos. Add 8 drops of providone iodine to 1 litre of water. Let it stand for at least 30 minutes before drinking. Using iodine on a short-term basis is safe. If you cannot use iodine, water can be boiled in the village. Remember that this takes time and consumes precious fuel wood.

3) Accommodation: Sleeping is included in the cost of the trek. The village benefits from a fee charged for each tourist on the trip, who spend the night. This fee is often placed in a village fund managed by the community, and is used for festivals, medicine, rice shortages and other needs. Bring a sleeping bag, as blankets in the villages are limited. Sleeping bags or blankets are provided for those who require them. 4) Akha Massage: It is traditional for guests to receive a massage upon arriving to an Akha village. As we are paying guests and come on a more frequent basis, a small fee is paid directly to the women and young girls who give the massage. This is another way the village benefits from tourism. PLEASE, DON'T PAY EXTRA FOR THE MASSAGE. This is included in the price. Your guide will pay in a discreet and fair manner to avoid confusion and to avoid over-commercialization of this tradition. For booking contact Mr. Bounlouam , Tel: (+856-20) 570-8138.

POPULAR TREKS FROM MUANG SING

Huaylong Kao 1-Day Village Walk visits seven ethnic villages on an easy to moderately difficult trail. The different villages are located in the Muang Sing Valley including the major ethnic minority groups: Hmong, Akha (Pouli, Dtee Jaw, and Pian), and Khamu. The landscape is a variety of forests, agricultural fields and typical footpaths used by the villagers. Departure is at 9:00 am; return is around 4:30 pm. There is approximately 5 1/2 hours of walking, with difficult bridge crossing and mild uphill

Pawai Kao 1-Day Mountain Trek is full-day trek that passes through ethnic villages along the way to a mountain peak. The journey through valleys and over steep mountain inclines, with views of Muang Sing, forests and rice fields, and passing through ethnic villages of the Tai Lue, Tai Neua, Akha and Hmong. Departure is at 9:00 am; return is around 5:30 pm. Transportation from the last village is included.

Pawai Kao 2-Day Overnight Trek is a popular, moderate trek, with an overnight stay in Pawai Kao village (Akha) on a mountain peak, follows the same trail as the Pawai Kao 1-day Mountain Trek, but spends more time in the villages to experience their culture. On Day 1 there is five hours of walking plus rests and breaks in villages. On Day 2 there is six hours. There is some steep uphill climbing to the mountain peak, with beautiful views of Muang Sing, some stream crossings and alternating patches of upland rice fields and forests. Ethnic Groups visited include: Tai Lue, Hmong, Akha Pfien, Akha Puree Nyai, Akha Puree Noy, Tai Neua

Sop Ee Kao 2-Day Trek offers a unique overnight stay in a remote Akha village deep in the hills of Muang Sing. This hike is longer than the Pawai Kao 2-day Trek, and takes hikers to a destination further from town. Trekkers spend the night in Sop Ee Kao village (Akha), known for its tea plantation and idyllic location. On Day 1 there is 5-6 hours of walking. On Day 2 there is approximately 6 hours through forests. The walking is moderately difficult. Day 1 is uphill through villages. Day 2 is downhill through forests; and mixed agricultural fields. Ethnic Groups: Hmong, Akha Puree Nyai, Akha Puree Noy, Akha Pfian.

3-Day Trek in Muang Sing : The Muang Sing Guide Service unit operates two different 3-day treks. Both combine some of the villages from the 2-day treks and extend the visit for a 2nd night and 3rd day. The Pawai Kao-Sop Ee Kao 3-day trek heads to the peak of Pawai Kao for the 1st night and then traverses the mountain range to Sop Ee Kao for the 2nd night, before returning via Akha and Hmong villages through the valley on the 3rd day. The Sop Ee Kao-Saen Aen 3-day Trek follows a similar itinerary, with a more challenging hike on the 2nd day.

AKHA EXPERIENCE

AKHA EXPERIENCE is a three day trek to eight Akha villages, with time spent learn Akha customs and participating in village activities. The Akha Experience is an experimental tour, which takes participants on a 3-day learning experience into the culture and daily life of the Akha in Muang Sing. The participants live the Akha's life in the forest, in the fields and in the village. The Akha Experience encourages the Akha people to preserve their traditional culture and environment and helps them gain new skills and sources of income. It is run through a special partnership with Vientiane Travel/Exotissimo. There is 5 to 6 hours of trekking per day. Some uphill climbs involved. Trekkers must be in good shape. Booking: Contact Exotissimo/Vientiane Travel at +856 21 241 861-2 or by email at laosales@exotissimo.com

Day 1) Muang Sing - Nam Keo Noi Waterfall - Ban Lao Khao: Depart That Xieng Tueng and follow the old French road to Nam Keo Noi Water Fall. After 3 hours of trekking through primary and secondary forest, lunch is prepared by Lao Khao villagers at the beautiful Nam Keo Noi Waterfall. Food is cooked in the traditional Akha way using local products, forest vegetables and ancient techniques. After lunch, walk with the villagers to the old village site and continue through a pine forest and old growth forest before descending to Ban Lao Khao. On the trail, take part in forest activities such as bird watching and collecting bamboo shoots and medicinal plants. While waiting for dinner, walk around Ban Lao Khao with villages; learn about traditional Akha architecture and houses; and listen to traditional musical instruments, stories and legends while watching the preparation of the evening meal. After dinner, enjoy a massage provided by the young women of the village before listening to courting songs. Overnight in the Ban Lao Khao Lodge.

Day 2) Ban Lao Khao - Ban Phou Yae - Ban Houeinagang - Ban Eu La - Ban Tamee: After breakfast, walk to Ban Phou Yae on a trail that passes through old secondary forest. During the trek, participate in forest activities such as bird watching and collecting bamboo shoots and medicinal plants with the village guides. Arrive in Ban Phou Yae and be the guest of a family for lunch. Continue to Ban Houeinagang, stopping for an afternoon snack in Ban Houeinagang and participating in a village activity such as cotton spinning, making, playing with children's toys and pounding rice. Continue to Ban Eu La and enjoy an agricultural activity like planting rice, riding a buffalo or gathering vegetables along the way. Stop for another snack at Eu La village as it is an Akha custom for visitors to stop in the village and chat before passing through. Continue to Ban Tamee, and while waiting for dinner, visit the village with the Ban Lao Khao hosts. Listen to traditional musical instruments, stories, and legends while watching the preparation of the evening meal. Learn about home life and marriage customs. After dinner, enjoy a massage provided by the young women of the village before going to listen to courting songs of the youth at the courting grounds. Overnight in Ban Tamee Lodge.

Day 3) Ban Tamee - Ban Nam Hoo - Ban Phiyer - Muang Sing: After breakfast, take part in village activities such as cotton spinning, pounding rice or feeding the pigs. Villagers will appreciate your attention and willingness to learn about Akha daily life. Spend some time with the children, teach them new games or learn theirs. Depart for Ban Nam Hou. Along the way enjoy farming activities with the villagers. Take a break in Ban Nam Hoo. Walk through the forest to witness a beautiful view of Muang Sing., and participate in forest activities with the villagers. Lunch is served by a family in either Ban Mona or Ban Piyer. After lunch, visit the village handicraft shop in Ban Piyer and purchase some of the locally-made handicrafts, which supports the local economy while providing a beautiful souvenir from the Akha Experience. The trek ends with a truck ride back to Muang Sing.

BOKEO PROVINCE

BOKEO PROVINCE (195 kilometers from Luang Namath and 500 kilometers from Luang Prabang) is the smallest province in Laos, but one of the most ethnically diverse with over 30 recognized ethnic groups. The Lahu, a Tibeto-Burman speaking people common in northern Myanmar and Thailand are present in Bokeo in significant proportions. The province is located in the heart of the infamous “Golden Triangle” sharing borders with Luang Namtha as well as Myanmar and Thailand. Houay Xay, just across the border from the Thai town of Chiang Kong is a popular starting point for boat trips down the Mekong to Luang Prabang, a two-day journey south.

Bokeo means ‘gem mine’ Since ancient times Huay Xay, the provincial capital, has been the disembarkation point for travelers and traders from Yunnan province in southern China on their way to Thailand. It is still a popular town for trading in Chinese goods. Wat Jom Kao Manilat, a teak Shan-style pagoda built in 1880 houses a stele that dates back to 1458. Fort Carnot, a remnant of the French colonial period is still standing but off limits to visitors, as today the fort is occupied by the Lao army. Just south of the main town it is possible to visit one of the main sapphire-mining areas in Indochina.

In Vieng Phukha visitors can participate in one, two or three day guided treks to local Khamu, Lahu and Tai Lu villages. In the Nam Kan provincial protected area one of the few remaining populations of black-cheeked crested gibbons can be found, singing their eerie and beautiful early morning songs during the cold season from November – February. If you are interested in archaeology visit the ancient city of Souvannakhomkham near Ton Peung just north of Huay Xay.

River trips to the far north can be arranged from Huay Xay, either on the Mekong or the smaller Namtha. River travel north on the Mekong terminates at Xieng Kok in Luang Namtha, where you can then easily proceed overland to the historic town of Muang Sing. The two-day journey up the Namtha requires an overnight stay in your boatman’s village, a memorable experience for those seeking an off-the-beaten path adventure. Swimming in the Mekong near Huay Xay is the largest freshwater fish in the world, the famous Mekong catfish known locally as “paa beuk”. This giant grows up to 3 meters in length and can weigh up to 300 kilograms.The meat of this enormous but endangered fish is considered a delicacy and brings a high price in markets as far away as Bangkok.

Bokeo Province is located in northewestern Laos. It covers 6,196 square kilometers and has a population of 165,661 people. There are five districts: Houay Xai, Ton Pheung, Meung, Pha-oudom and Paktha. The capital is Houay xai.

Getting to Bokeo Province: From Vientiane Bokeo is reached by the road N.13 north, via Vang Vieng - Luang Prabang - Oudomxay - Luang Namtha, then along the road N.3 passing through Vieng Phoukha-Houay Xay of the total distance 827 By Air: Vientiane - Houay Xay is served by Lao Airlines. Lao Airlines operates 4 flights a week from Vientiane to Houay Xay on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Houaixai-Vientiane, 895.000 kip, 12:35, One way; Houaixai-Luang Prabang, 695.000 kip, 12:35, 55 minutes, One way, By Bus : (Bus Schedule, Destination, Distance, Price, Departure Time, Duration): A) Houaixai-Luang Namtha, 195 kilometers, 75.000 kip/ vip, 15:00, 4 hours; B) Houaixai-Oudomxay, 330 kilometers, 110.000 kip /vip, 7 hours; C) Houaixai-Luang Prabang, VIP Bus, 505 kilometers, 145.000 kip/vip, 17:00, 13 hours; D) Houaixai-Vientiane, 900 kilometers, 253.000 kip/vip, 18:00, 25 hours; E) Houaixai-Phongsaly, 542 kilometers. Boat Schedule (Kind of Boat, Destination, Distance, Price*, Departure Time, Duration): A) Slow Boat, Houaixai-Pakbeng, 168 kilometers, 110,000, 11:30, 6 hours, Houaixai-Luang Prabang, 336 kilometers, 220,000, 8 hours; B) Speed Boat, Houaixai-Pakbeng, 160,000, 10:30, 3 hours, Houaixai-Luang Prabang, 340,000, 7 hours.

HOUAIXAI

HOUAIXAI (336 kilometers from Luang Prabang and 195 kilometers from Luang Namtha) is the capital of Bokeo Province. It is also spelled Houai Xay .Climb the steep staircase to Vat Jom Khao Manilat across from the pier road. Constructed around 1880, the teak temple remains in pristine condition, and is joined by a sizeable golden stupa, majestic gong tower and wonderful view. Next, explore Fort Carnot , before the ascent to the small, hilltop Vat Pha Thad, originally built in 1022. Also on the compound are a golden stupa and a row of eight golden Buddha images in different positions. At the market, You’ll find everything from rattan stools and baskets to Bokeo wines, whiskies and fruit-flavoured liqueurs. Tuk-tuks are available for hire in Houai Xay. Vang View Tours rents motorcycles and Bo-Sapphire Tours rents bicycles.

Fort Carnot (in Houaixai) is a Strategic French fort built in 1900 on a hill overlooking Houai Xay and Thailand. It served as colonial France’s western most strategic stronghold for controlling Mekong River traffic. Though undergoing restoration, Fort Carnot today stnds among Laos’ best preserved colonial military outposts. The eastern rampart’s barracks and main gate remain intact, as do its corner bastions, with tunnels leading soldiers to outside watchtowers. Riflemen once pointed guns towards the Mekong through slits along the southern barricade. The tall western tower and wall show their age, but you can still see rifle racks on the room’ walls. The north block, being developed into a museum, most likely held the kitchen and jail.

Gibbon Experience (in the Nam Kan National Protected Area) is a tree-top sleeping quarters and a network of canopy zip-lines for an aerial opportunity to spot rare black-cheeked crested gibbons, in Nam Kan Protected Area, home to one of the few remaining populations of these gibbons. A one-hour walk from Ban Don Chai ends at tree houses, “hides” for watching canopy wildlife, and access to nature trails and the zip-line highway, with local guides ready to lead the way and prepare fire-cooked meals and snacks. The Gibbon Experience offers two and three-day adventures that include canopy accommodation with views overlooking river valleys, mountain tops, and a waterfall swimming hole. From the canopy tree house with excellent views of the surrounding Bokeo Forest Reserve. To participate in the Gibbon Experience, contact the its office in Houeixay, Bokeo Province. Tel: (+856-84) 212-021, e-mail: contact@gibbonexperience.org or visit www.gibbonexperience.org.

Ancient Souvannakhomkham City (50 kilometers west of Houai Xay) is a ruined city that sprawls over a 10-hectare field. A massive headless Buddha sits alone near the roadside, and Ban Done That’s Visitor center displays the ancient civilization’s pottery and stone relics, while kicking off a trail that winds around grass-covered brick stupas to a timeless, seven-meter-tall Buddha, one of Laos’ largest. On the river road ride back to town, stop at Nang Peng’s in Nam Keung Mai for what many call the country’s best khao soi noodle soup. Continue to the Nam Nyon Waterfalls for a swim, and visit the gold-plated princess sculpted into a boulder at a rest stop near Pak Ngao.

Don Chai Visitor Centre (70 kilometers north of Houai Xay on Route 3 to Luang Namtha) is where the Bokeo Handicraft Collective sells its goods. Among the collective’s members, Hmong embroiderers offer decorative fabric wall hangings, cloth key chains, and dangling ornaments with intricate designs. The Tai Lue present a variety of woven household items such as coasters, placemats, tablecloths, curtains, bedspreads, and cushion covers. Shoppers can also purchase everyday products used by ethnic locals such as wicker baskets and drinking vessels made from dried gourds.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Laos-Guide-999.com, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Page Top

© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.