The Long Way to Luang Prabang

21 days, 7 buses, 11 tuk tuks, 2 boats and hours of incredibly beautiful mountain and riverside scenery and I finally made it to Luang Prabang!

I only had one month in Laos and I was toying with the idea of travelling from north to south then heading overland to Cambodia. Something was telling me not rush through Laos just for the sake of ticking off destinations. I knew I wanted something different from the typical backpacker route from Huay Xai – Pakbeng – Luang Prabang – Vang Vieng – Vientiane.

I decided to dedicate my time to exploring and immersing myself into the north of Laos and saving the south for another time. I looked further north than Luang Prabang and wanted to explore as far as Phongsaly and from there travel by river as far as I could go towards Nong Khiaw.

It turns out that travelling by boat down the Nam Ou river is the perfect way to travel through this beautiful country. This is the journey I took through northern Laos over 1 month:

Huay Xia – Luang Namtha – Oudomxay – Phongsaly – Muang Khua – Nong Khiaw – Sam Neua – Phonosavan – Luang Prabang – Vientiane (flight to Vietnam)

Day 1 – Huay Xia:

After crossing the border I needed to get to Huay Xia where I would be staying overnight. The only mode of transport seemed to be via tuk tuk at 25000 kip, go when full! The border crossing near Huay Xia isn’t exactly brimming with other travellers so I didn’t know how long I’d have to wait. There didn’t seem to be any private taxis, I did ask and I wasn’t even pressured into bargaining for a higher price for the tuk tuk to leave now. Lao people seemed to be very laid back. So, being impatient I walked….for 10km! It took me nearly 2 hours with the beaming sun and a banging headache! All I wanted to do was find a guesthouse and have an afternoon nap.

I found a guesthouse for 50000 kip so I got one of my wishes. There was some sort of celebration going on in the street with loud music, so the Universe decided I wasn’t going to have a nap.

I found somewhere to eat and the kind owner gave me some paracetamol. I tried to find somewhere to buy my own, but after 45 minutes of going to different shops and a pharmacy I was told “no, don’t have”. It seemed crazy but perhaps people in Huay Xai don’t get headaches? Amazing!

Day 2 – 5 – Huay Xai to Luang Namtha:

I took the 9am bus (which left on time, hurray!) and arrived in Luang Namtha around 1pm which was pretty good going. I met a nice Swiss girl, Viviane, on the bus and we explored the little town, saw the sunset from the stupa and had a nice meal at the Bamboo Lounge.

Cycling Around Luang Namtha

I explored the surrounding area of Luang Namtha by bicycle. It was 20000 kip to hire but the first bike was dodgy and the brakes didn’t work, so I returned it for a better bike. I cycled to the Nam Dee waterfall which is about 5km from the town. It was a beautiful ride which took me through some of the local villages with cute little kids waving and shouting “sabaidee”. The road is very bumpy so it’s good to hire a bike with gears which I had, unless you want your legs to feel like you’ve just done a spinning class. Near the entrance of the waterfall is a ticket office, it’s 10000 kip to enter and 1000 kip to leave the bicycle.

The hike to the waterfall takes about 10 minutes though it’s nothing spectacular, maybe it’s different in the rainy season. I climbed over the rocks to the other side where there is a trail leading upwards. I hiked for about an hour through the jungle and at one point the trail went down to the river. This was a beautiful and secluded spot which made for a good rest.

The trail goes on for a bit but I wasn’t sure if it would lead me back to my bicycle, so I backtracked. I cycled back through the villages and at the main road took a left. I followed the road round for about 15 minutes and turned off on the right, on the map it looked like I could cross the river and loop back to the main town. Unfortunately, there was no bridge and no way to pass. It didn’t matter because the scenery was incredible. I cycled through the farmland where butterflies were dancing around me with the odd one smacking me in the face. It was absolute bliss being surrounded by 360 degree lush greenery.

This was a great way to spend a few hours and was a perfect introduction to Laos.

Scooter Trip from Luang Namtha to Muang Sing

I hired a scooter for the day (80000 kip) and took the beautiful, scenic road to Muang Sing. For two hours I was surrounded by emerald green scenery and had to stop myself from stopping to take pictures every 5 minutes. Laos may be one of the poorest countries in the world, but it is very rich in scenery.

As I meandered through the mountains I was greeted by little kids waving and shouting “sabaidee”.

The town of Muang Sing wasn’t exactly worth looking at and I stopped to have a quick lunch. I saw that the road continued towards China so I went as far as I could before approaching an official looking stop and thought it best to turn back.

Day 6 – Luang Namtha to Oudomxay:

This was the start of the journey to Phongsaly in the north. Unfortunately, the bus that goes direct from Luang Namtha to Phongsaly goes through China so it’s only available for locals (meh, they get all the fun!) I therefore had to take a bus to Oudomxay and stay overnight and take the bus to Phongsaly the next morning. I met up with Viviane again as she wanted to do the same route, she’d just been on an overnight trek in Namtha.

There was a very good restaurant called Souphailin and the owner was very nice and kind. She made an amazing steamed fish wrapped in banana leaf with rice. I also had the banana in caramel which was very good. After spending a couple of hours reading in the restaurant I was getting thirsty and spotted on the menu a banana ice coffee with condensed milk and coconut cream. Not only did it sound like a dream it also tasted like one too…it was immense!

Day 7 – 11 – Oudomxay to Phongsaly:

From the bus station in the town we took a 9am bus (which actually left 10 minutes early) to Phongsaly. I’d read that the journey can be quite bad but compared to other journeys it was ok. Also I was expecting it to be at least 9 hours so I was happy when it only took 7 1/2. We quickly found a guesthouse near the Tourist Information and explored the town.

Phongsaly doesn’t receive a lot of tourists and though it has its charms there isn’t an awful lot to do. The only reason tourists seem to come here is for the trekking and that in itself is an excellent reason to venture this far up north.

We booked our 2 day, 1 night trek with the Tourist Information office as it was at least a 1/3 cheaper than Amazing Laos (on the main road by the cross roads). The trek was to a remote Akha village and you can read about my experience here.

Though there isn’t much to do in Phongsaly you can spend half a day walking around the old part of town, visiting the very informative ethnic museum (go here before your trek for a great overview of the different ethnic tribes), and climbing the steps to the stupa which overlooks the town (great for the sunset).

Restaurants were also lacking but there is a Chinese restaurant near the market (just off the crossroad junction) and you tell the lady what you want from the fridge and she’ll cook it for you. None of the staff speak English so it’s a real surprise as to what she’ll cook. But, after eating there 3 times we were not disappointed!

Day 12 – Phongsaly – Muang Khua:

So today was the start of our 2 day boat journey towards Nong Khiaw with the first stopover at Muang Khua.

To get to the Nam Ou river we had to take a bus to the village of Hatsa which was about an hour away. There is a tuk tuk at 7am (outside the Amazing Laos office) which took us to the Phongsaly – Hatsa bus station. The 8am bus left at 8.20am and an hour later we arrived at Hatsa. The bus first stops at a 3 way junction where we got off. It wasn’t clear where the boat was so we headed down to the village where we thought the boat departed from but was told that the boat leaves elsewhere. So we rushed up the hill to the 3-way junction where there is another hill that leads to a wooden building where we bought our boat ticket for 85000 kip. The boat was already full so we made a space on the floor until the lovely boatman made us a little bench. The boat left around 10.15am.

The boat meandered through the river, stopping at some villages to either unload or pick up various sacks of goods. From the moment the boat journey started I knew it was the best decision to see Laos from the river.

At around 12.45pm the boat reached one of the dams where we had to get off and take a tuk tuk to the nearest town of Mouang Samphan. From here we would take another tuk tuk for 2 hours to Muang Khua. In Mouang Samphan we met one of the locals who told us that there were about 7 dams along the river with one being prepared between Muang Khua to Nong Khiaw (so future boat journeys will be affected). The tuk tuk was meant to arrive at 2pm but some other travellers arrived who were heading up to Phongsaly, so they had to be taken to where we had disembarked and then the tuk tuk came back to pick us up. We only had to wait another 40 minutes then we were on our way.

The tuk tuk journey took about 2 hours winding through the mountains with a stunning lush green backdrop. This certainly took my mind off the gut-wrenching drive by our crazy driver who was definitely the Lao Vin Diesel!

We arrived in Muang Khua just after 5pm and settled into one of the guesthouses. We went for dinner at one of the restaurants overlooking the river just in time for a storm to set in causing intermittent power cuts.

Day 13 – 15 – Muang Khua – Nong Khiaw:

We headed down to the boat around 8am as we were told the boat leaves around 8.30am but this turned out not to be the case. The boatman said we would need at least 7 – 10 people for the boat to leave. Luck was on our side as we had 11 people, the ticket to Nong Khiaw was 120000 kip (100000 kip to Muang Ngoi) and we left just after 9.30am.

Like the day before we were treated to some of the most amazing scenery which just got better and better as we meandered along the river watching locals pass on their boats, carefree kids swimming and playing in the river and the water buffalo taking it easy along the riverbank.  The 4 1/2 hours on the river was quite relaxing despite sitting on wooden benches (there are only 6 seats on board), it was nice to read a book and look up and be in awe of the beautiful surroundings.

Nong Khiaw itself is a sleepy village where tours to a waterfall, trekking and kayaking can be arranged. Alternatively, it’s the perfect place to find somewhere to stay with a hammock overlooking the river and taking it easy with a good book. It was a nice surprise to find an Indian restaurant and enjoy a nice curry (Deen restaurant), the Coco restaurant also serves up delicious steamed fish in a banana leaf and for a nice cocktail the Q bar was a nice place to have a drink in the evening (though my long island ice tea was not so strong, but the barman made up for it with a stronger 2nd drink). For cake lovers I’d recommend heading to Delilah’s cafe for some homemade treats…the key lime pie was exceptional!

Day 16 – 18 – Nong Khiaw to Sam Neua:

It was a little challenging trying to find out the bus timing to Sam Neua, but after going to the bus station twice we were told to turn up on the day we wanted to leave between 10 – 10.30am to buy the ticket and the bus would arrive around 1pm from Luang Prabang. So we did this and around 1.30pm a minivan turned up already rammed with locals. There were 4 of us who had booked this minivan. The driver and the ticket man had some sort of conversation and some locals got off the bus. It turned out they were making room for us in the back, so the 4 of us were crammed in the back. Apparently in 50km some locals would be getting off so they’d be more room.

Well, that definitely didn’t happen and we resigned ourselves to the fact that this was going to be our journey for the next 11 hours. It wouldn’t have been too bad except for the crazy motherfucker of a driver and the endless bumps, I honestly thought my spinal discs were going to be destroyed by the end of this journey!

After 6 hours we stopped in Vieng Thong for something to eat. It was an absolute relief to get out of the minivan although it was a struggle as I’d been doing squats for two days running so my legs were in agony!

It had started to rain quite heavily and I braced myself for remaining 4 1/2 hours of journey where we were either going to make it to Sam Neua or face imminent death. Rain + shit road + dark + crazy motherfucker driver = a high risk of death!

It was 12.30am when we reached Sam Neua and I couldn’t wait to get off the mini van. Now my thoughts were, “I just want a bed”! We took a tuk tuk to the town and found the Phousak Guesthouse and luckily the owner was still around. I got to my room and was in heaven…the cleanest and most beautiful room I’ve had in a long, long time! We hit gold with this place and extended our stay!

The reason for the arduous journey was because we wanted to visit the caves in Vieng Xai. The caves were the former headquarters of the Pathet Lao and home to over 20,000 people between 1964 – 1973 during the Vietnam war.

The caves don’t see a huge influx of tourists due to the effort required to get there but after visiting them I was so pleased to have made this journey and discover a history I knew nothing about. You can read about it here in my detailed post.

There are two tours at 9am and 1pm respectively but getting public transport to Vieng Xia, which is 30 kms away, can be a bit problematic. I wanted to hire a scooter but after searching for a place in the morning I was defeated. Instead, Viviene and I took a taxi for 150000 kip one way and was easily able to hitch hike back to Sam Neua (sorry Mum!) There is meant to be a bus coming from Vietnam and passing through around 5pm, but as we got a ride before that time I cannot verify if that’s correct.

Sam Neua is a very nice town with friendly locals and we ended up extending for an extra night, but to be honest if it wasn’t for the fact my visa was going to expire I could have stayed longer. We enjoyed a delicious hotpot at a restaurant near the Yuni coffee shop and the locals insisted we have some shots…we stopped at 3! The Yuni coffee shop is worth stopping by for a coffee and sandwich. Also, the Many Coffee shop serves up a delicious Vietnamese coffee as well as an awesome brownie and coconut icecream. It’s also possible to buy local Yuni coffee beans.

Day 19 – 21 – Sam Neua to Phonsavan:

It was time to brace myself for another bus journey in Laos! The bus to Phonsavan was 80000 kip and took about 7 hours. We quickly found a guesthouse and grabbed some cheap eats. Phonsavan is located in the Xieng Khouang province and suffered greatly during the Vietnam war. Excellent information about this can be found at the MAG and UXO centres on the main strip. The town is also the gateway to the mysterious Plain of Jars.

You can read about Phonsavan in my detailed post about Laos’ secret war.

Day 22 – 26 – Phonsavan to Luang Prabang:

After saying goodbye to my travel buddy in Phonsavan I took the 8.30am bus and finally made it to Luang Prabang 8 hours later. I was expecting to arrive at least a week before but I couldn’t pass on the opportunity to make a detour from Nong Khiaw and head to Vieng Xai and then to Phonsavan.

By taking a longer route I hardly saw many other travellers so it was a bit overwhelming to see so many westerners again.

I decided to spend 5 days in Luang Prabang and relax which wasn’t difficult as the weather made a turn for the worse. The route I took around Laos involved more bus journeys than I care to take and it was exhausting, however, it was worth it and I felt I immersed myself into the culture and learned a lot about the country’s history.

After Luang Prabang I will head to Vientiane for my last 3 days before catching my flight to Hanoi.

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