FEATURE: Namtha: an overlooked travellers’ gem

VIENTIANE (Vientiane Times/ANN) - Namtha is the capital of Luang Namtha province but isn’t on most travellers’ itinerary like Meuang Sing because people tend to think that, as the provincial capital, Namtha is a busy commercial hub. But in fact it is full of interest and well worth a few days of exploration.

I too used to think of Namtha as being a stopover town and never spent much time there because I’m basically a country boy and prefer to be in rural areas.

But I found that this small town of Namtha provided me with almost everything I like and it turned out that my four days there were not long enough to see everything I wanted to.

I arrived in the late afternoon and went to look for the tourist office which I found near the night market and was pleased that it had some quite useful information.

After that I really enjoyed walking around the night market and eating the local food.

I read the flyers provided by the tourist office which pointed me in the right direction and informed me about the best places to visit.

The weather was turning a bit chilly, especially in the mornings, so it was the perfect time for me to rent a motorbike so I could ride around the town.

On my second day I went to the Luang Namtha Museum which had an extensive display about the lives of the many ethnic groups in the province, as well as old Buddha images. This was very informative and taught me a lot about the area, giving me a good grounding in its culture.

I then went to Vieng Tai and Vieng Neua villages to observe the lifestyle of the Kalom people, also known as the Tai Yuan ethic group, who provide homestays for visitors so they can share food and housing with the locals. There is a Sao Lak Ban (a village spirit pillar) and a Sao Lak Meuang (a district spirit pillar) as people believe they will protect them from bad luck.

I finished the day at the Poum Pouk Stupa in Nam Ngaen village on a hill in the northeast part of the Namtha Valley.

This is similar to That Luang in Vientiane but the original one was destroyed in 1966 when an American plane dropped a bomb on it. But you can still see the remains and a new monument now exists besides the older, ruined stupa, which was built in 2003. This is the perfect place to enjoy a green view of the town and the morning sunrise.

The next day I got back on my motorbike and headed out to the Luang Namtha stupa at Samakhixay temple on another interesting excursion.

I went down to the Nam Tha river bridge on the way to Meuang Sing and Bouamphieng. I like this small river and it’s good to come here in the late afternoon because you can watch the locals swimming, washing their clothes, picking riverweed to feed their livestock, watering their vegetable plots and, of course, fishing.

On the third day I rode out of town to Thongchaitai and Thongdy villages which were truly beautiful as they were surrounded by rice fields. They were an intense green and the largest rice fields I have seen in Laos, with hundreds of huts scattered across them. I spent a long and happy day breathing in the sweet aroma of rice and the fresh air.

Finding good food was not a problem, especially at night, because I really enjoyed the food on sale in the night market.

My visit ended with two days and a night in Phiengngam village, and it turned out I had saved the best for last. I had an unforgettable time watching people weave different kinds of handicrafts, learning about natural dyes and the weaving of cotton and silk fabric by the Tai Daeng and Thai Khao ethnic groups.

It was the perfect place to learn about these groups’ way of life.  I enjoyed every minute observing people working on their rice farms, catching fish at night and engaging in a raft of other activities.

I walked or rode my bike around the green hills and rice fields. If you want a true taste of life in Laos, this is the place to go and I advise you to visit before everything changes.

Namtha has a lot more to offer than the places I’ve described and there was so much I didn’t get to see, such as Nam Dee village, which is home to people of the Lanten ethnic group and has a picturesque waterfall. The best time to visit is from January to May when villagers make paper from bamboo, which is mainly used in ceremonies.

If I return to Luang Namtha province, I will certainly head for the Nam Ha National Biodiversity Conservation Area which was established in 1993.

This mountainous area stretches from the Chinese border through the middle of Luang Namtha, covering over 240,000 hectares and about 24 percent of the province.

In 2003 the Nam Ha National Bio-Diversity Conservation Area was designated as an Asean Heritage Site.

Nam Ha is contiguous with the 44,000 hectare Shiang Yong Protected Area in Yunnan, China. It is populated with ethnic groups and is close to the town so can be accessed in a day trip. This is what makes Luang Namtha an excellent trekking destination - authentic villages, nature and easy access, according to the Luang Namtha tourism department.

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