Northern Laos: A Secret Gem
I first visited Laos in 2002 and that trip remains one of my best memories as a traveller. Therefore I was a bit skeptical about going back, torn between a wish to share this splendid discovery with my family and the worry to find out that tourism might have spoiled the place. It turns out that after spending ten days exploring Northern Laos with my husband and two kids, I can once again list Laos among my top travelling destinations.
Vientiane is probably the most laid-back capital in Southeast Asia, a city to explore on a bicycle. We only stayed one morning but it was sufficient to stroll around the peaceful streets, visit the two main historical temples (Wat Sisaket & That Luang) and enjoy a nice coffee at one of the popular French bakeries.
Muang La is a tiny village on the Northern fringes of Laos. It can be reached by flying to Oudomxay (1h flight on Laos Airlines) followed by a one hour’ drive. The village is famous for hosting one of the most sacred statues of Buddha (Pha Chiao Sing Kham temple) and also one of the most exclusive lodges in Laos. The Muang La Resort is a secret retreat in one of the most secluded region of Laos. Its owner has built it with a great sense of respect for the local environment and population together with a wish to offer a unique experience for the guests. The five wooden villas (10 bedrooms) are sitting in a lush garden by a picturesque river. The open restaurant offers gorgeous views to the river and surrounding countryside. We had a fantastic three-nights stay enjoying the scenery, the delicious food, walks through the surrounding paddy fields and local villages, relaxing baths in the hot spring and invigorating massages.
But most of all we had a memorable experience driving up to the remote hills, trekking from villages to villages, encountering the different tribal peoples (Khmu, Hmong and Akha), discovering their traditional costumes, pristine habitat and ancestral usages. I can hardly remember travelling to such an isolated and untamed region. We were all struck by the extreme poverty in these villages. Our children were our best assets to communicate with the locals and they certainly helped us getting a friendly welcoming even in the Akha villages where people are so frightened when they see foreigners.
NAM OU RIVER BOAT TRIP & NONG KHIAW
It was a two hours’ drive on windy roads with spectacular views to reach Muang Khua where we boarded on a long-tail wooden boat. We sailed for five hours among dramatic sceneries, with limestone mountains, coming across water buffalos, children bathing in the river, fishermen dragging their nets… On our way, we visited a weaving village nestled in the rain forest: suddenly feeling as if time had stopped.
We stayed for the night in Nong Khiaw in a charming hotel by the river (Mandala Ou Resort). It was another three hours’ drive to reach Luang Prabang: I never got bored, trying to memorize every single detail of the fascinating landscapes (a bit harder on the children though).
Luang Prabang was a “coup de coeur” in 2002 and it struck me a second time in 2014! It is nestled at the foot of green mountains, in a valley cut by the Mekong and Khan rivers. It as a unique atmosphere: quiet, peaceful and harmonious. It is a city where you just want to stroll or bike around, enjoying every bit of scenery from the magnificent temples to the French-Indochinese colonial houses, the golden light illuminating the saffron tunics of the monks, the gracious figure of the palm trees… The city designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, benefits from a very strict building code and therefore it remains quite unspoiled by the developing tourism.
I was delighted to stay in Luang Prabang for three nights. Our hotel (Apsara) had a fantastic location on the quiet bank of the Khan river just a street down from the main road. We enjoyed our walks in the old city, the discovery of the many temples (especially Wat Xieng Thong), pauses at laidback coffee shops, tasty meals in charming restaurants, a walk up to Mount Phousi to admire the sunset, an early visit to the morning market, shopping on the main road, etc.
We also had an afternoon out to the Kouang Si waterfalls. It was a nice tuk-tuk ride through the countryside. The site is quite grandiose however very touristic. The children enjoyed the bears’ rescue center at the entrance of the park.
Our one day’ visit to the Elephant village was our kids’ reward for being such good little travellers. It turned out to be one of the big excitements of this visit to Laos for the entire family. The Elephant village, which also has two lodges for guests who wish to stay overnight, is located on a river’s bank in a gorgeous and quiet valley with breath-taking views to the mountains.
We all got to ride our own elephant, went for a long Elephant ride in the countryside, had a chance to bath with the Elephants in the river, fed them and learnt a lot about the efforts to protect the elephants in Laos.
Luang Prabang now has an international airport so you can easily fly to Hanoi or Bangkok.
We travelled at Christmas time and had the best weather, sunny and nicely warm. You should be aware that in the winter nights get cooler and therefore bring along something warm. There were no mosquitoes.
Hotel in Vientiane, Khamvongsa: http://www.hotelkhamvongsa.com.
Well-located and convenient little hotel. Avoid the rooms on the street (they are a NO GO).
French bakery in Vientiane: Le Banneton, on Nokeokoummane street.
Muang La Resort: http://www.muangla.com
Hotel in Nong Khiaw, Mandala Ou: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Mandala-Ou-Resort-Nong-Khiaw/138870809530540
Stunning location by the river and charming rooms. Quite noisy at night because of the neighboring roosters! Dinner and Breakfast average but with a fabulous view!
Hotel in Luang Prabang, The Apsara: http://www.theapsara.com.
Charming, large and comfortable rooms. Fabulous location. Good restaurant.
Restaurant in Luang Prabang, The Tamarind: http://www.tamarindlaos.com
A must. Excellent cuisine. Booking required. Cooking classes available.
Shopping in Luang Prabang:
OckPopTok: lao textiles from local communities and tribal peoples. http://ockpoptok.com
Anakha: Jewelry, home linen, clothes and handicraft. 9 Sakkarine Ban Vat Sene
Montagne: handicraft, buffalo horn jewelry. 14/6 Sissavangvong Road.
Elephant village: http://www.elephantvillage-laos.com