The Rugged Charm of the Top of the Land of a Million Elephants

LUANG NAMTHA, Laos — The rugged, mountainous terrain of northern Laos is beautiful. While well off the beaten track and not really on the road to anywhere else, Luang Namtha and Oudomxai provinces are well worth seeing.

Three Lao children in village
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Bumping Along Road Number 13

It’s bumpy, windy, and dusty. And since the road, known only as road number 13, is in much need of repair in many places and makes for such slow-going, you’ll have plenty of time to admire the view.

And what a view it is. The rugged, mountainous terrain of northern Laos is beautiful. Number 13 is one of the very few roads that pass through Luang Namtha and Oudomxai, the second- and third-most northerly of Laos’ seventeen provinces. And if there are few roads, there are even fewer trains—actually, there are none at all in Laos—so road is really your only option for getting around. The single-lane road winds its way along the tops of mountains and along ridges. In many places, it’s best not to look down if you’re nervous about heights, especially since this is not a place where the market for safety barriers is making anyone rich. Some of the road is paved, some isn’t–an annual casualty of the rainy season. So for many miles, you’ll be bumping your way along what amounts to a dirt track.

Every few miles a village straddles the road. The traditional wood and bamboo houses of the Hmong and Kmu sit only a few feet from the road, the Kmu houses on stilts and those of the Hmong low to the ground. And as the Lao government continues its efforts to relocate people from remote villages high in the mountains to new, ethnically integrated villages along the road, where they can more easily have access to basic utilities like electricity and running water, these roadside villages are getting more numerous. But as you pass the steep mountain peaks, you’ll also see in the distance many of the small, wooden huts used by farmers for tending and harvesting their mountain rice fields, often perched on impossibly steep mountainsides approachable only by foot. Integration and consolidation might be the government watchwords of the day, but modernization is still taken in baby steps.

Luang Namtha and Oudomxai provinces are solidly rural. Nevertheless, as remote from the bigger town as some of these villages are, several are quite prosperous thanks to money coming in from their massive northern neighbor: China. A particular specialty, well-suited to the lush terrain, is the growing of rubber trees, and thanks to the voracious appetite of China’s humming industrializing economy for rubber, many of the local villages in this part of northern Laos have become rich, at least by Lao standards.

So lucrative is the oozy crop that the provincial government has evidently decided to turn a blind eye to the creep of farming into the Nam Ha National Bio-Diversity Conservation Area, supposedly an ecologically protected zone. Hillsides have been cleared and rubber plantations encroach well inside the zone’s borders.

It becomes easy, after hours mount up traveling along road number 13, to take this combination of beautiful mountain scenery and small, traditional villages for granted. But it’s a striking contrast to the flat terrain of the town of Luang Namtha. Transliterated as “greater area of the River Nam,” translated as “”Royal Sugar Palm” or “Royal Green River,” and pronounced as “lwung namta” (the “h” of “th” is always silent), the town is a regional hub and a provincial capital–there’s even an airport, albeit not a big one. A shiny, new provincial museum building does double duty as a conference and meeting center. But despite some efforts by the few hotels in town to promote eco and adventure tourism, this is still somewhere off the usual beaten track for tourists.

Which is a shame, because that view along road number 13 is quite something.

Rice Huts on the Road in Northern Laos
By virtue of being on the main road, this tiny village had just recently had electricity installed (you can see the power lines here). Most of the other villages further from the main road didn’t (and don’t) have it. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Northern Laos Mountains
Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Village Dirt Street in Laos
Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Cooking Noodle Soup in Laos
Cooking noodle soup. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Hammer and Sickle Flag Laos
Flags on a government building in Luang Namtha. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Hut with rice field
A hut overlooking a rice field. The stilts help keep it out of the water when the field floods in the rainy season. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Boats on the River Tha (Nam Tha) in northern Laos
On the River Tha in Luang Namtha. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Lao children in village playing
Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Woven Bamboo Hut Detail
Woven bamboo forms the wall of a hut. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Bamboo rice hut in Laos
A rice storage hut. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Red chilis drying in the sun
Chilis (or Lao shrimp). Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Luang Namtha Mountain Rice Bamboo Huts
You can see three small bamboo huts perched on the steep mountainside. These are used as bases for growing mountain rice. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Lao boy with spinning top
Winding up the spinning top. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
A bamboo hut used for rice storage. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Crossroads Town in Laos
A town at the crossroads. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Northern Laos Mountainous Landscape
Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Northern Laos Village
A local village. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Woman Sorting Rice in Northern Laos
Husking rice. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Village on hillside in Luang Namtha Province
Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Old Gas Pumps in Laos
A local gas station. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
River Weed at a Lao Market
River weed for sale at a roadside market. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Northern Laos Blue Mountains
Blue haze over the mountains. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
50th Anniversary Sign Commemorating Lao Police Formation
A sign commemorating the 50th anniversary of the formation of the Lao Police. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Luang Namtha Roadside Market
A roadside market. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
House in village in Luang Namtha Province
A bamboo hut overlooking a rice field. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Morning Mists on River in Luang Namtha
Morning mist on the river Tha in Luang Namtha. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Children playing in Lao village
Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Children in a village in Luang Namtha province, Laos
The older kids look after the younger kids. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Lao children in village playing with spinning top
Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Village Children in Northern Laos
Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Lao kids in village
Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Bamboo Bridge Over a Creek in Northern Laos
A bamboo bridge. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Lao boy using knife to carve spinning top
Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Some of the rugged mountains. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Boy carving a spinning top in a village in Luang Namtha Laos
This boy was using a machete to carve up a piece of root into a top, which they spun with a stick and string. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Group of Lao children in village
Some local kids had wandered over to see the foreigners. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Firewood Cart in Northern Laos
Wheeling some firewood down the mountain. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel

More About Luang Namtha Province

  • Luang Namtha Province is located in the northwestern part of Laos, bordering China and Myanmar.
  • The province is home to the Nam Ha National Protected Area, a biodiversity hotspot spanning over 2,224 square kilometers.
  • Luang Namtha is known for its ethnic diversity, with over 20 different ethnic groups living in the region.
  • The province is a popular destination for trekking and eco-tourism, offering various trails and nature experiences.
  • Luang Namtha town, the provincial capital, serves as a hub for travelers and a base for exploring the surrounding areas.

Luang Namtha Province, situated in the northwestern part of Laos, is well-known for its ethnic diversity and stunning natural landscapes. With over 20 different ethnic groups residing in the region, visitors have the opportunity to experience a rich tapestry of cultures and traditions. The Nam Ha National Protected Area, a biodiversity hotspot covering over 2,224 square kilometers, is a significant draw for eco-tourists and nature enthusiasts.

Trekking is a popular activity in Luang Namtha Province, with numerous trails offering varying levels of difficulty and terrain. The region is committed to sustainable eco-tourism, providing travelers with authentic and responsible travel experiences. The provincial capital, Luang Namtha town, serves as a convenient hub for visitors, offering accommodations, restaurants, and access to surrounding attractions.

What’s Nearby to Luang Namtha Province

  • Nam Ha National Protected Area: A large conservation area with diverse flora and fauna, offering eco-tourism and trekking opportunities.
  • The Luang Namtha Stupa: An impressive golden stupa located on a hill overlooking the town.
  • Ban Nam Dee Waterfall: A picturesque waterfall accessible by a short hike, with swimming and picnic areas.
  • Traditional ethnic villages: Numerous villages throughout the province where visitors can learn about local customs and traditions.

How to Get to Luang Namtha Province

  • Luang Namtha Province is located in the northwestern part of Laos.
  • The nearest major airport is Luang Prabang International Airport (LPQ) in Luang Prabang.
  • From Luang Prabang, travelers can take a bus or arrange private transportation to Luang Namtha town, which takes approximately 6-8 hours.
  • Within the province, local transportation options include tuk-tuks, songthaews, and bicycles for hire.

What to Know Before You Go

There is a small airport in Luang Namtha, but in general, this isn’t somewhere you just turn up on a whim. There are some tourist lodgings, but in general, it doesn’t have a lot of infrastructure in place for foreign visitors. Much of the people coming in and out of the area are related to the Chinese companies in the area. Of course, being off the beaten tourist track definitely has its appeal.

Dive Deeper into Laos In These Books

If you’re looking to explore Laos more deeply on the written page, here are some books worth a look.

Another Quiet American: Stories of Life in Laos, by Brett Dakin

This memoir recounts the experiences of the author as he works for the Lao government in the early 2000s, providing an insightful look at the country’s culture, people, and the challenges faced by a developing nation.

Another Quiet American: Stories of Life in Laos
  • Dakin, Brett (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)

Ant Egg Soup: The Adventures of a Food Tourist in Laos, by Natacha Du Pont De Bie

A culinary travelogue that explores the rich and diverse cuisine of Laos, following the author as she samples various dishes and learns about the culture and traditions surrounding Laotian food.

Ant Egg Soup: The Adventures Of A Food Tourist In Laos
  • Hardcover Book
  • Bie, Natacha Du Pont De (Author)

Bamboo Palace: Discovering the Lost Dynasty of Laos, by Christopher Kremmer

This historical travelogue follows the author’s journey through Laos as he uncovers the history of the lost royal dynasty and the impact of the Vietnam War on the country.

Laos: A Journey Beyond the Mekong, by Ben Davies

This beautifully illustrated travelogue explores the diverse landscapes, culture, and history of Laos, providing a comprehensive and engaging look at the country.

Laos: A Journey Beyond the Mekong
  • The Best Picture Book on Laos in its second edition
  • All color photographs, portrait 25.5 x 27 cm, 132 pages

A Short Ride in the Jungle: The Ho Chi Minh Trail by Motorcycle, by Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent

In this adventurous travelogue, the author embarks on a daring motorcycle journey along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which passes through Laos, providing insights into the country’s history and the challenges faced by modern-day Laos.

A Short Ride in the Jungle: The Ho Chi Minh Trail by Motorcycle
  • Bolingbroke-Kent, Antonia (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)

The Ravens: The True Story of a Secret War in Laos, Vietnam, by Christopher Robbins

This memoir recounts the experiences of American pilots who secretly participated in the covert war in Laos during the Vietnam War, offering a unique perspective on the conflict and its effects on the people of Laos.

Mekong: A Journey on the Mother of Waters, by Milton Osborne

In this travelogue, the author journeys along the Mekong River, which runs through Laos, exploring the history, culture, and natural beauty of the region.

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Travel Advice for Laos

You can find the latest U.S. Department of State travel advisories and information for Laos (such as entry visa requirements and vaccination requirements) here.

The British and Australian governments offer their own country-specific travel information. You can find the British Government's travel advice for Laos here and the Australian Government's here.

Health & Vaccinations

The CDC makes country-specific recommendations for vaccinations and health for travelers. You can find their latest information for Laoshere.

General Information on Laos

The CIA's World Factbook contains a lot of good factual information Laos and is updated frequently.

  • Official Name: Lao People's Democratic Republic
  • Population: Approximately 7.9 million (2023 est.)
  • Area: 236,800 sq km
  • Capital: Vientiane
  • Official Language: Lao
  • Government: Single-party socialist republic
  • Chief of State: President Thongloun Sisoulith (since 2021)
  • Head of Government: Prime Minister Phankham Viphavanh (since 2021)
  • Legislature: Unicameral National Assembly
  • GDP (nominal): $19.57 billion (2021 est.)
  • GDP per capita (nominal): $2,643 (2021 est.)
  • Currency: Lao kip (LAK)
  • Major Ethnic Groups: Lao (53.2%), Khmou (11%), Hmong (9.2%), other (26.6%)
  • Religions: Buddhist (64.7%), Christian (1.7%), other (2.1%), none (31.4%)
  • Time Zone: Indochina Time (ICT), UTC+7

Laos originated from the ancient Lao kingdom of Lan Xang, which was founded in the 14th century under King FA NGUM. Lan Xang was influential for 300 years, extending its reach into present-day Cambodia and Thailand, and over all of modern-day Laos. After declining over centuries, Laos was ruled by Siam (Thailand) from the late 18th century to the late 19th century. Later, Laos became part of French Indochina after that. The present-day Laotian border with Thailand was defined by the Franco-Siamese Treaty of 1907. In 1975, the communist Pathet Lao took control of the government, ending a monarchy that lasted six centuries and installing a strict socialist regime that was closely aligned with Vietnam. Laos began a gradual and limited return to private enterprise and the liberalization of foreign investment laws in 1988. Laos joined ASEAN in 1997 and the WTO in 2013.

David Coleman / Photographer

David Coleman

I'm a freelance travel photographer based in Washington DC. Seven continents, up mountains, underwater, and a bunch of places in between. My images have appeared in numerous publications, and you can check out some of my gear reviews and tips here. More »