Luang Namtha – 8 days – 547 metres above sea level

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After 56 hours of travelling, we arrived on the Asian continent after leaving Montevideo and the South-American continent, two days ago.

It was in Chiang Rai that we started our stay in South-Eastern Asia. We spent a few days in this city in the North of Thailand to get some rest and get used to the 10 hours of jet lag. Then, we will go towards Laos, border country located at 100kms further away, up North.

Chiang Rai is a historic city, built in 1262 by the King Mengrai. During our first day, we walked in the streets of the city. Its architecture was not extraordinary but we enjoyed discovering the first Buddhist temples. This atmosphere was very different to the ones we had a few days before, at the opposite of the world. On our way, we saw the massive memorial of the king who founded the city. A few streets away, we discovered the second landmark of the town-centre, the beautiful golden clock at the round-about whereby hundreds of scooters were going around. During the evening, we welcomed Brigitte and Louis-Marie, Julien’s parents ; with Ghislaine and Gilles, a couple of friends.

The following day, we visited the Wat Rong Khun, also named as the “White Temple”. It was our first visit of a Buddhist temple. Unlike our thoughts, this temple is not a monument of the traditional architecture. Built on the land of an ancient temple, it was the modern work of the artist Chalermchai Kositpipat (also creator of the clock mentioned above). The beginning of the construction was in 1997. The architect has a style easily identifiable, with a trend to exaggerate the traditional Thai style. Like its name, the temple highlights this colour giving a majestic style. To be even more sparkling, thousands of littles mirrors have been embedded on the edifice. To enter in the main building, we climbed up the main stairs to cross the hell (symbolised here by dead hands coming out from the ground) and to span a pond where a big fish was going back and forth. In the gardens, figurines were hung on trees to keep bad spirits away. There were characters from “culture pop” such as Wolverine, Ninja Turtles, Avatars’ characters, … Even the building of the public toilets were covered of gold, from the sinks to the toilets.

We spent the evening at the night market, one of the most emblematic places and full of life, at dusk. There were souvenir shops and food stands. It was possible to taste the local specialties with, on stage, a duo of young singers playing guitars on an “Asian-folk” tune.

During our last day in Chiang-Rai, we discovered the surroundings of the city by scooter. Back to ride, but on a two-wheel vehicle for this time. After leaving the traffic jam of the city, we enjoyed again the happiness of riding on the roads of the countryside. We saw the first rice fields at the bottom of the mountains. There were no terrace fields, but it was already beautiful. At the top of a hill, we crossed a first village with bamboo houses built on stilts. On the little main square, the playgrounds were drawn. Obviously, there was a football field, but also a few badminton fields. In this area, the inhabitants were growing small pineapples on the steep hills around the villages. When we were there, it was the harvesting season, at its peak. Many baskets made of bamboo were alongside the roads. When it was not a pineapple brining some colours in the scenery, it was a big ox with a ring in its nose and impressive horns on the head, grazing peacefully around.

Ealy in the afternoon, we arrived at the Huay Mae Sai waterfalls, lost at the end of a small path going in a forest. We indulged ourselves with a swim before the young Thai joined us and who, to our great surprise, jumped in the water from the rocks with all their clothes on. On the way back to Chiang Rai, we did a quick stop in front of the temple of Wat Huai Pla Kung. Its white Buddha of almost 50 metre heigh (roughly) was overlooking all the valley.

The following day, we went towards the Laotian border. To get our visa more easily, we stopped on the way to make ID photos in a small shop alongside the road. This basic shop had a photographic material from the latest generation. Once arrived at the customs office, we got our stamps out of Thailand and we crossed by bus the bridge spanning the Mekong. (This bridge has been inaugurated in 2013. This is the fourth cross-border edifice which has been built above this river, separating both countries. Each bridge has the same name, which is “the bridge of friendship”). This was the first time that we saw this massive and famous river, wide of over 400 metres at this point and already so impressive.

On the other side of the river, we got our Laotian visas for 30 days, after filling the administrative formalities and paying $31. We spent the evening on the left side of the Mekong, in the Huay Xai city. To wake our legs up, we climbed up to the old military fort of the city. Built by French people, at the beginning of the 20th century, the Carnot fort was now deserted and full of plants, giving a specific atmosphere. To enjoy a nice view over the Mekong and the surrounding mountains, there was nothing better than climbing up to the top of the old watchtower.  For this, we needed to disregard the cracks of the stairs and the wooden floor of which boards were missing or full of moths. We went back along the riverside to enjoy our first “Beerlao”, the local beer which was perfect with the sunset. A particular moment made by the humidity and the relief of the surrounding mountains – a poetic atmosphere. As we couldn’t find enough scooters for all the team in the Houei Xai city, we decided to reach the city of Luang Namtha. A four-hour journey in a bus full of people to reach the starting point of our adventure with two-wheel vehicles in the North of Laos.

After spending the evening to find scooters and looking the itinerary for the next few days, we left early in the morning with our bags hung on our scooters. We went towards Muand Sing, 10 kilometres away from the Chinese border, before to go along the Nam Ma river on a track to reach the small city of Muang Long. We crossed many villages including wooden houses built on stilts. There was a delicious smell of coriander in the streets.

Once arrived in Muang Long, we found quickly a hostel, named here “guesthouse”, with a basic but sufficient comfort at an interesting price. I went exploring around with the hope to find a nice spot for a swim in the Nam Ma river. Alongise the river, I used the hanging bridge made of bamboo, which links the village to the fields. A group of kids were playing with a lot of happiness. Surprised to see a tourist coming on their playground, they set themselves a challenge to get closer to me. Amused by this situation, I went smiley towards them without a doubt before to go backwards when one of them was on the bridge too. With this little game, crossing this bridge long of 20 metres will take quite a few minutes until one of them shook hands with me to say “hi”. I finished crossing the river while the smiley kids were going back to the village. However, there was no nice swimming spot in the river. So, I went back to meet the group for dinner with many memories but without having a fresh swim. Led by a teenager group helping us to find our way, we finally arrived at the night market located at the end of a dark little street. We had dinner on small tables in the middle of a courtyard. Noodles and meat skewers, without being sure of the ingredients we were eating. Not used to talk to English-speaking tourists, it was quite hard to understand the merchants. Except the offal skewers, we loved tasting the local specialities in a welcoming atmosphere.

Early in the morning, we went back on our two wheels to continue our adventure. The previous day, Julien and Gilles have noticed a path to cross the mountain to reach Luang Namtha. After 20 kilometres of ascent on a winding and stony road to reach Nambo. Upon our arrival in this village at the summit of the mountain, people were stopping their activities to watch us, like aliens. Chicken were going around the scooters and the kids stopped to run after their tires to play, just to look at us with eyes wide open. We have been welcomed by Tom-Thi in the building used as the city hall and the school. This young man of 30 years old was speaking English very-well. He was employed by the government to take care of education and economic development of the village. We talked to him about his life, the daily life of the inhabitants and the constraints due to their isolation.

We went back on the path on the mountainside. We crossed fords and sometimes made our way through a rocky field. The landscape and the mist were glorious. Gilles, good pilot with a lot of adventure experiences by scooter on the Asian paths, was leading us. He was going at a fast-paced, giving no respite to some of us who were beginners on a scooter. But we didn’t stop and were happy of going through this “path” crossing the mountains. Back on the asphalte, we indulged ourselves with an ice tea and some snacks in a shop, before to ride 60 kilometres on a nice winding road to reach Luang Namtha.

Our stay in the North of the country ended by a resting day with, as the only activity, a 6-kilometre hike to reach the Nam Dee waterfall. To reach it, we crossed the nice village of Lao Huay. Their speciality was the production of paper from bamboo fibres. Located 500 metres after the last house, the waterfall didn’t have a lot of flow during this dry season. It was not very magic but we enjoyed this fresh break with a swim in a nice and relaxing part of this jungle.

Upon our return, we enjoyed our last dinner at the night market in Luang Namtha, with Dominique and Ghislaine, travelling in a fully equipped 4×4 who left Europe 5 years ago. Tomorrow, we will go by bus to Luang Prabang, a 7-hour journey towards South.

Where to have a drink?

Riverside Café

A nice covered terrace made of wood with a view over the Mekong. A quite place to enjoy a beer at the sunset.