Hill tribe trekking in Laos

No doubt you’ve heard of Chiang Mai and Sapa and the excellent opportunities these popular destinations offer for trekking through gorgeous scenery and hill tribe villages but have you ever considered Luang Namtha? The answer to that is probably ‘no’ as this region of Laos remains blissfully under-visited by travellers eager to explore better-known offerings in Thailand and Vietnam. But I’m here to tell you why Luang Namtha should be your first port of call.

Cultural Diversity and Rural Appeal

Nestled in the mountainous northern region of Laos close to the Chinese border, the province of Luang Namtha sits in a fertile rice-bowl valley dotted with villages which remain practically untouched by modernity. Home to more than 20 ethnic groups including the Lantan, Yao, Akha and Khoui tribes, the province offers a unique insight into the country’s cultural diversity as well as an off-the-beaten track experience for intrepid travellers. Often overlooked by backpackers crossing the border between Thailand and Laos making a beeline for Vang Vieng, and practically ignored by holidaymakers more interested in Southeast Asia’s bigger names, Luang Namtha delivers everything you’d expect of hill tribe trekking without the crowds and with more authenticity. Think remote villages, sprawling rice terraces, forested hills and scenery that easily competes with the better established trekking destinations in the region.

An Akha village in northern Laos, a prime hill tribe trekking destination
An Akha village in northern Laos, a prime hill tribe trekking destination

The sleepy town, and provincial capital, of Luang Namtha serves as the ideal base for exploring the area with a handful of guesthouses and backpacker-oriented cafes and restaurants. It’s divided into the old and new town, the former a dusty road that intersects small homes and fields of grazing buffalo and the latter where you’ll find the main tourist facilities including a number of tour outfits that offer superb hikes in the Luang Namtha National Protected Area (or NPA for short). Here’s where you can spend anywhere between one and seven days trekking through pristine jungle, visiting hill tribes and spending the night in local homestays. You can visit villages where centuries-old traditions are still maintained, ancient animist spirits still worshipped, and local dialects spoken, where villagers still dress in traditional clothes and houses are built from bamboo and wood with carved posts and gateways to ward off evil spirits. Agriculture is the main source of income in this region with some villages specialising in particular handicrafts that are then sold at markets in the larger market towns.

The further you trek into the mountains, the more you’ll encounter villagers who still greet the sight of a foreigner with curiosity and wonder, unlike other parts of Southeast Asia where you’re more likely to be greeted with a sales pitch. There’s always the concern that visiting communities like this can turn into some sort of ‘ethnic zoo’ experience but the majority of the outfits operating in Luang Namtha are advocates of the growing trend for ‘eco-tourism’ with portions of the money made going back into the local villages that are visited on the treks.

Hill Tribe Trekking in Laos versus Thailand and Vietnam

As Southeast Asia’s premier hill tribe trekking destinations, Chiang Mai and Sapa receive a steady stream of travellers but their popularity compromises what drew people here in the first place as nondescript hotel buildings hog the skyline and business-savvy hill tribes capitalise on our love for the familiar, selling Coca-Cola and other big brand names along the more popular trekking routes. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with local communities making a buck from tourism but if you’re looking for something a little less ‘tainted’ then Luang Namtha is a safe bet.

A young girl and her sister in the province of Luang Namtha in Laos
A young girl and her sister in the province of Luang Namtha in Laos

To put it into perspective, Thailand received 29.88 million visitors in 2015 while Vietnam received 7.94 million. Compare this to Laos’ 4.68 million and you can see that despite its many attractions, Laos still remains relatively off the radar. Add to the fact that many visitors to Laos stick to a fairly well-trodden route that takes in Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Vang Vieng, and it’s safe to assume that only a fraction of Laos’ yearly visitors even make it to this region. What this means for travellers interested in experiencing more of Laos is the satisfaction that you’ll be seeing something a little different and, in all likelihood, as part of a really small group – chances that you’ll bump into other hiking groups when you’re out there traversing the hills are minimal. The flip side of this still quite humble tourism industry is that Luang Namtha doesn’t offer the same quality of accommodation options as Chiang Mai and Sapa with just a small selection of rustic guesthouses, generally featuring bungalows made of wood and bamboo and simply furnished.

Yet hill tribe trekking isn’t the only thing on offer here and like its more popular counterparts, Luang Namtha offers plenty of other outdoor adventures. When you’ve returned from your trek you can partake in kayaking on the Nam Tha river, hire a bike and explore the countryside that surrounds Luang Namtha town, check out the morning market, relax in a herbal sauna or take a dip beside the Ban Nam Dee waterfall.

It’s hard to persuade people to ditch the tried and tested options in favour of lesser-known alternatives so by all means, head to the hills of Sapa and Chiang Mai, and when you’re ready for something a little more unadulterated, make Luang Namtha your next destination of choice. Just remember you heard it here first.

Inspired to visit Luang Namtha yourself? Contact our tailor-made holiday specialists who can help put together your perfect Laos trip with hill tribe trekking and plenty more. And if you’ve been lucky enough to visit Luang Namtha already or are thinking of doing so, get in touch! We’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.

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