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By: Bernie Rosenbloom
Nothing but a choppy green ocean of mountains flowed as far as I could see. Our viewpoint, Nam Phae Village in north-western Laos’ Luang Namtha Province, presented an uninterrupted vista stretching to the Golden Triangle and Myanmar. And though the forested sea took our breath away, the 2,094-metre climb to our lookout was easy. We rode in a van.
But isn’t Lao tourism about the great outdoors and helping poor villagers? That endless canopy hid hamlets of some 20 distinct ethnic groups, rivers and streams, waterfalls, caves, and rare wildlife. Women still weaved intricately patterned textiles on looms. Men scoured the jungle for food, medicinal herbs, and bamboo for handicrafts. Surely it takes a multi-day excursion to experience this side of Laos.
Well, yes and no. Yes, Luang Namtha’s Provincial Tourism Department, with support from the Asian Development Bank’s Sustainable Tourism Development Project (STDP) offers more than 20 treks with overnight village stays. All follow a community-based tourism (CBT) model that guarantees locals directly benefit. In fact, residents run the show, acting as custodians of the attractions and trails.
Responsible Roadside Tourism
So how does my drive along Laos’ paved Route 3 connecting Thailand to China via Bokeo and Luang Namtha Provinces get blacktopped in responsible tourism? By hitting the STDP-developed “Tea Caravan Trail: 10 Highlights in the Northwest Mountains”. A diverse line-up of attractions line The Tea Caravan Trail – Lao Route 3 – which follows an ancient trade route that winds from Bokeo’s Mekong riverside Houei Xai Town through the mountains to Luang Namtha Town and the Route 13 turnoff to Yunnan.
At the trail’s southern end stands Houei Xai’s old French colonial garrison, Fort Carnot. The northernmost highlight, Nam Dee Waterfalls, tumbles down Luang Namtha Town’s outskirts. In between, we followed paths to Bor Kung Nature Park’s springs, wandered to 700-year-old Vat Mahaphot Temple, crept around Nam Eng Cave, and stopped at ethnic villages producing rattan basketry, bamboo paper, and hand-woven clothes. The 180-km drive only took a half-day, but plan on spending time at both ends and along the way to really explore the route.
The Tea Caravan’s 10 Highlights
My objective was to leave the hordes coming to Houei Xai from Thailand and clambering to Luang Prabang-bound boats. I was looking for something new.
1. Fort Carnot
Rik Ponne, who oversees STDP-Laos, warned me to walk quickly through the fort’s gate, as refurbishment of colonial France’s 110-year-old garrison was not complete. Still relatively well-preserved, the sentinel overlooks Houei Xai, the Mekong, and Thailand, and the eastern and western quarters remain intact, as do the southern and northern watchtowers. Tunnels in two corners once led to outside bunkers, and rifle racks still hang on the wall in the western barracks, which is being developed into a museum.
2. Nam Chang Handicraft Village
A 15-km drive north landed us at a school where Lanten women were making strong bamboo paper. One group was grinding young bamboo with sako tree leaves into a pulp, while another crew worked at barrels boiling the mix into a paste, which they spread on framed cloth screens, and sun-dried on racks. The village’s paper-makers are experimenting with various natural dyes, as demand in the world market for this coloured product is on the rise.
3. Don Chai Visitor Centre
A further 50 km in the increasingly higher mountains delivered us to Don Chai, the gateway to the Nam Kan National Protected Area and its “Gibbon Experience”. However, I was more interested in the roadside Bokeo Arts and Crafts Centre with its shop selling the Hmong’s embroidered fabric wall hangings, and woven Tai Lue coasters, placemats, tablecloths, curtains, cushion covers, and bedspreads. I bought a pair of rattan-wrapped dried gourds used for carrying drinks.
4. Nam Phae Viewpoint
Blue skies blessed our caravan as we left Bokeo and started climbing through Luang Namtha’s Vieng Phoukha District. We crossed the Ngo and Teun Rivers and reached Ban Nam Phae about 25 minutes after leaving Don Chai. As the Tea Caravan Trail’s highest point, Nam Phae does not disappoint, with a crystal-clear vista of forested mountains to the Golden Triangle and Myanmar. Not without handicrafts, Nam Phae women crochet shoulder bags from a forest vine.
5. Bor Kung Nature Park
Our next stop…Vieng Phoukha Town and the 18-hectare sacred forest behind the district visitor centre with its slate of tours. We followed trails along Shrimp Stream (Bor Kung) and its clear fresh water’s abundance of fish, crabs, and sizeable prawns, before swimming in the nearby spring-fed stone pools. The STDP plans to help transform the visitor centre into a district museum and small market, develop more nature trails with interpretive signs, and set up a campground.
6. Vat Mahaphot
This nugget near Vieng Phoukha Town took me by surprise. I was expecting an old temple and found the remnants of a 700-year-old civilisation. We inspected the ruins of Vat Mahaphot and the ramparts of a vine-covered city that thrived through the 1700s as an important trading post between China and Siam. Earthen kilns used to make bronze drums (kong bang), now on display at the Luang Prabang Province Museum, also dot the site.
7. Nam Eng Cave
Fifteen minutes after re-entering the van, we parked at Nam Eng Cave (Tham Kao Rao). The elderly caretaker greeted us, led us a few hundred metres to the cavern’s entrance, fired up a generator, and turned on the lights to one of northern Laos’ longest mapped underground labyrinths. Though the passageway is narrow in spots, we easily passed between limestone columns to inspect the inner chambers’ stone-rimmed wet pools with cave pearls. The STDP is planning a restaurant and market at the 30-hectare site.
8. Nam Ha Visitor Centre
Ban Chaleunsouk, some 20 km south of Luang Namtha Town, opens the door to many of the STDP-developed, community-based treks in the Nam Ha National Protected Area. I wasn’t crossing that threshold, but for lazy travellers like me, Ban Chaleunsouk’s Khmu people offer overnight homestays, guided forest walks, and one-day moderate treks to a Khmu and Lanten village with excellent mountain vistas. When completed, the STDP-supported visitor information centre will include a restaurant, covered picnic tables, and a retail market.
9. Vieng Neua Cultural Village
Just before reaching Luang Namtha Town, this 250-household ethnic Tai Yuan village houses a large traditional community centre used for weddings, meetings, and other important events and ceremonies. Vieng Neua villagers offered us khai paen, a semi-spicy riverweed snack, but time didn’t allow us to enjoy their music and dance performance and cooking class.
10. Nam Dee Waterfall
We accomplished nine of the 10 highlights in just one day, leaving the Nam Dee falls as part of a private tour of Luang Namtha’s environs, led by Souksan Phakasy, the provincial tourism marketing director. We mounted motor scooters for the quick ride to Ban Nam Dee (Good Water Village), an ethnic Lanten community with a trail that zigzagged across tiny bridges and up stone steps to a rocky flume gushing into a pair of natural swimming pools beneath a picnic pavilion. Then we bought a fish for Souksan’s family lunch, to which he invited me.
The Lao-Asian Development Bank’s Sustainable Tourism Development Project (www.stdplaos.com) supported the research and writing of this story.