two little Laotian girls wearing striped T-shirts and looking into the camera
Southeast Asia

A destination without crowds: north Laos

If you like to travel off the beaten path and you cannot stand a huge amount of backpackers, then I have a secret destination for you: north Laos.

I heard someone saying that there are no more undiscovered places in southeast Asia. I have experienced on my own, that this is not true. I went to places in Laos that haven’t been visited by tourists in weeks, or maybe even months.

I saw authentic villages, authentic homes, authentic families. Saying ‘authentic’, I mean people who have almost no influence from the globalized world. I visited a village, where the only tool of communication with the outside world was a cable telephone, which only worked in one specific spot in the village. 

Underlying this all: Laos has been one of my favorite destinations ever. 

Traditional village in Laos
Small village in Laos

People of Laos

The most amazing thing in this country is its people. There are two main groups of people, according to my experience (I know I shouldn’t put people in one box, but it is just to give you an idea of what I experienced. You might see it completely different and of course I know, that I’m generalizing).

The first group are the people who live in a society, that we would call standard nowadays. They live in a normal house, they have phones, tv, go to school, go to a pharmacy and speak Laotian. Those people are the friendliest and most hospital people ever. They loved to chat with me (or to try to chat), they smiled, they were interested, etc. They do not care about you being a tourist with money. They care about you because you are their guest.

Two women from the tribes in Laos

Then there is the second group, which fascinated me. Those are the people of the tribes. People who live in the way how they used to live years and years ago. People who dress in their original cloths, people who speak the tribal language, people who do not go to a pharmacy because they have their own medicine, people who have their own beliefs and their own rules. Those people were not very open to me. They didn’t really want to talk to me and they actually didn’t pay me much attention. But, I loved them. I loved them because of all of this I just mentioned.

Smiling woman in Laos selling vegetables
A woman with a pipe in Laos
Portrait of a smiling woman in Laos

The language is not a barrier,

it is a door opener

Once I crossed the border from Thailand and entered this new country, I realized I’m in ‘trouble’. No-one spoke English. Coming from Thailand it was a big difference. Thailand is so touristy and locals know, how to make business with their visitors, so in general, everybody speaks English there. But Laos is different. You will hardly meet someone on the street who speaks English.

So, from day one I started to learn basic phrases in Laotian. I always had a small piece of paper with me and I tired for example to order my food in the local language. Sometimes I tried to ask the locals, ‘how do I say this, or how do I pronounce that…’. And this ‘technique’ was an amazing door opener. People smiled, people wanted to chat with me. I was welcomed. They even gave me food for free. They called their friends to meet me. We were all having lots of laughs, even if we actually couldn’t communicate much.

Karolina Poloca and Laotian people

Places to visit in north Laos

My itinerary was different from the one that most of the tourists do. This is also why I didn’t meet many other travelers along the way.

Highlight 1: Luang Namtha

I crossed the border from Thailand to Laos in Huay Xai and instead of taking a boat like everyone else to Luang Prabang, I took a bus to Luang Namtha – to my first destination in Laos. Luang Namtha is a small town, with few hotels and tourist offices, because from there you can explore the jungle and visit some local communities during guided walks. Besides that, there is a nice little night market with exotic food, like bugs and other insects 😉

In Luang Namtha I booked 3 days tracking into the communities, which included one night in a homestay and one night in the jungle. The hike itself was boring, there is not much to see, because everything is covered by the forest. But my three local guides were incredible. All of them came from different communities and they were telling me everything I wanted to know about the tribes, about their life, about food, etc.

They picked up fruits on the way and then they cooked in bamboo plates, which they also made on the way. They built a tent for me and my group, which was also made out of bamboo. We slept in those tents, in the middle of the jungle and next to a beautiful and wild river. The other day we visited some local villages and I could take some pictures of people who live there.

Camping made of bamboo leaves
Coffee in bamboo caps
Bamboo pots

Highlight 2: Muang Sing

The next days I rented a scooter and made my way up north to Muang Sing. This village is very close to China and has a big amount of different tribes. I wanted to see more of the tribes. It was about 2-3 hours ride from Luang Namtha through the beautiful green region, with many small communities on the way. In Muang Sing itself there is nothing. There are no tourists. Well, I met one couple from Europe. That is it. I did a loop through small villages and I met many beautiful local people. It was hard to communicate with them, coz many of them don’t even speak Laotian, so my piece of paper was useless, but anyway I have seen few real and authentic villages.

In Muang Sing there is an incredible food market. They sell there literally everything. Have a look at the pictures.

Cow head for sale at the market in Laos
Different animals for sale at the market in Laos

Highlight 3: Muang Ngoy

The trip to get to Muang Ngoy was a journey itself. I had to take a boat on the river, which took 6 hours instead of 4. The boat got broken on the way few times. We also had to go out from the boat few times because of the low water level in the river or because of the dam which was on its way.

I was wondering about the TIME. I realized that TIME has another meaning in Laos. It just affects people who work on their field, but it has nothing to do with the TIME that we have in Europe. I buy a ticket, they say the journey will last 4 hours, in the end it lasts 6 hours and no-one complains. Because I paid for getting me to a place X and they did it. I didn’t pay them to do it in 4 hours. That is the difference there.

Muang Ngoy is beautiful. It is surrounded by rivers and mountains. It is quiet. It is fascinating. It is a place where you definitely must go. It has few restaurants and many bungalows, but it is actually just one main unsealed street, besides there is not much happening. There is one amazing hike, up to the mountain, which is behind the town. The hike took me 2 hours to get to the top, it was very steep but totally worth it

Main street in Muang Sing
The view at Muang Sing

Highlight 4: Nong Khiaw

This little town is just a short boat ride from Muang Ngoy. I booked a bungalow next to the river. This was my absolute favorite. I was hanging around on my terrace on the hammock looking at the river, playing some music on my ukulele, writing in my diary and enjoying life. I had one of the best times of my life exactly in this place. It was so simple and so peaceful. I wish I can go back there one day.

Nong Khiaw is, again, a tiny village, with few hikes and some nice local restaurants. There are also other travelers around, so you probably will not be alone. 

Woman walking on the bridge in Nong Khiaw

Highlight 5: Luang Prabang

Okay, I admit, Luang Prabang is touristy. But it is a great place to meet other travelers and chat about the journey while having a few beers. For the majority of the people Luang Prabang is the most northern destination of their journey through the country. For me it was the most southern point.

There are many small boutiques and you can shop for a few local souvenirs there. You can go to the food market or just walk around the historic center and visit some beautiful old temples. The highlight of Luang Prabang is the morning alms giving ceremony, so if you are there, check it out. Another thing to do in Luang Prabang is to go for a day trip to a stunning waterfall called Kuang Si. Plan at least 3 hours on the spot.

Feet of Monks in Luang Prabang during the ceremony
Kuang Si Waterfall Laos

I spent one month in Laos and I left this special country with sadness. But what stays it is the memory and some pictures which I took along the way 🙂 Click on the image in order to extend it.

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