how to spend 48 hours in Luang Namtha, Laos: where to eat, what to see, + where to stay

Luang Namtha is the main city in Luang Namtha Province. Confusing, I know. It’s mostly known as a stopover town for backpackers crossing over from Thailand into Laos. However, I was recently invited by Luang Namtha Tourism with a small group of travel writers and bloggers to promote tourism in northwest Laos. After spending a week in the province and seeing all its main city has to offer, I feel like Luang Namtha is highly underrated as a destination for cultural and ecological tourism.


HOW TO GET THERE

One of the difficulties of traveling throughout Laos is the lack of connectivity between destinations. My suggestion would be to visit this area of Laos after crossing over the Thai border and working your way down to the south of Laos. Alternatively, you can visit Luang Namtha making your way up the north of Laos and then cross into Thailand {or travel on to Myanmar}. Mapping your journey this way will make it easier to get from place to place.

BY BUS: The public bus system is actually very straightforward. Most major “cities” and towns have a bus depot. The simplest way to buy a ticket is directly from the bus depot. Every time I’ve ridden a bus in Laos, someone speaks good enough English to get me to the right bus. On the off chance no one is helpful to you, every bus has a sign in its window that lets you know its intended destination in Lao and in English. Bus tickets from Luang Prabang to Luang Namtha start at 100,000 kip {USD $11.65} and the journey is roughly 8 hours.

BY MINIVAN: At the same bus depots where you can purchase a bus ticket, you can also purchase a ticket on the minivan. The minivans have limited seating a book up earlier than buses. They make journey times quicker, since vans can move quicker than buses, but they aren’t always more comfortable. My minivan experiences have always consisted of tight seating,

BY AIRPLANE: Luang Namtha has a tiny airport that gets incoming and outgoing flights from the capital city of Laos, Vientiane, through Lao Skyway. You can book on Lao Skyway website, but it’s actually cheaper to book at the airport in advance, since they only except the local currency. Booking your tickets online means you could have poor exchange rates and fees from your card as your purchase will be converted into Lao kip and processed that way.

HOMESTAY BEDROOM IN LOCAL LAO LUM VILLAGE

HOMESTAY BEDROOM IN LOCAL LAO LUM VILLAGE


WHERE TO STAY

There are 10 hotels and 95 guesthouses to choose from in Luang Namtha, meaning there will be something to fit your budget and needs. I had the privilege of staying in a variety of accommodation types arranged by Luang Namtha Tourism. I’ve gone ahead and outlined each below.

Zuela Guesthouse

Zuela Guesthouse is located right across the road from the Luang Namtha night market on the main road of the town. Every stay includes breakfast, fresh towels, free WiFi, and clean linens.

The bathrooms were fairly standard for Asia, meaning the shower sprays the toilet and there is a tiny mirror above the sink.

There are no TVs in the bedrooms, as the owners hope to preserve Zuela like a traditional Lao guesthouse with fewer Western bells and whistles. Zuela offers a money exchange at their reception, as well as water refills.

Thoulasith Guesthouse

Thoulasith Guesthouse is more similar to a standard Western hotel than Zuela, with televisions in each room and showers separated from the toilet by plastic curtains.

On my first stay at Thoulasith, the internet was non-existent. However, on my second stay, just days later, I was streaming Netflix late at night after dinner and a hot shower.

The windows in the rooms gave each a lot of light. I also appreciated that Thoulasith Guesthouse offered sunrise yoga on their rooftop, which I took advantage of on my last morning in town.

LOCAL HOMESTAY in ban vieng NEUA

Just outside of the Luang Namtha are ethnic villages offering homestay experiences in lieu of typical hostels and guesthouses.

Homestays are great for those who wish to experience the most authentic version of local life in any area. They are also a fantastic way to contribute directly to the local economy. Picking a homestay as accommodation also helps to distribute the wealth to outlying communities. I stayed at Khamkeo Homestay as arranged by Luang Namtha Tourism. However, you can arrange your own homestay by booking with one of the many travel agencies in town.

My homestay surprisingly had WiFi, but others in our group stayed at homes without it. My bed was ridiculously comfortable and the homestay family was, in typical Lao fashion, warm and welcoming despite their neither of us speaking one another’s language.


WIFI: ✓

HOT SHOWER: ✓

FRESH TOWELS: ✓

INCLUDED BREAKFAST: ✓

LAUNDRY SERVICES: ✓

COST: USD $25

WIFI: ✓

HOT SHOWER: ✓

FRESH TOWELS: ✓

INCLUDED BREAKFAST: X

LAUNDRY SERVICES: ✓

COST: USD $25

WIFI: depends

HOT SHOWER: depends

FRESH TOWELS: ✓

INCLUDED BREAKFAST: ✓

LAUNDRY SERVICES: X

COST: ~ 150,00 KIP/ USD $17


DAY 1

NOTE: After arriving to Luang Namtha, whether you are arriving on the bus or by plane, you will want to rest. Day 1, for the purposes of this itinerary, starts after your first night’s sleep.

BREAKFAST AT ZUELA RESTAURANT

Kick off Day 1 with breakfast at Zuela Restaurant, located at Zuela Guesthouse. Those staying at the guesthouse get breakfast complimentary. However, you’re welcome to grab breakfast at the restaurant even if you’ve chosen to stay somewhere else. The pastries here are Western-style, so you’ll be able to carb-load with cinnamon rolls, bagels with {real} cream cheese, pancakes with fruit, croissants, etc. Zuela also serves both traditional Lao and Western breakfast meals like noodle soup and English breakfast. I ate the pancakes two mornings in a row as a guest of Zuela and was both full and satisfied, however, I also went here after my press trip had ended on my very last morning in Luang Namtha and grabbed a bagel with cream cheese. After endless noodles soup and sticky rice, the bagel hit the spot! Highly recommend this for those looking for high-quality pastries on the go.

LUANG NAMTHA VALLEY LOOP CYCLE TOUR

LUANG NAMTHA VALLEY LOOP CYCLE TOUR

cycle the LUANG NAMTHA VALLEY LOOP

BICYCLE RENTALS START FROM 10,000 KIP

Get acquainted with the town by spending a good chunk of the day bicycling around the Luang Namtha Valley Loop. The loop is approximately 20 kilometers roundtrip. The earlier you start the sooner you’ll be out of the heat. The loop will take you around the city, highlighting the Luang Namtha Museum, Luang Namtha Stupa, and Nam Mat Mai, an Akha village where you can drink tea with the village elder and learn about the traditional costume. I highly recommend breaking up the bike loop with…

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LUNCH + WEAVING DEMONSTRATION AT PHAENG NGARM HANDICRAFT CENTER

ADMISSION IS FREE- OPEN FROM 8:00 AM – 6:00 PM

Not only is the food fresh from the garden at Phaeng Ngarm, but it’s also a beautiful setting, away from the typical views of Luang Namtha city. The handicraft center is on your cycling loop through the valley, in the middle of lush rice fields on a dirt road, so it’s a convenient place to grab your midday meal. Lunch is homemade by the women who run the weaving and handicraft center. Every meal is made with produce from their garden on the property. Visitors to Phaeng Ngarm can also try their hand at the intricate weaving that the women who run the center do. I’m pretty sure I made a total mess of the delicate strings, but I heartily tried my best.

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make bamboo paper WITH THE LANTEN PEOPLE IN NAM DEE VILLAGE

BOOK A VILLAGE TOUR THROUGH THE LUANG NAMTHA TOURISM OFFICE

The Lanten people, one of the 42 ethnic minorities in Laos, use their many skills to create streams of income for their communities. At Nam Dee Village, just a short drive or tuk-tuk ride from Luang Namtha, the Lanten people are known for their indigo dye and bamboo paper. A visit to the village will allow you to see a very different way of life, and will give you the opportunity to try making bamboo paper for yourself {spoiler alert: I sucked at it}. In Nam Dee Village, there is a famous waterfall. Unfortunately, if you are visiting in the dry season {roughly late March-early June}, the waterfall will be more a trickle.

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DINNER AT LUANG NAMTHA NIGHT MARKET

The night market in Luang Namtha offers a variety of food, both vegetarian and carnivorous, at ridiculously low prices. For example, the meal pictured below {which doesn’t include the food we couldn’t squeeze into the frame} was more than enough to feed six people and it cost us less than USD $10. There are no menus at the market and every vendor only accepts cash {like everywhere else in the country}. It will help you significantly to go with a local or have some general understanding of the food culture in Laos, so that you know what you are likely to get from each vendor. However, if you go alone and without prior foodie research, the experience is more of an adventure!

NOODLE SOUP IN LUANG NAMTHA FEATURING NAM + ISABEL

DAY 2

BREAKFAST AT Nang Tip noodle shop

Noodle soup is the staple breakfast for most people in Laos, so starting a morning with a bowl of hot broth and greens is a taste of local tradition. Nang Tip Noodle Shop is down the main street, between Zuela and Thoulasith Guesthouses. There is no menu at Nang Tip, other than the banner hanging across the top of the wall with photos of all five items sold. Each bowl only costs 10,000 kip and is a heaping portion.

HANDICRAFT STORE IN MUANG SING

HANDICRAFT STORE IN MUANG SING

YAO VILLAGE NEAR MUANG SING

YAO VILLAGE NEAR MUANG SING

MUANG SING MUSEUM

MUANG SING MUSEUM

HALF-DAY TRIP TO MUANG Sing VILLAGE

After you’ve eaten your breakfast, hire a car, book a tour, or brave tuk-tuk prices for a half-day trip to Muang Sing Village. Muang Sing is only 12 kilometers from the Chinese border, so the village has heavy influences from its northern neighbours. Muang Sing has a population of approximately 35,000 people and is home to 9 ethnic minorities. 60% of the population is made of the Akha people. People here make their income from banana farming and rice production, but they want foreigners to come learn about the ethnic diversity that exists in the area through tourism. Despite working closely with a German NGO to be setup for tourism, travelers simply are not coming. With the ever-increasing influence of China present, Muang Sing stands at high risk of losing its cultural heritage if tourists do not begin taking advantage of the gorgeous scenery and traditional activities that are waiting for them there.

In Muang Sing, you can:

  • Visit the Muang Sing Museum

  • Check out Wat Namkeo Luang

  • Explore Yao and Akha villages to see their traditional dress and handicrafts

  • Learn to make traditional Khao Soy from a master

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TRY LAO LAO WHISKEY at a HOME DISTILLERY

Just outside of Luang Namtha, locals distill whiskey from corn using a homemade system that involves husking the corn, drying it, soaking it, and then boiling it. These small distilleries only take 15 minutes out of your day and are located on your way back to Luang Namtha from Muang Sing. You’ll even get a taste of the whiskey before leaving {warning: it’s strong}.

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BAMBOO LOUNGE PIZZA
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DINNER AT BAMBOO LOUNGE

All the carbs I consumed at Bamboo Lounge felt like a well-earned treat after a week trekking, kayaking, and cycling. More to the point, I had a serious stomach infection in the middle of my trip that had me spending the starts of my mornings and the middles of my nights aggressively vomiting. To combat that, I was told it would be best for me to eat plain rice and veggies with as little chili as possible. Needless to say, the Chat Potatoes and Margarita Pizza I ordered was devoured.

This beautiful restaurant is plastic free— no straws and no bottled soft drinks. They also use cloth napkins instead of paper serviettes. The establishment hires ethnic minority women and offers them free English language classes and hospitality training so that they may earn fair wages in the tourism industry. It’s definitely a splurge to eat the Western food offered at Bamboo Lounge, but you can do so knowing your money is going to a place with a brilliant social mission.

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WHAT NEXT?

After some time in Luang Namtha city, it’s time to explore all the province has to offer. The highlight of my trip was trekking and kayaking in the Nam Ha Biodiversity Conservation Area with Discovering Laos. There are 8 different tour companies and 21 travel agencies throughout town to book your eco-tourism experience with. I have a blog post coming soon with all the details!


NEED HELP FINDING THE BEST OF LUANG NAMTHA? I’ve pinned places mentioned on the map below, including the tourism office, where you can get more information about the city!


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a 48 hour guide to Luang Namtha, Laos
a 48 hour guide to Luang Namtha, Laos