Traveling in Asian cities is an undeniable thrill. The food, the nightlife, the chaos and the people make wandering through Asia’s big cities like Hanoi and Bangkok an endless maze of discovery. But, for many of us, experiencing the true soul of a country means getting out of the cities and getting into the more rural places. Especially for countries like Thailand and Laos, which house vast hills and deep jungles, experiencing these places means further understanding the country. A fun and exhilarating way to experience the hills, jungles and forests of Asia is to trek through them. Trekking tours are often led by a guide who speaks the local language and can easily set up lodging and meals. While some travelers prefer to trek alone, traveling through rural parts of Asia with a guide is a very good choice. Being able to communicate with other locals through an interpreter makes the experience all the richer.
Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai have become trekking hot-spots over the past decade. Travelers are drawn to these two Northern Thailand cities because of their easy access to trekking routes and jungle trails. For the truly adventurous who want to surpass Northern Thailand and find a trekking route that is largely untouched by tourists, there is one great option: trekking in Northern Laos.
One of the main starting points for a trek Northern Laos is the city of Phongsali. Phongsali is a tiny town nestled high in the hills near the Chinese border. The town has a distinctly sleepy vibe: there are few cars or motorbikes, dogs wander around the streets and the few restaurants in the town close around 9 pm (a warning to late-night snackers!) The town, due to its proximity to China, is home to many Chinese settlers who came to Northern Laos to start businesses. Chinese snacks and beer have an equal representation to Laos foods in the restaurants.
Getting to Phongsali:
Getting to Phongsali is not easy and is not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. The journey entails a 9 hour+ bus ride from Oudomxai, a busting and slightly-mediocre Chinese trading town. The local bus station is close by most of the guesthouses, so catching transport North is easy and cheap. Be aware that if there aren’t enough passengers who buy a ticket, the bus company will simply cancel the route until the next day. This means you should be ready to spend a day or two in Oudomxai.
The bus ride from Oudomxai takes a full day, with several stops included for restroom breaks and food. The road is mostly un-paved, which makes for a very bumpy ride. The roads are very windy, but the scenery is spectacular. The road passes by dozens of tiny traditional Laos villages dotted with small thatched-roof huts. The rest stops are quick, but the small vendors are equipped to satisfy hungry travelers. Most sell packets of sticky rice (white and black), grilled meat (anything from chicken to rat) and soft drinks.
Once you arrive in Phongsali, you’ll need to take a motorbike taxi into town, or else walk with your bags for about 30 minutes.
Arranging the Trek:
There aren’t many tour agencies (maybe one or two) in town, but it’s easy to find them and arrange your trek. Hiring a trekking guide is highly recommended for treks in this area. Most need to be accessed by a boat, which is difficult to figure out without a guide. The guides know the best starting and stopping points for the boat and can arrange for a boat to pick you up and take you back to town after the trek is over. Trekking solo in this region would be extremely difficult and is only recommended for highly experienced trekkers and mountaineers. The trails are often not clear because of the light foot-traffic and getting lost in Northern Laos would be easy, and would likely have disastrous results. You are likely going to be paying about $25 USD per day for a trek in Northern Laos with a trekking guide. This should include transportation, the guide’s services, food along the way and lodging during the trek. It is also highly recommended that before you depart, you leave anything of value with the hotel. Trekking guides in this area have been known to steal money from trekkers’ bags in the middle of the night.
*Travel Tip: Leave your valuables at your hotel before you depart!
Trekking in Northern Laos is sometimes strenuous, but is also an amazing window into the cultures and the hill tribes would call these hills home. Depending on the length of your trek, you will see between five and fifteen different Akha villages. The Akha people, who inhabit the Northern Laos hills, are also spread out between Myanmar, China and Northern Thailand (Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai area).