Nan the hard way to Laos
BANGKOK, 1 September 2011 – Nan province in North Thailand aims to promote travel to neighbouring Laos and even to Vietnam as part of a long-term strategy to build gateway tourism.
But officials insist they are not interested in turning the mountainous province, bordering Laos, into a transit zone with little or no benefits for local communities.
“We need to focus on gaining a two-night stay from tourists before they move on,” explains Nan Tourism Business Association president, Utai Tantrakul, who acknowledges the highway link to Luang Prabang is going to be a big draw card for Nan in the future.
Yet for those who want to push the frontier of their travel experiences it represents an adventure over territory that can be accurately described as off-the-beaten- track
Since December 2008, a few hardy tourists have been crossing the Nam Ngeun checkpoint to Laos’ Saiyabouli province and that has opened an alternative route to Luang Prabang using road transport and river boats.
Tourists can now visit Nan and travel across Laos, Vietnam to China and if the trend continues it could turn Nan into a transit point rather than a tourism cul-de-sac.
“In the future, the four countries — Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and China will enjoy a steady flow of international tourists on the route through Nan,” the association president explains, who also notes that an official tourism campaign has still not been established.
“It is tricky and we have to fully understand how we want to promote the gateway position appropriately. We are afraid that we will be like Mukdahan that is now just a transit station for tours to Vietnam.
“Locals gain no benefit at all from tourism. Ideally we hope that tourists heading for Luang Prabang as the final destination will spend a couple of days in Nan. Perhaps we can promote an exchange of tourism between the two points,” Mr Utai explained.
Tour operators in Nan confirmed that October to April, there are now weekly departures to Luang Prabang mainly Thai travellers . There are very few foreign visitors crossing the border at Nan.
According to the Immigration Bureau’s statistics, during 2010, there were 3,401 foreign visitors and 8,344 Thais crossing the border at the Huay Kon checkpoint. The immigration bureau recorded 7,142 Lao border pass holders entering Thailand, while 5,173 Thai border pass holders going out of Thailand.
The journey starts with a 138-km road trip to Huay Kon, the border town in Chalerm Prakiat district and travellers continue on a dirt road for 48 km from Nam Nguen, the border town in Saiyabouli on the Lao side to Pak Huay Kan where travellers canl board a boat to Luang Prabang covering 110 km in around five hours.
Mr Utai said it was better to travel by bus and boat as covering the entire trip by road vehicle is very tiring. Road conditions are poor especially during the rainy season. It requires off road pick-ups and sturdy four-wheel drive vehicles to cover the entire distance
Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam is about 410 km northeast of Nan passing Muang Nguen, Pakbeng, Hongsa, Udomxay, Muang Khoa and crossing the border at Sop Hun/Tay Trung checkpoints. Despite, the relatively short distance it takes over 10 hours on unpaved mountain roads. It is a two-day transfer.
To China, the road is better as the journey follows the Asian highway – R3A from Pak Beng to Luang Namtha and crosses the border at Boten to Meng La in China and continue to Jinghong, the capital city of Xishuangbanna autonomous prefecture in Yunnan province.
“We discussed with the Transport Department about providing an international bus services to Saiyabouli, but the problem is the roads are very hilly and unsuitable for standard buses,” Mr Utai added.
Currently, Nakhon Nan Tour provides a daily van service from Den Chai train station in Phrae to Nan that then continues to Huay Kon. On the Lao side, there is a bus service to Pak Huay Kan and taxi boat to Luang Prabang making it feasible although tiring trip for adventure travellers.