Side trips on the road to Luang Prabang
IN 2009 the sleepy village of Huay Kone in Nan province woke up one morning to international status. It gained a border checkpoint, an international one that opened the road to neighouring Nam Nguen in Laos.
Despite the fanfare, it did not mean much for villagers who had been crossing the border to trade for generations.
They viewed tourism as a novelty and the opportunity to take the shortest route to Luang Prabang was far beyond their trade horizons.
Sure, the even more sleepy Sayabouly province in Laos’ westernmost territory, bordering Thailand welcomes more travellers, but most of them transit as fast as possible to or from Luang Prabang.
This relatively low-key checkpoint happens to be on the shortest route to Luang Prabang, by far the most popular destination in Laos.
Sayabouly, overshadowed by the internationally renowned UNESCO World Heritage town, does have a few tourist attractions to showcase for visitors who bother to stop. But to really cash in on tourism the province needs a massive upgrade of roads so tourists can reach the attractions in comfort.
Last month, I backpacked from Bangkok to Luang Prabang through Huay Kone. Originally I was given the assignment to check out the shortest route to Luang Prabang for a report in TTR Weekly.
It turned out differently as I made a side trip to Sayabouly’s annual elephant festival and it was a much longer diversion than I expected.
The journey is rough once you pass the Muang Nguen checkpoint and embark on the route to Sayabouly and Luang Prabang.
You have to depend on public transport. Private company transport is scarce, but at least one can found near the bus station offering charter van service.
Generally, there is just one daily non-air conditioned bus travelling the route and sometimes it gets overtaken by a mini truck leaving a dust storm that covers all the bus passengers from head to foot.
Based on my first-hand experience, this is an off-the-beaten-track route only for trail toughened travellers. They need to be prepared for hardships and have a flexible mind set. Approached in that fashion the trip is doable, but there will be moments when you curse the roads and transport services.
Booking a service through a tour operator, which will involve buying a package including accommodation and transport, is an option that takes the pain out of the overland experience to a point. They have quality cars and mini-buses, but whatever wheels you choose the road is still the same . There is a heavy price to pay in discomfort and jolts.
Hit the road
The Sayabouly bus departs Muang Nguen, the border town in Laos, at around 0900 to 1000 (no exact time in this part of Laos. It all depends on the driver’s decision when he thinks he has enough passengers to warrant a trip).
The early bird catches the worm in this instance. If you leave Bangkok the night before, make sure you arrive in Nan before 0500 so you can catch the first van taxi from the bus station to Huay Kone checkpoint departing at 0500 (Bt100 fee).
You will arrive at the checkpoint at 0800 just when it opens. Normally the immigration clearance is not long unless there is a Thai group. There is only one immigration counter.
Behind the Thai immigration, there are mini truck taxis (song taew) that will take you to Muang Nguen bus station. They drop you off at the Lao immigration and wait for you to check through. So much for the much flaunted one-stop shop immigration checkpoints of the Mekong Region.
The bus fare is Bt40, or 10,000 kip, for the 4 km transfer to town. In theory, the service runs all day. Again no exact timing.
But I did not know there is just a single bus to Sayabouly and it leaves in the morning. I miss it.
My bus arrives in Nan at a 0615. The second van departs at 0800 and gets me to Huay Kone at 1100 and by the time I am Muang Nguen at 1200, my bus to Sayabouly has long gone.
Ticket staff sold me a fare (100,000 kip) and said I could leave in the afternoon. How and when he did not explain. I was hopeful, because I wanted to be in Sayabouly on the same day so as not to miss the grand opening of the Elephant Festival.
I made myself busy changing some Thai cash to kip and buying a SIM card to stay connected. Roaming on a Thai number works but is costly.
At the station, a crowd of locals are queuing for buses. No vehicles leave unless they are packed full.
You could pay a charter rate and get the bus to yourself, but the best advice is to go with the flow on this.
If you are stuck in Muang Nguen, there are some guest houses and there is a new hotel just out of town, going towards the border(one storey building, looks clean from the outside).
Another option is to stay overnight in Nan, do some sightseeing and then head to the border at dawn. You can visit some attractive temples in Nan or join a cotton tour in Muang Nguen organised by its tourism office (details follow). Hongsa is another choice that you can opt for to enjoy an elephant experience, waterfalls and cotton weaving villages.
Fortunately I can leave town. After almost a two-hour wait, I board a private car with another paying passenger.
The ticket seller managed to send us with a local resident who is going to Phiang, in Sayabouly located a short distance after the provincial town.
Earning a fare for the drive home makes the car owner happy. If they are visiting town and want to get a fare, drivers pop by the bus station to see if there are any stranded passengers. It’s like hitch hiking but organised better.
The first 43 km of road from Muang Nguen to Hongsa is being widened (some parts are as wide as four lanes) and asphalted. Half of it is almost complete. This improvement is being paid for by the new power plant and an open pit lignite mine being built in Hongsa by Thailand’s Banpu Power. Tourism is a by-product.
About 90 km from Hongsa on the way to Sayabouly the road degrades into a narrow gravel trail with potholes and some very deep sections eroded due to heavy rains.
The road winds through Pha Xang mountain range passing through tiny villages. It is the dry season so the view is not very refreshing, but when it rains the area is a lush green with superb views. There is a plan to improve the road, but until then it takes about two and a half hours to cover the remaining distance.
Sayabouly is a cul-de-sac province trying to establish itself on the tourism map. The annual elephant festival held for the last six years helps to promote the area. Sayabouly possesses the largest elephant population of the country (75%) and most of them work in the logging industry.
The festival is held in rotation between Sayabouly’s three districts–Sayabouly, Paklai and Hongsa. Around 70 elephants –grown-up and babies – were on duty at this year’s event held in Sayabouly, 17 to 19 February.
During the three-day event, visitors can ride elephants and watch a parade of elephants in regalia on the mornings of the second and third day.
In addition, visitors can watch them bathe and devour a massive buffet.
As for the evenings, we just mingle at a fair, do some shopping for local handicrafts sold by provincial tourism departments from all over the country that rent booths near the main stage. The festival is rounded off with a firework display plus stage performances.
If planning to visit Sayabouly during the festival, book accommodation in advance as there are only 500 rooms in hotels and guest houses in town. During the festival, the provincial tourist office also provides home-stay options, which is a very good choice if you can speak the language.
Apart from the festival, Sayabouly Provincial Department, through foreign aid from the Asian Development Bank and Germany’s GIZ, have developed attractions around the province, based on its rich natural assets and culture.
Sayabouly PTD produces tour programmes ranging from day visit to three- day/ two-night trips featuring temples, spas, river cruise, ethnic villages, caves and home-stay. Because these tours will be guided by tourism office staff, they have to be arranged in advance with locals who need to take a break from farm duties.
Also, the tour programmes are sold by the first Sayabouly-based private tour company, Sakura Tour, but it is all in a very early stage.
Details of the programmes and prices are shown at sayaboulytourism.com. You can do-it-yourself, too, visiting temples, spa centre and a reservoir, but you will still need the tourism office to arrange tuk-tuk transport.
In Sayabouly there are 16 temples in 16 villages, but two are prominent. Within a walking distance, in the town centre, next to the Governor’s Building, is Sisavangvong Temple. This is a high ranking temple with the abbot a respected member of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. The temple is also the only one in Sayabouly that has a school for novices and monks.
The oldest temple is Sibounheuang Temple, about 3 km from town. It was originally built in 1456 and houses a 7 metre-high reclining Buddha, which is the largest in the province.
About 5 km to the west is the Nam Tien Reservoir. Visitors can dine at two restaurants– one is a cruise boat at anchor and the other a restaurant, built on the banks of the reservoir. Kayak and water cycle activities are possible.
Located 19 km out of town on the banks of the Houng River, or Nam Houng, is the Houay Namsai Mecicinal Plant Preserve and Herbal Spa Centre that opened in 2010 and is now gaining popularity.
It was once a protected area with over 100 medicinal plants and later developed with the help of Sayabouly Tourism, ADB and GIZ as a community-based tourism project.
Today it is owned and run by Houay Kaeng villagers. The spa centre comprises of an open-air riverside pavilion for massage, herbal steam rooms, kayak services, an exhibition area that tells the story of the village and area, dining facilities (cooking service requires advance booking). Also, visitors can take a dip in the Nam Sai stream that connects to the Houng River and claims to have medicinal benefits.
Trails through the forest preserve are easy to follow. Medicinal plants are named, but for more information you need to talk to Mr Chanti, a Hmong herbal practitioner of the Houay Kaeng village. He is on stand-by to guide you through the area, but he only speaks Hmong or Lao so you will need a translator. A guidebook in English will be published soon.
It is possible to have a picnic near the river, but you will need to bring your own food as villagers sell just drinks and a few snacks.
Another attraction is the Elephant Conservation Centre, supported by the non-profit organisation, Elephant Asia.
Situated on the banks of the Nam Tien reservoir, the ECC is home to a herd of 10 Asian elephants, including three babies. It is designed to promote conservation of an endangered species through ecotourism. The Centre’s primary focus is help reproduction within the remaining captive elephant population through the implementation of a breeding programme.
The compound also has a mahout training school, a hospital (first one in Laos) and a museum. International teams of elephant vets offer free veterinary care services and an emergency unit.
The visit needs advance bookings with a choice of a day trip or a two-day elephant encounter – learn to ride, learn to issue commands, take the elephants for a bath. There is also a multi-day experience to learn mahout lifestyle.
The money you pay sustains the Elephant Conservation Centre and its residents, while 5% supports elephant conservation projects elsewhere in Laos.
Simple but comfortable accommodation comes in the shape of twin-share huts with balconies overlooking the reservoir. Bathrooms are shared. Another option is the Tai Lue house bought from the revered elephant master in Hongsa that has five rooms.
In Muang Nguen, it is worthwhile to take a tour of the Ban Bi Mi a cotton producing village. Normally the tours only show the weaving process so to see villagers making cotton thread from scratch is different and interesting.
In Muang Nguen there is a big Tai Lue settlement that migrated from Xishuangbanna in China’s Yunnan. They make up 80% of the 16,000 population.
Tai Lue is noted for its cotton production and weaving.
The cotton of Muang Nguen is famous for its organic production – no chemicals are used from the cotton planting stage to production of the thread. This organic cotton is sold in bulk as thread, but there is also a trade in finished fabrics that goes to Vientiane or Luang Prabang mainly to designer shops.
When you are in Muang Nguen, you will see many households weaving in front of their homes. They weave and sell in the local market or at the Saturday market in Huay Kone.
Bi Mi villagers have produced cotton for generations. Cotton is grown in the hills in the area and brought to the village in its raw state.
At Ban Bi Mi, visitors can see all the steps in production from raw cotton to finished fabrics and thread.
Villagers gather at a single house to give tourism related demonstrations starting from deseeding; fluffing; rolling; pulling threads and winding into a roll ready for use.
The next step is to wash and dye. The villagers demonstrate how to wash and soften the thread to absorb colour and how to make natural dye as well as dyeing methods.
It is amazing to know that when dyeing, there is a spirit in the thread and if it runs away, the colour will not stick beautifully on the thread Then the dyer has to perform a ceremony to call back the spirit.
Also, all the dyed thread has to be dried in a fenced area to prevent anyone from disturbing the process.
After the cotton tour, the tourism officer will take you to a Prathat Madkham, or the golden flee stupa situated on a low hill. The stupa itself is not much to write home about, but it has a fun legend linked to the foundation of Muang Nguen.