Trekking in Northern Thailand is well established on the
tourist itinerary and as such is both well organised and over-crowded.
Northern Laos offers similar experiences with fewer tourists,
although of course numbers are now on the rise as the lure
of tranquil landscapes and remote hill tribe cultures works
its magic on the traveller circuit.
Treks are typically one to three days in length and have
to be undertaken with a guide. Trekking guide is a popular
profession in northern Laos and government schemes ensure
guides are well-trained and proficient in English. Expect
to marvel at the sight of luminous green padi fields, sprinkled
with tiny wooden storage huts on stilts, while shadowy limestone
hills loom behind. Treks are sweaty, yet stimulating, and
the opportunity to stay as a guest (and as a potential purchaser
of locally-made handicrafts) in a hill tribe village is still
novel for both trekkers and villagers alike.
Where and when to go
A small, sleepy village in the very north of Laos, near the
borders to China and Myanmar (Burma), Muang Sing is
fast being established as a popular base for trekkers. If
you are heading north purely to do some trekking (and can't
handle the thought of taking another bumpy ride in the back
of a pick-up truck!), you could always stop further south
at Luang Nam Tha, where treks are easily organised.
Muang Sing is more picturesque in itself, however, and is
well worth the extra effort.
The highlands provide some respite from the heat in the dry
season, but the landscapes are at their most lush and vibrant
during the rainy season. If trekking during the winter months
remember to pack a jumper for the cool nights.
What to bring
Wear light and loose clothing with sturdy boots and thick
socks. Bring a sarong or large towel to wash in - often
the only place to wash in the villages will be very public,
and there will be plenty of curious children around! As with
all trekking, always carry a basic first-aid kit. Mosquito
repellent is a must, as is sun block, a hat
and plenty of water. Bring some money (in kip) to buy
souvenirs and bottled water. And of course, don't forget your
Do's and Don'ts
Recent monitoring of the effects of tourism in Laos has led
to the government issuing a set of guidelines for trekkers,
which are clearly displayed in all the hotels and cafes in
Muang Sing. Here are a few basics:
- Show respect - greet people with the Lao 'wai' greeting
(palms pressed together in front of your face and a small
bow) and smile.
- Ask permission before taking photographs.
- Dress modestly. Remember, long loose clothing will also
offer you more protection against the sun.
- Give away money, even to children - it encourages begging
and may be construed as insulting.
- Be over-familiar with either hosts or friends. Kissing and
embracing are kept private in Lao culture and overt displays
of affection may shock and offend people.
- Gesture with your feet or touch a person on the head. Not
all hill tribe cultures are Buddhist, but at the very least
your Lao guide will not take kindly to such disrespect shown
towards his beliefs.
As part of the infamous "Golden Triangle", opium
and marijuana are both grown and used in this area of Laos,
but the recommendation is not to get involved with them. The
government have tightened their laws regarding penalties for
foreigners who purchase drugs, not to mention the locals who
sell them. Besides which, do remember that while you may be
tempted to experiment for a few days whilst on holiday, the
locals live here all their lives and are likely to be influenced
in many ways by tourists, who are becoming their main source
The population of Laos is relatively small, but is incredibly
diverse, with 68 different official ethnic groups. Highland
areas are dominated by the Hmong and Mien groups,
with smaller groups of Karen, Akha, Lisu, Lahu and
Lolo people also featuring. Each tribe has its own distinct
customs, celebrations, dress and language. Mostly nomadic
or semi-nomadic, they are historically border people whose
roots lie not only in Laos but also in China, Tibet, Thailand,
Myanmar, Cambodia. Many do not speak Lao, so it is best to
find a guide who can speak the local dialects.