Discovering the ethnic minorities in Nam Ha Protected Area
One of the most exciting places in Laos is the Nam Ha National Protected Area in the northern province of Luang Namtha. It stretches from the Chinese border through the middle of Namtha province, covering over 2.224 square kilometres and about 24% of the Province. In 2003 the Nam Ha National Protected Area was designated as an ASEAN Heritage Site (Association of Southeast Asian States), the only one in Laos.
Nam Ha is contiguous with the Shiang Yong Protected Area in the Chinese region of Yunnan. Most of the Nam Ha NPA is covered in mixed deciduous forests, with mountains extending to the border and three major rivers flowing south until they reach the Mekong River. In addition to its natural beauty, the Protected Area is well known for being inhabited by various ethnic minority groups, including the Tai Lue, Tai Dam, Khamu, Akha, Lantaen, Lahu, Yao and Hmong.
What to see and do in Nam Ha Protected Area
The main activity in Nam Ha is hiking into the jungle to meet several ethnic groups. The local operators arrange different hiking, from a daily trip to 7 days or more with overnight stays in the villages. Another adventurous and exciting activity is the kayak tour on the Nam Ha River in the middle of the jungle, surrounded only by majestic trees and lush nature. Even kayaking excursions can last several days (from 1 to 4) with overnight stays in the various villages. The two tours can also be combined.
The activities can be arranged through the tour operators that you will find in the villages (Muang Sing, Vieng Phou Kha, Nalae, Long) on the edge of the Protected Area and the city Luang Namtha. Contact them in advance, so they can give you all the advice you need. For more information, go directly to the official Nam Ha NPA website. We organised our trek through Muang Sing Travel.
How to reach Nam Ha Protected area
The bases to visit Nam Ha Protected Area are the small villages of Muang Sing, Vieng Phou Kha, Nalae, Long, and the main city of Luang Namtha. The area we visited is Muang Sing. You first have to get to Luang Namtha by bus from Luang Prabang (or by plane from Vientiane) to reach the villages. The minivans to the villages depart from the small Luang Namtha bus station near the Lao Airline office, along the main street. Consider that all the activities can be arranged in Luang Namtha through the accreditated tour operator Phou Iu Travel.
If you are only interested in kayaking, stop in Luang Namtha or go to Nalae. Luang Namtha can be easily reached even if you are visiting Northern Thailand. From Chang Rai, there is a direct bus to Luang Namtha with the company Transport Co. LTD. Alternatively, travel to the border town of Huay Xai and from there take a minibus to Luang Namtha. If your time is limited, we recommend you contact a tour operator to optimize times and visits because moving around Laos still takes time and is not that easy.
When to go
The best time to visit Nam Ha and Laos is from November to February, during the dry season when temperatures are more relaxed. The temperatures in this mountain area are quite different from the rest of the country because they drop considerably at night, even reaching zero. During the day, the temperature is around 25 degrees. March and April tend to be the hottest months, but daytime temperatures hardly exceed 30 degrees. The rainy season in Laos runs from May to September, but since Nam has a mountainous area with forests, showers can also occur in the dry season.
Where to sleep
You will find small and basic accommodations in the villages near the Protected Area and Luang Namtha, especially along the main street. We slept at Amandra Villa in Luang Namtha and Phou Iu II in Muang Sing.
Our hike in Nahm Ha
We decided to spend a day and a half in Nam Ha P.A. to have an interesting hike in the middle of the forest and visit some villages to meet some of the ethnic groups that populate this area. On the first day, the trek in the forest was quite challenging, especially the first hour when we walked along a very steep path in the middle of the dense forest. Once at the top of the slope, the trail gradually levelled off, becoming more accessible.
The local guide arranged an excellent packed lunch based on rice and vegetables, which we ate sitting in the middle of the jungle. After about 4/5 hours of hiking, the landscape began to change. The dense vegetation gives way to banana plants and some areas where rice is grown. Entirely out of the forest, we begin to glimpse the first villages of the Yao ethnic group. Everything is essential: wooden houses with tin roofs, livestock and poultry along the road, some carts pulled by cows and donkeys and many children happy to see new faces. Mass tourism is fortunately far away in this place, and you can experience highly genuine moments of uncontaminated local life.
In the late afternoon, we arrive in another Yao village – Sai Lek – where we spend the night. The villagers prepare an excellent dinner based on traditional rice and noodle dishes seasoned with meat and vegetables. Before going to rest, the village women perform a typical Yao dance wearing traditional costumes. The day was exciting, we left Muang Sing around 9 (the trek started around 9.45), and we reached the last village around 16.30.
After breakfast with a cup of tea and fresh fruit at dawn, we pack our backpacks to go on our trip. Today the hike is only on a flat path amidst rice fields, banana plantations and rubber trees. The first village we reach is the Pakha, inhabited by the Akha ethnicity. What strikes us are the fetishes placed right at the entrance to the village, a symbol of animist religion. The environment is poor. Large wooden huts, pigs, poultry, some old motorcycles and many children happy to welcome foreigner new faces.
The village is semi-deserted because most villagers work in the fields or look after the cattle. The Tai Lue Buddhist ethnic group populates the next village of Done Chai. Here, the appearance is of greater well-being compared to other villages. Brick houses, lots of livestock, beautiful courtyards, means of transport and a fairly large temple with a Buddha statue. In Done Chai (around 1 pm), we end our hike in this beautiful area of Laos, still little known that we strongly recommend not to be missed!