Traveling the Namtha River allows you to see a way of life in S.E. Asia as it once was. You will travel along a river where large sections can only be accessed by boat. In route, you journey alongside the forests of the Nam Ha NPA and past riverside villages of the Khamu and Leu ethnic groups. There are scared caves along the way and a Buddha image in a cliff face. You'll stay in the village of the industrious boatmen and personally experience their way of life. It is a scenic two-day trip in an open slow boat whether going up or down the Namtha River. This may well be one of the last areas in Southeast Asia where this traditional lifestyle still exists. And this will change soon as roads are being built.
When arranging a boat it is helpful to know that the Namtha River can be divided into the upper Namtha and the lower Namtha. Most boatmen on the lower Namtha will only go as far as Muang Nalae. They are reluctant to go farther than Nalae as they are not experienced in navigating the rapids between Nalae and Namtha. Also during the low water months ( Feb- May) the boats may only run as far as Nalae. So, in the event that you cannot find a boat going all the way to Luang Namtha, go to Nalae where you will be sure to find another boat or bus to complete your journey.
The boatmen providing the best service are from the village of Ban Khone Kham. They run the entire length of the river and provide comfortable accommodation in their village. The boatmen from Ban Kkone Kham serve 95% of the travelers on the river.
There are many other boatman traveling the Namtha who are not come from Ban Khone Kham, however. Most are traveling short distances between nearby villages and others are traders selling and carrying cargo up and down the river. Taking passengers is an opportunity to make some money. But it is not be their main business. If they have other business or find a more lucrative opportunity they might try to sell their cargo - namely you - to another boatman. This business of selling fares to other boatmen is not as common as it once was but can still get quite messy and it doesn't happen with the boatmen from Ban Khone Kham. The new boatman might want to renegotiate the fare or may even try to sell you on to yet another boatman. So, if this is undesirable, make clear at the outset that you want a boatman who will take you the whole distance or at least as far as Nalae where you can easily arrange another boat or take a bus on to Luang Namtha. If this is the case, it might be a wise idea to pay 50% of the fare only at the end of the journey.
Due to the lack of regulation in Houeisai, arranging boat travel from Houesai can
be the most problematic. There are much fewer problems in contacting the boatmen and arranging good boatmen if you start from Luang Namtha. For more details on how to contact the boatmen see below.
Caution!! Fast boats are not officially allowed on the Namtha River. There have been numerous fatal accidents. We ADVISE AGAINST traveling by speed boat!
Always take the name the boatman and boat registration number in case you have any troubles. Report any problems to the boat station officials ( Boat Transport Offices).
Traveling up River from Houeisai (Houei Xai, Houay Xay, Houaysai, Houeixai, Houeisay, Houaysay)
Your first task in Houeisai is to find a boat.
Contact the Boatmen directly: At the moment there is no boat station where you can find boats traveling to Luang Namtha. But it is easy to find the boatmen. They camp to left the immigration boat landing below the restaurant opposite the immigration offices. Many of them wear shirts with "Namtha River Boatman" in English. The problem is that they don't speak English very well.
Namtha boatmen also stop by the B.A.P. Guest House to see if there are any people wanting to go up river.
Note: The middle (wo)men will take a commission for their services. If they take too large a commission and give too little to the boatmen, you may find that the boatmen do not provide a very good service or they may try to supplement their income by taking on more cargo and passengers.
Piece of advice: Be sure to ask for a written record both in Lao and English that states exactly how much you've paid and what you have paid for and what the terms of the boatman's service are.
For advance reservations you can also contact Green Discovery at firstname.lastname@example.org . A minimum of 5 days advance notice is required for boats departing from Houeisai. Green Discovery Luang Namtha is operated by The Boat Landing Guest House.
Take a speed boat or slow from Luang Prabang/Pak Beng and get off at Pak Tha. The large boats traveling between Luang Prabang and Houeisai all stop at the Pak Tha check point.
Pak Tha is the mouth of the Namtha River - where the Namtha meets the Mekong. The Boat Station in Pak Tha is a check point for the boats traveling up and down river. The Pak Tha Boat Station office is up the right bank of the Namtha and the left bank of the Mekong upriver from the town of Pak Tha. Here you will find be able to boats going up the Namtha.
Start your journey at the boat landing in Ban Khone about 1 kilometer from the Luang Namtha Airport. Here you will find The Boat Landing Guest House, which can provide current information on boat travel and river conditions. Contact the boat station opposite the guest house to arrange your trip. If some one from the Boat Landing does give you assistance in arranging your travel you might want to consider expressing appreciation The Boat Landing does not receive a commission from the boatmen.
For those wanting to go to Luang Prabang, you will need change boats in Pak Tha as the boats from Luang Namtha travel to Pak Tha and Houeisai. The boats to Luang Prabang depart from Pak Tha between 11:00 AM and 1:00 PM.
This trip usually involves travel by speed boat, which we do not recommend as it is undoubtedly the most dangerous mode of transport in Laos. Also trying to negotiate with the speed boatman can be exceedingly frustrating. But due to the popularity and beauty of the trip we provide information.
In Houeisai you can find the speed boats for upriver travel at the northern boat landing about 3 km out of town. Speed boats seat between 6 - 8 people ( depending on body size and luggage). The cost of hiring a speed boat from Houeisai to Xieng Kok is around 3,500 - 4,000 THB. The trip takes around 4 hours either direction. Xieng Kok is in Muang Long District of Luang Namtha.
Occasionally, you can find a slow boat departing from Houeisai or Ton Pueng for Xieng Kok. There are slow boats based near Xieng Kok which normally transport cargo between Xieng Kok and Chiang Saen, Thailand two to three times a month. They have been known to take passengers. You might be able to contact the boat in Ban Sa. One boatman's name is Keo. There are also many slow boats in Xieng Lahp 15 kms up river from Xieng Kok on the Burmese side. Don't cross to Burma but you may be able to talk to them from a boat in the river or call them to the Lao side.
Chinese freighters also ply the river. Presently they travel between Jing Hong, China and Chiang Saen, Thailand. Some of the freighters load and unload in Xieng Kok. We have reports of travelers successfully negotiating passage on the Chinese boats for around 400 THB to Ban Mom - half way to Houeisai. In the future the Chinese freighter traffic may go as far as Luang Prabang.
It is possible to take these Chinese freighters the whole distance between Chiang Saen and Jinghong but you are not allowed to disembark in Laos or Burma.
Another option is to take the take the boat to/from Ton Peung. Ton Peung, opposite Chaing Saen, has a bus service to Houeisai and is a short distance down river from ban Mom. This might be a cheaper alternative.
The boatmen on the Namtha River are mostly traders and farmers. There is no regular passenger service between Luang Namtha and Pak Tha/Houeisai. Most of the traffic on the river is short distance traffic from one town or village to the village or town. Long distance traffic is almost strictly for foreign travelers. In order to make the trip possible the boatmen require a certain price to charter the whole boat. The boat can take 4 - 6 people and the charter price can be split among all of the passengers..
Some villages up and down the river have a market day once a month. In the local language these markets are called "Laad". These are set days for each village ( see schedule below). If you happen to be traveling on the river on the days proceeding and following one the bigger markets, it is possible to find traders willing to take an extra passenger. So, it may work out that on the day before market you find a trader going to a village and then the day after the market find another boat willing to take you the further along the river.
Market Days on the Along the Namtha River
Some times you may be able to negotiate the price a bit. You will need patience when negotiating. It is also helpful if you have plenty of time. Having a sense of humor can help get the price down and make the experience more pleasant for everyone.
The attendant at the Luang Namtha boat station can give the most accurate information on boat prices and you help you contact the boatmen. Call +856-86-312-014 for more information.
Prices and traveling times vary with the water level and fuel costs. The boat size and the amount of cargo also affect the price. Boat capacity varies between 4 - 10 passengers. Sometimes low water levels in February, March, April and May make travel on the river very difficult and you may only be able to go a far upriver as Nalae. Ask about the conditions before starting out.
You may find the prices higher than you would anticipate. When trying to understand the price consider the following:
The following rates indicate the approximate price per boat. These rates are only a guideline. All prices are for Namtha River slow boats only. These are NOT OFFICIAL fares. You will also want to negotiate the terms; like can the boatman pick up other passengers and freight or not?
Updated July 2007
The Boat Landing Guest House assumes no responsibility for arranging boat travel, does not guarantee prices nor the accuracy of the information provided here, takes no commission from the boatman. If you book through Green Discovery. a small booking fee will be charged. Our assistance and information is a service to the traveling community. Please do not forget to express your appreciation to those who help you along the way.
Be forewarned that in Houeisai there are individuals who will try to steer you in other directions by giving you no information or misinformation. Before you agree to anything always settle the price first. Remember that fair practice here is if they ask a price and you agree to pay it, the price is fair. It is always your option to bargain and their option not to.
Green Discovery's Two Day Guided Trip is a great way to see the river and not worry about the hassle. One of our experienced local guides will accompany you on the trip. He will explain life along the river and help you to naviagate the remote regions of the Nam Tha River.
Accommodation on the River
The journey to/from Pak Tha or Houeisai generally takes 2 days. Meaning that you will stay one night along the river.
In town of Pak Tha the Anusone Guest House provides basic accommodation for 50,000 kip. On the banks of the Mekong the newly opened Souphanee Guest House offers rooms for 20,000 kip.
Most of the boatmen come from a village named Ban Khone Kham. The boatman usually arrange for you to stay in his home for around 50,000 - 70,000 kip per person including food. The villager will ask extra for beer and coffee. Ask the price before you drink anything. The boatmen often prepare instant noodles with vegies and egg. They find that it food that most people will eat. If you want to eat local food be sure to make that clear. They may ask a bit more for it.g
If you have negotiated food and accommodation as part of the boat price and someone asks you to pay more
In Nalae there are two guest houses with basic facilities. One is on the road from the boat landing. The other is in the market.
The boats are normally uncovered. So, come prepared for sun and rain. The boatman will have a tarp to cover the luggage. But not a rain coat or sun-block for you.
Strong sun-block, hats, scarves and long sleeves and long pants are advisable. You may be sitting in the tropical sun with reflected light from the river for many hours.
You will be traveling through an area with malaria. Even if you are taking anti-malarials, protect yourself from being bitten at night. Anti-malarials do not prevent you from getting malaria. They simply start the treatment before you have the disease. So, wear long sleeves and long pants. Use insect repellant and sleep under a mosquito net. Click here for Malaria information from the CDC.
Food and water. Daily markets and restaurants are only found in the district towns. The guest houses and your village hosts can arrange a packed lunch for a small fee. Such a lunch would normally consist of steamed sticky rice, an omelet, cooked meat and pickled vegies. The boatman and the villages will often invite you to eat with them. It is customary that travelers share their food with one another.
In the markets you can buy bottled drinking water and in the villages they can boil water for you. Be sure to give them enough advance notice that you want boiled water.
In some villages they may offer you "Lao Hai" - a brew made from fermented rice, millet or Job's tears in a jar which they will add unboiled river water. Ask the villagers to boil water or offer to add your own bottled water to the jar if you wish to try the fermented brew with safe water. Lao Hai is drunk using reed straws and can be a great way to have a party with the villagers. Its taste can range from sour to sweet. Some say that it even tastes like wine. And boy, does it give you a pounding hangover!
Pak Tha is an interesting place to visit. It is an old trading town with charming temples, flower gardens and a little market. Take the boat from the Pak Tha boat landing across the confluence to the town of Pak Tha.
At Pak Haad you can take a truck to the next town of Paoudom. Apparently there are several waterfalls and caves to explore in the area.
Farther up the river, a place worth stopping is in the scenic village of Ban Peng. There are two waterfalls and two caves not far from the village. On the cliff just down river from the village you can see a Buddha image carved into the cliff face. If you arrive late in the afternoon, you may want to plan to stay an extra day in Ban Peng in order to take in the sights.
Stop at Davadueng or Haad Ma Cave. The key is kept in Ban Mô about 1 km up river from the cave. Kindly give the villagers a few thousand kip for upkeep of the cave. The cave is next to the river and accessed by a short but steep climb up to the entrance. It can become quite slippery when wet. So be careful!
The cave is not large neither does it have lots of stalactites and stalagmites. But it does have a large Buddha, several large rooms and a second entrance above the first. It is a fun place to visit.
Muang Nalae has a market and a hospital. There are some project staff from GTZ who can speak German, English and French. If you are tired of the river, you may be able to take a truck from Nalae to Luang Namtha. It may be faster, however, to take a boat.
Up river from Nalae is the Nam Ha Protected Area. You will know you are there when you see primary forest along the west bank. There are also several moderate rapids in this area.
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