The ethnic mosaic of Muang Sing

Muang Sing is a small, pretty town near the Lao-Chinese border with visible economical and cultural links to China. It’s rarely visited by tourists, making for a great place for independent exploration of the surrounding villages inhabited by the myriad of ethnic minorities. An ideal place to soak in beautiful landscapes or explore a lively market.

A small cow-drawn cart with a coachman, standing in tall grass by the roadside outside Muang Sing in Laos.

The Luang Namtha – Muang Sing ‘scenic’ route

Being slightly disappointed with Luang Namtha, we decided to move on to Muang Sing, located just 15km from Chinese border, on the other side of Luang Namtha protected area.

We took a morning minibus from a short-distance bus station, located conveniently just 300 meters from the night market. We arrived early to get the best seats.

As it turned out, unnecessarily as what blogs and guides described as ‘the most scenic route in Laos’ turned out to be a rather dull journey through rubber plantations, only after a long while replaced with a jungle. There were no views at all apart from short glimpses of a small river. We did pass by a few villages with the traditional Lao houses and that was all the thrill. If anything, it was one of the less interesting roads we saw in Laos. The road itself was winding, full of potholes and there were signs of recent landslides in a couple of places.

Traditional wooden houses on stilts in a Laotian village  on the way to Muang Sing

Some blogs decried taking Muang Sing over by the Chinese. Walking around Muang Sing we did notice a few guesthouses, hotels, karaoke bars and restaurants with Chinese character boards but it was far from the overwhelming Chinese presence we witnessed eg. in Sihanoukville in Cambodia.

Muang Sing on a budget

Muang Sing is relatively more expensive than Luang Namtha and it offers less choices. After looking around for a longer while, we finally found a cheap guesthouse tucked away in a small alley near the bus station. Unlike most accommodations in Laos it wasn’t perfectly clean and it had no Wi-Fi.

Finding vegan food in Muang Sing was difficult, too especially in the lunchtime. The day stalls at the market were selling only khao soi stew which although had supposedly ‘no meat, no meat’ was in fact brewed on meat. In the evening, I found a street stall selling BBQ meat, tofu (with a tiny bit of meat inside which I had to scrape out), noodles and sticky rice banana.

A steel bowl full of live black beetles displayed on sale at the morning market in Muang Sing, Laos

It’s worth to wake up early to see the morning market. It’s a great place to do the shopping since the vendors are honest and prices are low. Contrary to what I’d read, there weren’t any minority groups in sight apart from one lady wearing traditional clothes who was trying to sell her embroidery. The market was big, lively and full of exotic products. Apart from the jungle plants and mushrooms, I spotted a bowl full of huge, live beetles and an entire dead, small deer. I wasn’t allowed to take a photo of it which for me was a clear proof it had been poached.

Sayak in front of the tourist information centre in Muang Sing - a 2-storied, red, wooden building with intricately decorated balcony

Even finding bicycles to rent wasn’t easy in Muang Sing. We went to the tourist information, located in a beautiful, traditional house. We were hoping to find out where to rent bicycles. We waited for quite a while, trying to call the bike rentals listed on the information board – with no success. Finally, the tourist information worker arrived. We rented two children-size bicycles from him which cost us twice as much as in Luang Namtha.

The bicycle loop around Muang Sing

We were handed a free map and advised to make a loop starting with the new road towards the Chinese border, through the dirt roads via Yao and Akha villages and then passing by Lao lao whisky producing village back to the town. It was a large loop and we were doubtful we could do it on those tiny bikes in just half a day. Without delay, we set off.

Paddy fields and the mountains in the distance. Muang Sing, Laos

The road towards the Chinese border was brand new, almost empty and undeniably scenic. We passed by rice fields and sugarcane plantations with high mountains far in the background. It was ominously dark as for 2 pm and soon enough the first downpour hit us. We were prepared for it, having brought thick Lao ponchos.

A cyclist wearing a red poncho leads his bike on a muddy road, leading among paddy fields towards the mountains in the distance

The troubles started when we turned in Oudomsin onto a dirt road which was full of stones, puddles and mud. As the road was so bad and it was leading up, we got off the bikes and just walked.

The Yao villages we passed by were rewarding to see: the ladies were busy making embroidery in front of almost every household and one older man was even weaving a basket.

An old Yao woman sitting in front of her house on a small stool looks from above her stitching at the camera

It was relatively easy to follow the map through the Yao villages but after leaving the second village we got confused. We had to ask for the directions to Pakha village of Akha people a few times. The road was getting steadily worse and at some point we had to cross a small brook, knee deep in water. At least it stopped raining. In retrospect, we would be fine if we had Maps.me that day – the Pakha village was marked on it (unlike on Google maps).

Lost in the mountains

Soon there was nobody to ask for directions and as usual Google maps wasn’t even showing the path we were at. Luckily, two ladies carrying heavy baskets with the straps against their foreheads told us they were just going there so we simply followed. Without them, we’d have got lost for sure. As it was getting late, we gave a Pakha village (already seen by us in a distance) a miss and followed the ladies – also belonging to Akha- to their village instead.

Sayak leading his bike on a pebbly, muddy dirt road through the forest near Muang Sing

Once we arrived I lifted one of their baskets out of curiosity- it must have weighted 15 kilo or so. The village buildings weren’t built from traditional materials but the people were really friendly. We decided to contribute to the local economy by buying a bag of puffed rice, ice cream and a handmade bracelet- just 2 000 kip each. One man was offering us a homestay but that wasn’t an option as we had paid for the accommodation already.

Two women wearing rubber boots carry baskets full of wood, followed by Sayak leading a bike. They walk on a muddy road among tall grasses

The shopkeeper showed us the way to the next village, already back on the main road. The return journey was very pleasant and quick, as the road was leading all the way down.

We did just less than a half of a recommended loop so we decided to finish it the following day by starting from the opposite direction, towards Luang Namtha. Due to heavy rain, we managed to reach only to the stupa and back. We were passing by some Lao whisky producing villages but maybe didn’t know what to look for. There was a stupa on a hill near the main road where we were told we can see a nice view. I climbed all the way up for nothing – the view was largely obscured by the trees.

Yellow painted stupa among the greenery

Akha bracelets

We had a surprise on the way back to Luang Namtha (from where we were going to take a bus to Luang Prabang). We happened to sit right next to an Akha grandma who convinced us to buy some really cheap bracelets. We admired her sophisticated headdress, adorned with silver coins. Unbelievably, she was from the same village we visited the previous day.

Author posing to a photo with an elderly Akha woman wearing a headdress decorated with silver coins

PRACTICALITIES

How to get to Muang Sing?
The only way to get to Muang Sing is by a short-distance bus (2h) from Luang Namtha.

Prices [in Laotian kip as of August 2018]:
60 000 cheapest double room in a guesthouse
25 000 bus Luang Namtha- Muang Sing
20 000 bicycle rental (poor quality)
15 000 khao soi soup at the market
15 000 one kilogram of fruit in season
10 000 meat/tofu skewers from the night stalls
2 000 hand-made bracelet

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