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Laos > General information > Adventures in Northern Laos (Part 1), Hill Tribes, Trekking


Adventures in Northern Laos(Part 1)


Northern Laos is a truly beautiful, laid-back, adventure-filled place. Most people base out of Luang Prabang, so that’s the area of focus in this guide. Some of the favored activities are:

- Hiking 

- Trekking 

- Mountain biking 

- Rafting 

- Kayaking 

- Rock climbing 
- Elephant safaris  

MekongRiver trips (slow and fast boats)

Tours to the Pak Ou Caves, Plain of Jars, along the MekongRiver, or to nearby temples. Luang Prabang is literally swarming with tour organizers.  Every guest house and hotel has someone who can make arrangements, and the main street is lined with travel agents. Some agents are actually representatives for other agents, and some are specialists.


Many treks to the tribal areas include a fast (power) boat ride up or down the Mekong River or one of its tributaries. Ask around at some local travel agencies or your hotel and you can probably find someone who arranges canoe or kayak rides on a nearby river. This is a great way to see the way people live in small villages along the rivers. 


It is incredibly relaxing since there are few, if any, rapids. Just look over your craft for leaks or signs of leaks. If you don’t want to paddle both directions, make sure you negotiate your return ride.  If you’re not sure you managed to get return transportation included, I highly recommend you insist on paddling upriver first – it’s much easier to float back when you’re tired than paddle back against the current! Besides, if your return ride is included, your guide is probably going to insist on a downstream departure. 


Hiking & Trekking 

Someone asked me once what the difference is between hiking and trekking. In Laos a hike is for one day or less (no overnight stay) and trekking is two or more days, normally involving camping.  Either way is perfect for reaching waterfalls, caves, jungle trails, and rugged mountains that are off the beaten path. In Laos you may not see waterfalls on the main path – you have to get off the road.


You are also likely to see wonderful plant and bird life (but not much wildlife – the local people have eaten most of it!). Locally arranged treks and hikes tend to run from a few dollars a day to $15 or so, but can run more if you want to have all the amenities included on overnight trips. 


Some of the highlights of treks include: 

- Visiting hill tribes such as Hmong and Khmu. 

- Sighting waterfalls and taking a cooling dip in the pools. 

- Riding an elephant. 

- Rafting or canoeing down a river. 

- Visiting the Pak Ou and other caves. 

- Padding along a jungle path. 

- Trading experiences with other travelers. 

- Seeing how other people live. 



The three hill tribes you are most likely to encounter in northern Laos are the Hmong (a tribe belonging to the High Lao or Lao Suung), the Lao Lum (Low Lao), and Khmu (a tribe belonging to the Upland Lao or Lao Theung).

The Hmong are very warlike and were ideal as CIA-trained special forces during the 1960s and 1970s. Following the 1875 revolution, overthrow of the monarchy, and take-over by the Pathet Lao, many Hmong fled, settling in large numbers primarily in the
United States.

The Hmong are farmers, growing dry rice and corn using slash and burn techniques. They also raise various domestic animals such as cattle, pigs, chickens, and water buffalo.
The Hmong are the major growers of opium among the ethnic groups in

They are called the High Lao because they live at altitudes of at least 1,000 meters/3,300 feet above sea level.

The Lao Lum have traditionally lived in the vicinity of or in the MekongRiver valley. They are related to the Thai-Kadai – a group that lives all over Southeast Asia as well as in southern China and the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent. 

They tend to live at 200-400 m/650-1,300 feet of elevation and are subsistence farmers who grow wet rice. Unlike many other hill tribes, they are Theravada Buddhists.

The Khmu are the poor cousins in northern Laos.  They tend to live on slopes between 300 and 900 m/1,000 to 3,000 feet above sea level. They have the lowest standard of living among the hill tribes in the north. They either work as laborers for other hill tribes or are farmers growing rice, cotton, tobacco, and coffee.


All three tribes live in houses with dirt floors and wood beams.


Most treks to Northern Laos can be arranged from Luang Prabang, either through your hotel or a travel agent in town. Just ask around, and help will come pouring out of nowhere!  Ask fellow travelers, too – this is the best way to get a handle on features, prices, and trek quality. 


If you want to visit the tribal areas, and I highly recommend doing this in all of the Southeast Asia countries, there are a few things you should do to make the trip as interesting and safe as possible. 


First and foremost, make sure you talk directly with the person who will be guiding your trek, and meet the rest of the trekking group before you hand over your money. If your group is all in their 20s and you’re in your 40s or 50s, you may have very different ideas about the pace, sights, etc., that interest you. 


The price for a quality trek should include sleeping bags, accommodations, your meals (you have to buy your bottled water and liquor), your guide (except a small tip or gift such as a CD), admissions, and extras you might want. Bring DEET (at least 30% strength). 


If you expect to ride an elephant, take a motor boat, canoe, or kayak on the Mekong River, be driven back to your start point, or indulge in other activities, make sure you have negotiated these activities in the price of your trek.  One more thing…your guide should speak several local Lao/tribal dialects and English. Get someone with a good ear for languages to listen to your guide talking to local people and tribal people before you hand over your money. 


See also
     Adventures in Northern Laos (part 2)

Getting to Luang Prabang

      History of Luang Prabang, Getting around Luang Prabang 

      What to do & see in Luang Prabang 

      Day trips from Luang Prabang     



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Adventures in Northern Laos (part 2) : Elephant Rides, mountain Biking, Rafting

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Travel guide to Laos: adventures in Northern Laos, Hiking & Trekking, Hill Tribes, Mekong river trips