After crossing into Laos I arrived in Luang Namtha, a fairly large town in the north of Laos and about 60km away from the Chinese border.
The following morning I hired a bike with a plan to see the old town, the center of Luang Namtha before the new town was built. Firstly though I cycled to a nearby temple with a good view over the town. Though it looks like a stupa, which is built over Buddhist relics, this is actually a temple and the inside is accessible.
Following the small road south to the old town led me through several small villages including one of the "cultural villages" that are around the country. The darts games the locals were playing didn't really strike me as "cultural" but everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.
The villages are generally small and simple, built largely from bamboo. Some have small stores selling bottled drinks and snacks, handy if you've been cycling around for a while. Many of the villages are self-sufficient so I presume most don't use these stores (with the exception of getting their Beer Lao).
Village near Luang Namtha Old Town
The surrounding area is quite flat so getting around is easy. At one point I thought I was going to have problems crossing the Nam Tha river but following it further I found two bamboo bridges. It looks like a suspension bridge used to be there, but only the supports at either end still exist.
At some of the river's larger sections new bridges have been built with clearly visible Chinese flags on them. China has been increasing its work and influence in Laos for a while but I expected to see evidence of that in larger towns and dams on the Mekong River, rather than small countryside villages.
In an evening the busiest place in town is the night market. It's one of the biggest in Laos, though smaller than its average Thai counterpart. The food is good though and portions are huge (turning out to be a common theme); the "duck portion" was actually a whole duck.
Luang Namtha is a good first stop in Laos and is a solid alternative to taking the two-day slowboat to Luang Prabang.
More photos on Flickr.