Muang Sing: the beautiful hill tribe villages of Laos
This post is a travel guide about Muang Sing in Laos. Muang sing is a small town in northwestern Laos close to the border with Myanmar and Yunnan in China. The surrounding mountains are dotted with traditional hill tribe villages and it is one of the most multicultural areas of Laos.
Its strategic location means it is infamous for its drug trade in opium. Muang Sing is on the so-called Opium Road of the Golden Triangle of Myanmar, China and Thailand. Nearby Myanmar is the world’s second largest producer of opium. Some of it, finds its way to Muang Sing in Laos.
Why visit Muang Sing Laos
So why visit Muang Sing in Laos and is it even smart to visit a town known for drug smuggling?
The answer is simple. Muang Sing is famous for its natural beauty and ethnic diversity. The town is in a beautiful valley surrounded by the green Phou mountains and the Nam Ha National Park. A wilderness area with a rich biodiversity and lush rainforests.
This remote region is also home to many ethnic minorities. The Muang Sing valley is dotted with tribal villages. The hill tribes each follow their own culture and traditions that is all the more visible on the morning market in Muang Sing.
Muang Sing is well off the tourist trail in Laos. There are also not too many things to do in Muang Sing itself. The main attraction is the beautiful mountainous countryside where you can go hiking and cycling while visiting the hill tribe villages. It was a very welcome change after the overly touristic places like Vang Vieng and the 4000 islands.
Muang Sing was one of my favorite places in Laos. The natural beauty and lack of tourists make it a very laid back place. I spent two leisurely days exploring the Muang Sing valley by bicycle.
About the drug trade. Once there were two ladies in the street that asked me if I wanted opium. They were a bit persistent, but finally left me alone when they realized I wasn’t going to buy any. Muang Sing is a safe destination for foreigners as long as you don’t get involved yourself.
The tribes of Muang Sing Laos
One of the main reasons to visit Muang Sing is because it is a great place to learn more about the culture of the ethnic minorities or the so-called hill tribes of Laos. Laos is the most ethnically diverse country in southeast Asia with over 50 ethnic groups. Around Muang Sing live more than 10 different minorities.
Muang Sing is in a border region close to Thailand, Myanmar, China and Vietnam. Each group has their own language, culture, traditions and costumes. That said, almost all of them also still follow animist religions and belief in spirits.
In a global world their culture is of course changing. They still live in traditional villages, but increasingly they make use of modern facilities. The young now prefer to wear regular clothes instead of their elaborate costumes that are kept for special occasions.
For tourists this might seem sad. The costumes are very beautiful to see, but it’s good to keep in mind that these changes also involve better access to healthcare and education. The ethnic minorities still belong to the poorest groups of Laos.
Muang Sing village etiquette
Tourism will further impact their culture, but is also a much needed source of income. So far, Muang Sing’s remote location has shield it from the mass tourism elsewhere in the country. When you visit the hill tribes, do so with respect for their culture.
Use a guide that will introduce you to the communities. I do not recommend going on your own, because communication is difficult and you won’t be able to interact with the people. Without a guide I felt villagers were a bit wary of outsiders. I went both on my own and with a guide. The latter was a much more rewarding experience.
Always be careful when taking pictures of people. Some believe that pictures bring bad luck or disturb the spirits. Both men and women should wear modest clothes that at least cover their shoulders and legs up to knee length.
Think before giving out candies to children. It encourages begging behavior and dental care in the villages is poor. When you want to help out the community you visit, discuss with your local guide what you can do. For example, donate to the local school or health clinic instead.
At last, when bamboo poles or ropes block the roads it means that visitors are not welcome in the village because there are important ceremonies going on. Villagers believe that visitors will disturb the spirits during such times.
The Akha are the largest ethnic group in the Muang Sing valley. Many Akha people live in traditional hill tribe villages in the mountains of Laos, Thailand, China and Myanmar, where they practice subsistence farming. They speak a Tibeto Burmese language.
The Akha follow an animist religion. You can recognize their villages by the wooden spirit gates at the entrance that signifies the boundary between the village and the outside world. You will also find wooden swings in their village. The Akha people celebrate the Swing Festival each year, which involves swinging on a giant bamboo swing as a way to bring good luck and prosperity
Women wear elaborate headdresses that are decorated with silver coins and balls. Dark blue or black skirts are worn with tight-fitting jackets. The legs are covered with leggings that go from the knee to the ankle.
The Lue are a large ethnic minority that live in China, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos. There are around 24 Tai Lue villages in the vicinity of Muang Sing. The Tai Lue have their own unique language, which is part of the Tai-Kadai language family
The Lue follow Theravada Buddhism mixed with their ancient belief in spirits. Every village has a spirit house where offerings are made to keep the spirits happy. They also have distinct wooden homes on stilts. There are a number of cultural festivals throughout the year, including the New Year Festival, the Rocket Festival, and the Boat Racing Festival.
Tai lue women are skilled weavers which is reflected in their costumes. They wear a black top with red borders and skirts with beautiful woven embroidery.
Yao (Lu Mien & Lanten)
The Yao people are actually a group of two different ethnic minorities. The Lu Mien and Lanten people migrated from China to Laos. The Yao people have their own unique language, which is part of the Hmong-Mien language family
The Yao people have a unique shamanistic tradition, which involves communicating with spirits and seeking spiritual guidance for healing and other purposes. This involves a deep knowledge of traditional herbal medicine, and many of their remedies have been passed down through generations.On top of this they follow principles from the Tao philosophy.
The women are skilled in silverwork and embroidery. They dye their fabrics in indigo blue or black with pink borders. The amount of silver jewelry reflects their wealth.
The Hmong migrated from Tibet through China to Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. They have their own unique language, which is part of the Hmong-Mien language family
The Hmong have a strong belief in spirits. The spirits of the household, of our ancestors, of the village, of the sky should not be offended or they can cause troubles in our life. Shamans in the community can communicate with the spirits and therefore play an important role among the Hmong.
The Hmong have a rich musical and dance tradition, which includes various styles of traditional music, including courtship songs and celebratory dances. They are also skilled in handicrafts and they are known for their intricate and colorful needlework, which is used to decorate traditional clothing, bags, and other textiles.
The women make elaborate embroideries and batik patterns that they wear on their colorful sarongs.
The Tai Dam, also known as the black Tai, migrated from Southern China to Laos. They put a large emphasis on the spirits of their ancestors and therefore they pay a lot of attention to funerary practices and respect for their dead relatives.
The Tai Dam are primarily an agricultural community and are known for their skill in growing rice, corn, and other crops in the hilly terrain of Laos.
They are also known for their intricate handwoven textiles, including silk and cotton fabrics, baskets, and mats. The Tai Dam women wear colorful tops, a green belt and black skirts. They also wear black silk headdresses embroidered with patterns.
The best things to do in Muang Sing Laos
Muang Sing Morning market
Wherever I go, I visit the local market. The Muang Sing morning market is one of the best things to do in Muang Sing when you want to know more about the ethnic minorities.
The morning market is like a big gathering of people from the area. The ethnic minorities still wear their own traditional clothes making it a colorful event clearly pointing out the different groups.
This market is a local market. Do not expect to find souvenirs. Instead you will find lots of fresh produce from the area as well as chickens, eels, quail eggs, snakes and other interesting things. Early morning (7 Am – 8 AM) the market is at its busiest, but it is definitely worth the early wake up call.
Try Khao Soy noodle soup
Khao Soi is a very local dish that the Tai Neua make in Northern Laos. The main ingredient are the homemade rice noodles that come in a fiercy and frangrant broth with minced pork meat and a paste of garlic and fermented soybeans. The morning market is the best place to try Khao Soy noodle soup as it is a popular breakfast in Muang Sing
Muang Sing museum
Another great place to learn more about Muang Sing and its ethnic minorities is the small Muang Sing museum that is dedicated to showcasing the cultural heritage and history of the local ethnic groups.
The museum has a collection of historical photographs and artifacts that provide insight into the cultural traditions and way of life of the local ethnic groups. It also displays a collection of traditional clothing and textiles, music instruments and tools.
It was closed when I was there so I can not give my personal opinion. However, if it is open I would definitely pay a visit.
The temples of Muang Sing
Wat Sing Jai: This temple is located in the center of Muang Sing town and is one of the main Buddhist temples in the area. It’s a small and simple temple, but it’s worth visiting to see the traditional Lao architecture and the daily rituals performed by the monks.
That Xieng Tung Stupa: This ancient stupa is located in the nearby town of Xieng Tung, about 20 minutes’ drive from Muang Sing. The stupa dates back to the 14th century and is one of the oldest and most important religious sites in the region.
Cycle to the Chinese border
The border with China is only 10 kilometers away from Muang Sing. Foreigners can not cross the border, but the road is very scenic and perfect for a cycle trip. You can make small detours to visit some Akha and Yao villages.
Visiting the Hill tribes
Visiting the hill tribes is the main reason most people visit Muang Sing in the first place. There are different ways to visit them.
If you have your own transportation and are comfortable navigating the area on your own, you can visit the hill tribe villages independently. However, it’s important to be respectful of the local customs and traditions, and to seek permission before taking photos or entering people’s homes.
I visited several villages on my own when cycling to the Chinese border and walking around in Muang Long. In my opinion it is difficult to really get to know the culture this way. I hardly saw any people in the villages and the language barrier made communication very difficult.
I really recommend going with a guide that can introduce you to the communities and explain about their way of life. My two day trek and homestay experience in a Yao Lenten village was a completely different experience and very well worth the cost.
In Muang Sing you can easily organize one day village tours or multiple day hikes with overnight stays in a homestay at the Muang Sing Tourism Office. If you have the time I would certainly recommend an overnight stay.
Villages near Muang Sing
Below are some villages near Muang Sing that you could possibly visit on your own. Although even here a guide will make the experience much more rewarding.
Pa To and Ban Khoum (4 kilometers south east of Muang Sing): These are two nearby Tai Neua villages where they make Lao Lao whiskey. Look for steel drums on top of an open fire.
Ban Siliheuang: (3 kilometers south of Muang Sing towards Muang Long): Tai Neua village where the women make rice noodles for the local Khao Soi noodle soup in the very early morning
Phoudontai (9 kilometers west of Muang Sing towards Chinese border): A beautiful Yao village close to the Chinese border
Namdaet Mai (9 kilometers west of Muang Sing towards the Chinese border): A beautiful Akha village close to the border with China
Muang Long is even more remote and less touristy than Muang Sing. The countryside around Muang Long is characterized by rolling hills, forests, and rice paddies, with several streams and waterfalls adding to the scenic beauty. You could use Muang Long as another base for more treks into the hill tribe villages.
As I had already done a hill tribe village trek in Muang Sing and Luang Namtha, I explored Muang Long on my own by simply following the Nam Long river. I rented a bicycle and visited a number of villages. Without a guide it is difficult to interact with the people and I got a lot of curious stares and giggling children running up to my bicycle.
Eventually I was invited to a birthday party with loud music and lots of Lao beer. Everyone was already pretty drunk and they all wanted to have a selfie with me. It was a somewhat unexpected welcoming experience.
Muang Sing travel tips
Where to stay in Muang Sing
There are not a lot of places to stay in Muang Sing. I stayed at the Phou Lu bungalows. A good place with a restaurant and the owners are very helpful in arranging village tours, multiple day treks and homestays in the villages
Another nice option is the rural Adima guesthouse that is located a couple of kilometers outside of town.
Where to eat in Muang Sing
In Muang Sing there are not a lot of restaurants. The few restaurants serve the typical Lao dishes. There is one local dish that you should try though.
Khai Soy is a local noodle soup made from thin rice noodles in broth. It’s a speciality from the Thai Neua people. You can visit the Tai Neua village of Ban Siliheuang where the women prepare the noodles very early in the morning.
How to get to Muang Sing
The most common way to get to Muang Sing is by bus. Buses run regularly from the nearby towns of Luang Namtha and Huay Xai, as well as from the city of Luang Prabang. The journey from Luang Namtha takes about 2 hours, while the journey from Luang Prabang takes around 9 hours
How to get around Muang Sing
Muang Sing is a small town. Walking is a great way to explore the town and take in the sights and sounds of daily life in northern Laos.
Another popular way to get around is by bicycle. Bicycles can be rented from several shops and guesthouses in town, and they are a great way to explore the surrounding countryside and nearby villages.
For those who prefer more speed and flexibility, motorcycles can also be rented from several shops in town. However, it’s important to note that the roads in the area can be quite rough and steep, so driving a motorcycle requires some experience and caution.
When to visit Muang Sing
The best time to visit Muang Sing is during the dry season, which runs from November to March. During this time, the weather is cool and dry, and the skies are clear, making it an ideal time for outdoor activities like trekking and cycling. The temperatures are also more comfortable during this time, with daytime temperatures averaging around 20-25°C (68-77°F) and nighttime temperatures dropping to around 10-15°C (50-59°F).
The wet season runs from May to October, and while the rains can make the countryside lush and green, they can also make travel and outdoor activities more challenging. The roads can become muddy and slippery, and some trekking trails may be closed due to flooding or landslides. Additionally, the humidity and temperatures can be quite high during this time, with daytime temperatures often reaching above 30°C (86°F).
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