Monday, 3 January 2011


Lao lounging

North Laos is a great place to find hot springs. It's an intricate mix of various hill tribes with different customs and uses all blended into a lowland Lao culture where simplicity and timeliness are still in vogue. Add to this, historic settling and superb natural landscape.

In general there seem to be only a few hot springs in Laos, but I suspect that many are still waiting to be discovered. General access is still poor, but the surrounding Thai, Vietnamese and Yunnan mountain areas have many hot springs on offer, so why would Laos possess heaps of hot springs?

The mountainous province of
Xieng Khouang contains 3 known hot springs, as far as I know. There is the hot spring of Ban Thak, which is still to be developed according to LP and which our guide assured us, was not worth it. the journey Especially in light of the big distance to get there via poor and tired roads. So we'll leave it for a next time.

Besides hot springs, Xieng Khouang is an interesting province to visit. The capital of Phonsavan is a bit windswept, but it sits on a high plain allowing for a nicer and cooler clime than most places in Southeast Asia. There are the mysterious Plain of Jar sites to be visited, many different ethnic tribes, appallingly war-time scars and an outstanding natural surrounding (f.i. the waterfalls of Tad Lang and Tad Ka).

Hot springs of Kham
On the road east of Muang Kham, in the direction of Vietnam, lie 2 quite accessible hot springs. Apparently everybody refers to these as Baw Noi (Bo Noi) and Baw Nyai (Bo Njai).

The hot spring Baw Noi (which translates as little hot spring) is just 3 km east of Muang Kham, a larger village in the north of the province.

My guide to this hot spring is the excellent A Guide to Xieng Khouang Mountain Province in Northern Laos [1] which includes the following:
'A little hot springs is located in Xang village, 3 km east of Muang Kham. It feeds into a stream just a few hundred meters off route 7. Note the limestone jar near the ticket office. In the village tai Dam women sell their weaving textiles; cross the river on a small bamboo bridge to visit the Phuan village and observe the women create the beautiful textiles. There is another hot spring nearby Nathong Village. Pass the village and follow for about 800 meters'.
It can be picked up in the informative provincial tourism office of Phonsavan, though large sections of the text appear on wikipedia and wikitravel.

Baw Noi

So, three kms out of Muang Kham, there is a smaller signboard indicating a turn is required if heading to Baw Noi.
One continues down this road towards the village of Xang. Or Xieng, according to this
website. At the end of the road one goes through a gate to a wide enclosure. On the stream side of the enclosure is a wooden building with signboards referring to the spring, while on the right are a number of wooden buildings, the furthest away has a signboard indicating it's a guesthouse. But it could also be a school / office.

Entrance fee for visitors is 5,000 kip, about 0,60 $US. Interestingly the ticket refers the Nam Ounnoi tour, the river behind the enclosure.


From the ticket office it is a 100m walk along the river to a wading place across the river. Here is also the location of the hot spring. Located just above the waterline, the spring has a double cement wall defense against the 30m wide fast flowing stream. Contained within these confines is water with a temperature of nearly 60 degrees, way too hot for a soak. It is also only 20 cm shallow.


Just beyond the broken outer wall hot and cold water are mixing, but there's neither a good spot for mixing the water to a temperature bearable and use as a shower, nor a space where one can bathe, even if the waters are shallow.

It being late afternoon we hang around for half an hour watching kids splash in the water and villagers returning from work on the land and crossing the river to get to their houses. A beautiful picture and a great way to experience Lao.

View from the spring; returning home.

The smaller little spring
Having read that there's another spring nearby I returned back to the ticket seller and asked. Yes there was, not so far away, she had been there once, but it was no place for visitors to go. Because.

The guesthouse owner came over and more talking ensued with me politely trying to push the issue. The discussion took a turn as we came to discuss about Jars and their existence. Yeah, there was a find site nearby, on the other side of the river and on all fours up the mountain. Two hours walk. I had read that there was a jar close to the ticket office. Same same?
Lots of discussion further, the guesthouse owner takes me to the edge of the enclosure and there's a partially broken Jar. We're getting there.

Eventually it was deduced that the hot spring I was asking about was overgrown, 100m stream upwards of the other spring. If I wanted to see it then the guesthouse owner would assist.
We all trudged off back to the river walked beyond the spring, along a field and then beelined to the bank of the river. The guesthouse owner said it was somewhere close with us trying not to get entangled in the weeds. Eventually he mentioned that he had (re-)found it. After scrambling there there was a small hole between the weeds where hot water (but a lot less hot than the more developed springs) streamed 2m along a small 20cm wide canal to the main stream.

The smaller of the small hot spring. The black hole is 20 cm across.

Bathing and soaking
We returned back to the original spring. In the meantime, the village is coming out to bathe, one women is soaking, fully clothed in the very hot spring. Wow!
Most though are just using the river to bathe in, with little regard to the presumed convention of shame and / or offending others. Wish I could move here.

We return to the ticket office and sit down, initially for a glass of water but soon we are tasting and testing all kinds of local fruits, not all palatable. A very nice place.

Another highlight of the village is it's bamboo bridge, downstream. The annually rebuilt bridge is nothing special, but another great place to watch village life: kids jumping in the river, teenagers fishing. We are really playing the tourist.

Worth it? Or not?
Exploring the internet there is not so much information available, either in blog form or in photo's. That doesn't surprise me, the hot spring ticket seller said they often have only a couple of visitors each week and in the hot season none at all.

One good overview is presented in a Japanese language blog entry. I've applied Google Translate and much of the written content is small talk but the photo's are good. And there's a short video.

Travelfish is downright condescending:
'Baw Nam Horn Noi is small and not worth a visit'.
Wikipedia Phonsavan's entry differs:
'Xang village is located near a small hot spring. An ideal spot for a small break. Across the river Phuan women demonstrate their weaving'.
There is a photo on travel pod, at a time of the year when there is more water in the river.

Finally, there's LP's entry:
'Baw Noi (Little Spring) feeds into a stream just a few hundred meters off Rte 7, a couple of kilometers before Baw Nyai on the way from Muang Kham.You can sit in the stream where the hot spring water mixes with the cool stream water and 'adjust' the temperature by moving from one area to another'.
Getting There. Take the road north out of the provincial capital of Xieng Khouang, Phonsavan, all the way to district town of Muang Kham (55 km). Head out of town towards the Vietnamese border (Nong Hed) and after 3 km there's a clear (though small printed) signboard announcing the hot spring on your right.

Soaking Experience
. Very rustic place not designed as a soaking experience. Well-intended but someone needs to put there thinking cap on.

Overall impression
. The site is beautifully located, interesting and welcoming. If not for the hot springs the other attractions are more than enough reason to detour here. Just do it.

Author and wife at Baw Noi.

[1] Creutz, S., J. Van Den Bergh (2009) A Guide to Xieng Khouang Mountain Province in Northern Laos. Lao National Tourism Authority, Vientiane, Laos.

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