Muang Sing is a district and town in north Laos, some 9km away from a Laotian-Chinese borderpost. The town is placed on a plain, but the surroundings are mountainous and it's easy to make self-organized hikes around here, visiting various tribal villages around. Muang Sing's topography varies between 540m up to almost 2,100m altitude. The three rivers Nam Sing, Nam Yuan and Nam Dai have their confluence closely northeast of town. Muang Sing district is part of Luang Namtha Province.
Muang Sing's main road in the twilight of the evening. Image by Asienreisender, 3/2010
Due to the altitude and the relative northern position temperatures can drop down to zero degree in December/January, while they barely extend 30 degree celsius in the hottest months of March and April.
The population consists of a great variety of different hill tribes. Apart from Tai Lue, who are the majority in Muang Sing town, there are dozends of Akha villages around, together with Tai Neua, Yao, Tai Dam and Hmong settlements, who are partially close by each other. More and more Yunnan Chinese come to settle down in the district nowadays, looking for business opportunities. Bigger Chinese investment is also attracted by the natural riches of the region. Namely rubber and other agricultural monocultures are run by Chinese companies, for the price of the destruction of the natural forests.
The tribal museum of Muang Sing. It's practically the cultural highlight in town and district. Unfortunately it's very seldom open for visitors. Image by Asienreisender, 2010
Muang Sing has a long history of poppy cultivation, and, as a part of the greater Golden Triangle, there is still a considerable opium production in the area. The opium cultivation dates back at least to the French times. Muang Sing lies on a road which links Burma, Laos and China and is called since the old days the 'Opium Road'. In the last decades opium became severe competition by other drugs: amphetamins, produced in chemical laboratories ('kitchens') in hidden places.
Bordering China and Burma in landscapes who are difficult to control, a lot of smuggling happens here as well. That's not only drug smuggling but a number of other goods as well, so different as beer and batteries among them.
Inside a tribal village around Muang Sing. The many different villages give a very different appearance. Some look pretty new, tidy and cosy; others are dirty and neglected. Some of the people suffer a cruel fate. They get dislodged by army forces if their village lies in an area which is designed to become a plantation for an (mostly Chinese) investor. Image by Asienreisender, 2010
Tourism is part of the local economy, particularly the so called 'ecotourism' sector, what is specialized on mountain trekking and visiting the tribal villages. Attractive is the possibility to hike around by your own. However, in remote areas Laos is not a safe country, and armed robbery and murder can happen. In such a case the Laotian officials would certainly do their best to keep the case secret: they don't want a bad press. In Laos the government controlls the media anyway and crimes against tourists would't be published.
The local women are partially busy strolling around in Muang Sing town and trying to sell their local handicrafts, particularly colourful tribal textiles and jewellery, to tourists. There is a number of guesthouses in town who offer a good value for the price they charge.
Muang Sing's importance as a Buddhist place is also increasing. In the last years there were several new Buddhist temples built.
Another tribal village closely outside Muang Sing town. The whole construction is of organic material, even the roofs are still of reedgrass, not made of tin as nowadays rather common. Exceptionally is also the electrification - most of the villages have no electricity.
Also remarkable for 2010 is that it repeatedly rained in March, what is actually dry season and, together with April, the hottest month in the year.
Image by Asienreisender, 3/2010
Muang Sing's surroundings are an invitation for hiking. Situated in a wide plain which is used for rice cultivation, the place is surrounded by mountains. Crossing the mountains to the west one reaches the banks of the upper Mekong River and the small town of Chiang Khaeng.
Image by Asienreisender, 2010
The town plan of Muang Sing is designed in a chessboard pattern. It has a short, but interesting history. However, the sources are partially contradictory.
The old French garrison building in Muang Sing. Now it's used by Laotian officials. The monument in front of it shows one of the 'communist' leaders (Kaysone). Image by Asienreisender, 2010
Centuries ago the area was under control of the Thai principality of Chiang Khong. The first people who settled here were presumably a group of Tai Lue (also: Tai Lü) people. They errected a walled settlement. A stupa was built by them in 1792 CE. It was then under the dominance of a petty principality from Chiang Khaeng. Chiang Khaeng lies some kilometers west-north-west of Muang Sing on the left banks of the Mekong River and is reachable by trekking. It's not to be mixed up with Chiang Khong, which lies further southwards at the right banks of the Mekong.
The exploitation of wood and other sources in the 1870s triggered a conflict with the ruler of Nan which led to a temporary abandonment of Muang Sing. There was also the dominance of the Burmese kingdom of Ava over the region in the 19th century, before Burma got completely incorporated into British India. Chiang Khaeng/Muang Sing had to pay tribute to the Burmese rulers (for this part of history have a look for the article on 'Lanna'). Both, the Thai principality of Nan and that of Lanna became from 1890 CE on fully incorporated into Siam, including Muang Sing, what was under the dominance of Nan then. Five years later the place was overtaken by the French colonial power. France set Siam over a longer period from 1893 CE on under severe pressure, forcing the surrender of large territories east of the Mekong River to the French colonial empire.
Tribal women around Muang Sing. Like in the old times they live partially from gathering wood and other goodies in the forests. Image by Asienreisender, 2010
The French authorities used a local ruler for their interests ('share and rule'). They built a fortification in Muang Sing; the road to China existed already. After conflicts between the French occupants and a local resistance broke out (the people weren't 'happy' with the French rule), the Laotian puppet ruler fled to China and the French authorities integrated Muang Sing fully into their administration.
After the First World War the French administration promoted opium production and Muang Sing became an important center for it. In the following years the opium taxes made some 15% of the colonial revenue in French Indochina, and Muang Sing played an important role in the drug trade.
The French finally left Laos in 1953, and Muang Sing became part of the new state of Laos afterwards. However, traditionally the Tai Lue people here have more similarity with the neighbouring Thai, Burmese (better: Shan, in this part of Burma) and Yunnanese people than with the rest of Laos.
It's said that Muang Sing was for a time in the American Vietnam War practically abandoned.
Muang Sing's old market building (Laotian: talat nyai). For a few years in the time of the French rule over parts of Indochina it was the largest opium market in whole Indochina. France was no exception - the taxation of opium was a crucial part of the state revenues of the imperial colonial powers in Southeast Asia.
In March 2010 it was an unused building. There is a new, bigger market now, close to the bus station.
Image by Asienreisender, 3/2010