As it’s the wet season and technically low season, the spectacular town of Nong Khiaw in Northern Laos, is a little quieter but still offers travellers a rustic village-like feel, embraced by incredibly beautiful limestone mountains.
Booked the 6-hour mini bus ride (105,000K) from Luang Namtha to Pak Mon with the Zuela Guest House, as most companies in town sell tickets at around the same price. The journey goes through hours of hairpin bends and what some would barely call a road; as there’s so many potholes, it’s almost like a little tar splattered between holes. This trip will leave you a little sore and checking that your rattled bones are still in tack – not comfortable at all!
At the small Pak Mon bus terminal, you wait for another minibus (private taxi) to take you to Nong Khiaw.
The price is a set fee so the more people in the taxi, the cheaper the price. However, the drivers won’t go unless it is worth their while. Instead, They’d rather sit at the station for hours not making any money than cut their price by even a fraction of the cost.
As it is late in the afternoon, managed to bargain the price down a fraction to 100,000K for two people, to travel the hours’ distance to Nong Khiaw; still very expensive but this is the only way to get to the village.
The scenery is especially spectacular in this town, which is split north/south by the Nam Ou River and surrounded by sheer mountain peaks. Think of the movie Apocalypse Now and this will give you a better sense of the scenery in this area.
The surrounding area of Nong Khiaw and around the town itself is the type of place where you can walk almost anywhere and be taken aback by gorgeous scenery – a photographer’s delight! Whilst there, the wet season’s mornings provided much fog, which further enhanced and enveloped the mountains in a mystical veil to unfold stunning photo opportunities.
Apart from hill tribe trekking, you can also do cycling, walks, and kayaking around the Nong Khiaw area.
Mountain View Point
If you’re feeling energetic, then walk out-of-town and across the bridge (south-side) for the 2 kilometre trek up the ‘hill’; you don’t need a guide for this trek.
The starting point sign displays 1.5 hours up and 45 minutes down. The views from the top are supposed to be stunning. Sadly, the day before I was going to trek up, I slipped on a rock on the waterfall trek and hurt my shoulder and leg, which added to the already sore back, so, decided not to trek up this time. Also torrential rain made the track very slippery, the last part of the climb is tough but other muddy climbers lived to tell their tale and share their photos.
Set high in a limestone cliff, this cave as others in Laos, sheltered villagers and Pathet Lao fighters during the Second Indochina war; and is 3 kilometres out-of-town, so be prepared for a hot long walk, unless you hire a bicycle or motorbike.
There’s a sign on the road (right) that announces the cave and you have to walk down a track, cross a knee-deep (in parts) fast’ish flowing stream, walk across a paddock and up some steep concrete steps to get to the cave’s entrance.
The entry fee is 5,000K but as it’s the wet season, no ticket seller was anywhere to be found. We did however, bump into a couple of locals trying out their little scam that we’d already read about. At the top of the stairs awaits a couple of young guys with a book that has a list of names (to make things look legit). The number ‘25’ is written at the top and this is the amount per person they try to scam from you. Don’t pay them and enter the cave…they soon disappear. Don’t forget your torch. Unfortunately, we couldn’t go very far into the cave as the rope was removed and the bamboo ladder to climb down with was broken; either the cave was closed or not maintained.
The guide books’ promote many boat trips that whizz up and down the Nam Ou River. These trips are on a well-worn trail. Another great boat trip leaves from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang through some of the most spectacular scenery in Laos. But alas, Power China is building the ugly, monstrous and contentious dam, 2 hours by boat from Nong Khiaw, which cuts this passage and the river in half. Tour companies are charging in excess of 1,900,000K for a boat to the dam, with a 5-minute shuttle bus across to the other side, to then pick up another boat for the remaining journey to Luang Prabang. The whole river journey takes 6 hours (only 3 hours by bus).
Day boat on the Nam Ou River
For something a little different, you can still hire a boat that will take you to the dam, wait for you to walk around for an hour before returning to Nong Khiaw.
The benefit of this trip is not to see the ugly dam, but to see the spectacular scenery and river life, as locals still live along the river. From Nong Khiaw, the scenery just gets more amazing, until about half-hour out from the dam, which is when the scenery changes dramatically as deforestation devastates the surrounding mountains…very sad.
This dam is affecting the Khmu (indigenous people) and many ethnic groups that live directly on or near the Nam Ou. One local advised that the river would rise by 4-5 metres. For obvious reasons, no one is providing locals with actual figures yet but in effect, much of Nong Khiaw’s riverside buildings would go under.
To put this into perspective, take a look at my photo (below), where the man is standing on the steps, then look further up to when you just see steps through the trees. This point, which is also close to the ticket office is about where the new river level would rise to…scary thought?
With the plan containing 72 new large dams, 12 of which are under construction and nearly 25 at advanced planning stages, it’s either happened or is happening everywhere in Laos. Let’s be clear, in Laos, there’s no or very minimal environmental studies undertaken prior to building the dams – the mighty dollar speaks all languages!
Our Boat Driver…
You are hiring the whole boat so rope in more people to split the cost. Bargain hard with the “official” ticket seller at the jetty office as we found out later, he ripped us off but with a smile!
During the boat trip, our old boat (didn’t speak English) driver tried to ask several times the cost of our ticket and then wanted to see the ticket. On arrival to the dam, he drew in the sand how much we should have paid (we paid 650,000K and think the price should be either 500,000K or 550,000K); he seemed angry that we were overcharged, motioning with his head and hands, it was not good. He kept our ticket and motioned he’d go to the ticket office.
In my naivety, I honestly thought he was going to try to get some money back for us. However, when we returned, he said goodbye and it was then that I realised that he was angry he didn’t get his cut of the higher ticket price and could now get this from the seller with our ticket as proof! How did I come to this conclusion, you ask? Because during our return trip, the driver asked us if he could pick up a couple of villagers that waved him down from a distance. As we hired the boat out, it was up to us to agree, although he was already approaching the village for the pick-up regardless of our response.
Agreeing and assuming they hitched a lift with us (happy to give locals a lift), the 2 passengers thanked us for the ride and stayed with us for almost the whole return trip. To my surprise, when they got off, they handed money over to the boat driver but this was not enough and he asked both for more…he pocketed the money! I have no idea what he charged the villagers. Everyone is a businessman. We wanted to give the villagers a free ride, but the boat driver had other ideas of making extra cash on the trip – nothing is free in Laos!
Day boat to Waterfall and Trek to 2 remote villages
After reading a lot about the ‘100 Waterfalls’ day-tour and seeing the numerous tourist boats leaving from the boat jetty every day for this tour, decided to do a different quieter tour away from the crowds.
Booked a day tour with the only locally-run company: Nongkhiaw Adventure (previously Phone Travel Nong Khiaw) with 6 people on the tour at 200,000K per person.
The tour provides an English-speaking local guide (Mr Mang is not available as his wife is having a baby), delicious traditional picnic lunch, bottled water, boat hire for the day, visit to the waterfall and two remote villages along the river.
Our tour guide (Ken) is excellent and speaks English well.
The boat ride starts at around 09:00 hrs and takes about an hour to reach the villages. A walk around the first village (Ban Hoyhoi) is for about an hour whilst Ken explains different aspects of the village.
After this village, the boat takes you across the Nam Ou to the second village (Ban Sopjam; also known as Ban Sopkan) to have a similar village experience.
Our group started walking out of this village and across fluorescent green rice paddies until the incline to the waterfall, which takes a good hour.
Bring your swimmers as it’s pretty hot and steamy, and you can take a dip to cool down at the waterfall, before enjoying a scrumptious picnic lunch.
As it’s the rainy season, undoubtedly, it rains every day and did so on this day, so take some sandals as you walk through streams and over rocks. Be careful as when you near the waterfall, rocks become very slippery, which is where I slipped and hurt my shoulder, so I couldn’t trek up the Mountain View Point the following day.
Vongmany Guest House (southern side of town)
What an amazing view from our room and balcony – just stunning! The room is basic, clean, and not expensive. The view makes up for any shortfalls. Have to mention that staff here are also lovely and enjoyed the feel of this place so much that we extended our stay to 6 nights.
The only problem was that although staff wanted the booking through Agoda (not cash, which was strange), we advised twice that we’d extended and paid using Agoda. When it came to leaving, the owner asked us to pay and it took some discussion until we thought she understood. Arriving at Nong Khiaw’s bus station to catch the Songthaew out, the Vongmany owner and her son arrived on a scooter wanting us to pay! In front of everyone at the bus station, we had to go through all the rigmarole of explaining that the payment went through Agoda, as she had requested!
- Chennai Restaurant – across the bridge (southern side of town) serves delicious Indian food at cheaper prices than the guide book recommendations. In fact, if the guide book recommends somewhere, then this is the place to avoid as 99% of the time, it will be more expensive and the quality not that great! You can order a cheap breakfast (2 coffees, 2 Rottis, 2 veg samosas) for 35,000K – there’s much more on the menu. Service is friendly and good. Alcohol is not served at this restaurant.
- Alex Restaurant – service and food are good but prices are a little high compared to some of the local restaurants. However, all the “western” local restaurants in Nong Khiaw are a little high.
- Delilah’s Place – on the west side of the river, close to the post office and bridge. The filtered coffee is good. The chicken Paninni is very delicious but as with all the western local restaurants in Nong Khiaw, the price is a little high. Good service and relaxing ambiance.
This place also comes with a few very cute puppies, so if you’re in need of some doggy therapy, this is for you!
- Vongmany (same as the guest house) – across the bridge (southern side of town). Delicious local food at reasonable prices with a great view. Sit and relax with a refreshing fruit juice after a hard trek and enjoy the sunset unfold over the mountains and the Nam Ou River. Evening meals are very authentic and delicious compared with other restaurants around, which seem to cater for the tourist palatte. There’s a main dish offered to fit every budget. However, had breakfast here one morning and it was average at best; Chennai is much better and cheaper for breakfast.
Leaving beautiful Nong Khiaw
The next leg, will be an interesting trip as Nongkhiaw Travel advised that we could be on a 4-hour local bus, mini bus, or Songthaew for the cost of 60,000K; regardless of the mode of transport.
The vehicle bound for Luang Prabang should leave at 11:00hrs.
I am super excited but also apprehensive about this next destination as the last time I travelled here was in 1989! Sometimes it’s better to remember a place as it was…