Northeastern Laos – Spectacular Nong Khiaw

August, 2014

The spectacular town of Nong Khiaw in northeastern Laos is a little quieter during the wet season, but still offers travellers a rustic village-like feel, embraced by incredibly beautiful limestone mountains…

Getting there

Booking the 6-hour minibus ride (105,000K) from Luang Namtha to Pak Mon with the Zuela Guest House, mainly as most companies in town sell tickets at around the same price.

The journey snakes through hours of hairpin bends and what you’d barely call a road as there are so many potholes – it’s almost a little tar splattered between holes. This trip leaves you a little sore and checking that your rattled bones are still in tack – not comfortable at all!

Nong Khiaw, Luang Prabang Province, Laos
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. Drivers won’t leave unless it’s 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’s late in the afternoon, a little hard bargaining and we manage to bargain the price down a fraction to 100,000K for two people to travel the one-hours distance to Nong Khiaw. Very expensive but this is the only way to get to the village.

Nong Khiaw

The scenery is especially spectacular in Nong Khiaw town, which is split north/south by the Nam Ou River and surrounded by sheer mountain peaks.

Nong Khiaw, Laos
Breathtaking vistas

Think of the movie Apocalypse Now and this provides you with a better sense of the scenery in this region.

Sights

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!

The wet season’s mornings provide much fog, which further enhanced and envelopes the mountains in a mystical veil to unfold stunning photo opportunities.

Nong Khiaw, Laos
Room with a view

In addition to hill tribe trekking, you can also do cycling, walks, and kayaking around Nong Khiaw.

Mountain View Point

If you’re feeling energetic, then walk out-of-town in a southerly direction and across the bridge 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 taking the trek up, slipping on a rock on the waterfall trek and hurting my shoulder and leg, adding to the already sore back, decided to forego this trek.

The torrential rain also makes the View Point track very slippery and with the last part of the climb quite tough, other muddy climbers lived to tell their tale and share their photos.

Patok Cave

Set high in a limestone cliff, this cave as others in Laos, sheltered villagers and Pathet Lao fighters during the Second Indochina war. Around 3 kilometres out-of-town, be prepared for a hot long walk, unless you hire a bicycle or motorbike.

Nong Khiaw, Laos, Patok, cave
Patok glimpse

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, a ticket seller is nowhere to be found. We do bump into a couple of locals trying out their little scam that we already read about.

Cave scam

At the cave’s top of the stairs awaits a couple of young guys with a book, which has a list of names to make things appear 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 these guys and just enter the cave…the scammers soon disappear.

Don’t forget your torch. Unfortunately, we can’t go very far into the cave today as the rope is removed and the bamboo ladder to climb down with is broken – either the cave is closed or not maintained.

Boat Trips

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 around 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, then 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 but 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. The boat owner waits 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 becomes more amazing until reaching around half-hour out from the dam, which is when the scenery changes dramatically as deforestation devastates the surrounding mountains – tragic.

Nong Khiaw, Laos, dam
River views

This dam is affecting the Khmu (indigenous people) and many ethnic groups that live directly on or near the Nam Ou.

One local advises that the river will rise by 4-5 metres following the dam’s completion. 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.

Nong Khiaw, Laos, dam
Contentious Chinese damn

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?

Nong Khiaw, Laos
Steps to ticket office for all boats up and down the Nam Ou

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 that in Laos there is no or very minimal environmental studies undertaken prior to building the dams. The mighty dollar speaks all languages.

Our boat driver…

As you hire the whole boat, try and rope in more people to split the cost. Bargain hard with the “official” ticket seller at the jetty office. We found out later that he ripped us off, but with a smile.

During the boat trip our old boat driver (didn’t speak English) 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 seems angry that we are overcharged, motioning with his head and hands that this is not good. Keeping our ticket he motions he’ll go to the ticket office.

In my naivety, I honestly think that he is going to try to get some money back for us although on our return, he says goodbye. I now realise that he’s angry about not getting his correct cut of the higher ticket price and now with our ticket as proof, can confront the ticket seller.

How do I come to this conclusion, you ask? Because during our return trip, the driver asks if he can pick up a couple of villagers that wave him down from a distance. As we hired the boat out, it’s up to us to agree, although he’s already approaching the villagers for regardless of our response.

Agreeing and assuming they hitched a lift with us – happy to give locals a lift – the 2 passengers thank us for the ride and stay with us for almost the whole return trip.

To my surprise, when they got off, they hand money over to the boat driver but this is not enough and he asks both for more…he pockets the money!

I have no idea what he charged the villagers. Everyone is a businessman. Wanting to give the villagers a free ride, the boat driver had other ideas of making extra cash on this trip – nothing is free in Laos.

Day boat to waterfall and trek to 2 remote villages

After reading much about the ‘100 Waterfalls’ day-tour and seeing the numerous tourist boats leaving from the boat jetty every day for this tour, we decide to do a different quieter tour away from the crowds.

The only locally-run company selling tickets is Nongkhiaw Adventure (previously Phone Travel Nong Khiaw) for 6 people on the tour at 200,000K per passenger.

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, waterfall visit and visiting two remote villages along the river.

Nong Khiaw, Laos, trek
Stunning scenery on the trek to the waterfall

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) lasts around an hour whilst Ken explains different aspects of the village.

Nong Khiaw, Laos, trek
Tour transport to village

The boat then takes you across the Nam Ou to the second village (Ban Sopjam, also known as Ban Sopkan) for a similar village experience.

Nong Khiaw, Laos, village
Bansamsaath village home

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.

Nong Khiaw, Laos, village
This lady insisted I take their photo

Bring your swimmers as it’s pretty hot and steamy – you can take a dip to cool down at the waterfall, before enjoying a scrumptious picnic lunch.

It’s the rainy season, so it rains every day including today. Take some sandals as you walk through streams and over rocks.

Nong Khiaw, Laos, waterfall
Cooling waterfall

Be careful as when you near the waterfall, rocks become very slippery, which is where I slipped and hurt my shoulder, and couldn’t trek up the Mountain View Point the following day.

Accommodation

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 enjoy the feel of this place so much that we extend our stay to 6 nights.

The hick-up

The only problem is that although staff want the booking through Agoda (not cash, which is strange), we advise twice of extending and paying via Agoda.

On leaving, the owner asks us to pay for the couple of nights and it takes some explaining until she understands.

Arriving at Nong Khiaw’s bus station to catch the Songthaew, the Vongmany owner and her son arrives on a scooter wanting us to pay. In front of everyone at the bus station, we have to go through all the rigmarole of explaining that the payment went through Agoda, as she requested – annoying.

Food

Food glorious Laotian food…

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’s more expensive and the quality isn’t great.

A cheap breakfast at the Chennai includes 2 coffees, 2 Rottis, and 2 vegetable 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 – 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, Delilah’s offers good filtered coffee. The chicken Panini is very delicious but as with all the western local restaurants in Nong Khiaw, the price is a little high. Good service and relaxing ambience.
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

In the guest house, which is across the bridge on the southern side of town, delicious authentic food at reasonable prices with a great view is offered.

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 to the tourist palate. There’s a main dish offered to fit every budget although having breakfast here one morning, it was average at best. The Chennai is much better and cheaper for breakfast.

Leaving beautiful Nong Khiaw

The next leg will be an interesting trip as Nongkhiaw Travel advises that we may be on a 4-hour local bus, minibus, 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…

Visit Nilla’s Photography for more images. More blogs on Laos in Image Earth Travel.

Nong Khiaw, Laos, Bansamsaath
Pounding powder – Bansamsaath village

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