Spectacular Nong Khiaw offers some of the most amazing trekking in Laos…
Where is Nong Khiaw?
If you find yourself in Luang Namtha, then travelling by minibus to Nong Khiaw takes around 6 hours and is not too difficult.
Nong Khiaw is a gorgeous small village on the banks of the Nam Our River in northern Laos.
Hemmed in by incredible and imposing limestone mountains, Nong Khiaw is a photographer’s delight!
My separate article on Nong Khiaw provides a little background on this gorgeous area, but also where to sleep and eat during your stay.
Nong Khiaw is in the Luang Prabang Province, which really is an incredibly beautiful part of Laos.
The guide books’ promote many boat trips that whizz up and down the Nam Ou River. Make no mistake, 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 more than 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 although, by bus, the journey only takes 3 hours.
Nam Ou River day boat
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. Leaving Nong Khiaw, the scenery just becomes more amazing until reaching around half an hour out from the dam. This is when the scenery changes dramatically as deforestation devastates the surrounding mountains – so tragic.
This dam is affecting the Khmu (indigenous people) and many ethnic groups that live directly on or near 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.
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, this has either happened or is happening everywhere in Laos.
Let’s be clear, in Laos, there are no or very minimal environmental studies undertaken before 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 while delivering his flashing smile.
During the boat trip, the elderly boat driver (who doesn’t speak English) asks several times about the cost of our ticket and then motioned to see the tickets. On arrival at the dam, he draws in the sand how much we should have paid (we paid 650,000K but believe the price should be 500,000K to 550,000K). He seems quite agitated that we are overcharged, motioning with his head and hands that this is not good. Keeping our ticket he motions that he’ll go to the ticket office.
In my naivety, I honestly thought that he was 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 on our return, the driver raced past us to the ticket office before it closed but didn’t ask us to come along. Also, during the return trip, the driver asks if he can pick up a couple of villagers that wave him down in the distance. As we hired the whole boat, it’s up to us to agree, even though he changes course to approach the villagers, regardless of our decision.
Agreeing and assuming they hitched a lift with us – happy to give locals a lift – the two passengers thank us for the ride and stay with us until just before docking at Nong Khiaw.
To my surprise, when they get off, they hand money over to the boat driver. He’s annoyed as this is not enough and asks both passengers for more then pockets the money! I have no idea what he charged the villagers. Wanting to give the villagers a free ride, the driver had other ideas for making extra cash on this trip. Everyone is a businessman in Laos and nothing is free.
Day boat and trek to remote villages and waterfall
After reading much about the ‘100 Waterfalls’ day-tour and seeing the numerous tourist boats leaving from the boat jetty every day bound on this journey, decide to do a different and hopefully 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, at the time of writing in 2014.
The tour provides an English-speaking local guide as a substitute for Mr Mang as his wife is due to have a baby. Also included is a delectable traditional picnic lunch, bottled water, boat hire for the day, a waterfall visit and a visit to two remote villages along the river.
Our tour guide (Ken) is excellent and speaks English very well. The boat ride starts at 09:00am and takes around an hour through the tanned-stained river, surrounded by lush jungle and majestic mountains, to reach the villages.
A wander around the first village (Ban Hoyhoi) lasts only an hour with Ken explaining different aspects of the local life in this small village.
The boat then takes you across the calm Nam Ou to a second thatched-hut village (Ban Sopjam, also known as Ban Sopkan) for a similar village experience.
Our tour then treks 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 sultry. There’s time to take a dip to cool down at the waterfall before enjoying a scrumptious picnic lunch, surrounded by jungle noises.
This is the rainy season, so of course, it rains every day and today is no different. Take some sandals on this day trek as you walk through streams and over slippery rocks.
Be careful as when you near the waterfall, rocks become particularly slippery, which is where I slipped and hurt my shoulder, then couldn’t trek up the Mountain View Point the following day.
A quick visit to a third village, Bansamsaath…
…to observe more of local life along the Nam Ou River before heading back along the river to Nong Khiaw.
Don’t forget to check part 1 of Nong Khiaw for where to stay and eat, but also a couple of more activities to indulge in…trek up another lookout. Or, explore one of the caves used to shelter villagers and Pathet Lao fighters during the Second Indochina War.