Almost everyone who has ventured into Northern Laos will praise its beauty and serenity. For those looking to escape the “Banana Pancake Trail” crowds, the wild appeal of the North is completely alluring. Located only four hours from the UNESCO World Heritage site of Luang Prabang is one of the jewels of this region, Nong Khiaw (also spelt Kiau, Kiew). While not completely undiscovered by backpackers, the allure of this picturesque town attracts visitors looking to both laze away the days and push their bodies to the limit.
Situated on the Nam Ou river which flows into the Mekong further South, one can feel completely fulfilled swinging in a hammock or climbing the limestone cliffs that surround this friendly village. Used as a stepping-stone for further exploration, Nong Khiaw gives a great introduction to the idealistic atmosphere of Northern Laos. Affable locals do everything they can to ensure you fall in love with their town and become reluctant to leave. The plethora of activities on offer will leave you wishing for more hours in the day to complete them all. In almost any case, spending a few days (or even a few weeks) here will certainly become one of the highlights of your trip to Laos.
Places to Stay:
Nong Khiaw has a good selection of sleeping options. The best location to find a good guesthouse is on the east side of the river, over the bridge. Here you can find many budget options ranging from riverfront bungalows to motel-style rooms. A huge benefit of being on the east side of the river is the chance to enjoy the sunset from your hammock, in which most accommodations have swinging outside your door. Here is a list of some places to stay:
- Meexai Guesthouse: Located down a dirt alley that houses many worthwhile options, Meexai is setup in a large, modern two-storey building with clean, spacious rooms. One massive balcony on each floor is subtly divided into smaller patios individual to each room. The owner is especially friendly and does a great job making your stay completely comfortable. Stay upstairs for the best view.
- Bamboo Paradise: Here you have a choice of a room or a bamboo bungalow, with the latter offering great views over the river. Basic in their design, but comfortable with hammocks urging you to stay that extra day.
- Sunrise Bungalows: A little bit more rustic than other options in the vicinity, but the great vistas and friendly owners more than make up for any flaws found in the buildings.
- Nam Ou River Lodge: Located on the western side of town this cheerful guesthouse offers great rooms and as implied in the name, an excellent location by the river. Helpful owner can organise tours and excursions for you.
- Nong Kiau Riverside: Those looking for a bit more of an upmarket option will find themselves at these east-side cabins. Although it is priced out of the range of most backpackers, this place provides a great getaway for those weary travellers who are after a bit of luxury in a landlocked paradise. Big rooms, nice balconies and a spectacular view tempt even the most budget-conscious customers.
Things To Do:
This is where Nong Khiaw really shines as a must-see destination. You will be hard-pressed to find yourself without something to do (unless that is the reason you chose to visit). As to be expected, some of the best activities on offer are based around the river or the surrounding cliffs and mountains.
- Rock Climbing: Hailed as Laos’ answer to the famed region of Krabi in Thailand, the limestone formations in close proximity to town offer both technical and beginner routes. Numerous outfits in town can provide equipment rental, guided tours and even introductory courses.
- Trekking: With more trails than you can throw a stick at, you will not be left wanting when it comes to the types of trekking on offer around town. From half-day walks in the countryside to multi-day jaunts exploring the hill tribes and challenging terrain there is something for everyone.
- Kayaking: What riverside town would be complete without the enjoyable adventures of kayaking? Rent one for a few hours or a few days and paddle your way to neighbouring villages, some of which can only be reached via the water.
- ‘100 Waterfalls Tour’: Claimed to be one of the best hikes in Laos, and only recently “discovered”, the 100 Waterfalls tour takes you through some pristine cascades. An option of visiting a village is also available.
- Viewpoint: A steep and demanding climb on the east side of the town takes you up to a spectacular viewpoint. Best tackled early in the morning to beat the heat, this is a must-do to witness some of the best views in Laos.
- Pha Tok Cave: During the second Indochina war, this cave was used to shelter villagers and fighters. Only 2km from town this makes for an interesting sight for those interested in the brutal history of this Asian nation.
- Cycling: Renting a bicycle and riding down the many tracks and trails is a great way to spend a day. Ride out to waterfalls, villages or just admire the scenery from two wheels.
How To Get Here:
- Bus: The best way to reach Nong Khiaw is via public transport. Local buses from Luang Prabang can take you to the town of Pak Mong, where you can hail a tuk-tuk to take you the rest of the way to Nong Khiaw. From Udomxai buses may be found to take you straight to Nong Khiaw, but be prepared for a changeover somewhere along the line. Alternatively minivans can be booked for the entire journey (at a slightly higher price) from Luang Prabang.
- Boat: With the building of a hydroelectric dam, it is now no longer possible to take a boat trip direct from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw. If money is no option, or you have a large enough group of people, you can charter a boat to take you to the dam where you can walk or negotiate a ride to the other side then continue the journey on a different boat.
Where To Next?
- Muang Ngoi: Located further up the Nam Ou, Muang Ngoi is a poorly kept secret for those backpackers wishing to get off the beaten path. It used to be without power or road-access, which drew in hordes of travellers. While it does now have both of these, it is still a dream destination for those who wish to relax in one of the most scenic and peaceful villages in all of SE Asia.
- Udomxai: The largest city in Northern Laos makes for more than just a transport hub to get you to the farther-flung reaches of the countryside. With some beautiful nature to be explored, this place should not be neglected!
- Sam Neua: Close to the Vietnamese border, this remote town is set in some pristine mountains that are best investigated by motorbike.
- Luang Prabang: This UNESCO World Heritage site is only four hours from Nong Khiaw. While most travellers would of arrived from Luang Prabang, for those who crossed from China or Northern Vietnam this old French colony will be an absolute must-see.
About the author: Written by ambassador Jarryd Salem, who also writes his own entertaining blog NOMADasaurs with his girlfriend, Alesha Bradford. Alesha was the photographer for this destination page.