Nong Khiaw was our Hotel California. You can check in, but you can never leave! Located in Northern Laos, the sleepy town of Nong Khiaw used to be somewhat of a backpackers secret, but it is slowly starting to pick up the numbers. It’s a paradise for outdoor activities with its mountains, rivers and hikes.
For us, we had no such plans, but just wanted to relax for a day of 4. We had crossed into Laos from Thailand and had maintained a steady pace at that point. A break from our trip was in order before we would travel to Vietnam. While we knew we needed a visa for Vietnam, we completely missed that due to Chinese new year, the embassy would be closed, and not re-open for a good while. And so we decided to wait it out in Nong Khiaw, since it would be cheaper than Luang Prabang. We ended up staying for 8 days!
Things to do
If anything, Nong Khiaw is the perfect place for a little relaxation. Get yourself a little guesthouse or a riverside bungalow, and just enjoy the slower life. This could be the time to pick up your book or, who are we kidding, sip cocktails in the sunshine!
Take your scooter, and go over the bridge towards the Nong Khiaw viewpont. Once you keep going, the road takes you through the mountains and valleys, and by the time you start considering going back, you will hit a few tiny villages. They are nothing more than a few houses and a few small convenience stores, and people were so happy to see us. Jochem was ‘forced’ to smoke a cigarette with a grandpa and his sons! There’s chickens in the road, kids running around, and the views are fantastic.
Visit the caves
Nong Khiaw actually has quite a few caves! The closest one to town, Pha Tok, is at about an hour’s walk, or a short drive away. It’s probably the most interesting one as this cave was used for shelter by soldiers during the second Indochina war. A few signposts and artefacts still remain. Make sure to rent a flashlight, it gets pitch black inside. The entrance to the second cave will lead you through the fields and eventually to a small shrine at the cave’s entrance.
There’s no shortage of viewpoints in Nong Khiaw! We found Laos good for climbing anyway, but in Nong Khiaw, we could choose between a plethora of mountains. The most popular one is Pha Daeng at 460m. Supposedly an hour climb, but experience had thought us that goes double for us! We decided to be a bit lazy and pick a low one: Pha Noi. It took us about half an hour up, and we had clear views of Nong Khiaw and the Nam Ou.
Back in the day, Muang Ngoi was a hidden, only accessible by boat tiny village that only a few backpackers off the beaten track made it to. It still is only accessible by boat, but no longer undiscovered. You’ll run into tour groups occupying the few restaurants there are and locals quite quickly grasping the opportunities. Don’t let that disappoint you though, it still is a very charming city with beautiful views and good hiking paths. The boat from Nong Khiaw will get you there in about half an hour, and it is easily doable on a day trip if you’re not hiking. The boat ride itself is worth it!
Where to eat
- NoyMany: south of the bridge. Run by a family and the best Lao food we had in Laos. Super inexpensive and a roof terrace
- Mama Alex: we did not enjoy the food much, but it is the place for socialising in the evenings
- Coco Home Bar: run by a French guy and his Lao wife, they serve decent wine and good food in a cute setting
- Family Bakery Cafe: perfect for breakfast, run by some feisty Lao women!
- Q Bar: Good happy hour! Also, don’t bet money on winning from owner Jimme at pool. You will lose.
Where to stay
We stayed at Ban Lao Sunset. Don’t stay in the main building, but make sure to get a riverside bungalow. They are super basic, no aircon, with just enough room for the bed and your luggage, but with hot showers and a hammock! We loved our stay so much we kept extending. We paid $11 a night, which was fine for what we received.
Good to knows
- There are 2 ATMS as of February 2020. One of those will usually be stocked. We found the one by the bridge empty one day, and 2 days later it was stocked, so service is pretty quick.
- Stay on the hiking paths.
- Wear proper shoes if you’re going for a viewpoint. We always go ‘ah, we could have done it in flipflops’, but no. Just no.
In the end, we spent quite a bit of time in Nong Khiaw, due to the Vietnam visa waiting time. Sure, on rainy days it gets a bit dreary, but as soon as the sun comes out, nothing beats this town. Enjoy the views from the bridge, rent a canoe (just don’t take it to Muang Ngoi, it will take you 4 hours) and if the boys from the adventure offices offer you a ‘Lao whiskey’, take it, and regret it immediately after.
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