Nong Khiaw

Snapshots of Nong Khiaw – The Adventure Capital of Laos

28 comments
Laos, Photo Essay, Photography

After five days of sunset cruises, overpriced lattes, and western food in the tourist enclave of Luang Prabang, I forgot that Laos is one of the wildest countries in Asia. I was rudely reminded of this fact when we went to the bus station and boarded a minibus for Nong Khiaw.

At the station, they tossed our bags on a mountain of cargo atop the minibus, lashed it down with ropes, and handed us a pair of wooden stools to sit on.  There were no more seats on the bus, so they had my wife and I sit on makeshift wooden chairs in the aisle. I placed my little wooden stool in the aisle, then wedged myself between my fellow passengers. We were packed so tightly I couldn’t lean back because my shoulders overlapped them.

As I sat leaning forward, trying to maintain a positive attitude ahead of our supremely uncomfortable three-hour journey, wondering who would raise our cats in the event of an accident and our inevitable deaths, a Frenchmen in the back row freaked out. He refused to ride on a bus so overloaded with people and cargo. His protestations served as a wake-up call for us, and we demanded actual seats too. We disembarked and took the next bus, which turned out to be surprisingly comfortable, at least for us. We had seats, unlike the handful of unlucky people sitting in the aisle.

Once on the road, our driver sped along the twisting highway with the confidence of a man who believes in reincarnation. He spent almost the entire drive right smack in the middle, swerving back into his own lane when we passed oncoming traffic, often at the last second, and cutting across into the opposite lane on hairpin turns in order maintain as much speed as possible. He dodged countless stray dogs, free-range children, arrogant roosters, plodding tractors, unsuspecting pedestrains, and buzzing motorbikes, yet managed to hit each and every pothole on the rutted road. Like all car rides in Laos, it was a harrowing journey, a fitting prelude for our visit to Nong Khiaw, the adventure capital of Southeast Asia.

I was smitten as soon as we arrived in Nong Khiaw, in part because I survived the trip and could walk on solid ground, and in part because of the spectacular setting. Sitting on the banks of the Nam Ou River, surrounded by jagged, jungle-clad peaks, the village is beautiful and tranquil.

Most travelers go to Nong Khiaw not for the tranquility, but for the adrenaline. Here is a partial list of things adventure seekers can do there:

  1. Hike the 100 Waterfalls trail
  2. Climb to the Pha Daeng Peak Viewpoint
  3. Kayak on the Nam Ou River
  4. Take a boat trip to Muang Ngoi
  5. Hike to the Sleeping Woman Viewpoint
  6. Ride a Mountain Bike to nearby villages

I did none of these. Due to weather, clouds, rain, or sloth, I mostly chilled out. I did, however, go on an overnight trek to a Hmong Village, and while there, drank whiskey for breakfast, dressed in traditional clothes, and celebrated New Year with the villagers, so I am pretty cool.

Although I didn’t hike to the viewpoints or kayak on the river, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Nong Khiaw. Each evening, I joined the joggers, photographers, school kids, lovers, and tourists on the bridge and enjoyed the spectacular sunsets. Though remote, Nong Khiaw has a surprisingly excellent culinary scene, provided you don’t get food poisoning. We alternated eating at the superb Couleur Cafe and Coco Bar and Restaurant, and spent lazy afternoons watching the river from our hotel balcony. Before you start thinking that I’m some sort of big spender for having a balcony that overlooks the river, I should let you know that Nong Khiaw is exceedingly cheap. We paid roughly $14 per night for the room.

In a way, I’m happy I didn’t get around to exploring the area. I have a reason to return, and when I do, I’m going to splurge on a private taxi from Luang Prabang.

Nong Khiaw Photos

 

 

 

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Currently living in Bangkok, I travel, write, take photos, and stalk street cats. ~ planetbell1@gmail.com

28 thoughts on “Snapshots of Nong Khiaw – The Adventure Capital of Laos”

  1. Love your photos in this post, especially the one of the long narrow blue boat from above. The one with the bomb signage a reminder of the tragic history which still impacts today. I laughed reading about the bus ride, but mostly out of nervousness because those are the type of bus rides that leave me exhausted.

    We have to do a visa run in a couple months and were thinking a quick jaunt back to Chiang Mai, but given we never got to the North of Laos, you have me intrigued. Sounds super chill… good food, inexpensive room, river ongoings. I’ll see what kind of flight prices there are from Vietnam and opt for a car over a bus if we do go there!

    Peta

    • If given the choice between Laos and Chiang Mai, Laos wins hands down. Have you been to Luang Prabang yet? It is one of my very favorite places. Nong Khiaw is only like 70 miles away, but a three-hour bus ride. Even though LP has flight connections to about 12 cities now, it remains remote and less touristy than Chiang Mai.

      Those bus rides are so stressful. I am more or less used to them, but I still cringe every time we nearly kill a dog or family 😦

  2. Sophia P Boudinova says:

    Hey Jeff,
    Next time you see free range children – bring me one 😉 just make sure you are safe from the arrogant roosters.

  3. Great post and beautiful pictures Jeff. Tomorrow my post on merely getting to Nong Khiaw will be published (I also mention the questionable roads) and hopefully the week after that I can regale everyone with my tale of getting sick in Nong Khiaw. Just what everyone wants to read, right? (Actually, you’d be surprised. 🙂 ) Thanks for the link, by the way.

    • That road, like all roads in Laos, is horrible. The ride back was actually worse – we lucked out by getting a ride with a van who’d just dropped off a private group, so we had it to ourselves half the way back. Then, we picked up people along the road as you do, but one old man was drunk and threw up several times. All in all, a 10/10 bus ride!

  4. You’re so funny. Unfortunately, I can tell that the roads (nor the driving!) has not improved in like 10 years. When we did a minivan from Vientiane to Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang, it was a DOOZY. We got to relax to the sound of children throwing up in the back seats while the driver drove like hell was coming after him.

    Of course, we tried to tell him to slow down, for the children’s sake, but he did it for only a few minutes before speeding up again. We’d crack open the windows and put our noses out like dogs so we could breathe. And yes, we helped pass plastic bags back for the kids to puke into, we weren’t animals.

    My worst meal was on that trip as well. I ordered fried rice or something bland and what I hoped was safe, but the cook cracked that egg w/ one hand and tossed the shell in for extra calcium. Naturally, I did not discover the shells until I bit down on them, and kept doing so until I gave up eating.

    I could go on, but I’ll stop – hahahahhaaa. Blue boat picture! Communist flag and boy on bike are my favs.

    • On the return trip, an old man threw up repeatedly inside the bus, but he was drunk, not car sick. It never occurred to me to ask the driver to be more careful. I have done that before, and it really hurts their pride 🙂

      I can’t even imagine eggshells in fried rice. I’ve done it before on accident.

      • It’s horrible to constantly crunch on egg shells, the most horrible sensation in your mouth!

  5. gravelghost says:

    “our driver sped along the twisting highway with the confidence of a man who believes in reincarnation.”… Brilliant!

    • Jeff, too bad we did not venture up North, instead we came South and we are currently in Vientiane. Inspite of unpleasant bus rides, we are really enjoying Laos. Brilliant photos!

  6. Ahhh…your photos of Nong Khiaw are such lovely things to wake up to this morning. Kinda makes that crazy mini bus ride worthwhile..!? Your description in hilarious (at least after the fact). We had a Swiss guy sitting on a little wooden stool in the aisle. I said a prayer to every God to get us there in one piece. Crazy how we take these risks when travelling. I’m so glad you enjoyed your relaxing time in Nong Khiaw. Thanks for the links to my posts.

    • About half the taxis in Bangkok don’t have seatbelts. In American, I never ride without a seat belt, but here, you just do it. It is strange the risks we take. I’m really happy we changed out of that bus – it was extra-unsafe. At least our 2nd bus was like a 28-passenger vehicle with wide aisles so the passengers on the floor were not crammed in so much.

      Thanks again for blogging about Nong Khiaw in the first place. That was the first I’d heard of it.

  7. I love adventure, but those kinds of bus rides are not on my list! They terrify me.

    I could look at the photo of the long blue boat from the bridge all day long; that one is a beaut! We will be (may be?) in Luang Prabang as part of our upcoming trip, but I did not even read much about the northern part of the country. Next time, I guess (which I hope is not the first time …)

    • You’ll love Luang Prabang – it is one of my all-time favorite places. I want to explore more of Laos in the future, but travel is difficult – terrible roads in mountainous terrain.

  8. Great post Jeff with gorgeous pictures as usual. I had completely forgotten about the little benches on the buses in Laos. We liked Ngong Khiaw but loved Mung Ngoi so consider it for your next trip to Laos.

  9. It sounds like quite the journey, one you won’t forget. I’ve read of similar, but they often involve someone nearby being sick. I watched a show about America’s secret war in Laos – were there any warning signs about unexploded ordnance?

  10. Such wonderful photos Jeff. Your journey reminded me of a minibus ride from hell from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang. Terrifying. We kayaked on the Nam Ou from LP, but it was only a very short trip.
    Alison

  11. You were lucky there was another bus, but at least they did give you stools on the first one. It looks like a place one could spend quite a while in, with so much to see and do. I’ve really enjoyed coming along through your stories and lovely images.

  12. The pictures are great, but I don’t know how enthused I’d be about the transportation. And I’d have to wonder, is that bomb still thinking about exploding?

  13. “our driver sped along the twisting highway with the confidence of a man who believes in reincarnation”. That, I guess, is the problem. Over in Central Asia, where centuries of solid monotheism and 80 years of socialist vodka have extirpated Buddhism, drivers have that extra edge that comes with the awareness of having one life to play with…

    Jokes aside, mesmerised by Laos. A part of the world I ought to be visiting at some point. The little I’ve seen of Vietnam has definitely whetted my appetite.

    • Thank you. I got lucky – he went right under me on the bridge, and happened to have a photogenic basket of oranges.

  14. Hi Jeff, loved your description of the bus journey to a Nong Khiaw, made us smile. This village is now on our list to visit in March, I think we will chose to go by car though!😆

    • Wise choice to go by car. Most of the travel agents in town can arrange it. On the return trip, we lucked into getting a ride with a van who’d just dropped off a private tour. We had it to ourselves the first half of the trip, but eventually we were packed full 🙂

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