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:
- Hike the 100 Waterfalls trail
- Climb to the Pha Daeng Peak Viewpoint
- Kayak on the Nam Ou River
- Take a boat trip to Muang Ngoi
- Hike to the Sleeping Woman Viewpoint
- 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.