Last Updated on August 24, 2017 by Christine Kaaloa
Is Laos’s Khiaw merely a traveler’s hub or does it have its own unique pulse?
Dusty dirt roads and old wooden storefront buildings. This is what I saw when the bus dropped me and a van full of tourists off in the middle of the main street of Nong Khiaw.
Did we arrive yet?
No one seemed to know. The small quiet town looked like a Laos version of a deserted Wild West with occasional motorbikes, kicking up dust as they passed.
Oh my god… what could I possibly do here? I thought…
Five minutes after arriving, I contemplated re-boarding our local minivan bus, but I’d just finished a three-hour ride from Luang Prabang.
The town’s main street
Correction… five hours!
Taking a Laotian van bus takes time, if you have it.
The bus from Luang Prabang left on standard Laos time … late. Why? It was waiting for more passengers to fill its max load. Whether bus or boat, that’s how the Laos transportation schedule works– full squeeze ahead.
After finally leaving Luang Prabang, that’s when it occurred to the driver to check his gas tank. Fuel levels were low, so we turned back to L.P. to go to the gas station …only to discover there was a power outage in town! Almost every fuel station was down, so station-to-station we drove, searching for an “Open” sign. I saw a lot of the outskirts of Luang Prabang (which wasn’t nearly as exciting as my bus ride back, when it made an emergency stop for a young couple on the way to a hospital with a newborn baby, struck ill and connected to an IV drip!)
Nong Khiaw is a transportation hub, not a sightseeing goal
Crossing the bridge from the town to the enclave of guesthouses and few traveler restaurants, the karst panorama of Nong Khiaw instantly sparks you!
A view from my bungalow
But its captivating and magnetic charm, lasts only up until you walk up and down the town’s one main street to realize that’s it; that Nong Khiaw is the place travelers pass through on way to another destination!
Getting to Nong Khiaw or Muong Ngoi from Luang Prabang
Nong Khiauw is a transfer hub. It’s the bus station is the gateway between Luang Prabang and other destinations, such as Udomxay, Luang Namtha, etc.. The bus station is a 10-15 minute walk to the end of the street; and the ferry dock either, whisks you north to enjoy village trekking or glides south (to Luang Prabang) where the river laps along a tranquil landscape masterpiece.
By mini van bus: From Luang Prabang’s south station to Nong Khiaw, it takes around 3-4 hours (depending, as the driver will wait for passengers to fill the van and may pick up people along the way). To my knowledge, the bus doesn’t make any restroom stops. The bus will likely either drop you at the station or in the middle of town. If you’re going to Muong Ngoi, I advise you going immediately to the boat dock to see what the boat schedule is. The boat leaves around two or three times a day, so if you miss the last call, then you need to stay in Nong Khiaw overnight.
The bus station
Check out my Guide to Laos transportation.
Taking the boat from Nong Khiaw
If you go north for around and hour, you’ll hit Muong Ngoi. The river boat ride to Muong Ngoi is scenic and beautiful but a reminder the boat isn’t only for tourists but for locals too. Locals are occasionally transporting more goods than a tourist’s backpack. It’s entertaining to watch.
By boat: You can also take the slow boat up the Nam Ou river to Nong Khiaw, will take 6-8 hours and you’ll need to negotiate the cost. I hear it’s a beautiful scenic route though.
Getting to Muong Ngoi by boat: The ride is around 3 hours. I’d use the bathroom before boarding as the boat doesn’t make any restroom stops.
Advice: Take snacks before you go to Nong Khiaw. There are international restaurants and Delilah’s, a cute cafe at the end of the street which serves yogurt, smoothies and desserts (in photo below), but snacks shops are close to nil. You’ll want to pick up a flashlight here or in Muong Ngoi, simply because Muong Ngoi doesn’t have power at night.
& boat ticket booth
Where to stay in Nong Khiaw
For a small town, there’s still a handful of guesthouses to offer travelers. They’re located on the opposite of the bridge from the town and many of them have a pretty nice view of the river and karst mountains. The best guesthouses are the ones which offer the prime view of the river and mountain.
I stayed at the Bamboo Paradise Guesthouse, which was one of the few guesthouses with a riverside view. A whole bungalow to myself and a lovely view of the river and the mountain! The bamboo bungalow felt a little rickety (even though it’s very sturdy). But it was all good. Having a pad to myself and walking out onto my balcony to stare at my amazing view, had me feeling like I was in a palace.
What do you do when you’re in a place with one main street and it doesn’t offer much?
This is when a camera comes in handy. Seeking out the gems in a place- when the obvious flash and twinkle of sightseeing tricks aren’t there- takes time, patience and a geniunely laid-back spirit of exploration. Though I wasn’t finding anything exciting to do, didn’t mean nothing was going on.
What defines a town is its people, their lifestyle, livelihood and history. Every town has a life of its own… a unique heartbeat.
It took me an afternoon to warm to the town and discover its shy pulse. In Nong Khiaw, the residents and the small-town quirks of daily living are its most valuable and surprising excavations. If you’re there when the local school is in session, the town youth reveals its true pageantry.
The locals are Nong Khiaw’s gems
Ticket seller for the ferry.
Inside a Laotian classroom
David Bowie’s monkey
Sometimes, when you give small towns a closer look, they end up surprising you!