Nong Khiaw: A Quiet Corner of Laos
“But Jon, isn’t pretty much everywhere in Laos quiet?” Yes, but quiet isn’t always created equal, and while you might find plenty of laid back places in Laos, none are likely to be in a more scenic location (and provide you with more travelling comforts) than Nong Khiaw. Sure, you could rent a motorbike and ride to a far off village where no one speaks English and you are treated like a rock star – but for those of us with slightly smaller egos, Nong Khiaw provides the perfect balance of tourist facilities, friendly locals and some great scenery.
It’s far from being overrun with tourists, but there are enough hanging around to bump it from the “off the beaten path” list into what I’d say is my favourite category: “places that are kinda known but not many people go there – where you can get good food and a decent room.” It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue (maybe you can come up with a catchier name) but these kinds of places are perfect to spend a few days in. You can walk around town without being hassled, nothing is too expensive and you have sites and attractions almost completely to yourself. The locals in this genre of tourist town also seem genuinely happy to see you, unlike the jaded greetings you often get in more popular places.
Getting to Nong Khiaw
Nong Khiaw is about a 4 hour bus ride from Luang Prabang, probably Laos’ most popular tourist spot. Luang Prabang is famous for its history, architecture and monk-tourism (what must these monks be thinking while tourists furiously snap photos of them?) You won’t get any of that in Nong Khiaw, what you’ll get is a picturesque river and a town surrounded by mountains. The town is split in 2, separated by a long bridge. On one side is the main town and on the other is where you’ll find the majority of the guesthouses. Most of these are your typical Southeast Asian wooden bungalows which overlook the river. Time slows down in places like this; just sitting out on the deck of the bungalow watching the languid pace of life is enough to forget the worries of the western world.
There are a lot of activities in the surrounding area if you want a bit of adventure. You can do some rock climbing, abseiling and kayaking, but one thing that sounds interesting (I hadn’t even heard of it until a little while ago) is the “100 Waterfalls” trek. The name alone is reason enough to do it; even if the waterfalls aren’t that impressive the sheer number of them will surely make up for it.
A great thing to do is just head out of town, either by foot or by bike, and into the countryside, which is full of rice fields, streams and wide open roads.I didn’t get to spend much time in Nong Khiaw (my visa was running out) so I didn’t explore the area too much, but what I saw made me want to go back.
One attraction I did make a point of seeing was the Pha Tok Caves. These caves housed local Lao communist fighters during the Vietnam War (watch the movie Air America for a good insight into the secret war that was going on in Laos). I’m a pretty big cave fan so I always have fun exploring them, and the added history made this one extra special. It kind of amazes me more people don’t still live in caves – this one actually looked pretty inviting. I guess the spiders, bats and numerous other unlikeable animals that live in caves would ruin the experience pretty quickly.
If you have time to kill in Laos I’d definitely recommend checking out Nong Khiaw. The few days I spent there weren’t quite as relaxing as those spent on Don Det – an island seemingly build for unwinding, but they were pretty close. There are a lot less tourists and it’s nice to spend time in a town which isn’t solely devoted to tourism. You see just as many locals as travellers, which is sometimes a rarity in picturesque Southeast Asian towns (try spending some time in Pai, Thailand!).
Further reading: Need more details about Nong Khiaw? Check out this Wikitravel page
Have you been to Nong Khiaw, or any similar “not quite off the beaten path” places? Let me know!