Muang Khua is just a sleepy village stretched across the highway and set at the banks of the formidable Nam Ou river. There isn’t really much to see and do there but it is peaceful and pleasant enough to stay for a day or two. There are some expensive hiking tours to the ethnic minority villages available from the town but undoubtedly the biggest attraction is taking a boat down Nam Ou river to Nong Khiaw.
From Dien Bien Phu to Muang Khua
We entered Laos through the northernmost border crossing with Vietnam- Tay Trang. We took a 5.30 am bus from Dien Bien Phu, together with four French and a few locals.
The quality of the road to the border was surprisingly bad as for Vietnam. Laos appeared empty and very green in comparison to Vietnam. Mist, forest-clad mountains and a large, brown river down below was all we could see during that journey.
At the Laotian land border
The exit formalities at the Vietnam crossing were smooth and fast. We drove at least 15 minutes through the no man’s land until we reached the Laos crossing.
And there the problems began. The crossings process appeared very chaotic and hastened. At the first counter, we were already asked to pay more than we expected. I made a mistake of not arguing at all and just paying whatever we were asked to. I was prepared for a rip-off as I read in various blogs we’d be surely charged $5 in ‘extra fees’. Alas, it was even more than that!
Every single person we had to deal with during the visa process asked us for money. Sometimes in dollars, sometimes in Laotian currency, kips. As we didn’t have any kips, we had to pay in Vietnamese dongs at a disadvantageous conversion rate. We got two receipts so we assume that ‘Laos tourism development fund’ at $2 and measuring the temperature for 5 000 kip were legitimate expenses. The visa handling fee could have been legit, too. However, we were asked also for more unspecified expenses. Altogether, it was a whopping $7 extra per person!
The French group faced a different problem: some of their dollars were not accepted because they were too old. We really don’t know what would happen to them if we didn’t lend them $10. It soon turned out that this act of kindness saved us. Good karma.
ATMs in Muang Khua
Relying on ATMs in Muang Khua is a risky business. Having read there are 3 ATMs in town we couldn’t anticipate any problem.
The French group gave us back the money in kips. We used it to buy a local SIM card and only then did we try to withdraw the cash. As it turned out, two ATMs ran out of money and the third one was closed.
A bank cashier assured us that the money would be available again in the evening and he was thankfully right. The remaining 30 000 kip was barely enough to get us a noodle soup each. Our withdrawal emptied the ATM again. It must be quite challenging to take out cash in the high season when more tourists are around so make sure you come prepared!
Muang Khua on a budget
We booked our guesthouse on Booking.com before arriving but judging by the number of the tourists, it wasn’t really necessary in August. We got a simple yet clean ensuite room with a view at a small river.
There was a fresh market in the town, most busy in the morning. The vendors were selling a bit suspiciously looking grilled meat and a few vegan dishes wrapped in leaves. I was happy to find delicious spicy greens which I had with ubiquitous sticky rice. Apart from the market, there was one river view restaurant and a couple smaller eateries catering for tourists in town. The food wasn’t particularly great value for money- we were missing Vietnam already.
Things to do in Muang Khua
There isn’t much to do in the town apart from having a walk through a suspension bridge over a tributary of the main river and going down to the Nam Ou river.
The only uphill street in Muang Khua leads to a football pitch and from there turns into a very narrow path through a forest. Our guess would be that is a path leading to one of the minority villages but as we discovered it on our last evening, we couldn’t really check it. Instead, we saw an amazing view of the whole valley and met old women carrying wood.
After a visit at a tourist info (with a staff speaking fluent English), we were briefly considering making a guided trek from Muang Khua. I say briefly, as the prices were simply outrageous. A tour consisting of taking a tuk -tuk to Pak Nam Noy (where you could easily get by bus), visiting the market, going to an Akha tribe village just 2 hours away from Pak Nam Noy and seeing one more village on the way back would cost ridiculous $120 per person (based on two people). It makes much more sense to visit the Pak Nam Noy market independently, as we did.
Getting out of Nong Khiaw
There were very few tourists in the town in August which is at the peak of the rainy season. The lack of tourists wasn’t to our advantage as we needed to gather a group of at least 8 people to pay an acceptable price for a 6 hours boat journey to Nong Khiaw. Originally, we wanted to travel to that peaceful, picturesque town by boat and then move on to Luang Prabang. We went down to the pier two days in a row but there was no sign of forming a group and it was way too expensive to hire the whole boat.
We were actually not sure if taking a rather small boat on this fast flowing, dark brown river would be entirely safe so missing this experience didn’t cause us a heartbreak.
The second option was going to Pak Nam Noy to see the market. We could then travel onwards by road via Oudomxay to Nong Khiaw. Having nothing to do in the rainy Muang Khua, we had no other choice but to go for it.
How to get to Muang Khua?
There are a few buses daily from Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam (7-8h).
You could also take a direct bus to Oudomxay (3h) -an important transit point from where you could carry on to Luang Prabang or to Phongsali in the north.
Unlike the buses from Dien Bien Phu which stop in the middle of the village, the buses to destinations within Laos start from a bus station located 2 km outside the village, along the highway.
You could also take a scenic boat route to Muang Ngoi or Nong Khiaw (around 6h-7h respectively). Bear in mind that in the low season, it can take a few days to gather a group of 8 people. In the high season, boats run daily.
[2019 UPDATE] Sadly, there is brand new dam built on that section of the river so now the journey is interrupted and part of it is done by land.
Prices [in Laotian kip as of August 2018]:
120 000 shared boat to Nong Khiaw
70 000 bus Muang Khua to Dien Bien Phu
60 000 double room with a bathroom
20 000 bus Muang Khua to Pak Nam Noi
20 000 simple noodles at a restaurant
15 000 khao soi soup at the market
5 000 leafy greens from the market
3 000 sticky rice from the market
2-5 000 coffee