Nong Khiaw – Laotian karst paradise

Nong Khiaw is a large but peaceful village at the banks of Nam Ou river, most famous for the spectacular karst landscape. It’s one of those places where you can chill out for days, gazing at the river from your hammock or climbing up the viewpoints with breathtaking vistas. The vicinity of Luang Prabang makes it a very convenient destination.

Nong Khiaw from the Pha Daeng Peak, Nam Ou river, surrounded with green forests and hugging the banks of Nam Ou river

Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw

After a week in lovely Luang Prabang, we decided to have some chill-out time at the nearby Nong Khiaw. We bargained for a tuk- tuk which took us to the northern bus station and then got on board of a bus to Nong Khiaw.

A narrow boat with a racing team is watched by Laotian people standing under the umbrellas on the bridge

The trip took longer than 3 hours as the traffic got diverted via tiny roads in a very poor shape. Unexpectedly, we got stuck in a traffic. All around us there were families with children carrying plastic toy guns, baloons, etc. We stumbled across one of many boat races which take place in towns and villages all across Laos between August and October (more about it HERE). We were lucky to see the races from the bridge when crossing the river.

Nong Khiaw on a budget

The accommodation prices in Nong Khiaw don’t differ much from those in the rest of the country. As it was low season we could negotiate a good price for a large room with a balcony offering a great view of the river.

A balcony of a guesthouse with a view at the Nam Ou river and the forested mountains in the background

However, like with any small towns that became tourist destinations, there weren’t many options in terms of local eateries or markets. In the evening, we had to rely on backpackers- geared restaurants. On one side, it was very comforting to eat an affordable Indian meal or come back to good old pad Thai, on the other, we were definitely paying more than necessary.

It is possible to find deep fried sweets and snacks or come across a temporary stall selling vegan noodles with spring onion, sprouts and coriander wrapped in a banana leaf. Two packs for 2 000 kip each would suffice as a lunch. Dubious origin meat skewers and sticky rice are also available during daytime. Search for them on the more busy bank of the river, where the bus station and the pier is.

Pha Daeng Peak Viewpoint

The greatest attraction of Nong Khiaw (apart from the river itself) are two view points, each on one side of the river: Pha Daeng Peak and the Sleeping Woman. We went to the more famous one- Pha Daeng, with the entrance and ticket booth right in the middle of the backpackers village.

The fee of 20 000 kip is totally justified, considering the maintenance works such as cutting overgrowth and supplying bamboo railings and ropes. The hike is short but mostly very steep and in the wet season full of mud so good shoes are essential. Thankfully, most of the route is shaded.

Sayak holding on to a rope while walking down the rocky and muddy path to the Pha Daeng viewpoint

Although the board at the ticket office advises a visit in the morning (to see the clouds and mist) or at the sunset, we set off deliberately at 2 pm to be there on our own. Besides, I didn’t fancy going down the slippery path after sunset. It was a good strategy. We came across just one guy on the top but passed 10 people heading up when we were descending.

The path, though not particularly easy, was quite interesting, leading between sharp rocks and winding its way around tree trunks and bushes. There was just one moment where we could see the view before getting to the top so when we finally reached there, we almost gasped in awe.

A panoramic view at the green, sharp mountains and Nam Ou river winding between them

360 degrees panorama opened to the river and the sharp, tall karst mountains along its banks. The green mountains and karst rocks were all around us. We could clearly see the whole Nong Khiaw right below.

A Laotian and hammer and sickle flag stuck into the pile of rocks on the Pha Daeng peak, sharp green rocks behind it

There was a shelter on top so no matter what time of the day or weather you arrived, you could admire the view for a longer while. There were also two flags stuck on top: Lao national flag and the hammer and sickle flag of Lao People’s Revolutionary Party.

Sharp-ended rocks covered with lush forests filling the view till the horizon

The flood

We were planning to wake up early the following day to see the second view point located near the bus station. Our plans got ruined due to a downpour battering constantly from 3 am all the way till the evening.

Fast flowing, swollen and brown Nam Ou river and mist-covered mountains in the background

When I went out to the balcony at 9 am I noticed that a small stream entering the river turned overnight into a fierce, fast flowing river. There was a huge whirlpool visible in the place where two rivers were meeting. The water was full of debris, including entire trees flowing down. The mountains were hardly visible in the mist.

We sneaked out only for a meal and when coming back had to wade in an ankle deep, vigorously flowing stream the dirt path to the guesthouse turned into. The following day was only slightly better, so we just stayed indoors, trapped.

A view at the Nam Ou river, Nong Khiaw village on the other bank and mist shrouded karst rocks in the background

There was a power cut at night which turned out to be permanent. In the morning, there wasn’t any water since the water pump couldn’t work without electricity. At least it stopped raining. It was high time to make a move.

Escape route cut off

The bad news was that the only road leading out of Nong Khiaw was destroyed – part of it collapsed into the river. Getting from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang by a private boat would be very expensive. We wouldn’t even have enough cash for it and the ATM didn’t work (as there was no electricity). Taking all of this into consideration, we risked travelling upstream to Muang Ngoi.

PRACTICALITIES

How to get to Nong Khiaw?
By boat
It’s possible to reach Nong Khiaw by boat from Muang Khua (near the Vietnamese border in Tay Trang). This scenic boat route takes around 6h-7h respectively. Bear in mind that in the low season, it can take a few days to gather a minimum group of 8 people. In the high season, boats run daily.
[UPDATE] A new dam was built on that section of the river so now the journey is interrupted and part of it is done by land.
Technically, getting to Nong Khiaw from Luang Prabang is possible as well. However, a private boat hire including dam detour costs a whopping 900 000 kip.
By bus/van
You can get to Nong Khiaw from Luang Prabang by a public bus from the northern terminal (3h). The bus stops in the far end of Nong Khiaw, 1 km away from the bridge. You can take a shared tuk-tuk to the other side of the river which would drop you at your chosen guesthouse.

Prices [in Laotian kip as of September 2018]:
65 000 an en-suite double room with a terrace and river view
40 000 bus Luang Prabang- Nong Khiaw
25 000 boat to Muang Ngoi
25 000 lunch at the restaurant
20 000 entrance to Pha Daeng viewpoint
5 000 tuk-tuk from the bus station to the other side of the river
2 000 noodles from the street stall

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