Nong Khiaw is just 3 hours North of Luang Prabang and is reported to be the real Lao village experience in the most laid back town in Laos. The minibus journey wasn’t enjoyable as we hurtled around corners and bumped over the potholes and pothumps (the bumps in Laos roads). Thankfully, we made it safely and switched to tuk-tuk to get across town and find a place to stay. We followed a recommendation from Matthias and Janna and ended up with a nice room on the quiet side of the river. It was time for a recovery drink from the journey and we found a good milkshake and cup of tea in a nearby restaurant.
Nong Khiaw itself has two viewpoints, a few caves and some good river views. It is surrounded by karst mountains lining the river and is a pretty little place. Unfortunately, for our first two days, fever and a bad cold dictated that we should take it easy and do pretty much nothing. On our second day, we managed to climb up to one of the viewpoints for sunset. The climb was fairly steep but had a good path. The 400m uphill over 2km was hard work while suffering from a cold, especially with the high humidity. We fought our inner pig-dogs and reached the top with time to spare. There was a surprising number of people waiting for the sun to set. The views were incredible and 360 degrees. We could see rice paddies, mountains, villages, the Nam Ou river and Nong Khiaw itself. As the sun set the sky turned orange and pink. It was beautiful. We didn’t stay too long as we had to make it back down the hill before it got too dark. We were in bed and fast asleep early partly to recover, and partly to combat the calls of the roosters in the early hours of the morning. Sadly the mountains of sticky rice we had eaten became rice bricks in our stomachs making it a little uncomfy to sleep. The next day we were feeling a little better and set out to find the market to pick up some more thread for our embroidery. The lady with the sewing machine in the middle of her stall was a good pick and we got the thread we were after.
Next up was a search for kayaks. We found a double kayak and set off on our adventure upstream towards a few small villages. The villages in this area are home to ethnic minorities such as Hmong and Khmu or a mixture of the two. The people in Laos still stick to their traditions and are proud of their cultural heritage although some of the traditional outfits are only worn for special occasions or to make money out of tourists. We hadn’t visited any villages yet but decided to save them for later when we went up river. Instead, we admired the amazing scenery of bright green river banks and the karst mountains towering above us. The river was low and had almost no current so in places it was as flat as a mirror giving us twice the incredible view. Paddling was fairly easy until we took a turn around an island. At one end we came across some swirling currents which would be rapids when the river rose. Going still further upstream we eventually met a waterfall we couldn’t pass and turned around. Surprisingly, the paddle back down was not much easier. The lack of current meant we got very little help paddling back to Nong Khiaw. Finally, hot and thirsty, we arrived back at the main bridge and treated ourselves to an ice cream and a lot of water. Our gentle paddle had been 4.5 hours and around 22km. Tired and hungry we went for showers and dinner. We tried the local speciality Mok Paa, which is chicken/fish steamed in banana leaves with herbs and vegetables. Yum.
The next morning we set off to catch the boat upriver to the village of Muang Noi. We had somehow managed to arrive an hour early for the boat, so had a little bit of time to hang around. The boats are surprisingly organised, we bought tickets and queued on the jetty to board. The longtail boats that run upriver are obviously licensed to hold as many people and as much luggage as possible without sinking. We were packed in like sardines, sitting below water level with our legs folded up in front of us. When we thought the boat was overfull, they managed to squeeze in another person and some more luggage and around twenty minutes later we finally left. The boat journey would be quite nice if it wasn’t for the lack of comfort or ability to move to see the scenery. Around halfway, we stopped to pick up yet another villager and a huge sack of rice, which one tourist ended up sitting on top of. Our boat struggled the remainder of the way over small rapids in the very low river. Finally we made it to Muang Ngoi and unfolded ourselves onto the boat jetty. With our bags we trooped up the steps ignoring the calls of riverside bungalows. Instead, we found our own way to the main street and ended up in Aloune Riverside Bungalows with a lovely river view. We chatted with our new neighbours from France and Estonia before going out for lunch.
We decided to climb on of the village viewpoints that afternoon. The path was easy to follow with bamboo and wooden bridges across some of the more rocky parts. Luckily, we had a great guide dog who led us all the way to the viewing platform. The views were fantastic across the valley and village but not as good as the viewpoint in Nong Khiaw. We visited one of the most local looking restaurants for dinner, and although service was slow, the food was delicious. It was also a first to try green tea with condensed milk, which we wouldn’t recommend.
Our second day in Muang Ngoi started with a lie in and a good buffet breakfast to give us energy for a bit of walking. Muang Ngoi is a good base for visiting surrounding villages of ethnic minorities including Khmu and Hmong. The roads are empty and signposts to each village make navigating a breeze. Just outside Muang Ngoi, there is a cave to visit and a river to cross where the locals charge tourist 10,000kip, which supposedly will fund a new bridge. We aren’t sure how many years they have been doing this, but so far there is only a cheap wooden bridge. The walk is fairly easy except for the hot sun beating down. The scenery of Karst hills and rice paddies is beautiful. We arrived at the village of Ban Na, where we headed straight to the school to donate the Big Brother Mouse books we had bought. At first one girl came to ask for a book and then called her friend. We realised that the 14 books we had wouldn’t go far between 50 odd children, so went into the school in search of a teacher. We found one lady and gave her the books. She didn’t know what to do as all the children formed a scrum around her, but somehow she managed to fight her way out and find a teacher to give the books to. The teacher was very happy and obviously explained to the children that they had to wait to read the books. It was great to see how keen the children were, but we wished we had brought more books with us. Wandering through the village was nice as there were quite a few women weaving on looms and traditional houses. We couldn’t help ourselves from buying some of the beautiful things they make. After shopping we made our way back to Muang Ngoi to relax with a cocktail by the river.
Early the next morning we got back on the floating sardine tin, but we were lucky to find the luxury seats empty. At the front of the boat there are four old car seats with leg room and a view. It was nice to travel first class back down the river. Arriving back at Nong Khiaw we found a room for the night and set off for the bus station. As it turned out we could have made the bus to our next destination Luang Namtha, but it wasn’t a bad thing to have another relaxing day in Nong Khiaw. The next morning we boarded the bus and were on our way.