140km north of Luang Prabang, set in the midst of limestone giants, lies the sleepy town of Nong Khiaw. After an eventful- to say the least, bus ride which involved sitting on a part chair, part slinky the entire ride and watching two french pensioners beat each other to the ground over ‘who sits where’ in the minibus, we finally set foot on the dusty trails of this quaint village.
For a village of this size; it really only comprises of a bridge separating the two halves of town and two very long, very empty dust roads, there is surprisingly much to do to fill your time here. There are two types of tourist who visit Nong Khiaw; the adventurous types, those who come for the kayaking, the two day treks and the 100 waterfalls hike. Alternatively, there are the relaxing types, those who wish to spend all day lounging in a hammock, gazing at the most breathtaking panoramic views you could ever imagine. I like to think I’m somewhere in the middle; I get fidgety if I sit still too long and am terrible at entertaining myself, but I’m also not prepared to part with my hard earned money on over-priced treks and tours.
It can be very easy to be drawn in by all of the tour companies here and shell out £100’s for all of the treks they can offer you. My best advice- don’t do any of them. I hate organised tours, I always think they’re either a scam or a complete waste of money; there are so many ways you can spend your time here without spending all of your money. Here’s a list of some of my favourite things to do in Nong Khiaw;
Hike to the two mountain view points
There are two fantastic treks in Nong Khiaw itself and you don’t need a tour to organise them for you; you can simply walk to them.
The first is on the side of the river with the majority of restaurants and guesthouses, it’s the most famous of the two and there are signs advertising it everywhere. There is a small entrance fee of 20,000 kip (approx £2) but you get a free bottle water thrown in and all of the admission goes to conserving the trail. This hike is fairly easy and although is all uphill, the stairs are easy to climb and there are a couple of benches along the way to rest. This trek supposedly takes 1 and a half hours to climb- we did it in 40 minutes. Take a packed lunch up with you and eat at the mountain shack at the summit- the views really are incredible.
The second trek is on the other side of the river, the entrance is close to Hive bar so you can follow signs for there if you get a little lost. The entrance fee is cheaper here at only 10,000 kip (£1) and again all fees pay for the conservation of the trail- this one requires a lot of upkeep as the rocks get washed away each monsoon season. This hike really isn’t for the faint hearted; basically a rock climbing challenge, this trek is a vertical climb for at least 75% of the total trek. Not tiring as such, but incredibly physically demanding; there are some sheer cliff faces you must navigate around so don’t look down if you want to reach the top.
The second mountain view point; although more challenging is also more rewarding. You will guaranteed be the only person there when you reach the top and the views really are the best you will ever see. Take plenty of water and start the climb early morning to be sure you’re down before the hottest hours start.
Experience a herbal steam bath
There’s only one way to ease your aching muscles after hiking two days in a row; and that’s to go for a steam bath. Not as the name suggests; it’s more of a room than a bath, and I guess more of a wooden hut than a room. At only 20,000 (£2) for as long as you like, and free herbal tea, there is simply no better way to spend the afternoon than detoxifying, cleaning your skin and clearing you sinuses (Joe and I both have a cold) in a herbal steam bath. Think of a sauna crossed with a steam room, with no lights (for some reason you have to sit in the pitch black, trust me it is actually much more relaxing this way) and you’re right on the money.
Eat the local cuisine
For a place a little off the beaten track, you will be surprised at the vast amount of restaurants here; although most are in someone’s house so don’t be taken aback if there is someone asleep in bed across the room from you or there are small children playing in the corner- it’s just the culture here.
Most people head straight to Deen’s Indian restaurant; I found it a little bland, the portions were small and the potatoes in my curry were awful (You’ll never find a potato better than a British one). Make the most of your experience in Laos and try authentic Laos food it’s so delicious. Similar to Thai food, Laos cuisine is VERY spicy, yet refreshing and is also really healthy in comparison to its Asian neighbours. You MUST try the Laos salad- think green; green beans, peas, mint leaves, spinach and various other steamed vegetables make this dish along with a sesame sauce and Laos’ famous sticky rice. It’s simply to die for; I’ve eaten it 4 times in 2 days it was that good. Head to Mackara’s karaoke bar for the best authentic food in Laos!
Explore the village
It may not be the largest place in the world, but boy does it have some of the best views I’ve ever seen. Simply step outside of your guesthouse and you’ll be face to face with limescale mountains, a rapid river, dirt roads, long boats and clear skies. There is hardly any traffic here and come to think of it, hardly any people either. Simply walk up a dirt path for 5 minutes and you’ll find yourself all alone.
Have a movie night
In Laos, there is a curfew of midnight, meaning you have to be back at your hotel by that time and everything closes down. There are two bars; Hive bar and Q in Nong Khiew- I didn’t visit either as I don’t drink (anymore) but this isn’t really a party place anyway. The place everyone does go in an evening is to my hostel; Delilah’s cafe. I’m staying in the most cosy double room for 60,000 kip (£6) a night but you can also get a dorm bed for 35000. The food and desserts are lovely, if not a little overpriced however it’s the movies that everyone comes for. At 3, 5 and 8:30pm every day there is a film played in the living room of this quirky, fun little cafe. I’ve watched; La La Land, Blood Diamond and Arrival so far. Completely free to guests who are staying here, outsiders are encouraged to by a dessert or a drink if they want to sit and watch. It’s the perfect way to end a hectic day hiking, simply pull up a cushion, lay on the floor and enjoy.
See some caves
Now the caves weren’t really one of my favourite things to do…but they are interesting and only have a 10000 (£1) admission fee so are worth seeing. The caves were once home to thousands of local Laos people hiding from the American’s in their war against communism. Most of Laos was destroyed by bombs and people came to caves to seek refuge. There’s little evidence of this now, but the caves are huge and you can wander around their nook and crannies; although make sure you bring a torch as it’s really dark in some places. 5km from the main road you can either cycle there which most tend to do or walk there like we did; the walk really is beautiful but hot in the Sun.
My experience was tarnished a little by a strange, small man following us around the cave; I guess he was trying to be our guide but we didn’t ask for one nor could he speak much English, so guide us he did not. He shadowed us our entire trip so I was constantly on guard; my English upbringing has taught me that he was either out for money or was going to try and steal from me (how pessimistic of me I know). The former was true, when we were about to leave he said ‘money…20,000’. Definitely not, he left empty handed. Joe felt sorry for him, I certainly did not. Maybe if he tried a little harder and actually gave us some information about the caves I would have considered giving him a tip. But maybe that’s just me.
Next, we’re heading further north to a village only accessible by boat which apparently only has electricity for a few hours each night. Wish us luck!