Nong Khiaw is a perfect destination to get you off-the-beaten tourist path in Laos. Nestled among beautiful mountains and right along the Nam Ou River, it's a great jumping off spot for trekking, boat trips, and other outdoor activities. But it's also an ideal spot to sit back, relax, and enjoy the gorgeous views surrounding you!
Why Visit Nong Khiaw?
Ultimately, Jeremy and I decided to visit Nong Khiaw while we were traveling through northern Laos for a couple key reasons:
1) Still (Relatively) Undiscovered by Tourists
In general, Laos receives fewer tourists than many places in Southeast Asia. However a few Lao towns, such as Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, are tourist favorites. As a result, they can feel a bit overrun, especially during the high season.
As we looked for places in Laos that are still somewhat undiscovered, Nong Khiaw caught our attention. Nestled among soaring karsts on the banks of the Nam Ou River, this small town looked alluring.
After our visit (December 2019), I'd say Nong Khiaw is on the rise as a tourist destination. More guesthouses are being built daily and a fair number of people speak at least a little English. But mostly, it retains the feel of a quiet Lao town, with people going about their daily lives, and a few foreigners wandering around.
2) Lots of Outdoor Activities
As we looked into visiting Nong Khiaw, we appreciated the wealth of outdoor activities available there. It's a perfect jumping off spot for trekking, kayaking, boat rides on the Nam Ou River, village tours, and more.
But if you're feeling lazy one day, you can also just relax on your balcony and enjoy the beautiful views.
*BONUS - Nong Khiaw is a more environmentally-friendly town!*
One of my favorite things about Nong Khiaw is that it seems more environmentally-friendly than many places in Laos. Instead of providing plastic bottles of water in our hotel room, they provided metal bottles. You could use these to get water from the large water dispenser out in the hallway during your stay. Even restaurants offered water refills (for a price).
Looking for other places to visit? Check out these 6 Beautiful Places to Visit in Laos!
How Long Should You Spend in Nong Khiaw?
Though it depends what type of traveler you are, I think 2-3 days is a good length of time to spend in Nong Khiaw. This will allow time to sample a variety of activities as well as have a little time for relaxation.
We decided to spend two days in Nong Khiaw which seemed like enough time. But I ended up sick on the first day so unfortunately missed out on most of the activities that I wanted to do. I wish I'd had an extra day, but I couldn't have known that I'd be sick when planning!
Traveling to Nong Khiaw
Since Nong Khiaw is only 140 km from Luang Prabang, a popular UNESCO World Heritage city in Laos, getting there is fairly easy.
Luang Prabang has an international airport that you can fly into from cities around Southeast Asia. You can also reach Luang Prabang by bus or even by a river boat cruise on the Mekong!
Once in Luang Prabang, catch one of the daily vans/minibuses that run between the two cities. The drive takes roughly 3.5 hours.
Although you used to be able to take a river cruise between Nong Khiaw and Luang Prabang on the Nam Ou River, a new dam now blocks the way. They were just completing it when we visited in December 2019.
Trip from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw
Reserving the minibus/van
Since we weren't certain about the bus schedule from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw, we asked our hotel receptionist in Luang Prabang for assistance.
He called the bus company, or perhaps a tour company, to find out the schedule and to reserve our spots. The price of our ticket included pick up at our hotel and cost 70,000 kip (US $8) per person.
Tip: Because the bus schedules change frequently, it's a good idea to have your hotel or a tour company confirm the schedule for the day you wish to travel. Reserving your spot ahead of time is the best way to guarantee a smoother trip!
Although you might be able to show up at the Luang Prabang bus station on the day you want to leave and purchase a ticket, I don't recommend it. Usually you don't have to reserve very far in advance - the evening before you travel is generally fine.
Overview of the Ride from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw
Although the drive from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw took around 3.5 hours, the total trip took around 5 hours from start to finish.
I'm including a detailed review of our trip from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw to give you an idea of what to expect. Or you can jump right to the Nong Khiaw Activities section, if you'd like.
Pick-up and Waiting at the Bus Station
We started our trip when a shared van picked us up at our hotel at 8:45 am. After picking up several others travelers, we arrived at the south bus station at 9:00 am. Plenty of time to buy snacks and use the restroom before our 9:30 am departure.
Toilet Tip: Have small bills on hand for the toilet fee at bus stations - usually 1,000-2,000 kip (US $0.10-$0.20). You might even get some toilet paper after you pay!
As we waited around, the van drivers transferred our bags from the van that picked us up to a couple larger vans. It seemed like several vans were going to Nong Khiaw that day.
As 9:30 am came and went, we sat, paced, wondered why we weren't leaving. Eventually another tuk tuk pulled up with a couple more passengers for our van. After they were loaded in, we left at 9:50 am. You'll find that the drivers in Laos rarely communicate why things are delayed (probably because of the language barrier).
About the Van and the Drive
The van in which we rode from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw had comfortable seats and air-conditioning (not that we needed it!). Although the driver made a few stops to collect items to transport to Nong Khiaw, those didn't take long.
We ran into some traffic jams along the way caused by road construction near the dam I mentioned earlier. To make up time, our driver practically flew through the rest of the drive! As the roads in Laos are not the greatest, it felt like being on a bumpy roller-coaster!
At around the 2-hour mark into our journey, we stopped for a toilet break at a gas station. The toilets were clean, squat toilets with no toilet paper - pretty standard. Some people bought snacks at the shop since it was lunchtime by then.
Arrival at Nong Khiaw
At 1:10 pm, we arrived at the tiny bus station in Nong Khiaw - just outside of town.
Although you can walk into town from the bus station, we decided to hop in the shared songthaew. It was only 5,000 kip (US $0.50) per person and our hotel was pretty far away.
After some difficulties getting up the steep hill to our hotel in the songthaew, we checked in at 1:45 pm.
So our total journey from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw took ~5 hours and cost 75,000 kip (US $8.50) per person.
Traveling around SE Asia? Find out How to Travel Cheaply from Chiang Rai to Houayxay, Laos on the local bus!
Nong Khiaw Activities
Although Nong Khiaw is a small town, it has a wide range of amazing outdoor activities. From peak hikes to kayaking, village visits to exploring caves - there's plenty to keep you busy. And if you just want to relax, the scenery all around the town provides for a wonderful backdrop.
I'll highlight a few activities below, but this isn't a complete list of what there is to do in Nong Khiaw.
The main street in town has several tour companies with a variety of activities advertised - trekking, cycling, kayaking, etc. My recommendation is to approach them and see what they have on offer once you arrive. You may end up with an adventure you didn't expect!
Hiking in Nong Khiaw
Surrounded by mountains, you can get some incredible views of Nong Khiaw by hiking up to various viewpoints on these hills. Because I fell ill on the first day, I missed out on this opportunity.
Luckily, Jeremy hiked up to one of these viewpoints while I was in bed. He came back with lots of photos of the breathtaking views from the top. Although this only increased my dismay that I missed the hike, at least I can share them with you!
Nong Khiaw Viewpoint Hike (Pha Daeng Peak)
The Nong Khiaw Viewpoint Hike, or Pha Daeng Peak, is a steep climb, but offers stunning views of Nong Khiaw and the surrounding countryside.
To start the hike, cross the river to south side. As you walk away from the river, you'll see the trailhead on the left side of the road. You'll pay a small entrance fee of 20,000 kip (US $2.25) which goes towards maintaining the trail.
As you can clearly see from the signs, you should be sure to keep to the trail as you climb. Laos is still littered with unexploded ordinance (UXOs) from the 1960s, so it's important to take these warnings seriously whenever you see them.
The climb to the top is pretty much straight uphill and very muddy. You should wear hiking boots or sneakers shoes with good grip for this trail.
In certain sections, the trail has washed away from the wooden steps so climbing up gets trickier.
Once you arrive at the top, you'll have amazing 360-degree views!
Tip: If you decide to hike this trail for sunset views, be sure to bring a flashlight for your descent because it gets dark rather quickly in Nong Khiaw.
Other Hiking Experiences
If you're looking for longer trekking experience, you may wish to book a tour. Since I didn't have a chance to do this, I'll refer you to this post in which Claire (of Claire's Footsteps) recommends a 2-day/1-night trekking experience in Nong Khiaw.
Looking for another great outdoor activity in Laos? Be sure to visit Kuang Si Waterfall!
If you want to explore the area surrounding Nong Khiaw further, one fun way is to rent a motorbike.
At only 80,000 kip (US $9) per day for a semi-automatic and 100,000 kip (US $11) per day for an automatic motorbike, it's a cheap way to explore.
We wanted to see what else was around Nong Khiaw. So on our second day, Jeremy and I rented a semi-automatic motorbike from a place near our hotel on the main road. We had to leave one of our passports with them as a guarantee.
Our rental fee also included 2 helmets. I strongly recommend wearing a helmet at all times on the motorbike. The rental ones aren't the best helmets, but they're better than nothing!
Renting the motorbike made it easier to get to the Pha Kuang Cave, but also allowed us to drive around the countryside and nearby villages.
Exploring Caves in Nong Khiaw
Despite the fact that going into caves make me claustrophobic, the caves in Nong Khiaw played an important role during the Indochina War so I wanted to visit one.
As Laos was bombed during the 1960s, Lao people in Nong Khiaw used these caves as a shelter to escape the bombs. Sometimes they even lived inside them! The thought of that makes my chest close up in panic.
Pha Kuang Cave
Although there are a few caves in Nong Khiaw, we visited the Pha Kuang Cave. The cave's entrance is roughly 2 km east of town.
As you head out of town, the cave is on the right side of the road, but you'll pay the cave entrance fee at the restaurant across the street. Jeremy and I also parked our motorbike there, which is more secure than parking it on the side of the road.
The entrance fee is 10,000 kip (US $1.10) and it comes with a headlamp which you'll return after you're finished. The headlamp is definitely necessary if you plan to go any further into the cave than the mouth.
Exploring the Cave
The entrance of the cave is a short hike up from the road, but the path is rocky so solid footwear is a good idea. The mouth of the cave is tall and contains some small Buddha statues and other random things.
As you work your way back into the cave, it gets narrower and narrower. Shortly into our exploration, we had a puppy friend join us. I think she was the highlight of the trip. She urged us on, running ahead then coming back for us.
In one section, we crawled through a narrow opening but were able to stand on the other side so I kept going.
We turned off the headlamps for a moment once we were deep in the cave. It was pitch black and my eyes did not adjust!
Finally we reached the "Hollow" - a section which is only 0.3 m x 0.75 m. Although Jeremy made an effort to squeeze in, which ensured that he was covered in mud, we decided that we shouldn't continue. He's convinced that he could have made it, but I have my doubts.
The group ahead of us did make it through this section and we could hear them laughing as we stared into the hole. They were smaller than us though!
Boat Trip to Villages on the Nam Ou River
If you have time in your schedule, you might also consider taking a day trip on the Nam Ou River to visit some of the nearby villages.
One of the most popular stops is Muang Ngoi, or more correctly, Muang Ngoi Neua. The boat ride provides stunning views and you can stop at various villages along the river.
For more information on what you can see on a boat trip to Muang Ngoi Neua, I recommend this blog post on Away Go We.
Where to Stay in Nong Khiaw
Situated on the south side of the Nam Ou River and overlooking the town, the Viewpoint Resort lives up to its name! The views from the property are spectacular!
Although a mid-range hotel, it was fairly new when we visited and I think probably one of the nicer places to stay in Nong Khiaw.
Our room was spacious and bright. From our balcony, we had a beautiful view of the mountains.
From the front of the Viewpoint Resort, you can see the entire town below you! When it's sunny, you can lounge on beds in the front yard or sit at one of the tables under the umbrella.
One of my favorite features of the Viewpoint Resort was the pétanque court in the front of the building. This French game is very popular in Laos. We spent most evenings in Nong Khiaw watching the sunset, drinking BeerLao, playing pétanque.
Viewpoint Resort Restaurant
Breakfast was included in our stay, so every morning we were greeted with a fantastic view. Guests can chose between a couple western breakfast options or the traditional Lao khao piak khao - a rice soup with minced pork or chicken.
Because I got sick the first night we arrived in Nong Khiaw, we ended up eating more meals at the Viewpoint Resort than we would have otherwise. Though I spent most of our first full day eating bland, white food like the dish below.
The hotel staff were so accommodating despite not understanding why I would want to eat plain rice. (Even knowing I was recovering from a stomach bug.) They threw in the mango for me and it was a great addition!
Places to Eat in Nong Khiaw
In case you aren't looking to climb the hill to the Viewpoint Resort for meals, here are a couple other places we enjoyed.
Coco Home Bar & Restaurant
After exploring the cave on our second day, we visited Coco Home Bar & Restaurant for lunch. We both ordered the Pad Thai Goong which was delicious and very peppery.
Ironically, I'd normally be thrilled to have a pad thai with some spice. But since I was trying to eat bland food, it was spicier than I wanted. I would have loved to try some of their other Lao dishes, but my tummy wasn't ready for the spicy yet.
After a few days of eating the same Lao dishes, we were in the mood for some Indian food! This place run by an Indian man and his Lao wife served a wide range of tasty Indian dishes. We ordered the channa masala, chicken kadai, and mango lassi which were all delicious!
Note: This is a Muslim establishment so they don't serve alcohol. Highly recommend the lassis though!
A lively bar right across from the driveway to the Viewpoint Resort. It always seemed popular and I have a feeling that we would've spent more nights there if I hadn't been sick.
They have a few signature cocktails made with laolao - the Lao rice whisky. We tried a couple and though they were tasty.
Unfortunately as we sat there waiting for our drinks, I realized I was getting sick so I only had one sip of my cocktail. Jeremy didn't mind taking one for the team though and finishing mine!
Check out this 2-Week Adventure Itinerary in Northern Thailand & Laos for more ideas!
Returning to Luang Prabang
So I know I already talked about the journey from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw. But since our return trip was a little different from our trip to Nong Khiaw, I'm sharing a bit about it. This way you'll have the full picture.
Trip from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang
Reserving the minibus/van
Despite knowing our schedule, we still waited until the night before to reserve our return tickets from Nong Khiaw back to Luang Prabang. Last-minute reservations seem to be the way to go in Laos.
We reserved our tickets at one of the tour companies along the main road in Nong Khiaw and the tickets cost 65,000 kip (US $7) per person. The songthaew to pick us up and take us to the bus was included in this cost.
Since our hotel was up a difficult hill, we had to pay extra for him to pick us up there, but our hotel covered that cost.
Overview of the Ride from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang
The ride back from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang just goes to show you that you can never be sure what to expect when traveling in Laos.
Pick-up and Waiting at the Bus Station
Although the bus station was close to our hotel, the songthaew picked us up at 8:20 am. We stopped several more times to pick up other passengers. Surprisingly, we left right on time at 9:00 am!
About the Van and the Drive
Unfortunately, the van we took back to Luang Prabang from Nong Khiaw was nowhere near as comfortable as the previous one. The van itself was old and run-down with non-functioning air-conditioning. This meant we had the windows open during the drive, dust and all.
Before we left, the drivers arranged us in the vehicle. They fit as many passengers in as possible, including four people on the back seat which I think was meant for only three.
My seat was one of the ones that folds down into the walking path which is never as comfortable. As we bounced along, the top of the seat dug into my back in a way that I'm pretty sure bruised it for days afterwards.
To top it off, our driver decided he wanted to listen to the radio. So, he blasted traditional Lao music for the entire journey.
I had to laugh though, because when I lived in Laos, this was a pretty typical experience on local transportation. Usually when you have a van full of falang (foreigners), it's a little different though.
Since the van was older, it was a slower drive overall. But we didn't run into as much traffic. And again, we stopped for a toilet break after ~2 hours.
Arrival in Luang Prabang
At 12:15 pm, we arrived at the north bus station in Luang Prabang. Since the north station is a bit further out of town, we paid 20,000 kip (US $2.25) per person to reach our hotel.
We arrived at our hotel in Luang Prabang at 12:45 pm, which left plenty of time for afternoon activities.
So our total journey from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang took ~4.5 hours and cost 85,000 kip (US $9.50) per person.
Staying in Luang Prabang? Check out 'How to Spend a Relaxing Holiday in Luang Prabang'.
If you're looking for a little adventure and want to get away from the touristy areas in Laos, Nong Khiaw is a great place to do it!
And even though I'm upset that I missed out on some great activities because I was sick, it was also the perfect spot to relax for a couple days. I could have stared at that beautiful scenery from my balcony for days!
What do you think? Is Nong Khiaw a place you would visit? Let me know what you think in the comments!