In recent years the settlements of Nong Khiaw and Muang Ngoi Neua in the north of Luang Prabang Province have become firm favorites with the backpacker set. In fact, idyllic Muang Ngoi Neua is often heralded as the new Vang Vieng, surrounded by stunning scenery and the fantastic ebb of life on the river. It is far more pleasant to travel between Luang Prabang and Nong Khiaw/Ban Saphoun, just south of Muang Ngoi Neua, by long boat, than by bus. The Nam Ou passes mountains, teak plantations, dry rice fields and a movable waterwheel mounted on a boat, which moves from village to village and is used for milling. But with the improvements that have been made to Route 13, road travel has now become the preferred option for many – partly because it is cheaper, and partly because it is quicker. Route 13 north runs parallel with the river for most of the journey to Nam Bak. There is trekking around Muang Khua further north upriver.
Nong Khiaw lies 22 km northeast of Nam Bak and is a delightful, remote little village on the banks of the Nam Ou, surrounded by limestone peaks and flanked by mountains, the largest aptly named Princess Mountain. It is one of Laos’ prettiest destinations. There are, in fact, two settlements here: Ban Saphoun on the east bank of the Nam Ou and Nong Khiaw on the west. Of the two, Ban Saphoun offers the best views and has the best riverside accommodation. Confusingly, the combined village is sometimes called one name, sometimes the other and sometimes Muang Ngoi, which is actually another town to the north and the name of the district.
One reason why the area has become a popular stopping place for travellers is because of its pivotal position on the Nam Ou, affording river travel from Luang Prabang to the north. It is also on the route between Udomxai and Xam Neau, which is one of the most spectacular in Laos, passing through remote villages. Despite its convenience as a staging post, this village is a destination in its own right. It is a beautiful spot, the sort of place where time stands still, journals are written, books read and stress is a deeply foreign concept. It is possible to swim in the river (women should wear sarongs) or walk around the town or up the cliffs. If you go to the boat landing it is also possible to organize a fishing trip with one of the local fishermen for very little money. You might need someone to translate for you. The bridge across the Nam Ou offers fine views and photo opportunities. There are caves in the area and the Than Mok waterfall.
Tham Pha Thok cave, was a Pathet Lao regional base during the civil war. It was divided into sections – the hospital section, a police section and a military section. Old remnants exist like campfires and ruined beds but other than that there is little evidence of it being the PT headquarters until you see the bomb crater at the front. To get there you walk through beautiful rice paddies. There is a second cave about 300 m further down on the left, Tham Pha Kwong, which was the Pathet Lao’s former banking cave. The cave is a tight squeeze and is easier to access with help from a local guide. It splits into two caves, one of which was the financial office and the other the accountant’s office. A further 2 km along the road, at Ban Nokien is the Than Mok waterfall.
Muang Ngoi Neua
The town of Muang Ngoi Neua lies 40 km (one hour) north of Nong Khiaw, along the Nam Ou. This small town surrounded by ethnic villages has become very popular with backpackers over the last few years. The town is a small slice of utopia, set on a peninsula at the foot of Mount Phaboom, shaded by coconut trees, with the languid river breeze wafting through the town’s small paths. Most commonly known as Muang Ngoi, the settlement has had to embellish its name to distinguish it from Nong Khiaw, which is also often referred to as Muang Ngoi. It’s the perfect place to go for a trek to surrounding villages, or bask the day away swinging in your hammock. A market is held every 10 days and villagers come to sell produce and handicrafts. There are also caves and waterfalls in the area.
Muang Khua is nestled into the banks of the Nam Ou, close to the mouth of the Nam Phak, in the south of Phongsali Province. Hardly a destination in itself, it’s usually just a stopover between Nong Khiaw and Phongsali. It only has electricity from 1900 to 2200 nightly. The Akha, Khmu and Tai Dam are the main hilltribes in the area. The nearest villages are 20 km out of town and you will need a guide if you want to visit them. Trekking around Muang Khua is fantastic and still a very authentic experience, as this region remains largely unexplored by backpackers. The friendly villages are very welcoming to foreigners, as they don’t see as many here as in somewhere like Muang Sing. For these reasons, it is very important to tread lightly and adopt the most culturally sensitive principles: don’t hand out sweets and always ask before taking a photograph. Treks usually run for one to three days and involve a homestay at a villager’s house (usually the Village Chief).
Saigon, Cat Tien National Park, Dalat – Lak Lake, Buon Ma Thuot, Pleiku, Kon Tum, Hoi An via My Son Sanctuary, Hue – Da Nang – Hoi An, DMZ & Khe Sanh, Phong Nha Caves, Tan Ky, Cuc Phuong National Park, Mai Chau, Hanoi