LAOS: A week on the river north of Luang Prabang
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Luang Prabang is certainly Laos' premier tourist destination, but for many, especially those who were there in decades past, a touch of Disneyland-esque to the place these days makes them seek out something a little further afield. So what's one to do if you'd like to see a bit of old-skool Laos?
Jump on a boat.
Luang Prabang sits at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. The former has its source somewhere in the Tibetan Plateau, snaking ribbon-like through a handful of countries before emptying out into the South China Sea to the south of Ho Chi Minh City.
To the north of Luang Prabang the Mekong meets the Nam Ou, which itself empties out of southern China into Laos' Phongsali province. It's up this tributary of the Mekong that we're sending you, stopping off at the riverside villages of Nong Khiaw, Muang Ngoi and Muang Khua. Each has its own character and appeal and each are well suited to at least two or three lazy days by the river.
Heading north from Luang Prabang, Nong Khiaw comes first, then Muang Ngoi, then Muang Khua. The first and last are approachable both by bus, motorbike and car while Muang Ngoi is only really connected to the outside world by boat.
Boats run daily in each direction. Muang Ngoi is close enough to Nong Khiaw that you could hire a boat for the run on a one-off basis, but the longer legs are served primarily by regular, once daily boats. The service generally leaves in each direction in the early to mid morning.
If you plan to do all three towns then return to Luang Prabang you can either get the boat in both directions or get a bus back to Luang Prabang from Muang Khua. There are also bus services from both Muang Khua and Nong Khiaw to other destinations around northern Laos so you don't have to return to Luang Prabang if you don't want to.
Not a decaf latte in sight
If you are planning on returning to Luang Prabang, consider leaving one of your bags with the bulk of your luggage at your guesthouse. Some will store it for free, some for a token charge. The boats are not the most spacious around and the less luggage you have to drag around with you the more comfortable you will be.
The boats generally will not have life jackets. Boats have sunk or run aground along this stretch of the river. If you feel the boat is overloaded, don't get on. If you find it difficult to get on and off the boats, we'd suggest grabbing the bus.
The river is especially beautiful and it can be tempting to lean out to take more photos. If you do so, make sure to hold onto your camera tightly as once you drop it, the murky depths of the river will gobble it up.
Theft from bungalows in Muang Ngoi remains (and has been for more than a decade) a serious problem. Never leave any valuables in your bungalow.
How long have you got For a first-time visitor, we'd say three days in Nong Khiaw and two each in Muang Ngoi and Muang Khua would be a reasonable starting point. If you don't have that long, cut Muang Khua back by a day. If you have less than five days, visit just Nong Khiaw and Muang Ngoi. Less than three? Stick to just Nong Khiaw.
This really is a breathtakingly beautiful village, with the late afternoon light providing plenty of fodder for photos from the towering bridge that spans the river valley. Of the three towns, Nong Khiaw has the best range of accommodation, from mid-range quite fancy bungalows (with WiFi no less) to thatch and bamboo shacks with share bathroom. Budgeteers will find plenty of fare to choose from.
Slow boat on the river near Nong Kiaow
The main pastimes here are sitting by the river, visiting some outlying caves, or perhaps doing a touch of trekking or rafting. Yes, you can even go tubing here. There are also a good supply of restaurants and bars, again priced across most budgets.
This is the least adulterated of the three villages. Accommodation is very budget focussed, with thatch and bamboo being the main offerings (often with terrific views) and you can also organise rafting and some informal trekking from here. Travellers looking for more mid-ranged accommodation will come up empty here, so if you're not comfortable roughing it, keep that in mind when allotting your time.
This is the most industrious of the three towns, in part no doubt to it being on the road to the growingly popular border crossing to Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam. While for many it is nothing more than a transport hub, it's actually a great little place in its own right, with plenty of places to stay (from budget up to lower mid-range) and plenty of riverside eateries and bars.
View to the boat landing at Muang Khua
Activity wise there are DIY walks to nearby villages, a scenic suspension bridge, a viewpoint and a small-scale trekking industry. The tourism office here is really quite proactive about getting stuff happening.
By the way, Muang Khua gets cold in the winter.
There's far more to off-the-beaten-track Laos of course than just these three towns, but if you're looking for just a taster and don't have the time to explore further afield, a trip like the above will give you a terrific first impression of the "real" Laos that exists right across the country, far from the fancy cafes and boutiques of Luang Prabang.
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