Photo: View from the bridge, Nong Kiaow.

Introduction

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It’s not uncommon for visitors to let out an audible gasp when they first walk across the central bridge of Nong Kiaow. Straddling both sides of the Nam Ou River, the town has sprung up along the water’s edge, elegantly framed by immense, towering limestone mountains. The setting is picture perfect, every moment of it from first light to twilight.


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Nong Kiaow (also written Nong Khiaw and Nong Kiau) is located in Luang Prabang Province, a four hour local bus ride or just three hours by private vehicle from Luang Prabang town, making it an attractive two to three day side trip to tack on. As Luang Prabang has grown in popularity, so too has Nong Kiaow and in the last decade it had a boom town feel, with new accommodation springing up like mushrooms. Recently though, growth has simmered down and the sound of the saws and hammers you’ll hear are usually existing guesthouses adding rooms and squeezing more bungalows onto their plot.

What a setting. Photo taken in or around Nong Kiaow, Laos by Cindy Fan.

What a setting. Photo: Cindy Fan

Nong Kiaow’s tourist centre is like a Monet. It’s pretty from afar—and exceptionally pretty from high above at the incredible view point—but up close it’s an awkward slapdash, every angled stroke a guesthouse or bungalow vying for that coveted river view. Buildings block other buildings. What this means for backpackers is that river views do come at a premium while regular room rates are competitive. Even the cheapest room or bungalow has a private bathroom with western toilet and heated shower. Rustic, no frill bungalows are increasingly rare, replaced in favour of bricks and mortar modernity.

Luckily the Tetris-like tourist centre itself isn’t the primary draw. It’s about the jaw-dropping nature that surrounds it, the journey to get there and the rural villages found along the way. Nong Kiaow is the portal to guided treks, walks and bike rides to waterfalls and homestays, all via the “highway”, the Nam Ou River.

No filter required. Photo taken in or around Nong Kiaow, Laos by Cindy Fan.

No filter required. Photo: Cindy Fan

Spanning 450-kilometres, the Nam Ou flows from the border with China, traversing Phongsali, Udomxai then Luang Prabang province where it finally joins the Mekong. Nong Kiaow is one bookend of a two-day journey considered one of the great river journeys in Laos, perhaps even surpassing the Mekong in feeling, beauty and remoteness.

However, the lustre is somewhat diminished due to damming. Once a seamless boat journey between Nong Kiaow or Muang Ngoi to Muang Khua, then Muang Khua to Hat Sa, today everyone must make their way around two of the seven dams that form the Nam Ou Hydropower Project by China’s state-owned Sinohydro Corporation. The once towering mountains have been dwarfed, drowned by high waters that resemble a glassy lake rather than a flowing waterway. Disembarking and taking a local bus around the dams are a nuisance. However, to the traveller’s naked eye, the trip remains pleasant, scenic and memorable. Do the journey while you can. Road construction is underway and there is local chatter that the public boat system will eventually become redundant.

Some things never change. Photo taken in or around Nong Kiaow, Laos by Cindy Fan.

Some things never change. Photo: Cindy Fan

Ask a local about what Nong Kiaow was like and they’d tell you that 20 years ago, the tourist centre did not exist and it was all forest. They may tell you how they miss the simple life, running through the trees and fishing in the river. But they’d also say how hard farming rice was, how poor they were and now they have opportunity from tourism.

In the wake of a US$2.8 billion dam project with financing reportedly from China Development Bank, the town retains a sleepy, provincial mindset with simple desires. It never was a party place like Vang Vieng, which is currently booming with multi-storey 100+ room hotels and bus tours. By contrast, Nong Kiaow still only has two boutique hotels. Electricity still cuts out, buses never leave on time, order bacon and eggs and an hour later you’ll probably receive something entirely different. But as you sit on a riverside terrace at the end of the day, basking in mellow amber sunlight watching as boats carve fluid lines through the reflection, in that moment you’ll want for nothing. Not even stable WiFi.




Orientation
Nong Kiaow is located in Muang Ngoi (Ngoi district), which sometimes leads to confusion with Muang Ngoi, the village an hour upriver that’s also on the tourist trail. Beware of crowdsourced information that sometimes lists a Muang Ngoi guesthouse or restaurant in Nong Kiaow or vice-versa.

Travel by boat between Muang Ngoi and Nong Kiaow while you still can. Photo taken in or around Nong Kiaow, Laos by Cindy Fan.

Travel by boat between Muang Ngoi and Nong Kiaow while you still can. Photo: Cindy Fan

The road into Nong Kiaow from Luang Prabang forks at the bus station, which lies at the edge of town 1.5 km from the centre. From the fork, the road veering right runs parallel to the river up to the large bridge; this road forms the main artery of the town, known locally as Ban Nong Kiaow. Here are the schools, morning market, most local shops, post office, as well as bus station and boat station. Across the bridge, on the south side of the river, the neighbourhood is known locally as Ban Sophoun. This is where tourists will find the main concentration of accommodation, bars and restaurants. The town is easily manageable on foot.

The boat station/landing is located close to the bridge, on the town side.

There’s a handful of ATMs, including a BCEL ATM with a maximum of 1,500,000 kip per withdrawal at the end of the bridge in front of Sunrise Guesthouse.

4G service with Lao Telecom is good, WiFi is slow and unstable. Most guesthouses and restaurants have WiFi, though it can be spotty and may not be available in your room.

Slow down. Climb a hill. Take it all in. Photo taken in or around Nong Kiaow, Laos by Cindy Fan.

Slow down. Climb a hill. Take it all in. Photo: Cindy Fan

Nong Kiaow experiences extreme temperatures. In general, expect hot, sunny days—the daytime sun is fierce here—and pleasant temperatures at night and most guesthouses don’t have air-con. April to June can be very hot while in the winter months, around November to February, the weather (night and day) can be freezing. The electric heated showers will barely deliver tepid water and guesthouses (which have no indoor heating) feel like an ice box. Come prepared.

Make a difference
Hydroelectricity is supposed to bring wealth to the country yet for now, Laos lags far behind in many core health indicators which is why we want to highlight the Laos Girls Teen Project. Education on hygiene and basic reproductive health is almost non-existent in rural areas and the country has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Southeast Asia. This project educates teachers in rural schools in Luang Prabang province on how to educate girls about puberty.

With government approval, they’ve published an illustrated book in Lao about becoming a teenager and if you want to give something back to Nong Kiaow, just US$5 provides a girl with the book and a hygiene kit. Donations can be done online or in Luang Prabang at the library across from Wat Mai.
More information: https://www.facebook.com/Laosgirlsteenproject/
For online donations: http://eaulaos.org

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