A small town on the banks of the Nam Ou River, Nong Kiaow (also spelt Nong Khiaw) boasts a gorgeous backdrop of imposing limestone mountains, picturesque river views and genuine local colour. Sometimes referred to as Muang Ngoi Mai, it is often confused with Muang Ngoi, a smaller town an hour's boat ride upriver. Both towns are very popular with backpackers, and new riverside bungalows, tourist-friendly restaurants and travel agencies keep being added to accommodate them.
Nong Kiaow is at a crossroads between maintaining its traditional ways and fully embracing tourism. Houses with thatched bamboo walls now have satellite dishes and many of the town's residents are abandoning farming and fishing for the fast money of tourism. Though the town's school and medical clinic remain quite basic, major renovations over the past couple of years have led to tourist accommodation and most bungalows now boasting 24-hour electricity and hot water showers with Western toilets.
Some visitors have compared Nong Kiaow to Vang Vieng; yes, you can go tubing here too and there is a river but the similarities stop there. For now, Nong Kiaow remains one of the most laidback places in Laos, not party central. There are ample opportunities for trekking, caving and rock-climbing, boat trips and cycling, but for many this is just a great place to take a holiday from a holiday.
Nong Kiaow straddles the Nam Ou River with the bus station and boat landing on the western side of the river and a gaggle of guesthouses and restaurants on the eastern side. Everything is within walking distance of the bridge that spans the river. The bridge doubles as a fabulous vantage point for photos especially in the early morning and late afternoon. At both times the limestone crags that surround the town really come into their own. This is certainly one of the most scenic spots in northern Laos.
The journey here makes it all worthwhile. Three hours by road from Luang Prabang or six to seven hours up the spectacular Nam Ou by boat, the routes pass lush green mountains, grazing water buffalo and a handful of small towns which offer a peek at Lao rural life. You can also head further north by boat, first to Muang Ngoi, then onwards to Muang Khua and eventually Hat Sa for a 21 kilometre songthaew ride to Phongsali.
Whether you only have a few days to spare and want to get out of Luang Prabang or want to use these places as a stepping stone to a more in-depth exploration of the north, Nong Kiaow and Muang Ngoi are both great destinations.
By Adam Poskitt.