Lots to fill time
Published/Last edited or updated: 18th June, 2018
Sure, visitors to Nong Kiaow can spend endless hours hanging out on a balcony staring at the river but there’s plenty of activities that can be done independently or organised through a local agency. Here’s a rundown.
First, the little activities and sights that can stack up to fill a day and be done without a guide. Weather permitting, the Nong Kiaow viewpoint, also known as Pha Daeng peak, is highly recommended and it would take a cynical person to feel like the top of the world feeling and 360 panoramic view is not worth it. An average level of fitness and some willpower is required to make the climb. Most will do it 1.5 hrs, 45 minutes down. With some time to recover and take it all in, allot 2.5-3 hours roundtrip. Admission is 20,000 kip.
Next, there are two caves, both are walking distance though a bicycle would greatly speed things along. Only accessible in dry season, the historically significant Phatok Cave (Tham Phatok) is a set of three caves 2.3 km south on the main road (towards Sam Neua, on the tourist side of the river). During the Secret War, the cave was used as a headquarters for the communist Pathet Lao, as a shelter for villagers during American bombing, a hospital and a depository for the Bank of Laos. Ticket is 10,000 kip.
Feeling adventurous? On the opposite side of the Nam Ou river (town side), 1.6 km past the bus station on the main road towards Luang Prabang, Pha Kuang Cave was only recently scouted and opened up to the public. Said to also have been used by villagers as a shelter during the war, the spacious entrance is home to some Buddha statues. The rest of the cave is not for claustrophobics. A rough map found on the brochure indicates a tight passageway, initially 1.5 m high, then squeezing into a lengthy 0.5 m high passage with one brief bottleneck of 0.3 m x 0.75 m. Eventually it reaches an opening with two 10 m slopes. The rest remains unchartered.
Study the map carefully before tackling and we hate to state the obvious, but you have to be of a certain size and constitution to try this. The ticket is 10,000 kip, purchased at the restaurant across the road, and they’ll give you a cheap torch (you may also want to bring your own for good measure).
Exploration by bicycle is somewhat limited since there aren’t many other roads besides the highway running through town. The way is scenic, with the gently undulating road leading past karst and the river, but head out in either direction and you’ll have to return the same way. Shops and guesthouses rent bicycles and one shop in town rents motorbikes for 80,000 kip/day, 100,000 kip for an automatic. A plain ol’ push bike is fine for the main highway, while a mountain bike opens up further options. One possibility is to take the dirt track that runs behind Sunrise Bungalows and Nong Kiau Riverside, through Ban Had Sao, Ban Sopvanh and Ban Sopkong before reaching Muang Ngoi. It’d be muddy in rainy season. In February 2018, work was underway to expand it to a road and (we were told) to pave it. Look for a smoother ride in the future.
At the beginning of the day, rise very early to see a handful of monks collecting morning alms—unlike Luang Prabang, it’s a chance to see it without hoards of tourists. Since you’re awake, take a look at the morning market in town. At the end of the day, try the herbal sauna at Sabai Sabai (16:00-20:30; 25,000 kip). Finally, those comfortable with being on the water alone can rent kayaks (80,000 kip) or an inner tube, deposit required. Of course, it’s a lot easier to be shuttled upriver and paddle down, which brings us to organised trips.
Nong Kiaow tour companies all offer one to three day guided programmes that involve taking a boat up or down the Nam Ou with hiking, visiting villages, waterfall, swimming, kayaking, tubing, fishing, biking and/or a homestay. Popular day trips includes the “100-Waterfall” trek (put on the map by Tiger Trails), Tad Mork waterfall trek, boating up to picturesque Ban Sopjam (village past Muang Ngoi, below the dam) and for those who don’t want to overnight in Muang Ngoi, a trip there and a walk in its nearby villages. There are several companies and price for the trip depends on the number of people. See our Trekking section for full details.
Muang Ngoi is fairly easy to take a gander at on your own, perhaps check out the cave or view point, or rent a mountain bike to see some of the rural villages. However, to do it as a day trip from Nong Kiaow you would have to hire your own boat as the timing with the public boat departs rather late (10:30) and there’s no guaranteed afternoon public boat from Muang Ngoi back to Nong Kiaow. NK Adventures at Sabai Sabai Restaurant quoted us 500,000 kip (2-3 persons) roundtrip to Muang Ngoi without a guide. You will find that a private boat to Muang Ngoi is around the same price whether one way or roundtrip as the boat has to return regardless.
Opened in 2016, Nong Khiaw Jungle Fly has participants zip-lining through the forest and walking in the canopy 10 km from town. We didn’t personally test this activity. The price depends on the number of people. The half-day excursion costs US$37 per person, based on three or more people, and includes roundtrip transport. We were told the full-day programme involves a hike, more zip-lining, rope bridges and includes lunch. It can be booked directly at their office at the bridge (on the town side, under name Laosoutdoor Travel Co). T: (071) 810 086; http://nongkhiawjunglefly.com
Cindy Fan is a Canadian writer/photographer and author of So Many Miles, a website that chronicles the love of adventure, food and culture. After falling in love with sticky rice and Mekong sunsets, in 2011 she uprooted her life in Toronto to live la vida Laos. She’s travelled to over 40 countries and harbours a deep affection for Africa and Southeast Asia. In between jaunts around the world, she calls Laos and Vietnam home where you'll find her traipsing through rice paddies, standing beside broken-down buses and in villages laughing with the locals.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.