So, you’ve made it into Laos. Your border crossing is done, your passport is stamped and you even managed to find a place to stay in Muang Khua. Congratulations. One of the most beautiful countries on earth awaits you! Although, come to think of it, each country is so damn beautiful in its own way, right? However, if you’re wondering how to get from Vietnam to Laos by land, read HERE.
The next logical destination for those heading south is Nong Khiaw. And the most interesting way to get there is by…drum roll…slow boat. It might not be the quickest or most comfortable route. BUT! We guarantee that it will be an unforgettable experience and offer you some of the most striking mountains in SEA.
How To Buy Tickets To A Slowboat From Muang Khua To Nong Khiaw
If you choose to take the slow boat along the Nam Ou river to Nong Khiaw, then you should arrive at the boat ramp in the middle of town (Muang Khua) at about 8.30. The driver will be waiting to count the number of passengers he has for the day. The more passengers, the cheaper the price. If there are too few people and thus the price is too high, he may delay departure until more people arrive.
We set off at around 9.20 with about 7 tourists and 4 locals on board. Our tickets cost 130,000 Kip per person. This is one of those experiences that are gained only through independent travel. No booking agencies or pre-purchased tickets. Just a local guy with a boat and a group of experience-hungry tourists.
HOT TIP For Muang Khua
Make sure you bring enough money with you to Muang Khua for the boat trip. On the morning of our departure NONE of the ATMs in the town worked. The French worker at Sabaïsdee restaurant offered to exchange our dollars for Kip, as did the boat driver. We took the second option. However, if we hadn’t had dollars, we would have been stranded without money. Be careful!
What To Expect From The Slowboat
The seats on the boat are hard and wooden so make sure you bring a cushion or something for comfort. Luggage is stored in a pile towards the back of the boat so take a backpack with snacks, sunglasses, a hat, sunscreen and anything else you might need during your river cruise.
The first leg of the journey will see you cruising past sand banks, fields and some small mountains. The scenery is nice but not exceptional. This is a good chance to strike up a conversation with those on board. The best of people are met in the most unusual of circumstances.
You will be picking up other passengers (not necessarily human) on the way so be prepared for anything and everything. Our crew of 11 soon became a very overweight boat of 24 with a motorbike and chickens in tow. The boat is never full. We were squashed right in like sardines – pregnant women, monks and tourists alike. The boat is never full. Even when the boat slowly chugs through the water begging to be offloaded. The boat is never full.
The Journey Itself
We reached the halfway point about 5 hours later. Thanks to a rather large Chinese dam being built along this river, the boat journey is broken up into two parts. To disembark from boat number one you must take your luggage and scramble up a small rock cliff that barely has a path cut into it.
A quick tuk-tuk ride and another scramble down a similar cliff will see you ready to board boat number two. You can buy food and drinks at this boat ramp and even go to the toilet quickly behind one of the huge Chinese storage containers at the top of the cliff. Independent travel doesn’t necessarily mean comfort, but it is consistently original.
Our second boat had about 6 real seats. Hallelujah! The lucky ones got to sit there and the not-so-lucky were directed back to the hard, wooden seats. The second leg of the journey lasts only about 4 hours and the scenery is absolutely epic. Huge, rocky mountains. Dense, green jungle. Villages on the water’s edge. It really is an amazing ride and you will realise why some people rave about this route.
The boat stops at quite a few places, dropping off tourists and locals, before arriving in Nong Khiaw at about 16.30.
Where To Stay In Nong Khiaw
You disembark on one side of the river and can then cross the bridge to the other, more touristy side called Ban Sop Houn. There are cafes and accommodation on both sides so you need to determine what kind of room you want and go from there.
The accommodation options in Nong Khiaw are not abundant but you can find budget accommodation if you try. We chose Sythane Guesthouse. The rooms were basic and clean with small patios where you can sip wine and enjoy the mountains. The view from the yard is really nice and they offer breakfast and laundry. We enjoyed our stay and would recommend this hotel!
What To Do In Nong Khiaw
There is so much to do in Nong Khiaw if you love the outdoors! The 100-waterfalls trek is a classic. There are various kayaking, canoeing and trekking companies that have a huge list of options to offer you. All you have to do is mosey down the street, read the signs and decide what appeals to you.
You can hire motorbikes or bikes, go caving or swimming, watch sunrises or laze around in your bungalow by the riverside. It’s up to you! We can recommend one hike that takes you from the roadside to an exceptional viewpoint overlooking the township.
You can find it if you come the Chennai Restaurant and continue down the road. There are signs everywhere showing the way. You pay 20,000 Kip to enter the pathway. The hike takes about 1 hour one way and is hot and steep so take lots of water.
There are 2 resting places. Don’t wander off the main track. As the signs at the beginning of the trek warn you, there is a lot of unexploded ordnance in Laos and many places are yet to be demined.
Many people do this hike to watch the sunrise over Nong Khiaw and they are never disappointed.
Where To Next
From Nong Khiaw you can head anywhere in Laos! But here we will describe how to get to from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang.
Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang
There are lots of companies offering buses to Luang Prabang in Nong Khiaw. We booked our tiсkets through Meexai Guesthouse, because we actually saw the bus arriving on the day before we wanted to leave. Big, cushy seats, lots of leg room and a clean interior. Sold! For one person, a ticket costs about 50,000 kip.
This is why independent travel is so great. Your decisions. Your experience. The journey takes between 4 and 5 hours. The roads throughout most of Northern Laos are in pretty miserable condition with landslides a common occurrence. Be prepared for a slow trip with potential delays.
During our trip, we picked up one local passenger who had a rifle slung over his shoulder. This didn’t seem to bother anyone on the bus so we figured he must’ve been a guide for a trekking company. Apparently, they often carry guns as protection against wild animals? Aah, the things you see on the road.
You should arrive in the centre Luang Prabang at about 13.00.
Where To Stay In Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang is an awesome town with loads of activities and accommodation for every kind of traveler. Use Agoda or booking.com to find the best deal for you. We stayed at Y Not Lao Guesthouse and loved it. The location is excellent, only a 5-minute walk from the main street. The included breakfast was wholesome. The room was clean and well-presented. The staff were friendly and spoke good English. We definitely recommend this spot.
What To Do In Luang Prabang
What isn’t there to do in Luang Prabang? It’s a pretty riverside town with heaps of temples and a laid-back atmosphere. It was one of our favourite places in SEA. You can check out the night markets, walk around the colonial-style streets, climb Phousi, attend a puppet-show or free movie or cross the river to explore a Laos village. Check out our post on What To Do In Luang Prabang here for more information.
Where To Next
From Luang Prabang you can head to Vang Vien, Phonsavan and pretty much any other place in Laos that might entice you. In our next post, we’ll be covering our journey to Phonsavan and our time at the Plain of Jars.
Also, travels go hand in hand with photography – who doesn’t take a lot of photos when they travel? If you are one of those people (like we are), check out our Fine Art Photography page and let us know what you think!