Sandwiched between some of Southeast Asia’s most coveted tourist destinations, Laos is a small country that flies largely under the radar due to its lack of big-name attractions. A land of verdant rice fields, spectacular karst formations, temple-speckled towns and friendly people, Laos packs the best that the region has to offer within its landlocked borders.
I visited Laos for one week after spending ten days in Myanmar. For the first few days of my stay, I relaxed in the chilled-out backpacker’s mecca of Luang Prabang–wandering the streets of the charming colonial city and taking a day trip to the turquoise pools of the Kuang Si Waterfall.
Following my sojourn in Luang Prabang, I’d originally planned to head south, toward the dramatic karst-mountain scenery of Vang Vieng. But after reading about Vang Vieng’s notorious party-till-you-drop atmosphere, I had a change of heart.
Until recently, backpackers flocked to Vang Vieng in order to drink all night and float down the river all day. To the chagrin of many locals, these travelers acted with total disregard for local culture and customs–overdosing on drugs, blasting loud music at night and trashing the town. Then, a few years back, after a spate of deaths due to drownings and overdoses, the Laotian government cracked down on illicit activity in the area. As a result, today’s Vang Vieng is allegedly a mere vestige of its former self. But the town still hasn’t shaken its reputation. And many of the travelers I met, spoke eagerly of the party scene they wished to encounter during their stay.
Vang Vieng just didn’t seem to promise the quiet, tranquil atmosphere I was looking for, despite its transformation in recent years. And so, after a bit of deliberation and planning, I skipped out on Vang Vieng and headed northward, toward Nong Khiaw, instead.
Nong Khiaw’s primary tourist draw is its scenic location. The town sits along the banks of the Nam Ou River, surrounded by forested peaks that soar to dizzying heights.
There are two primary lookout points in Nong Khiaw. One, the more popular, costs 20,000 kip to enter and takes about an hour and a half to reach. It winds up a limestone mountain and follows a well-traveled, well-maintained path. At the top of the mountain, sits a wooden structure that affords jaw-dropping views of the surrounding scenery, the Nam Ou River and the picturesque town below.
The second viewpoint lies along the main road between the town’s bus station and its central bridge. It costs 10,000 kip to enter and is comparatively untrodden. During my entire hike, I did not see anyone else on the trail.
The path leading to the second viewpoint is so steep that, in order to complete the ascent, I found myself scrambling up tree roots and rock piles on all fours. The views from the top, however, were well worth the arduous climb. For when I reached the wooden platform at the mountain’s summit–slightly bruised and battered from slipping and tripping–I was able to marvel at the spectacular scenery, without another soul in sight.
Aside from hiking to viewpoints, eating delicious plates of lap and swinging back and forth on a hammock, there’s not a whole lot to do in Nong Khiaw. Which is precisely why backpackers and long-term travelers have fallen in love with the laid-back Laotian town.
I spent two days hiking and hammocking in Nong Khiaw, before heading upstream to the tinier, sleepier and more remote village of Muang Ngoi.
Muang Ngoi–a small conglomeration of houses accessible only by boat– lies along a dirt road that runs parallel to the Nam Ou River.
Like Nong Khiaw, the town’s charm lies in its easygoing pace of life and its stunning scenery. Popular activities in Muang Ngoi include hiking to nearby villages, searching for hidden caves and taking a dip in the lazy waters of the river.
In the tiny town of Muang Ngoi, tourists outnumber locals. But Muang Ngoi is not overrun by any means. A short walk from the town’s main street reveals water buffalo lugging crops, farmers working in their fields and children chasing chickens down dusty streets.
I was happy I’d substituted a visit to Laos’ party town for a few days of relaxing in the country’s unspoiled north. Northern Laos is the kind of place where time stands still. It is the kind of place where travelers spend days on end swinging back and forth in their river-view hammocks. It is the kind of place where worries drift away with the flow of the river.
I’d come to this remote outpost in Laos in search of a laid-back atmosphere and a mellow vibe. And I’m happy to say that my visits to Nong Khiaw and Muang Ngoi did not disappoint.
For relaxing is the name of the game in northern Laos. And so relax is what I did. From sunrise to sunset, for five glorious days.