I have received quite a bit of feedback from folks on my recent South East Asian travel posts – a sign to me that other people find much of the information on the web and in guidebooks as misleading and out of date as I do. I’m going to do my best to stay current on this from here on out, but if you’ve got any questions or want me to skip ahead, please ask.
2011 Asian Itinerary:
Thailand – Laos – Vietnam – Singapore – Hong Kong
Macau – Philippines – Myanmar – Sri Lanka – India –Nepal
For Part 1, Crossing from Chiang Khong to Huay Xai, click here.
For Part 2, The Slow Boat on the Mekong, click here.
Part 3: From Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw, there and back again (Laos Edition).
Phase One: The Right Option for You
First things first; you probably don’t want to leave Luang Prabang. If you’ve spent significant time there, you know it to be a fantastic place to sit back, relax, and waste away a day, or a week, or a year. We spent five days in LP and could have done a month without batting an eye. This could have had something to do with our luxury accommodations, but I digress. You’re looking to move on and experience a little adventure in the north, and I’m here to help.
The first thing you need to decide is how you want to get out of town and north to Nong Khiaw. You have four options. These are: Public Bus – Public Boat – Private Boat – Private Car. The private boat is by far the most comfortable and relaxing option, but it’s not always possible to get a boat to take you all the way up the river (depending on water levels, storms, availability, etcetera). Private boat is also by far the most expensive option – but if you’ve got the pennies or you can split the trip among friends, I say go for it. I tried to convince the friends we were traveling with to do this trip by boat, but they were having none of it. They opted instead for public transport – the bane of my traveling life.
Consider this: By public transport, Nong Khiaw is a good 5 hours away. If the road has been washed out in places, or if your driver likes to stop and pick up every farmer, goat, and chicken on the way, factor in more time. It took us more than 6 hours to make the trip north, thanks to these factors, as well as a storm that had helped wash the road out in spots. Mudslides are a very real hazard in Laos, and if you travel at all during the wet season you’re going to need to consider this when deciding on your travel itinerary.
The trip by public boat can take from 6-8 hours, but there should be fewer delays (there are fewer reasons for delay, at any rate). By the time you factor in all that can happen to you on the road, the difference between travel time is negligible. Choose what you think will be more comfortable.
Travel by Public Boat. Tickets range from 20,000 – 30,000 kip. (One Way)
Travel by Private Boat. Tickets range from 350,000 – 500,000 kip. Negotiate. (One Way)
Travel by Public Bus. 40,000 – 55,000 kip. (One Way)
Travel by Private Car. 500,000 kip. (Varies wildly from driver to driver)
Take the boat. I beg you – take the boat. You’ll be happy you did.
Don’t laugh – if you plan on getting out of town, you’ll be right there pulling up the rear.
Phase 2: Getting out of Dodge.
Getting out of Luang Prabang is easy. Have a tuk-tuk driver drop you off at the taxi station (there are two in town – make sure you tell him you’re going north to Nong Khiaw and he will get you to the right one). At the bus station you will be assailed by touts who want your business. Go with the flow – tickets for public travel are fixed, so allow the porters to carry your bags for you (just remember to tip, you cheap Western bastard).
When the touts throw your bags onto the roof of a little pickup truck and urge you to get in, don’t be alarmed – this is, in fact, your bus! (I told you it was going to suck). The buses that run this route are little more than flatbed pickup trucks with bench seating in the back. When you cram 11 people into one, like we did, and it is raining outside, like it was, and you stop to fill the bed of the truck with bamboo, old tires, meat, goats, and shower curtains, you’re going to wonder what the hell you did wrong. Then you’re going to get over feeling sorry for yourself, you’re going to laugh, and you’re going to enjoy the journey (otherwise you’re going to cry. Save the hassle and just take the boat).
Don’t get tricked into buying a ticket ahead of time by your hotel – they will overcharge you. As long as you’re not visiting Laos at the peak of the busy season, you should be fine booking your tickets at the station. Buses leave three times per day, but the schedule changes. Usually they run at 9:00am, 11:30am, and 2:00pm. At least once a day one of these pickups is replaced by a much more comfortable public mini bus – get is on this if you can.
Phase 3: When in Rome
You made it to Nong Khiaw. Good for you!
Now, what to do?
I suggest you start by exploring the town; it’s small, but wonderfully atmospheric. The people here are incredibly welcoming and love to chat with foreign folks. Check out life along the river, go on a fishing trip, rent a bike and get into the hills – there’s plenty to keep you occupied. Our second day we rented a motorbike and went on a 150km cruise into the hills, where were found a few Khmu and Hmong villages. We had a blast. It rained every day we were there, but we still had a blast.
Food options are decent – if unspectacular. Don’t expect to get much real Laos food at any of the banana pancake restaurants along the main drag; food offerings are of the standard tourist fare, but the Indian restaurant is decent. Delilah’s café serves some of the best Western breakfasts I’ve ever had on the road. Check them out.
Accommodations in Nong Khiaw are comically cheap. Spend a little extra to relax in relative comfort at the Nong Kiau Riverside Hotel; roughly 300,000 kip per night, including breakfast. They have wifi (why you would need it here is beyond me!) and rent bikes. Most of the other hotels along the river offer little more than huts with a western toilet – fun, atmospheric, and relaxing. Most have a hammock on the deck too. Prices range from 45,000 – 55,000 kip per night (I told you the prices were insane).
Renting a motor bike here is also good value. In Luang Prabang it can cost as much as $25 USD to rent a motor bike or scooter for the day – in Nong Khiaw it costs less than $5. Just remember to fill your gas tank in town; we made it to within 15km of the Vietnamese border and didn’t see another filling station the entire time we were booting about on the road. You do not want to push your bike up and down the hills in this part of the country.
Just be careful if you do rent a bike; drivers really don’t give a shit that you’re on the road with them. We nearly ended up road kill when a logging truck took a corner too fast and too wide without looking out for whoever else was on the road. If you don’t have any experience on a bike, don’t look for it here. Go back to Chiang Mai and learn how to do it with the other chunky expats. I mean it. Don’t ruin the fun for everyone else. Whenever a foreigner crashes a bike in a place like Laos the police clamp down for a time to keep people from killing themselves. This makes it tougher on people who like to enjoy themselves and not act like maniacs on two wheels.
Phase 4: Moving On
Getting out of Nong Khiaw is easy; you can head further up the river to visit the sleepy village of Muang Noi. You can get onto a bus and into the far reaches of the countryside. You can head back to Luang Prabang if you’re missing the create comforts of home. Getting around Laos is easy enough – it just takes forever to do it. There is only one bus stand in Nong Khiaw – tucked away in a little corner of the village near a giant karst peak. Everyone knows where it is.
Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang. 3-5 buses a day (more in high season).
Nong Khiaw to Udomxai. 3 buses a day. 45,000 kip.
Nong Khiaw to Sam Neua. daily, 11:30am. 145,000 kip. 13 hours.
Things to Consider:
1. I suggest you seriously consider taking a private car or bus from Nong Khiaw back to Luang Prabang, or vice versa. It’s really not expensive – less than $15 per person – and is quite comfortable. You need to make sure that you have a minimum of six people for the trip or you’ll be buying up empty seats, but you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding folks who want to do this after they experience the hell that is public transport on the way north. I couldn’t get the folks in our party to agree to this – cheap American bastards – so I had to suffer in the back of the public bus both ways.
2. Please don’t hike into the jungle without a guide. Laos has more unexploded ordinance scattered in its jungles than almost any place on earth. If you value your feet, your hands or your ass, don’t go hiking in the wild alone. Imagine how embarrassing it would be for you if you had to squat down in the bush to take a poop and you sat on a land mine. Don’t do it!
3. Make sure you travel with a halfway decent medical kit. If you’re outside Luang Prabang or Vientiane you are generally about 100,000 hours away from the closest decent hospital. Stock up on and tablets or pills that you might need; same goes for things like bug spray, suncream, etcetera. Most of Laos is off the beaten track, so plan accordingly.
NOTE: We did this trip in September/October 2011. I have doubled checked as much info as I could, and everything here should be current and reliable.
In the next edition: Heading south from Nong Khiaw to Vientiane, and why you should never even consider doing this trip in one day.