As the sun began to crack the sky, I took my first step into the clearing, my legs were beaten, my heart pounding, but what lay ahead was like nothing I had ever seen.
Welcome to Nong Khiaw, the beautiful rustic city in the north of Laos. Full of great food, happy locals and endless sites. Located in the Luang Prabang region of Laos, this little town is positioned right on the Ou River. You can get around anywhere by foot or bicycle, easy for travellers of all shapes and sizes.
Nong Khiaw is full of adventure: hiking, kayaking and cave-exploration are just a few things to do. Accommodation is super cheap, 50,000 Kip a night for your own bungalow with a hammock out the back and a view of the sun setting over an enormous limestone mountain every night. This place is a hiker's dream, and I was lucky to find out about it. Talking with other travellers always reveals the best places.
This was the view from my hammock:
The small village is well known in Laos, because of the bridge given to them by China. It connects the two opposing parts of town and provides great views from the Nam Ou river towards the breathtaking mountains and hills that surround the town.
Hike up the Viewpoint.
"How does a sunrise hike up the main Viewpoint sound to you?" I asked my bungalow neighbour, Mike, from Canada, an hour before sunset. "I'm in." He didn't hesitate for a second.
When you arrive in Nong Khiaw you will hear everyone talk about the viewpoint hike. It was one of the highlights over my travels and here is why:
I jumped out of bed and began packing my gear. Loaded my camera, tripod and reached for my bananas. I noticed half a banana had been eaten away. Half asleep I had to look twice and realised a rat must have sneaked into my room as I slept and had a feast. I headed outside, into absolute darkness. The stars were shining brightly up above when I called out to Mike. "You awake, bloke?" I whispered into his bungalow. "Sorry guys, something got into my bag last night, there are Oreo's spread all over my room and now I have a hole in my bag." That damn rat must be sleeping somewhere with a full belly, he had managed to get us both.
We headed to our meeting point, Mike, Angie, and I all ready and standing in the middle of the road. The temperature was a cool 10 degrees and we sat gazing up above, as a blanket of clouds slowly began to cover the sky. We were waiting for our Spanish companions to meet us. 5, 10, 15 minutes passed but they were a no show, so off we went.
I had heard the path to the viewpoint leads through dense entangled jungle and that you should not lead off the path at all. The jungle is home to one of the most heavily bombed areas in Laos, and with countless live bombs sitting along the jungle floor. Not the most pleasant thought when you are walking around in the darkness.
We picked up our walking sticks from the entrance where a little old man was waiting and started the climb. Mike and I started off at a quick pace, pushing to reach the peak by first light.
Ducking under fallen trees, stepping over ant hills and getting caught in hanging vines along the way, we ascended further. Sweat was streaming down my face, it must have been 4.45am and it was already 25C degrees. Adrenalin was building up inside me, the rush of what lay ahead was filling me with energy. The realisation of what I was doing helped me overcome the exhaustion penetrating my body.
We traded stories of travels and adventure before the path ahead begin to slowly open up. The canopy above started to thin and the first light of day crept into sight. We stepped out into the open and what I saw was absolutely breathtaking.
The horizon all around me was lit by blues, yellows and purples. An ocean of clouds covered the skyline and giant mountain peaks were the only thing that broke through. I felt the overwhelming sensation of joy and disbelief move through me as I sat still and observed it all. I forgot I had a camera in my hands, I just watched the colours change and the sun begin to show itself, transforming everything around me once again.
As we sat soaking in the gentle sunlight, our Spanish friends appeared out of nowhere. They finally made it, explaining how they both thought the other had set an alarm. We all sat around together, eating Oreo's and bananas (not the ones the rat got to) and taking it all in.
It is worth going to Nong Khiaw just for this experience. In town every morning it's cloudy, and now I know why. Standing at the viewpoint, the clouds began to disperse revealing the town below.
I saw this on the way back down.
Go for a kayak down the river.
We headed out into the blaring sun, paddling up stream, passing water buffalo and small villages before arriving at a small stretch of sand. We docked the kayak and soaked up some sun, before the local kids all came running out to meet us and play. It was a little overwhelming at first but the moment you begin to interact with them is when you start to have great fun.
I started doing cartwheels and handstands, having stick sword battles, mud fights and swimming with these happy kids. They were super friendly and really just wanted to play. Needless to say they made the paddle well worth it.
Rent a bike and ride around.
The town can be easily seen by bike and the further out you venture the more cave systems and lookouts you will come across. Not to mention the amazing cheap food you will stumble upon. I took a bike out of town, riding over the main bridge to see what I could find. I came across a fascinating cave system called Pha Kuang Cave. Park your bike on the side of the rode and be prepared for some claustrophobic openings as the cave funnels into small 40cm entry points at some stages.
Nong Khiaw was one of my favourite places in Laos. Its small rustic charm had me hooked from the beginning. I loved being able to move around so easily and get almost anywhere on foot. There are few tourists and the nature in the area is almost untouched. Great food, lovely people and incredible landscapes were what made this place so special. A must see in the northern regions of Laos.
Happy travels guys.