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The journey from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw is a popular one, but many people never make it further north. This is too bad, because northern Laos, and the Nam Ou River journey, are truly spectacular. While coming overland from Vietnam to Laos, we decided to take our time and enjoy the slow boat journey from Muang Khua to Nong Khiaw, and then bus the more popular route from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang. This was much more interesting than simply taking the bus from Muang Khua to Luang Prabang, although it definitely took more time and was slightly less comfortable!
Slow Boat from Muang Khua to Nong Khiaw
I had read conflicting reports as to whether it was even possible to take the slow boat from Muang Khua to Nong Khiaw. There are a number of large dams being built on the Nam Ou River, which at one point had reportedly made this journey no longer possible. Luckily for us, this wasn’t the case! However, it took until we actually arrived in Muang Khua to find this out.
We arrived in Muang Khua from Dien Bien Phu at lunch time, and spent the afternoon exploring town and checking out the “dock”. There was a large board displaying boat prices to Muang Ngoi and Nong Khiaw. We met a few other travellers in town who were also hoping to make the slow boat journey. These were all good signs that a boat trip the next day was a possibility!
We ate breakfast next door to our Guesthouse, then Calais and I went on a little walk around. Muang Khua is such a picturesque little town. We wandered down a small side street, and suddenly we were at a large footbridge across a river. The riverbanks were lined with all sorts of veggies, with stilt-supported houses perched like a crown on top. Morning mist clung to the mountains, giving the whole scene a bit of a transcendent feel. We watched a woman working along the riverbank, filling her basket with leafy greens. The garden was in full bloom when we visited. The dam projects along the river threaten these community gardens, and in turn jeopardize the ability for many of these villagers to grow their own food. It’s hard to know what affect the dams will have on this, and many other communities, in the future.
The morning walk was serendipitous, as we were about to be squished into a small boat for 6 hours!
We made our way down to the boat dock for 9am, and waited until the lady in the booth decided she was ready to sell us tickets. A few more groups of foreigners slowly gathered on the dock, and just before 10am we were all loaded up and ready to leave. The boat was small, and it was full. A few locals squeezed into the front of the boat, while we, with the rest of the foreigners, piled into the middle. Our backpacks were stacked in a large pile at the back, making a comfy couch for the unlucky person stuck at the very back, closest to the motor.
The boat stopped to load and unload various people and items on our slow meander down the river. The northern section of the river is pretty, and some of the most dense jungle I’ve encountered, but it wasn’t the spectacular karst-type mountains I was expecting.
Just before lunchtime, the scenery changed. The mountains grew taller and the limestone mountains I’d expected suddenly appeared. At about the same time, the dam appeared in front of us. A giant, concrete behemoth cutting into the mountainside. As we approached, I sat wondering just how, exactly, we were going to cross this thing!!
We pulled up to a dock, and the bags were unloaded. A few minutes later, a truck pulled up, and someone began throwing the bags inside. I jumped in with the girls first, to ensure we were a long ways away from the open tailgate! We jostled for about 1km down the road, along the top of the dam.
Upon our arrival at the other side, the bags were tossed out and someone motioned towards another dock much lower down the riverbank. So, we put our packs on our backs, and down we went. After reassembling the backpacks at the back of the boat, and everyone taking their seat in more or less the same place they’d been on the previous boat (I love how that happens!), we were off again.
The scenery on the southern stretch of the river is much more dramatic than the north. The Nam Ou cuts through jungle-clad mountains, with the odd sandy bank supporting stilt houses and water buffalo. We swapped out a few passengers at Muang Ngoi, and I wished we had the time to stop ourselves for a few days. It’s part of the Laos backpacker route, and a bit of a tourist hub (albeit a very small one), but there’s hiking and minority villages close by, providing ample opportunity to get away from the tiny tourist crowd.
We chased the sun from Muang Ngoi to Nong Khiaw. The river was so peaceful. As the mountain shadows stretched out over the river I reflected on how lucky we were to be able to make this trip. Just the day before I had been unsure if this journey was even possible! Hopefully it remains possible for years to come.
We arrived in Nong Khiaw late in the afternoon, and trudged up the stairs to the road. It was nice to unfold our legs after hours cramped in the boat, but the hundred (plus) stairs were more than I needed to get the blood flowing again. I didn’t have a hotel booked in Nong Khiaw (I had one booked in Luang Prabang but there was no way we were continuing a further 3hrs down the road) so we started walking. We were also starving! There’d been NO stop for lunch, so we’d survived the day on an assortment of Oreo cookies, mini oranges and peanuts. We pretty much dropped our bags at the first guesthouse we came across, and went off in search of food.
Calais had spotted the Coco Home Bar & Restaurant above the boat dock, and wanted to try it out. Randy did a quick TripAdvisor check, and it looked good, so off we went. But…it was closed!! There was a wedding going on in the street out front, and many of the businesses on the street were closed. After another TripAdvisor search, we decided on Mama Alex. We got to enjoy a short wander through town on our way to and from dinner, and enjoy the spectacular mountain scenery.
Where to Stay in Nong Khiaw
Nong Khiaw View Guesthouse
This is a great budget-friendly option. The room was basic but clean, and comfortably slept the four of us. It was close to the boat dock, and within easy walking distance to everything in town. There’s a small tourist center right on the corner to easily arrange any activities or onward transport.
You can find it HERE!
Cost: 80,000 kip ($12CAD) for a double room.
Mandala Ou Resort
We didn’t stay here, but our friends raved about it!! Had we been spending more than a night we likely would’ve considered spending the extra money for this place. There’s a pool, and it includes a great breakfast. If you’re looking for more than basic, this is a great option.
You can find it HERE!
Cost: 60,000 kip ($100 CAD) for a double room.
Where to Eat in Nong Khiaw
Service was prompt and our meal was delicious. There was a good variety on the menu, and the girls were incredibly happy to have pasta for dinner! We had a green curry, spring roll wrap and pasta, including a beer for Randy, wine for me and lemonade for the girls.
Cost: 138,000 kip ($21 CAD)
Find more great restaurants in Nong Khiaw here.
Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang
There are a plethora of options to get from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang. The cheapest is to head to the bus station and book a ticket yourself. I’m usually a do-it-myself’er. But, in Asia it’s so easy, and very inexpensive, to have someone book for me. It costs me a couple extra dollars, saves a lot of potential hassle, and helps spread some money around the local economy.
The small tourist center on the corner by the hotel seemed like a reasonable place to book our bus ticket. The man told us the bus left the next morning around 8:30, so he wanted us back at the office at 8am and he’d take us to the bus stop. However, if he could find a few more passengers he’d book us in a van that would drop us off right at our hotel in Luang Prabang. It sounded great.
After a hurried breakfast, we packed our bags to the corner just to be told that he’d found a van. We’d be leaving at 9am, and not 8am!! While I was thankful for the van, it was unfortunate we’d rushed through breakfast just to sit around and wait. It was worth it though, as I’m sure the van was far more comfortable than the bus would’ve been. The day started out with the 4 of us, and 3 German guys. I took the front bench with the girls, and Randy sat back a row where he could stretch out his legs beside the door. As we progressed down the road, we stopped frequently to pick people up. By the time we got to Luang Prabang, our 16 passenger van had 20 people and a lot of stuff! Feeling slightly like a spoiled princess, I staunchly guarded our front row of seats. I’m sure we paid WAY more for our seats than everyone else getting in the van, so I felt like I could preserve a bit of comfort for us along the way.
The road was in relatively good condition and wasn’t as busy as the roads we’d driven on in Vietnam. It wound through the mountains, but not enough to upset anyone’s stomach. The scenery was nothing compared to what we’d seen from SaPa to Muang Khua, so I guess that was the trade-off! (It clearly wasn’t as pretty, because I didn’t take a single picture!!)
We stopped once for a bathroom break (and cigarette break for the driver) on the side of the road, and arrived in Luang Prabang just after noon. As promised, we were dropped off right at our hotel.
Slow Boat Cost from Muang Khua to Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang
Boat Muang Khua to Nong Khiaw: 120,000 kip ($20 CAD) each, kids half price (although we paid an extra 20,000kip somehow!)
Guesthouse in Nong Khiaw: 80,000 kip ($12 CAD) for a double room. This would be 60,000 kip ($10 CAD) if you only needed one bed.
Bus from Long Khiaw to Luang Prabang: 130,000kip each ($22 CAD) including drop off at our hotel in Luang Prabang. The kids were free.
What you Should Know Before Taking the “other” Slow Boat in Laos
- The slow boat leaves Muang Khua around 10am, and arrives in Nong Khiaw around 4pm.
- You can buy your ticket on the dock in the morning. It’s recommended you arrive at 9:30am at the latest, 9am is better.
- You can pick up take-away breakfast and (real) coffee from Sabaidee up the road.
- Pack a lunch!! There’s no lunch stop on the boat, so you’ll arrive in Nong Khiaw hungry if you don’t have lunch or ample snacks.
- Pack lots of water!! (see above)
- We did stop to let people on and off along the way, so you’ll have the chance to go to the toilet (in the bushes) if you need.
- Layer your clothes. It’s cold and windy in the morning and hot in the afternoon.
- Wear sunscreen & sunglasses, especially if you end up on the side of the boat with the sun beating down in the afternoon.
- The boat is squishy, so be prepared to sit cross legged, or hugging your knees for most of the day.
- If you want a more comfortable journey, it’s possible to pay more for a private boat. A 6-person boat (with comfortable seats) cost 1,300,000 kip ($216 CAD). We didn’t go this route, but you’d need to book the private boat the night before. There’s a phone number for Mr. Khaek, just call him and I’m sure he’ll be happy to arrange it!
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