Laos: Where the Wild Things Are

I remember flying from Luang Namtha in Northern Laos to Vientiane, the capital city of Laos, during a work trip in 2020. It was my second trip to the country. Our time in Luang Namtha was limited but still filled with several opportunities that introduced us to the landscape beauty of the region. Yet nothing prepared me for the scenery that I was about to experience in mid-flight once the clouds cleared away. It was a scene out of Tolkien style fantasy novels: sharp cliffs rising out of nowhere in the middle of an impossibly green valley that was divided by a narrow river.

As soon as we landed, I studied the flight map to locate those sharp cliffs. I knew that I would soon be back to Laos for the third time, but finally for a personal trip. I could not locate a specific spot at the time but it was evident that the region between Luang Namtha and Vientiane was full of pockets with dramatic landscape scenery, unlike anything that I have encountered elsewhere in the world.

Laos

Then, as it tends to do, life but also the Covid-19 pandemic happened. It took me another two and a half years to re-visit Laos, but finally for a solo and leisure trip.

This is the summary of my days in Laos where I got to visir Luang Prabang, Nong Khiaw, and Muang Ngoi. All three are wonderful places with some of the most magnificent landscape scenery that one can imagine. But what made my experience in Laos stand out was not just the mind-blowing dramatic landscape scenery but the meaningful human connection that I did not even realize that I craved strongly after years of mandatory solitude imposed on us due to the pandemic.

I met so many wonderful people and other fellow travelers, most of whom were on their months-long trips in Southeast Asia after taking a long break from their jobs.

My week in Laos was filled with wonderful scenery, relaxed mornings by the river (where I again drank too much coffee), and relaxingly light bu still meaningful conversations with fellow travelers. How I missed international traveling.

Luang Prabang: the cultural capital of Laos

I decided to skip Vientiane and flew to Luang Prabang (directly from Bangkok), the cultural and former capital of the country blessed with many UNESCO-listed heritage sites. 

Luang Prabang is home to some of the most beautiful Buddhist temples that I have seen in my life (and I live in Japan). The design and the architecture of the temples are similar to the Thai style but the structures feel more modest and less imposing. It passes on a sense of serenity that I rarely get out of worship places, with mosques and churches being no exception.

The most famous temple complex in Luang Prabang is Wat Xieng Thong constructed in 1560. I visited the temple early in the morning right after it opened its doors at 8 am. You are free to enter the modestly sized shrines as long as you take off your shoes. Many of the pagodas are covered in gold. Their walls feature drawings depicting mythological scenes.

My trip to Laos came right after a series of three media coverage trips in Japan each with intense itineraries. At the beginning of the trip, I was not fully in mood for sightseeing. I just wanted to take it slow and enjoy the riverside coffee shop scene that Luang Prabang is rightfully famous for.

I have to admit that it took me a little longer than usual to get used to the chaotic rhythm of Southeast Asia which I think I am addicted to. It probably had a lot to do with spending the last two years in one of the most organized countries in the world, Japan. But once I found my groove, I could once again easily relate to those who choose to spend months of their around-the-world trips in Southeast Asia.

Town worthy of weeks long stay

If you are looking for a small city to just lay back for a week or two (and even much longer), enjoy the eateries (there are many) and do some sightseeing without feeling rushed, Luang Prabang is the place to go. The food, in most cases, is reasonably priced, accommodation is cheap (though not on a par with the options available in Thailand and Vietnam) and the city is very walkable.

Luang Prabang has two main streets, one bordering the Mekong River and the other one connecting the night market to Phu Si, one of the most popular viewpoints in the city. The viewpoint, as expected, gets very crowded with people and selfie sticks. Also, I am usually not too crazy about the city sceneries. But it is a short hike that makes one deserve the food and drinks that come after it and the surrounding mountain scenery looks delightful, especially during the golden hour.

Dining scene in Luang Prabang

Since I spent around five days in Luang Prabang, I had plenty of opportunities to try many of the cafes and restaurants.

If you are looking for a rather fancy dining experience in a beautiful garden, Gaspard is a wonderful choice. It is a place for slow dining and long conversations. I spent a lovely evening at Gaspard with two world travelers from the West Coast USA whom I met earlier in the day. One of them spent months in Turkey so it was wonderful to listen to their experience. I truly value those random yet precious moments when people – who have never met before and who will likely never see each other again – spend a few hours in a setting foreign to all of them, sharing their experiences. I have learned so much from these brief encounters. 

For a solo dinner, my favorites were Tangor (prices are quoted in USD, which means it is more expensive than most other places) and the next-door Bouang. Both are on busy Sisavangvong Street – perfect two places to do people watching, book reading and just wasting the hours pleasantly away.

As I already live in Asia, I sometimes, even when I travel, crave some Western and/or comfort food. For that, Popolo Pizzeria run by the same lovely French couple who own Tangor is a wonderful choice. In addition to very large one-size pizzas, the menu includes delicious and filling salads.

Nong Khiaw: did everyone know about this place?

My next stop in Laos was Nong Khiaw – a small town part of the greater Luang Prabagn province. The region is known for its idyllic mountain and river scenery.

How to get to Nong Khiaw from Luang Prabang

Nong Khiaw used to be directly accessible from Luang Prabang via boat. Due to the construction of a dam, the boat is no longer an option. The only way to get to Nong Khiaw is the rather adventurous van or minibus ride that normally takes around 4 hours but can easily take as long as 6-7 hours depending on your driver`s appetite for roadside stops.

There are many travel agencies in Nong Khiaw where you can book your ride. It costs around USD 9 and includes the tuk-tuk ride between the Luang Prabang bus stations (there are two) and your hotel. My tuk-tuk driver forgot to pick me up and I had to call the agency that booked my ticket. At the end, sll was sorted out and I could make it to the station on time to catch my ride to Nong Khiaw. During the cozy van ride (where they try to pack as many people as they can inside the van), I found that almost passenger in the van went through a similar ordeal (being left behind by their tuk-tuk driver). So it is critical that you get the contact info of the agency that you booked your Luang Prabang-Nong Khiaw ride with and possibly connect with them via Whatsapp (they will suggest it). You will likely not regret it.

Nong Khiaw Riverside Hotel: bungalows by the river

Nong Khiaw and the nearby Muang Ngoi, accessible with an hour long boat ride, are two unbelievably beautiful places.

When I arrived at Nong Khiaw, my first reaction was: “Did everyone already know about this place?”. it was a scene right out of the movies. Dominated by karst mountain scenery and divided by Nam Our River, the region has one of the most alluring and dramatic landscape sceneries that I have ever experienced in Asia.

Nong Khiaw town itself does not have many amenities except for a few eateries and small travel shops that will happily arrange anything you need. I based myself in Nong Khiaw Riverside Hotel featuring  comfortable riverside bungalow each with a large deck and an excellent restaurant. If I did not already have the plane ticket arrangements, I could easily stay here for at least a week.

Day trip to Muang Ngoi

While one may easily think what can be more beautiful than Nong Khiaw, the true beauty lies only an hour away in Muang Ngoi. The boat ride alone is worth the trip to this very small village.

In Muang Noi, there are handful of activities to do but even if there were none, the boat ride alone is worth the trip.

You can hike to the caves that protected the villagers from the bombs during the American War and then climb to Phanoi viewpoint which offers excellent views of the river and the surrounding mountains.
There are a couple of river-side restaurants mostly run by families who also operate the adjacent accommodation facilities where you can book a private room for around USD 10/night.

Booking a private boat to travel between Nong Khiaw and Muang Ngoi

I traveled to Muang Ngoi with a lovely German couple and a Dutch solo traveler who were also staying at the Nong Khiaw Riverside Hotel. We customized our own tour with a private guide and a smaller boat. You can also join the day trips in larger boats. I was very happy with our choice as the smaller boat and the low sitting that it offered allowed us to feel much closer to the water. The trip, including the boat ride and the guided activities in Muang Ngoi, cost USD 22 per person.

The weather in the morning was very foggy allowing for a very atmospheric ride. But the scenery on the return trip, with the sun setting and the cliffs hidden by the morning fog making a grand appearance, was mesmerizing enough to push all three of us into deep and shocked silence. With our cold beers in our hands, we remained silent for almost the entirety of the trip, immersed in the untouched nature surrounding us.

We spent almost the entire day in Muang Ngoi first hiking to the caves and then to a viewpoint. The tour also included a visit to one of the inner villages, but I had to sit that one out as the weather was getting very hot and I made the foolish decision to join the trip dressed in jeans.

One can easily spend weeks in Nong Khiaw and Muang Ngoi. Both are perfect places to relax, read, write, and hike. I unfortunately could only stay for two nights as I had already had arrangements to get back to Luang Prabang and, shortly after, back to Tokyo.

My last days in Laos

In Laos, many people follow similar itineraries. So you often run into people that you met in one city in your next destination.  During the last two days of my trip, I was mostly in an utterly relaxed mood enjoying coffee and drinks with other travelers whom I met during the week-long journey. The trip was a wonderful reminder that despite all the craziness in the world, people are still kind and we still have so much empathy for each other – such a delightful and much needed feeling.