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

Then, as it tends to do, life but also Covid-19 pandemic happened and it took me another 2.5 years to re-visit Laos, this time for a solo and leisure trip. This is the summary of my days in Laos covering Luang Prabang, Nong Khiaw and Muang Ngoi. These are all wonderful places with some of the most magnificent landscape scenery that one can imagine. But what made my experience in Laos truly 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 so badly after years of mandatory solitude imposed on us due to the pandemic.

Laos

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 job. My week in Laos was filled with wonderful scenery, relaxed mornings by the river (where I again drank too much coffee) and both relaxingly light and meaningful conversations with fellow travelers. I sure 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 they feel more modest and less imposing. There is a sense of easiness to it that I rarely get out of the most worship places including mosques and churches. 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 8am. You are free to walk into many of the modestly sized shrines as long as you take off your shoes. Many of the pagodas are covered in gold and feature walls where mythological scenes are depicted.

My trip to Laos came right after a series of three media coverage trips in Japan each with intense itineraries. So I was a little bit less in the mood for sightseeing but more into enjoying the river side 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 that I think I am literally 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 spend months of their world trip in Southeast Asia.

Town worthy of weeks long stay

If you are looking for a smallish town 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 it is a very walkable city.

Luang Prabang has two major 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 place, as expected, gets fairly crowded with people and selfie sticks and I am not too crazy about the city scenery. 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 in 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 that 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 discussing their own experiences and perspective of the world. I have learned so much from these brief encounters. 

For a solo dinner, my favorite was 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 and perfect 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 for some western and more simple comfort food. For that, Popolo Pizzeria ran by the same lovely French couple who own Tangor is a perfect place. In addition to very large one size pizzas, they also have wonderful and very filling salads.

Nong Khiaw: did everyone know about this place?

My next stop in Laos was Nong Khiaw – a small town part, which is part of the greater Luang Prabagn province rightfully known for 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 and 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 mostly the day before. It costs around USD 9 and includes the tuk-tuk ride from your hotel. My tuk-tuk driver forgot to pick me up and I had to call the agency that booked my ticket. All was sorted out but it felt like almost every passenger in the van went through a similar ordeal. So it is critical to get the contact info of the agency and possibly connect with them via whatsapp. 

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. My first reaction was – did everyone already know about this place and if so, how come they do not film movies here? Dominated by karst mountain scenery and divided by Nam Our River, this is a place out of story books.

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 bungalos each with a large deck and excellent on premises 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 ahead by the river in Muang Ngoi. The boat ride alone is worth the trip to this very small village where there are caves that protected the villagers from the bombs during the American War and a viewpoint in addition to the riverside restaurants and cheap accommodation (like in the range of USD 6 a night for a private room).

While you can also join a day trip organized by the agencies in a larger boat, with a lovely German couple and a Dutch solo travel that I met in Nong Khiaw, we booked our own smaller boat (where you get to seat much closer to the water) and a wonderful guide who took us to the caves, the Phanoi viewpoint that requires a steep but relatively short hike of one hour and to an inner local village. I did not join our small group for the village trip as it was a very hot day and I was – very foolish – wearing jeans.

We paid USD 22 per person and had more control over our schedule. The morning was foggy so it was a very atmospheric boat ride but the scenery that greeted us on our return trip (around 5pm) with the sun slowly setting and the cliffs that the fog hid in the morning made a grand appearance felt truly otherworldly. The visit to the cave was not as interesting (not like those very large caves along Halong Bay Vietnam where the water flows through) but the viewpoint is definitely worth the effort.

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 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.