The River Outpost of Nong Khiaw

LUANG PRABANG, Laos — Nong Khiaw is a small riverside town in northern Laos on the Nam Ou (River Ou), It’s dramatically framed by steep, rocky karsts and beautiful countryside.

Passenger boats in Nong Khiaw, Laos
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We’d arrived late at night, after about eight hours of driving on bumpy, dusty, windy roads through the mountains of the northern Laos provinces of Luang Namtha and Oudomxai. In the dark, there hadn’t been much to see–it’s not exactly lit up like Times Square. There was a bridge. Somewhere far below was the river. And then we were there. Seeing what Nong Khiaw was like would have to wait for morning.

The town’s name is also sometimes spelled Nongkiau, Nong Kiau, or Nong Kiew.

Even the sun’s rise didn’t initially help much. Not that you could see the sunrise. The whole area was shrouded with dense mist. And as the mists rose during the morning, they slowly revealed what they’d been hiding.

Nong Khiaw has natural beauty in spades. Also known, confusingly, as Muang Ngoi, which is technically the name of the district it’s in, the town of Nong Khiaw is a tiny place–no more than a few streets and a bridge. But that, in Lao terms, makes it more of a town than a village. The streets are on either side of the Nam Ou (Ou River). As morning mists rise from the steep riverbanks, they reveal steep limestone cliffs, or karsts, that frame the surrounding forest in a most picturesque way. The main part of town is at the base of a mountain that towers another 3,300 feet above it.1

And the bridge is no rickety walkway made of bamboo like you see in some other river crossings in Southeast Asia. Built in 1973, while the Second Indochina War still raged, it’s by far the most prominent artificial structure in the area and clearly took some engineering expertise to erect. It towers high over the river, safely above the swollen high water mark of the river during the rainy season.

Nong Khiaw is a step up in amenities from many of the nearby local villages–there’s electricity and running water–but not by much. It hasn’t yet been corrupted by the commercialism of higher-trafficked places. And being able to get to and from by boat–there are no major highways in this part of Laos and no trains anywhere in the country–makes Nong Khiaw a nearly idyllic stopover.

We didn’t stay long–we had another day of driving to do–but it made for a very pleasant place to take a break. One day I’ll be back to explore some more. But next time, I’ll come by riverboat.

Photos of Nong Khiaw

Nong Khiaw Buddhist Monk Novice
NONG KHIAW, Laos – A young Buddhist novice in his orange robes walks across the bridge in Nong Khiaw, Laos. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
 Town on waterfront in Nong Khiaw, Laos
NONG KHIAW, Laos – The town of Nong Khiaw nestled on the waterfront of the Nam Ou (River Ou) while morning mists obscure most of the steep, rocky karsts in the background. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
 Fisherman in Nong Khiaw, Laos
NONG KHIAW, Laos – A man using a net to fish from his wooden canoe on the Nam Ou (River Ou) in Nong Khiaw in northern Laos. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Boats on River Ou in Nong Khiaw, Laos
NONG KHIAW, Laos – Numerous boats are moored along the town waterfront in Nong Khiaw in northern Laos. This shot, taken from the high bridge spanning the river, provides an elevated view of the waterfront. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
A woman tends her vegetable farm in Nong Khiaw, Laos
NONG KHIAW, Laos – A woman doing the backbreaking work of tending to her small crop of vegetables on the banks of the Nam Ou (River Ou) in Nong Khiaw in northern Laos. When the rainy season comes, the swelling of the river will put this small farm under water. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Overhead shot of boats moored on banks of Nam Ou in Nong Khiaw, Laos
NONG KHIAW, Laos – Wooden canoes moored on riverbank of Nam Ou (River Ou) in Nong Khiaw in northern Laos. The sandy bottom of the river means that the current creates small, sandy islands and protected inlets on the river. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Wooden chairs in Nong Khiaw, Laos
NONG KHIAW, Laos – A group of wooden chairs are suspended on wooden stakes surrounding a small vegetable garden plot on the banks of the Nam Ou (River Ou) in Nong Khiaw in nothern Laos. In the background, morning mists still obscure some of the rugged terrain of the surrounding countryside. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
 Bridge in in Nong Khiaw, Laos
NONG KHIAW, Laos – The high bridge spanning the Nam Ou (River Ou) in Nong Khiaw in northern Laos. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
 in Nong Khiaw, Laos
NONG KHIAW, Laos – A long, thin wooden boat is moored by bamboo poles along the sandy shores of the Nam Ou (River Ou) in Nong Khiaw in northern Laos. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Boat with passengers in Nong Khiaw, Laos
NONG KHIAW, Laos – A fast passenger boat travels up the Nam Ou (River Ou) in Nong Khiaw in northern Laos. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
 Moored boat in Nong Khiaw, Laos
NONG KHIAW, Laos – A long, thin wooden boat is moored by bamboo poles in a small sandy bay along the sandy shores of the Nam Ou (River Ou) in Nong Khiaw in northern Laos. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel

What to Know Before You Go

  • Nong Khiaw is located about 3 hours north of Luang Prabang by bus. The journey is a bit bumpy, but the scenery along the way is well worth it. You’ll pass through small villages, rice paddies, and lush jungle. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can also take a boat from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw along the Nam Ou River.
  • There aren’t many places to exchange currency here or to get a cash advance on your credit card, so the best bet is to arrive with cash on hand. Some of the hotels provide internet, but not many and it’s often patchy.
  • One of the main attractions in Nong Khiaw is the stunning karst landscape. You can hike up to the top of Phadeng Peak for a panoramic view of the town and surrounding scenery. There are also several caves in the area that are worth exploring, including the Tham Pha Thok Cave and the Pha Kuang Cave.
  • If you’re looking for a more relaxing activity, you can take a boat trip along the Nam Ou River. The river is surrounded by towering cliffs and lush jungle, and you may even spot some wildlife along the way.
  • For a taste of local life, head to the morning market in the town center. Here you’ll find a variety of fresh produce, meats, and other goods.
  • There are a variety of accommodations in Nong Khiaw to fit any budget. For backpackers, there are several guesthouses and hostels in town. If you’re looking for something a bit more upscale, there are also several boutique hotels and resorts in the area.
  • The best time to visit Nong Khiaw is between November and February, when the weather is cool and dry. March to May can be quite hot, while June to October is the rainy season. However, even during the rainy season, Nong Khiaw is still worth a visit as the landscape is lush and green.

Dive Deeper into Laos In These Books

If you’re looking to explore Laos more deeply on the written page, here are some books worth a look.

Another Quiet American: Stories of Life in Laos, by Brett Dakin

This memoir recounts the experiences of the author as he works for the Lao government in the early 2000s, providing an insightful look at the country’s culture, people, and the challenges faced by a developing nation.

Another Quiet American: Stories of Life in Laos
  • Dakin, Brett (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)

Ant Egg Soup: The Adventures of a Food Tourist in Laos, by Natacha Du Pont De Bie

A culinary travelogue that explores the rich and diverse cuisine of Laos, following the author as she samples various dishes and learns about the culture and traditions surrounding Laotian food.

Ant Egg Soup: The Adventures Of A Food Tourist In Laos
  • Hardcover Book
  • Bie, Natacha Du Pont De (Author)

Bamboo Palace: Discovering the Lost Dynasty of Laos, by Christopher Kremmer

This historical travelogue follows the author’s journey through Laos as he uncovers the history of the lost royal dynasty and the impact of the Vietnam War on the country.

Laos: A Journey Beyond the Mekong, by Ben Davies

This beautifully illustrated travelogue explores the diverse landscapes, culture, and history of Laos, providing a comprehensive and engaging look at the country.

Laos: A Journey Beyond the Mekong
  • The Best Picture Book on Laos in its second edition
  • All color photographs, portrait 25.5 x 27 cm, 132 pages

A Short Ride in the Jungle: The Ho Chi Minh Trail by Motorcycle, by Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent

In this adventurous travelogue, the author embarks on a daring motorcycle journey along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which passes through Laos, providing insights into the country’s history and the challenges faced by modern-day Laos.

A Short Ride in the Jungle: The Ho Chi Minh Trail by Motorcycle
  • Bolingbroke-Kent, Antonia (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)

The Ravens: The True Story of a Secret War in Laos, Vietnam, by Christopher Robbins

This memoir recounts the experiences of American pilots who secretly participated in the covert war in Laos during the Vietnam War, offering a unique perspective on the conflict and its effects on the people of Laos.

Mekong: A Journey on the Mother of Waters, by Milton Osborne

In this travelogue, the author journeys along the Mekong River, which runs through Laos, exploring the history, culture, and natural beauty of the region.

  1. Nong Khiaw is at about 1,200 feet above sea level; the peak of the mountain is about 4,500 feet above sea level. []

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Travel Advice for Laos

You can find the latest U.S. Department of State travel advisories and information for Laos (such as entry visa requirements and vaccination requirements) here.

The British and Australian governments offer their own country-specific travel information. You can find the British Government's travel advice for Laos here and the Australian Government's here.

Health & Vaccinations

The CDC makes country-specific recommendations for vaccinations and health for travelers. You can find their latest information for Laoshere.

General Information on Laos

The CIA's World Factbook contains a lot of good factual information Laos and is updated frequently.

  • Official Name: Lao People's Democratic Republic
  • Population: Approximately 7.9 million (2023 est.)
  • Area: 236,800 sq km
  • Capital: Vientiane
  • Official Language: Lao
  • Government: Single-party socialist republic
  • Chief of State: President Thongloun Sisoulith (since 2021)
  • Head of Government: Prime Minister Phankham Viphavanh (since 2021)
  • Legislature: Unicameral National Assembly
  • GDP (nominal): $19.57 billion (2021 est.)
  • GDP per capita (nominal): $2,643 (2021 est.)
  • Currency: Lao kip (LAK)
  • Major Ethnic Groups: Lao (53.2%), Khmou (11%), Hmong (9.2%), other (26.6%)
  • Religions: Buddhist (64.7%), Christian (1.7%), other (2.1%), none (31.4%)
  • Time Zone: Indochina Time (ICT), UTC+7

Laos originated from the ancient Lao kingdom of Lan Xang, which was founded in the 14th century under King FA NGUM. Lan Xang was influential for 300 years, extending its reach into present-day Cambodia and Thailand, and over all of modern-day Laos. After declining over centuries, Laos was ruled by Siam (Thailand) from the late 18th century to the late 19th century. Later, Laos became part of French Indochina after that. The present-day Laotian border with Thailand was defined by the Franco-Siamese Treaty of 1907. In 1975, the communist Pathet Lao took control of the government, ending a monarchy that lasted six centuries and installing a strict socialist regime that was closely aligned with Vietnam. Laos began a gradual and limited return to private enterprise and the liberalization of foreign investment laws in 1988. Laos joined ASEAN in 1997 and the WTO in 2013.

David Coleman / Photographer

David Coleman

I'm a freelance travel photographer based in Washington DC. Seven continents, up mountains, underwater, and a bunch of places in between. My images have appeared in numerous publications, and you can check out some of my gear reviews and tips here. More »