Nong Khiaw sucks you in like soft, oozing, relaxing quicksand and we are so glad to have made the journey from Sapa to Nong Khiaw. The memory of the border crossing that took you from Sapa, to Dien Bien Phu, to Muang Khua aboard cargo buses overstuffed with teeth-sucking chumps seems to be fading away into the distance, despite the fact that it was, hum… well it was yesterday. You flop into a hammock and feel your pulse rate drop as you take in the river and karst views from your balcony at Sunrise Bungalows, a beer Lao in hand, and realize that you have arrived somewhere truly special.
Somewhere you hope not too many tourists will be hearing about…
You walk about 50 steps across the street to CT Bakery and order a a bowl of garlic and cilantro tomato salsa and one of smoky eggplant “paste” to dip little balls of the most delicious sticky rice into. And another beer Lao to wash it all down. You think how few fucks you give that your dinner consists of rice and beer as you devour your feast and watch the sun set over the Nam Ou river.
Droplets of rain start to fall on your face as you settle the bill and run back to the cover of your balcony, right on time to watch the spectacular thunderstorm light up the dark karst mountains in the dead of night. Your only music is the rain that’s hammering on the tin roof and the geckos on the walls.
Welcome to Laos, where time oozes slowly like sweet milk.
Getting From Sapa to Nong Khiaw
- From Sapa, you can either catch a minibus in the early morning or a sleeper bus at night. The road to Dien Bien Phu is very scenic, so it is worth doing the trip by day if you have the time, which is what we did. The journey to Dien Bien Phu takes six to eight hours and costs around $14 (May 2014), the bus will pick you up from your guesthouse. Do shop around, you could save a few bucks. The best price we found was from the tourist info center by the church, which is also where we got picked up.
- If you did the overnight trip, you can hop right onto the next bus that crosses into Laos, thus saving a night of accommodation, but beware, you may be the last one in the bus and be stuck in the aisle atop an awful lot of cargo. By taking the daytime minibus from Sapa to reach Nong Khiaw, you will have to overnight in the crap hole that is Dien Bien Phu, but at least you will be rested and be able to get to the bus station first thing in the morning to have a good seat. The bus is scheduled to depart at 5:30am and costs around $5 or $6. Five to seven hours.
- The bus will take you across to Laos to a little town called Muang Khua. From there, we stayed overnight again before catching a boat to Nong Khiaw the following morning. I know it’s possible to take a bus (I don’t know the schedule), but crossing ‘level 1’ rapids in a rickety longtail boat is an experience not to be missed, albeit a very uncomfortable one. The scenery is absolutely breathtaking. 120,000 kip if you’re 10 people or over. Five hours.
- If you have the time, stop in Muang Ngoi for a few days before Nong Khiaw (along the same boat route, 20,000 kip cheaper). We heard a lot of good things about it, but unfortunately didn’t make the stop. Just hop on the same boat to do the short ride to Nong Khiaw.