Laos’ Idyllic River Towns


Ahhh Laos…a chill, beautiful, affordable, and friendly country. Here, things move at a slower pace and after the whirlwind that is Vietnam we decided to embrace the pace, traveling by river boat, trekking into the mountains, and living with local families. We began our three weeks in Laos in the idyllic towns along the Nam Ou river, where saw-toothed mountains shoot out of the water, tribal villages are tucked into the hills, electricity is a celebrated event from 7-10pm, and there are more boats than cars.

 

The Long Journey to Northeastern Laos


Getting to this lovely area of northeastern Laos was no easy feat. We caught the last minibus out of Vietnam before the seven-day Tet New Year shutdown (phew!) which left at 11pm and arrived to the Dien Bien Phu border crossing at 4am — a painful four hours before immigration opened. We finally crossed the Vietnam border only to realize there it’s three miles to the Laos side and there isn’t any public transit to get there.  We hitchhiked across limbo land, paid our $35 visa, then negotiated with seemingly every driver in Laos until we got a decent rate to the river town of Muang Khua. All in all it took us about 17 hours to travel the 344 miles. And before you ask…yes, it was worth it!

 

Boat from Muang Khua


Even though it’s a pretty cute river town, Muang Khua is really just a transit hub to get to the road-less and magical Muang Noi Neua. The famed town has become a bit “touristy” but in reality only the hardcore backpackers make it this far. Our boat was filled with some of the most inspiring travelers….Three French friends who decided to move to Australia and spend eight months getting there overland. Then there was a 65-year old couple who had been backpacking off and on for the past 40 years together. We were all crammed on the floor of this boat for six hours, swapping one amazing travel story after the other.

 


Besides the great company, the scenery made the long ride fly by. Cruising the winding river, we saw massive karst mountains, fishing villages, kids skinny dipping, and an open window into Laos life.

 

Muang Noi Neua


Muang Noi Neua is a town without cars, banks, fixed electricity, or internet and that’s what’s great about it! We found a good guesthouse, Aloune Mai (40,000 kip/$4.75 a night), with thatch walls and a hammock overlooking the river, then we meandered over to this awesome restaurant, Nicksa’s Place, with all you can eat curry pumpkin, sticky coconut rice, and fried bamboo for 15,000 kip or $1.75.

 

Homespun Hydroelectric


So that three hours of electricity each day? It comes from a dammed river, using sticks, scraps of plastic, and a boat propeller working in reverse that’s charging a row of batteries. Seems ridiculous but when power lines don’t reach your village, you find a way! These were set up everywhere on the river to give the town a little bit of juice each night. You can be certain no kids leave the light on in this town!

 

Hiking to the Hill Tribe Villages


Beyond the main town there are hiking trails leading to various villages where Hmong and Khamu people live more traditional lifestyles. We hiked to one listed in our guidebook then the second day a local guy gave us directions through flower fields to this village that had probably never seen a white person before.

 

The Village of Ban Hoy Seen


In the village of Ban Hoy Seen, I loved the stilted houses and how efficient they are with such a small footprint. The space beneath the house becomes a shady spot for relaxing, working, or sleeping on hot nights. The outside walls had hooks and lines for storing household goods and keeping the inside free of clutter. We roamed the small town, admiring the ladies weaving, the wild onions hanging out to dry, and the kids playing games in the dirt.

 

Tham Kang Cave


On our way back to town we dipped into the Tham Kang, a cool cave and former bomb shelter used during the Vietnam war. A little known fact is that Laos is the most bombed country in the world. During the Vietnam war the communist Viet Minh from Northern Vietnam would transport weapons and supplies through Laos on their way to attack the Southern Vietnam, and in turn the US military attacked these supply routes with full force.

 

Scars of The Secret War


Landmines and bombshells still litter much of Laos as painful reminders of the past. In working on road construction (sadly there is now a road to Muang Noi Neua), villagers were digging up shells left and right. Seeing our country’s ordnance leaning against a local family’s white picket fence gave us the chills.

 

Making Peace with Moonshine


Just as we were feeling like hated Americans, this lovely lady invited us to try her homemade Lao Lao rice whiskey. We were marveling at the make-shift still she had set up with a 50 gallon plastic drum, sieve and a bucket then she motioned us over for a cap-full of the national drink.

 

Downstream to Nong Khiaw


We stayed in Mong Noi for two action-packed days then took a boat an hour south to the town of Nong Khiaw. The area is equally gorgeous with a bit more infrastructure (like a bridge and a finished road to the outside world.)

 

Laos Standard Time


We stayed on the Ban Hop Soun side of the river and didn’t do much but revel in the beauty of this place. With a hammock and a Beer Lao, we quickly adjusted to LST (Laos Standard Time).

 

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15 thoughts on “Laos’ Idyllic River Towns

  • April 4, 2014 at 3:20 pm
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    Great post guys. We loved Laos, a favourite Asian destination that has seen us head back twice. We never made it up to that part unfortunately. I guess that gives us something to do for our 3rd visit. keep the posts coming. Miss beer Laos and drinking it in hammocks by the numerous rivers in the country.
    Cheers James

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    • April 4, 2014 at 6:33 pm
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      James, that’s great you’ve been to Laos twice! Where did you go? The river experience from Muang Khua to Nong Khiaw was incredible! I wish we went even farther down the river to Luang Prabang…the whole ride is supposed to be gorgeous! We have about 4 more Laos blogs coming up, hope you’ll relive it with us!

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      • April 5, 2014 at 10:04 am
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        Certainly looking forward to those other posts HoneyTrek Anne. First time around was way back in 01 and we went from Thailand across and then two days on the above sort of boat to Luang Prabang, slowly working our way south till we were in Vientiane and across into Thailand. That was before the tubing in Vang Vieng and Laos as a whole was so beautifully basic. We returned last year with our two young boys. Just went from Vientiane up as far as Luang Prabang and returned the same way over 6 weeks. Loved it. Keep up the posts!

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        • April 6, 2014 at 7:46 pm
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          That sounds like a fantastic trip…especially pre-Vang Vieng tubing days and such.Did you hear they shut that whole crazy drug fest down? We didn’t go as far south as Vientiane and would have loved to go all the way south to the 1000 islands…i guess we’ll have to go back too! Just liked your FB page…enjoy Antigua!

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          • April 7, 2014 at 9:39 am
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            Thanks for the like Anne. We did the tubing first time around, it was actually started by the farmers to entertain the workers. No bars on the side then. This time we did the tubing and the yes, the bars were all abandoned. Kids loved the town, playing with the local kids. Jumping off the bridges into the river, I even did that and it was great. About to read the your next post.

            Reply
  • April 6, 2014 at 3:18 pm
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    I stayed in this same area several years ago and often think of it. It is the kind of place that at every turn was a photo opportunity; so gorgeous.

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    • April 6, 2014 at 7:14 pm
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      So true Tim! These towns were truly one of peaceful places. We must have taken 100 photos on that boat ride from Muang khua…catching glimpses into different worlds. So glad you got to enjoy it too!

      Reply
  • May 3, 2014 at 7:41 am
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    SO NICE WONDERFUL DECISION TO ENJOY LIFE LIKE THIS DID U VISIT INDIA GODS OWN COUNTRY, WISHING A HAPPY AND SUCCESSFUL LIFE PLEASE WRITE MORE ABOUT UR LIFE IN THESES COUNTRYS ANDEXPECTING THE LOVELY VEDIOS ALL THE BEST COUPES CHEERS

    Reply
    • May 13, 2014 at 3:25 pm
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      Thanks so much @reghunathkakkanadu:disqus , we did visit India but on a prior trip. This journey we did only new countries we have never visited before. We loved india though!!!! Split time between Chennai and Delhi and Pondicherry

      Reply
  • May 13, 2014 at 1:17 pm
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    Interesting story and photos. thanks for sharing.

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      • May 13, 2014 at 5:27 pm
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        Mike, Just wishing I could be as authentic as you all, and trying to share the best the world has to offer in photographs and tips through my travel experiences. Gosh your website is good!

        Reply

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