The slow boat to Nong Khiaw is an enchanting journey, offering just the right combination of sensational scenery, worthy discomfort, local colour and serenity. It’s probably one of the nicest river trips you can do in Laos, at least at this time of year.
When I booked the ticket I asked how many people the boat could hold at most and was told “15”. This pleased me, because I have read blog posts about the much more popular boat from the Thai border to Luang Prabang and heard some horror stories. Packed in 70 to 100 per boat, that journey takes two days with an overnight stop in the traveller hell of Pak Beng where ripping off the tourists is apparently a local sport. Some say it’s pleasant enough, others hated it, very few say it was a highlight of their trip.
The contrast with the boat to Nong Khiaw could not be greater. In fact our boat could take only 10 people, but in this case our group of 12 was split into two very small boats so we all had ample room to relax in. Such a small craft is necessary because at this time of year the river level is quite low, and anything larger would probably have got stuck on a rock somewhere (or worse). Being on a small boat gave a very intimate connection with the surroundings and people we passed, and it was such a thoroughly peaceful journey that the seven hours passed quite quickly.
I don’t mean it was peaceful in a literal sense, of course. The constant clatter of the engine made conversation very difficult, but in every other respect it was totally relaxing. Not that it was luxurious, either: the low wooden stools (very similar to those you would have sat on in kindergarten) we could sit on were so hard that it was actually much more comfortable sitting on the floor, and nearly all of us rotated between stool and floor as necessary. We only had a couple of pit stops to take a pee behind a bush on a riverbank – not once did we pass a village where we could stop for a meal, drink or proper toilet.
The scenery ranged from merely pretty to spectacular, with some magnificent high cliffs passed on several occasions. The terrain was almost entirely forested, though from time to time a riverside village could be seen high on the banks, with children playing on the shore and men fishing in the water. A couple of large bamboo barges floated by, as did a number of fishing skiffs and other small passenger boats heading south. Our pilot was expert at guiding us through constant hazards such as submerged rocks, floating trees and even up some rough rapids, and never once did I feel like we were in any danger. Even though the six initial passengers were all western tourists it had a genuinely local feel, a fact confirmed when a man hailed us from the river’s edge at one point and got on board with his baby daughter and a sack of food. I had brought a book along as I feared it would be a dull journey otherwise, but I spent far more time simply admiring the view and taking shirtloads of photos (which I’ve edited down to fifteen highlights – check my Photo Gallery in a couple of days if you want to see them all).
Arriving in Nong Khiaw was something of an anticlimax. It’s much smaller than I expected, and more rustic too with rocky unpaved streets and a small selection of somewhat over-priced guesthouses. I’ve found a riverside bungalow with great shared balcony that overlooks the town, and though it’s comfortable enough with private hot water bathroom and western throne I’ve gotten much better rooms for the same money elsewhere in Laos.
A final drawback of Nong Khiaw, and much more serious, is that there is no ATM or bank here – not even a money changer. This has caused me to alter my route a bit, as I don’t have enough local currency on hand to get me through the next two days, let alone the next two weeks (I do have US dollars as a backup, of course, but not enough for my needs). It seems that outside the tourist triangle things really are less developed than I’d come to believe, and I simply can’t go further north without an adequate supply of cash. The nearest place where I know for sure there is an ATM and other banking facilities is Oudomxai, about four hours west by bus. I had intended to skip it entirely but will now have to visit there because I can’t risk running out of money! It doesn’t matter too much, and in fact it allows me to see more of Laos than I intended which is really a positive in the end, isn’t it?