Northern Laos has some beautiful gems hidden in its countryside. Not only did we experience wonderful scenery, local rural life and tasty foods in the north of Laos, we also saw the impact of war on this beautiful country and its people.
To Nong Khiaw
Suitably chilled/a little bored of Luang Namtha, two days after arriving we jumped in a minivan bound for Nong Khiaw, a little mountain village seven hours away.
This road was slightly better than the last, but it was still amazing how sections were just not finished. We stopped halfway for some lunch in the mountains, and were given our first taste of this part of the country’s history, bombshells sat outside the restaurant.
It wouldn’t be the last we saw of those.
The northeast of Laos was bombed heavily – the most in the world – during the ‘secret war’ between 1967 and 1972. Statistics suggest that there was one bomb attack every eight minutes for nine years, and people lived in caves only coming out in the evening when the bombing stopped to work the rice paddies.
There are still unexploded bombs (UXO) in the countryside that children mistakenly pick up thinking they are balls and from what I’ve read, the US aren’t doing enough to clear up their mess.
Over 20,000 people have been killed or injured by UXO since bombing ceased.
Exploring this part of the country was touched with a heavy heart.
Nong Khiaw instantly struck us with its beauty. The sleepy village is surrounded by huge karsts and a river that divides it with bungalows, houses and restaurants either side.
We hadn’t booked anywhere to stay and so, set about finding a little hut to call home. Opting for Nam Houn Bungalows, we moved into a bungalow sat right on the river for £10 per night.
It felt like we’d struck gold and promptly set up camp in the hammock on the balcony to drink in the view.
Tearing ourselves away from horizontal took a lot of effort, but we did manage to explore the village and even do some running.
We hiked to the caves the villagers lived in in the secret war. It’s humbling to see how the town has used the bombshells, as sign posts and even as stilts to hold up a house.
The village also boasts a viewpoint to hike to on a mountain high above Nong Khiaw which, of course, we attempted to climb to watch sunset one sweaty afternoon. The little plaque at the bottom showed more evidence of the war.
It was hard and very much ‘up’, quite reminiscent of The Pinnacles in Sarawak. But the view and a burning sunset was a beautiful reward.
Craving a little adrenaline and a break from the standard, we found a company in Nong Khiaw who offered zip lining in the nearby jungle. Something that Byron had not experienced before and accompanied by a fun Italian chap – we loved it!
Lunch was typical Laotian with aubergine, omelette, Laos sausages, Chinese vegetable and, of course, obligatory sticky rice. All eaten with hands and rolling the sticky rice into balls to dip into the aubergine.
It was served on a two huge banana leaves plucked from a nearby plant. I think we got off lightly as Laotian’s apparently eat all sorts of interesting things – monkey, squirrel and rat.
In Siargao, Philippines, just a month or so before, we met a French-Canadian couple Alex and Jo-Annie. On our third night in Nong Khiaw, who happened to be eating at the same restaurant as us!?
It’s a ridiculously small world.
They were heading up on the boat to Muang Ngoi the next day too! Unfortunately for them they were unable to shake us off for the second time and we arranged to meet on the boat the following morning.
Tears were almost shed on our departure from the little bungalow on the river. But we pulled ourselves together and boarded a wooden boat to take us one hour upstream to Muang Ngoi, a little village where the main way in is by river.
The village has clearly acknowledged its tourist-alluring beauty and has a bunch of locals attempting to shoo you into their guesthouses as soon as you step foot on the boat jetty.
One woman who walked with us all the way down the road was very proud of her’s having the best beds in the village. Unfortunately we didn’t choose to try them out.
If you’re able to look past all that, the little village still retains its cute charm although it seems to have lost of a little of its innocence.
We headed to a guesthouse recommended to us, grabbed some food and met up with Alex and Jo-Annie for a mini expedition through the countryside. The village is set in some beautiful countryside and has many little villages surrounding it to trek to.
Some dodgy map reading and a few rivers waded across barefoot eventually led us to the Thamg Kham cave, another used in the war to shelter from the relentless bombing.
We sat in the accompanying water pool and caught up on the last few months.
It was a pretty relaxed afternoon spent chatting, exploring and drinking the odd Beer Laos. Back to the village and a relatively quiet night was spent in the little hut by the river with relatively few musings from chickens. A nice change!
We really enjoyed our time in Nong Khiaw and Muang Ngoi, they’re a great pair of villages in Norther Laos to explore.
Our next stop was Luang Prabang – check out our adventures in this beautiful bougainvillea-laden city too.