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Thursday, March 6, 2014

A comprehensive guide to Nong Khiaw, Laos

The lazy little river town of Nong Khiaw (also spelled Nong Khiew, Nong Kiew, Nong Kiau or Nong Kiao) might just be or favorite town in Laos. We love the laid-back vibe in this little village by the Nam Ou River, plus there is plenty of hiking, cycling and exploring to be done during the day, and even more ways to relax at night. We spent a few extra days in town checking out every single guesthouse and nearly all Nong Khiaw’s restaurants to create this comprehensive guide to Nong Khiaw. Including:

Where to stay in Nong Khiaw

Despite being such a small village, there are plenty of guesthouses. These are mostly bungalows, and more are being built all the time. Set almost entirely on the east side of the Nam Ou River, most of the accommodation is in the budget range, but there are a couple of higher-end options if you’d like to splurge.

Meexai
Meexai has several bungalows, and each one has a terrace with a hammock. The bungalows are basic, but the showers have hot water and the hotel assured us that the free wi-fi reaches the rooms. There is a restaurant on site (where the wi-fi definitely works) but the bungalows don’t have river views.

Price: 60,000 kip ($7.50) per bungalow
 
Nam Houn
Nam Houn is also a collection of bungalows, and though a bit more expensive than most of the other ones, the quality looks no better. Nam Houn has hot water showers and terraces, some of which have hammocks.

Price: 90,000 kip ($11.30) per bungalow

Bamboo Paradise
Bamboo Paradise has bungalows and a new building with rooms behind them. The rooms inside will protect guests more from the elements (mosquitoes/bugs) but it is the bungalows that offer river views, plus terraces and hammocks.  All rooms have a fan and hot water showers and there is a little restaurant on-site. You can also arrange tours, trekking and massages here.

Price: from 60,000 kip ($7.50)

Sunrise guesthouse
Sunset has a row of bungalows right on the east side of the river, near the town bridge. The older bungalows are very basic, but boast great river views, and there are a few nicer, newer bungalows made that are sturdy and made of stone. These are definitely worth it if you are looking for a value for money mini-luxe night or two. All bungalows have a terrace with chairs and a table, hot water showers and the restaurant on site was busy.

Price: from 80,000 kip ($7.50) for the older bungalows, 100,000 kip ($18.90) for the new stone ones

Sunset guesthouse
Sunset guesthouse is also located east of the river and has bungalows right at the river. Sunset bungalows are less open to the elements than some of the other bungalows, with glass windows, for example, but we are not sure if they are worth their price tag. For example, the bungalows do not have wi-fi, but the restaurant does.

Price: 150,000 kip ($18.80)

Nong Khiaw Riverside Resort and Restaurant
The Riverside Resort and Restaurant is as luxurious as Nong Khiaw can get – for now. Spacious, well-built bungalows located right near the bridge (up a path behind the Sunset guesthouse) offer fabulous river views. Rooms come with fans, mosquito nets, hot showers plus big terraces that have hammocks. Wi-fi is available, but for now you have to pay for it.

Price: 350,000 kip ($43.80)

CT Guesthouse
CT Guesthouse is located right behind the bridge on the east side of the river, and has rooms in two different buildings. We stayed here for a few nights, and found the rooms are spacious and clean, and hot showers were definitely hot. Try to get a room in the lower building, where rooms have a terrace and river views. The wi-fi, however, only reaches the rooms in the other building but is available in the restaurant.

Price: 100,000 kip ($12.50)

Phulisack
Phulisack is a small guesthouse with only five rooms right on the road on the east side of the river. The rooms are in a concrete building, not in bamboo bungalows. Here guests have hot water showers and a little balcony that has chairs and a desk. Even though it doesn’t have river views, the rooms are clean, the owners are very friendly and the price is nice.

Price: 60,000 kip ($7.50)

Sengdao
Sengdao is the only guesthouse that has bungalows on the west side of the river. These are basic, with mosquito nets and hot showers, and all have a spacious terrace with chairs. What made us leave was that our bathroom had no toilet seat. Whether other bungalows did or not, this should have been fixed. Sitting right on the river and right off the bridge, the location is great and the garden is home to some amazing birds and curious cats. The on-site restaurant attracts more locals than foreigners but the menu looks good and if you stay here you are closer to a few of the better restaurants in Nong Khiaw.

Price: 80,000 kip ($7.50) for a bungalow
 
What to do in Nong Khiaw

The village itself is not very big, but there are plenty of things to keep you active and busy during the day, as well as great ways to relax at night.

Hike to the 100 Waterfalls
The ‘100 Waterfalls’, only a recent tourism development, is apparently one of the best hikes in Laos. Plenty of tour companies in town can take you on a 1-day tour. It’s an adventurous trek – expect to stay wet for hours and make sure to bring sturdy shoes – but the scenery is more than rewarding. Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler did it in 2009 and wrote about the 100 Waterfalls in Nong Khiaw hike here.

Hike to the caves
There are two different caves near Nong Khiaw: the Tam Phatok Cave south of town (east of the river), which can be reached in an easy walk (around 1 – 1.5 hours) along the paved road, or you can rent a bicycle in town and get there in 20 minutes. Entrance for the cave is 5,000 kip ($0.63) and another 5,000 for a flashlight – but we didn’t necessarily need one. The lady who sells the tickets will watch your bikes.

The other caves are also east of the river, but about an hour walk north along the unpaved road next to the river (the path starts by the Sunrise bungalows right by the bridge). At the beginning of the little village there is a ticket booth where you can buy tickets for 10,000 kip ($1.25) to enter the cave – some of the local kids will guide you there.

Rent a bicycle and explore the surrounding area
There are several places on both sides of the river that rent bikes – we opted for some mountain bikes from a rental place near Delilah’s (west of the river). You can either follow the dirt road east of the river north out of town and visit the cave, a little village and waterfalls; or ride on the paved road south towards the mountains. The ride can be rigorous in parts but the scenery is seriously stunning and the local kids from villages who come sprinting up to you will melt you heart. Bring some extra pens, as kids will ask you for ‘pens, pens’ often.

Relax in an herbal steam bath
We love this and can very highly recommend this very basic, very relaxing activity. The Sabai Sabai restaurant  (opposite the temple on the east side of the river) has a simple little wooden herbal steam room where you can relax for 15,000 kip ($1.85) for as long as you want. Herbal tea, taken during frequent breaks, is included in the price, and you will leave feeling truly relaxed and cleared out of any congestion.

Get a massage
Sabai Sabai also offers massages – a 1 hour massage will set you back at 50,000 kip ($6.25) – just another great way to relax after a day of hiking or mountain biking.

Take in the sunset from one of the riverside bars
The best bars and restaurants to watch the sunset from are the CT restaurant right by the bridge, and the Sunset Restaurant, both east of the river. Watching the sun setting over the mountains and seeing the sky turn purple while sipping a cool BeerLao was our nightly ritual and we could never get tired of it.

Watch a movie at Coco Home
Coco Home (on the west side of the river) offers three daily movie screenings. You can enjoy your breakfast while watching a movie, or have lunch or dinner with a film. There is a big sign outside of the bar that says each day which movies are shown, so just decide which one you want to watch … or stay for all three. The food is excellent and reasonably priced, as are the drinks.

Take a day trip to Muang Ngoi Neua
One hour up the river (reachable only by boat) sits the remote little village of Muang Ngoi Neua, a tiny hamlet that still has the feel of past times when there were no cars, no phones and no amenities of the digital world existed. The village is, like Nong Khiaw, right at the shores of the river, and the simplicity makes the scenery all the more breathtaking.  There is only one main road, but plenty of restaurants are set up along it and related paths. Here you can hike to several caves where the locals used to hike during the Secret War. The hikes are worth it for the scenery alone, walking through rice fields between the steep mountains. Guesthouses here are seriously cheap if you decide to stay over night. We paid 40,000 kip ($5) for a nice double room. There are no hot shower or wi-fi of course.

If you do choose to come for the day, you’ll need to hire a private boat, and the more people you’ll find, the cheaper it gets – we actually joined a group of 10 on their ride up and they had hired the boat (incl. driver) for $50. Public boats go once a day, making at least one overnight necessary. We would have gladly stayed a few more nights here.

What’s for breakfast in Laos?

Unlike when we arrived in Thailand, we were entirely unfamiliar with Lao cuisine. Thai restaurants are a dime a dozen in Europe and the U.S., but the only thing we knew to expect about the food in the former French protectorate was that we would be eating a lot of rice.

That did turn out to be true, although in northern Laos where we spent our time, we ate mostly sticky rice – and that at least twice a day. Most of the dishes are very similar to Thai cuisine – red and green curries, vegetable stir fries, and even Pad Thai was on many menus. But the breakfasts in Laos were brand new to us – we had never heard of the dishes with names like cheaw makork or khao piak sen.

So we decided to just order and see what we got…

Our favorites

Lao Garden Breakfast


The Lao Garden Breakfast turned out to be a delicious, fluffy omelet with steamed vegetables on the side, served with a little container of steamed sticky rice (khao niao) and a delicious home-made tomato chili sauce for dipping the sticky rice.

Like you, we expected to see bread on the table after ordering this, but Warm Lao bread does not have much to do with the bread we know – it is completely made of rice. Sticky rice is hand-formed into a large, round inch-thick patty. The patty is then dipped in to a thick scrambled egg mixture, so that it comes packed in an omelet pocket. This is then pulled apart and dipped in the chili sauce. Not only is this cheap and filling, it is one of our absolute favorite Lao foods.

Hard boiled eggs, sliced into quarters, line the outside of a plate filled with sautéed vegetables in the center. On the side, you get your big serving of steaming hot sticky rice and the chili herb paste. You eat the eggs and veggies together, and, as always, ball up pieces of sticky rice with your fingers, dip into the chili and eat that with your fingers.

Yes, you read that right. The French influence comes from 50 years during which Laos was a protectorate of France (1893 – 1954), so in addition to crumbling French colonial architecture in cities like Luang Prabang, the baguette still remains a daily staple in Laos. There are baguette stands everywhere, even in rural villages, but rather than a healthy helping of ‘fromage’, these baguettes come two ways. One is the $1 lunch/dinner option – piled high with chicken, ham, lettuce, cabbage, avocado, egg, even plastic cheese singles – and the other is the breakfast baguette, a truly Lao/French fusion food. Here you cut the baguette open, pour half a can of sweetened, thick condensed milk over it, and voila: A simple but delicious sweet breakfast baguette, best enjoyed with a cup of delicious Lao coffee, which also usually comes with three or four spoonfuls of the same condensed milk.
luang prabang night market baguette ladyOther Lao breakfast specialties

Noodle soup is probably the most popular breakfast in Laos, but as vegetarians, it was hard to find some that wasn’t made with chicken broth, so we didn’t eat much of these below…

Khao Piak Sen

Khao Piak Sen is the typical Lao noodle soup, made from rice noodles, and served for breakfast as well as for lunch and dinner. The soup usually comes with chicken or pork, but a veggie version can also be found in some places.

Khao Soy Noodle Soup

Khao Soy is another type of noodle soup, this one is influenced by Burmese cuisine.  however, this one is influenced by the Burmese cuisine. Also widely spread throughout Northern Thailand, Khao Soy is made from rice noodles, is spicier than Khao Piak Sen and contains lots of spices and hunks of vegetables (shallots, garlic, onions, cilantro, tomatoes and chillies) along with either pork, duck or chicken.

Youtiao

Youtiao is also known as a ‘Chinese donut’ and one of the many items that made their way into Lao cuisine from China. It is usually served as a side for rice porridge (congee) or Khao Tom.

A Guide To Laotian Noodle Soups

Laotian food isn't particularly well-known in the States. Many of the flavors are similar to those used in Northern Thai cuisine, but Lao fare tends to be more bitter, more earthy, and less spicy than the food of its neighbors. Still, there's a lot to love, from the chopped meat salads known as laaps to the hearty meat-and-eggplant stew orlam.

Oodles of noodles on display at a market in Vientiene. Dried rice vermicelli at left, and three sizes of of rice-and-tapioca flour khao piak sen noodles, dusted with fresh flour, to the right.

But the food you'll encounter most often on the streets—in cities and one-street villages alike—are noodle soups, which are eaten mainly for breakfast and lunch. Noodle soups are their own galaxy here. The variety of noodles alone makes it possible to eat a different kind of noodle soup every day for a week without repeats, and the Lao love of condiments means that every table comes equipped with at least half a dozen different sauces/chilis/vinegars/pickled things to further customize your bowl. Here's a look at some of the soups to seek out in Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, and Vientiane.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Money Matters

The currency is the Lao kip (LAK), which comes in relatively small notes (the largest denomination equals about $12). Though the kip has stabilized in recent years, and most prices are now listed in kip, we've chosen to list all hotel rates in U.S. dollars. The Thai baht is accepted in Vientiane, Luang Prabang, and border towns. It's best to carry most of your cash in dollars or baht and exchange relatively small amounts of kip as you travel. At this writing, the official exchange rate is approximately 260 kip to the Thai baht and 8,000 kip to one U.S. dollar.

There are now ATM machines throughout the country so changing money isn't a big issue anymore.

Credit cards are accepted in most hotels and some restaurants, but few shops. Banks in major tourist destinations will provide a cash advance on a MasterCard or Visa, typically for a 5% service charge. Western Union has branches in Vientiane and other major towns.

Border Crossings

In addition to the international airports in Vientiane, Luang Prabang, and Pakse, there are numerous land and river crossings into Laos. The busiest is the Friendship Bridge, which spans the Mekong River 29 km (12 miles) east of Vientiane. Other border crossings from Thailand to Laos are: Chiang Khong to Huay Xai (by ferry across the Mekong River); Nakhon Phanom to Tha Khek; Mukdahan to Savannakhet; and Chongmek to Vang Tao. You can also enter Laos from Cambodia at Voeung Kam; and from Mohan, in China's Yunnan Province, at Boten.
Border crossings are open daily 8:30 to 5, except for the Friendship Bridge, which is open daily 6 to 10

Getting Oriented

Boxed in by China, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, Laos is geographically divided into three regions, each with its chief city: northern Laos and Luang Prabang, central Laos and Vientiane, southern Laos and Pakse. About 90% of Laos is mountainous, so once you leave Vientiane, Luang Prabang, and the southern lowlands you're in true off-the-beaten-track territory. Luang Prabang is the best base for single or multiday trekking, biking, and river-rafting expeditions.

Health and Safety

Laos's health care is nowhere near to Thailand's. If you will be traveling extensively, consider buying international health insurance that covers evacuation to Thailand.

Take the same health precautions in Laos that you would in Thailand. Pharmacies are stocked with Thai antibiotics and often staffed with assistants who speak some English. Vientiane is malaria-free, but if you're visiting remote regions, consider taking prophylactics. HIV is widespread in border areas. Reliable Thai condoms are available in Laos.

Laos is fairly free of crime in tourist areas. Pickpocketing is rare, but you should still be careful in crowded areas. Never leave luggage unattended.

Penalties for drug possession are severe. Prostitution is illegal, and $500 fines can be levied against foreigners for having sexual relations with Lao citizens (how this is enforced is unclear, but even public displays of affection may be seen as shady behavior).

In the countryside, trekkers should watch out for unexploded ordnance left over from the Vietnam War, especially in Xieng Khuang and Hua Phan provinces, and in southern Laos. Don't wander off well-traveled trails. Better yet, trek with a qualified guide. Do not photograph anything that may have military significance, like airports or military installations.