The River Outpost of Nong Khiaw

Nong Khiaw is a small riverside town in northern Laos on the Nam Ou (River Ou), It's dramatically framed by steep, rocky karsts and beautiful countryside.

We’d arrived late at night, after about eight hours of driving on bumpy, dusty, windy roads through the mountains of the northern Laos provinces of Luang Namtha and Oudomxai. In the dark, there hadn’t been much to see–it’s not exactly lit up like Times Square. There was a bridge. Somewhere far below was the river. And then we were there. Seeing what Nong Khiaw was like would have to wait for morning.

The town’s name is also sometimes spelled Nongkiau, Nong Kiau, or Nong Kiew.

Even the sun’s rise didn’t initially help much. Not that you could see the sunrise. The whole area was shrouded with dense mist. And as the mists rose during the morning, they slowly revealed what they’d been hiding.

Nong Khiaw has natural beauty in spades. Also known, confusingly, as Muang Ngoi, which is technically the name of the district it’s in, the town of Nong Khiaw is a tiny place–no more than a few streets and a bridge. But that, in Lao terms, makes it more of a town than a village. The streets are on either side of the Nam Ou (Ou River). As morning mists rise from the steep riverbanks, they reveal steep limestone cliffs, or karsts, that frame the surrounding forest in a most picturesque way. The main part of town is at the base of a mountain that towers another 3,300 feet above it.1

And the bridge is no rickety walkway made of bamboo like you see in some other river crossings in Southeast Asia. Built in 1973, while the Second Indochina War still raged, it’s by far the most prominent artificial structure in the area and clearly took some engineering expertise to erect. It towers high over the river, safely above the swollen high water mark of the river during the rainy season.

Nong Khiaw is a step up in amenities from many of the nearby local villages–there’s electricity and running water–but not by much. It hasn’t yet been corrupted by the commercialism of higher-trafficked places. And being able to get to and from by boat–there are no major highways in this part of Laos and no trains anywhere in the country–makes Nong Khiaw a nearly idyllic stopover.

We didn’t stay long–we had another day of driving to do–but it made for a very pleasant place to take a break. One day I’ll be back to explore some more. But next time, I’ll come by riverboat.

Photos of Nong Khiaw

Photo by David Coleman. How to license & download this image.

Photo by David Coleman. How to license & download this image.

Photo by David Coleman. How to license & download this image.

Photo by David Coleman. How to license & download this image.

Photo by David Coleman. How to license & download this image.

Photo by David Coleman. How to license & download this image.

Photo by David Coleman. How to license & download this image.

Photo by David Coleman. How to license & download this image.

Photo by David Coleman. How to license & download this image.

Photo by David Coleman. How to license & download this image.

Photo by David Coleman. How to license & download this image.

What to Know Before You Go

There aren’t many places to exchange currency here or to get a cash advance on your credit card, so best bet is to arrive with cash on hand. Some of the hotels provide internet, but not many and it’s often patchy.


  1. Nong Khiaw is at about 1,200 feet above sea level; the peak of the mountain is about 4,500 feet above sea level.

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Travel Advice for Laos

You can find the latest U.S. Department of State travel advisories and information for Laos (such as entry visa requirements and vaccination requirements) here.

The British and Australian governments offer their own country-specific travel information. You can find the British Government's travel advice for Laos here and the Australian Government's here.

Health & Vaccinations

The CDC makes country-specific recommendations for vaccinations and health for travelers. You can find their latest information for Laos here.

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