Laos Travel Diary 2: Nong Khiaw, Vang Vieng, & Vientiane

Celebrating the holiday season in Laos

After nearly a week in the ‘big city’ of Luang Prabang, we decided to give up our extravagant coffees and return to the countryside. Nong Khiaw, a small town northeast of Luang Prabang, had caught my eye during our original research for a multi-day trek. After visiting Luang Namtha earlier in the month, we decided we were good on camping for a while, but the fabulous cliffs and reputedly wonderful views certainly still recommended Nong Khiaw as a worthwhile place to visit for some day hikes.

From our accommodation in Luang Prabang, we took a shuttle to the bus station, and then embarked on a packed mini-van ride to Nong Khiaw. The 4-hour ride felt a little slow; we got unlucky and ended up in some makeshift seats in the aisle, but at least we didn’t have to sit on the floor like one poor girl! In general, the ride was typical for Laos – a slow, winding plod through pot-holed mountain roads in a warm and windy van.

Nong Khiaw

We arrived in the quiet mountain town in the early afternoon. Our accommodation – an amazing hotel literally built on a floating platform on the river – was on the quiet, local side of town. A 15-minute walk to the other end of town confirmed two things: that the ‘tourist’ side was certainly busier than ours, and that Nong Khiaw was stunningly beautiful. Nestled among dramatic peaks amidst lush jungle greenery, a wide river cuts through this remote little outpost. A small town with mostly dirt roads occupies one bank, while a number of hotels have sprung up across a new-ish Chinese-funded bridge to meet the growing tourism demand on the other side of the river. In the hills, tucked in the gentle valleys between the peaks, are many small homesteads and farms.

A view of the Nam Ou River as the sun goes down, taken from our hotel.
Me on the bridge in Nong Khiaw, admiring the hills.
The deck of our hotel sits right on the river. We were treated to simply beautiful sunsets from our recliners, plus river access about six steps from our room.
Chris loving life with an extra large beer.

The next morning, we were eager to explore some of the famous viewpoint hikes of Nong Khiaw. Picking what our google search indicated to be the hardest trail in the area – the Phar Kewlom lookout – we borrowed some incredibly horrible bikes from our hotel and biked about 3 km to the trailhead.

A typical trail view from Phar Kewlom.

The trail was, as expected, hot, sweaty, steep, and short, although it was well-maintained. About an hour or so of jungle hiking, including a few bamboo ladder climbs, left us not at the peak, but at a platform built to create a viewpoint. The summit of the mountain was still a couple hundreds meters behind us, but no trail seemed to lead there, and with the possibility of encountering unexploded ordinance dropped by the USA during their bombing campaign of Laos in the 1960s-70s, we certainly were not going to step off-trail to explore. We contented ourselves with the lovely view from the platform while we had a snack and lots of water, trying desperately to cool off.

Looking down at Nong Khiaw from Phar Kewlom viewpoint. Our hotel is on the left side of town on the river, while the majority of tourists cluster on the right side, as well as just over the bridge.
Looking up the Nam Ou river valley. Many boat tours and jungle treks are available up this river.
Looking back west over the rolling hills.
The bamboo platform created for the viewpoint. You can actually sign up for a sunset/sunrise hiking and camping trip in town, in which case I’d believe you’d sleep on this platform in a tent.

Our descent from the viewpoint was fairly quick – or else, would have been, had we not stopped to chat with a friend we’d met in northern Laos and randomly ran into again on this hike! Afterwards, we spent a relaxed afternoon at our beautiful river-side hotel. I gleefully stepped off the dock for a swim.

The next morning, I set off again for another hike. Chris, feeling a little unwell, stayed behind to rest, and I made it my mission to see how quickly I could complete the double viewpoint hike known as the Sleeping Lady. The Sleeping Lady trailhead was only a 5 minute walk from our hotel. While I’d read enough to know there were two viewpoints to visit, I knew almost nothing about either one.

I ended up at the upper viewpoint first (by randomly following a sign labelled ‘viewpoint 2’). It was great getting a view of our hike from the previous day, as well as the town from the opposite side. I charged down the steep trail and rapidly made for ‘viewpoint 1’, which I quickly discovered was located only 4 minutes from the junction. A quick descent left me at the bottom with a roundtrip time of about 1 hour 15 min. Not too bad for months of noodles, rich curries, and beer…

A photo from the upper Sleeping Lady viewpoint of Nong Khiaw.
Some small family farms can be seen nestled amongst these hills.
A photo from the lower viewpoint. Our hotel can be seen sitting right on the river. Gotta love that trail access.
One of the platforms built on the sharp rocks at the viewpoint.
The Laotian flag accompanied this lovely view of town at the lower viewpoint.

Our three-day stay in Nong Khiaw left us with the impression of a small, peaceful town not yet overrun with travelers, but with enough tourist infrastructure to make for an interesting visit. We enjoyed many of the local restaurants (although there are a few western restaurants, which we avoided). There are also lots of activities to stay occupied. While I’m sure the majority who visit set up at least one tour with the many tour companies, we were content to hike, relax by the river, and eat for our short stay, especially since we’d already done a similar tour in Luang Namtha in the north. I very much enjoyed Nong Khiaw and its small town vibe, and thought it was one of the most beautiful places we’d visited yet in Asia. (It reminded me a little of the town of Squamish back home, actually.) Also, the shops in town make simply the best mango smoothie in existence.

After our stay in Nong Khiaw, we booked a bus back to Luang Prabang. From here, we got a ride to the train station, and again hopped on the Chinese-run LCR to get to our next destination: Vang Vieng.

Not the best photo through the train window, but it shows well enough an example of the beautiful scenery through which the rail line travels.

Vang Vieng

Our last major stop in Laos was the town of Vang Vieng, previously famous for its wild river tubing party scene. After a number of unfortunate tourist deaths (drugs, alcohol, and water don’t mix well), the government has cracked down on the indiscriminate partying. We visited the town amidst its attempt to reinvent itself and discover its new place in Lao tourism. We also intended to spend Christmas there, and were hopeful that we’d be able to find at least a modicum of holiday spirit, as well as a nice roast-style holiday dinner somewhere.

Aside from its former party scene, Vang Vieng is famous as an adventure town. Tours abound here: cycling, kayaking, rock climbing, paramotoring (like paragliding, but with a motor – more on this below), cave exploration, swimming holes, dune buggies, hiking, and of course, river tubing, are some of the activities that can be done here, all set amidst a striking landscape of farms and sharp peaks.

One our first day in Vang Vieng, we rented a motorbike and headed out into the country for a hike, as well as to check out one of the famous Blue Lagoons. While we usually each ride our own bike, I decided to hop on the back of Chris’ bike to save some cash on the rental. I soon realized how poor a choice this was, for I soon encountered Death Bridge.

What, you might ask, is Death Bridge? Death Bridge is the most shameful excuse for a water-crossing structure I have ever encountered in my life, and one that, funnily enough, is the only convenient way out of downtown Vang Vieng into the valley where most of the recreation lies. It is a series of two wooden skeletons of bridges, full of gaping holes clumsily spanned by loose wooden boards and ready to eat up motorbike tires. Death Bridge is immediately followed by a horribly loose and rocky road that could topple inexperienced riders in a second. I generally dislike riding on the back of a bike (it’s waaaay scarier than just driving you own!), and this “bridge” made all my nightmares come true.

This certainly wasn’t our first time on the bikes in Southeast Asia though, and Chris did an admirable job dodging walking tourists, other motorbikes, loose boards, huge holes, and the odd car that somehow squeezed itself onto that bridge, and we made it across and down the rocky ramp unscathed.

A quick drive further led us to the Pha Ngern viewpoint hike, a short and mostly shaded hike with two viewpoints. The first comes with many great spots for photo-ops: a laotian flag is ready for waving, and a buggy cart somehow made its way up there as well. The second viewpoint trail was nearly deserted – we had it almost entirely to ourselves, which was a lovely break after the tour-group-craziness of the first.

Chris waving a victory flag at the first lookout on Pha Ngern.
Chris practicing his driving strategy for Death Bridge.
Given how steep and forested the trail is, it’s impressive that someone got this little cart up here.
Vang Vieng is full of green countryside studded with steep limestone cliffs.
A view from the upper lookout of the hike.

After our hike at Pha Ngern, we took a quiet and scenic drive through country roads to reach Blue Lagoon 3. Vang Vieng has a number of these ultra-blue swimming holes – I believe there are Blue Lagoons numbered 1 through 6. Each has its own special character. We selected Blue Lagoon 3 for our visit as we’d read that it was relatively quiet, had a number of fun swimming structures, and came with a cave! While we didn’t end up swimming – the lagoon gets a lot of shade, and it ended up being shockingly cold – we did really enjoy watching guys launch themselves off the rope swing (we even witnessed one guy breaking the rope swing). We also very much enjoyed exploring the nearby cave.

The blue lagoon is full of things to play on. There’s a platform with a rope swing and a zipline, plus a bunch of tubes for floating around.

A short walk and climb past the lagoon leads to the entrance to the cave. You must descend down a ladder into pitch black darkness. A light is a must. While we meant to bring our headlamps, we forgot them, but we actually made due, albeit awkwardly, with our phone lights. There are no directions provided once in the cave, but the object is to find two underground lagoons for swimming (if you’re brave enough to get in them!). The adventure comes from wandering around in the dark and trying to find the correct passage to proceed through the cave. While it seemed a little crazy at the time (could we get lost and never find our way out!?), now that we’ve been through, it turned out that it really was easy. There was really only one way to go (ie: no extraneous passages in which to get lost). By looking for and following the numerous wooden ladders that have been placed to aid passage, you can’t go too wrong.

We eventually stumbled across both of the lagoons (which were found by throwing pebbles over the edge of drop-offs into inky black nothingness and listening for the sound of them striking water), but it turns out we were not brave enough to dare the black water. I’m pretty sure monsters live in there.

Chris descending into the cave.
This is the only photo from the cave that turned out okay, taken near the entrance with the help of a bit of ambient light.

After the cave, we hopped on our motorbike and headed back to town.

A typical road in the country around town. The bigger vehicle is a taxi shuttle moving groups of tourists around, and the smaller one is a buggy – these little dune buggy carts can be rented all over the place for ripping around dirt roads.

However, our final challenge of the day was still before us: the re-crossing of Death Bridge. At the entrance to the bridge, we were forced to wait nearly 10 minutes; a couple trucks were dumping dirt on the rocky ramp leading to the bridge in an effort to make it less horrible. As soon as a small space opened up between the work, the locals waiting around us all hopped on their bikes and made a dash for the bridge. Chris was behind them.

I think the fresh dirt on the ramp made it worse, although maybe less bumpy. The series of bridges were as terrible as ever, and I held my breath as I clung to the bike, trying my best to be an inert sack of potatoes and not upset the balance. Bridge one, down, bridge two, down…. but wait! Due to the construction, a gate had been thrown across the entrance on the far side, preventing any cars from driving onto the bridge. “Duck!” yelled Chris excitedly, as we blasted straight for the gate. If we kept to the far right and got low, there might be just enough space for us to pass underneath. We blasted through and managed to duck at precisely the right moment, whopping exultantly on the other side. Although at this moment of celebration, a truck tried to back up into us in an attempt to park. Nothing could dampen Chris’ high at his successful completion of Death Bridge and Decapitation Gate, so he deftly dodged the truck, and in one more minute, we were hopping off the bike and handing the keys back to the guy at the rental agency. Not today, Death Bridge.

The imposing skeleton of Death Bridge in the twilight. Okay okay, it really doesn’t look that bad from this perspective, but I can assure you, it’s horrendous in the day when it’s really busy, and the second bridge (not pictured here) is much worse than this one.

One of the most charming things about Vang Vieng is the numerous hot air balloons drifting over town. Groups of balloons take off every sunrise and sunset, and there is nothing so enjoyable as grabbing a beer on a riverside patio and watching the balloons float gracefully into the sky with the sunset.

Hot air balloons seen at sunset.

During our time in Vang Vieng, Christmas came and went. While the town itself isn’t particularly western – there aren’t many Christmas decorations, and not much in the way of parties or festivities – we were able to find an excellent roast dinner at the local Irish pub (as every town seems to have an Irish pub). It was exactly what we needed: juicy roasted chicken covered in gravy, and served with very homemade tasting mashed potatoes and veggies, and of course a glass of wine.

On Christmas Day, we signed up for one of our favourite activities: rock climbing. While Laos’ trademark limestone made for some cool climbing features, we found the combination of very polished stone (due to the high traffic of the tour groups), squishy rental shoes, and generally overhanging routes to be incredibly difficult.

Chris warming up on an easy route.
Me getting ready to fight my way through an overhang.
Chris pushing through yet another overhang. 
The mega-overhang. This sloped ceiling with huge protruding pillars was the hardest route we hopped on. It felt like being back at the bouldering gym. Our guide easily sent it, and then proceeded to send it again in bare feet.
Chris working through the starting moves.

Unfortunately, Christmas night was a little rough for Chris, who came down with some of horrible food poisoning. Our next few days were pretty quiet as he tried to recover. On our last morning in Vang Vieng however, I had booked an action-packed send-off: a paramotor tour. Inspired by the hot air balloons gracefully floating around town, and disappointed that the rides were sold out weeks in advance, I decided to try a more adventurous air adventure. Paramotoring is pretty much like paragliding, except instead of jumping off something tall to gracefully sail back down, both the ascent and the descent are managed by a little motorized cart attached to the parachute.

At sunrise, I stood in the yard of the paramotor company and geared up for my flight. My guide gave me an extra jacket to wear, plus gloves and a buff to shield my face from the chilly morning wind. It gets surprisingly cold in Laos in December, especially as you sail through the air. For communication, I got a helmet with integrated headphones and a radio. He also gave me a selfie-stick to connect to my phone for photos. With all this prepared, I was buckled into the cart in front of my pilot, and off we went!

The paramotor. It’s a cart with wheels and a large fan on the back. This is all connected to a huge parachute for gliding.

The take-off was incredibly smooth. The paramotor gently moves down the grass runway, gaining speed, and at some point, the parachute gets enough lift to pull us into the air. The ride was not bumpy or scary at all. In fact, it’s far gentler than a plane taking off or landing. Once airborne, the ride remained smooth. As someone who engages in a large amount of fairly extreme sports, I have to say, I found nothing about the ride nerve-wracking or scary. It was very calm and peaceful.

Watching the hot air balloons launch nearby.
The edge of Vang Vieng covered in a morning mist, with a small touch of smoke mixed in. The skies were a little hazy (presumably from farmers burning their fields to clear them), but it made the colours that much more unique.
Me rocking my selfie-stick with the pilot.
Some of striking limestone peaks we passed by. You can see more hot air balloons in the distance.
A shot of the river and town of Vang Vieng behind.
More sunrise shots.
A shot of the expressway we were to take on the road to Vientiane later that day. It’s brand new.

Landing the paramotor was just as gentle as taking off had been. Overall, it was a very cool experience – everyone at the company was wonderful and I had full confidence in their abilities and safety procedures, and I got some amazing and unique views of a very beautiful place. The ride was definitely cold, despite all my extra layers, but very much worth it, although I found it to be more relaxing than thrilling.

With a new fringe-sport experience now under my belt, Chris and I packed our bags later that morning and caught a local bus to Vientiane.


Our final few days in Laos were spent in its capital city, Vientiane. While many travel blogs, and even others we’d asked, recommending skipping Vientiane entirely, I enjoyed the city a lot more than I thought I would. We didn’t specifically intend to visit Vientiane, but ended up staying a few nights anyway as it was a logical place to stop as we traveled back to the Thai border to catch a flight out of the international airport in Udon Thani. Vientiane, the seat of government, and the most modern and developed city in the country, gets a bad rap as a city with nothing to do, but I enjoyed the contrast with the rest of Laos, and appreciated the food scene, which was not unlike any other capital city around the world; the meals we had here were among the best we had in the country.

A typical street view of Vientiane. There’s no big towers here.

To reach Vientiane from Vang Vieng, there are a few options. The Laos-China railway is just a short ride away, but as a new expressway for vehicles was recently built, offering a straight, fast, and hopefully well-paved ride, we elected to save a few bucks and take the bus. A short-ish ride (about two hours) left us at the bus station in Vientiane. We were surprised to note that, aside from some of the bigger highways, most of the roads just outside of downtown Vientiane were dirt and not paved.

Wow, a Starbucks! I believe it’s the only one in the country.
Chris getting fancy by the Christmas tree on the boardwalk near the night market.
Sunset over the Meekong, plus a little amusement park for the kids downtown. The lights across the river are actually Thailand – it’s very close.

Vientiane, as a government town, is full of French – it’s on signs, it’s spoken by both expats and many native Laotians, and it’s represented in about half the restaurants downtown. Never have I witnessed such a concentration of fine French dining, French bakeries, and French coffee shops. Needless to say, we ate well here.

On the morning of our last day in Laos we walked to the local bus station and caught a bus to the Thai border. Here, we engaged in a weirdly rushed crossing (everyone was anxious that we move fast for some reason!), then returned to the bus for the hour-long drive to Udon Thani. From here, we then taxied to the airport and settled in for a very long wait for our flight to our next destination: Phuket, in south Thailand, a place renowned for its fireworks-filled New Years Eve beach celebration. Goodbye to 2023, and here’s to a tropical New Year!

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