Nong Khiaw is a small town on the banks of the Nam Ou River boasting a stunning backdrop of imposing limestone mountains, picturesque river views and genuine local colour.
Sometimes referred to as Muang Ngoi Mai, it is often confused with Muang Ngoi, a smaller town an hours boat ride further up the river. Both towns are very popular with the backpackers, and are fully equipped with restaurants and basic guesthouses. Street lighting and hot water showers are virtually non-existent, with electricity, private bathrooms and concrete walls a luxury. The village wat is 250 years old, and one of the oldest in the area.
The journey makes it all worthwhile. Two to four hours by road from Luang Prabang depending on your mode of transport and about eight hours up the spectacular Nam Ou by boat, the routes pass through lush and mountainous scenery and a handful of small towns which offer a peek at Lao rural life.
There are several caves in the immediate area, one of which was apparently the site of many deaths when local villagers sheltered there during the war and draws travellers, but other than relaxing, walking and playing in the river with the local children, there is little to do here.
From Nong Kiaow and Muang Ngoi it is possible to head upriver to Muang Khua and eventually Phongsali, or by land to Udomxai, which is the hub that opens up the north. Whether you only have a few days to spare and want to get out of Luang Prabang, or want to use these places as a stepping stone to a more in-depth exploration of the north, Nong Kiaow and Muang Ngoi are both great destinations.