I was at the end of my trip in Luang Prabang, Laos. It seemed most the backpackers were headed south, either straight to Vientiane or check out what’s left of Vang Vieng’s party scene.

Meanwhile, I was determined to backtrack northwards to Nong Khiaw and Muang Ngoi Neua, known for having the most stunning limestone formations and forested mountain landscapes in the northernmost provinces of Laos.

Wandering around remote villages in Muang Ngoi Neua turned out to be the best part of my 18-day trip to Laos.

Nightfall begins to shroud remote farming villages and steep limestone mountains sitting along the Nam Ou River in Laos

Day 1

Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw Bus

Traveling to Muang Ngoi Neua took a whole day from Luang Prabang. The first leg of the journey was a 5-hour bus ride to Nong Khiaw (40,000kip). Supposedly, it only takes 4-hours but we had to stop at a roadblock for an hour to give way for an ongoing post-landslide road repair.

I enjoyed the bus ride. Although travel time was long, it was nothing compared to the arduous 12-hour commute to Luang Prabang from Houay Xai, the northernmost Thailand-Laos border town. Plus, the bus passed through winding roads surrounded by refreshing riverside and mountain views. Perfect distractions along with the friendly smiles of locals.

View from the long bus ride from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw

Arrival in Nong Khiaw

I was awestruck at the beautiful scenery the moment we arrived at the bus terminal in Nong Khiaw. Jagged limestone formations thickly covered with trees surrounded the area. It was very exciting because I knew it was only a teaser of what to expect in the next few days.

Sleepy bus terminal in Nong Khiaw

Nong Khiaw (Nong Kiau) was a sleepy little town lying beside Nam Ou River, one of the major rivers of Laos. Time-crunched tourists would only spend a few days in Nong Khiaw to enjoy the breathtaking view of massive limestone karsts.

These steep monolithic mountains almost entirely covered the small town. So beautiful! I thought Nong Khiaw was a worthy destination on its own.

One side of town was built-up with commercial shops and local houses. While the area across the river, was dotted with touristy restaurants and guesthouse bungalows.

Nong Khiaw – Muang Ngoi Neua ferry landing

My arrival in Nong Khiaw was timely because I still had one hour to spare before the ferry departure to Muang Ngoi Neua. It was enough time to grab something to eat and withdraw money from the ATM.

I was relieved they had a working ATM (1US$ = 7,500 kip). I withdrew 1,000,000 kips, enough for a few days’ travel in Laos.

I expected backpacking in Laos to be as cheap or even cheaper than Thailand. Having just traveled from Chiang Mai, one of the cheapest places to travel in Thailand, I was surprised at the noticeable price difference for food and hostel rooms. In Laos, I was spending US$25-30+ per day, which was still affordable but not as dirt cheap like its neighboring countries.

Grilled chicken with sticky rice (25,000 kips)

Nong Khiaw to Muang Ngoi Neua Ferry

Traveling to Muang Ngoi Neua even just for the ferry ride was already worth it. The pristine riverside views were amazing. After we left Nong Khiaw, it seemed we were cruising along an uninhabited frontier, waiting to be explored.

Ferry ride along the Nam Ou River from Nong Khiaw to Muang Ngoi Neua (25,000 kips)

Regarding river ferries in Laos, I was happy that I skipped the guidebook-recommended two-day slow boat from Xouay Xai to Luang Prabang  and chose the 12-hour local bus instead. I checked photos online and thought the views didn’t look that impressive.

The ferry ride from Nong Khiaw to Muang Ngoi Neua, however, exceeded my expectations. It was only 1 hour and 15 minutes long and offered better views.

Limestone formations along the Nam Ou River

The downside about the ferry ride was the overbearingly loud engine. I suggest sitting on the front part of the boat to minimize the auditory stress.

Arrival in Muang Ngoi Neua

View near the ferry landing in Muang Ngoi Neua

Guidebook I read braced me to prepare for a barrage of touts vying to get me to stay at their guest house. My experience was the total opposite when we arrived at Muang Ngoi Neua.

Maybe it was because of the low tourist season but there was only one girl waiting up the steps that offered bungalows for rent. She didn’t even give a hard sell. She willingly pointed the way to the other guest house I researched about and casually offered her vacant bungalow at Alonhe Guest House for only 30,000 kips.

The bungalow was a real steal. It had a front balcony with a relaxing view of the river, hammocks, a bed spacious enough for two people, and a private toilet. If I traveled with someone else, I would have only paid US$2 for one night!

Balcony outside my room at Alonhe Guest House

First impressions of Muang Ngoi Neua

A 400-meter strip of dirt road and surrounding lightly built-up area constituted the village center of Muang Ngoi Neua. It was definitely a low-key destination and I was loving it. Locals were friendly yet didn’t seem to be actively interactive with the handful of tourists that was wandering around town.

Locals were going about their everyday lives. It was nice to find a place that wasn’t overrun by the tourist crowds.

It took me less than 30 minutes to explore both ends of town. At the southern side was a great view of a riverbend dominated by a steep monolithic limestone outcrop, while at the other end, was a quiet Buddhist temple filled with young monks doing carpentry work.

Along the Nam Ou River
Village Buddhist temple in Muang Ngoi Neua

Oddly enough, I was having trouble remembering the name “Muang Ngoi Neua.” I couldn’t seem to recall its name before, during, or even days after I left that village. I had to check my notes every time I needed to say where I was headed or to give me peace of mind knowing what to call that unfamiliar I just woke up in. “Muang Ngoi Neua” finally got etched in my memory after meeting another backpacker a week later that was in the same situation.

Phanoi Cave Trek

I read the hike Phanoi Cave should only take around 45 minutes. If I moved really fast, I could still reach the cave and “the viewpoint” before dark.

Curious piglets along the way to Phanoi Cave. There was a smelly pigpen nearby, not so pleasant.

A bored old man was manning the entrance at the jump-off point to Phanoi Cave (10,000 kip admission fee). I took a few rest stops because the trail was a bit steep.

See view or see cave?
Inside Phanoi Cave. 

Since I was most excited to see the viewpoint, I didn’t spend much time in the cave itself.

The overlooking views near Phanoi Cave were stunning. I could see the whole town of Muang Ngoi Neua.

The sky was too cloudy that afternoon, so I didn’t get to see the actual sunset. That’s what I get for traveling during the rainy season. It was either cloudy or raining the whole time I was at Muang Ngoi Neua and Nong Khiaw.

I could only imagine the awesome landscape under the perfect weather.

View from one of the lower viewpoints
Overlooking view of Muang Ngoi Neua village

It was already starting to get dark but I still persisted, staying up on the viewpoint for as long as I could, hoping the sun might peek out at the last minute. It didn’t :(

I went down after hearing signals from the old guy manning the entrance. He was ringing a bell and shouting to get my attention. When I got down, he gave me a very irritated look because I made him wait and return to his home after dark.

I ate dinner and all my meals at the Skybar Restaurant. They were one of the few places that were open. Most of the other restaurant were closed. It must have been the super low season.

Yali, the same friendly girl who offered me a room at Alonhe also worked at Skybar. She and her family made me feel at home in Muang Ngoi Neua. Food in Skybar was delicious and, for the large servings, was affordable.

Chicken steak (20,000 kips), Steamed Rice (10,000 kips), Watermelon Shake (5,000 kips)

Day 2

Trek to Nam Thang Cave

Breakfast at Skybar: Eggplant + Omelette + sticky rice (25,000 kip)

I reserved my whole second day in Muang Ngoi Neua for the self-guided trek to Nam Tha Cave and surrounding farming villages.

Misty forest. Still cloudy the whole day :(
Wooden bridge at the end of town
Local kids on their way back to home from school in Muang Ngoi Neua
I was freaked out and excited at the same time. It was my first leech encounter and I didn’t know what to do. In a panic, I flicked it off, which made the wound bleed profusely … but not before taking a souvenir picture :)
Wet muddy trail
Entrance to Nam Thang Cave
Spring inside Nam Thang Cave

Wandering around farming villages

I followed the muddy village path further eastwards trying to find the next village, named “Ban Na.”

The awesome views along the way distracted me too much that I didn’t have time to visit the actual village.

Footbridge near Nam Thang Cave that led to expansive rice paddies surrounded by steep mountains
Iconic view of the Laos countryside
Perfect rest stop
Also beautiful up close
Thick orange muddy path
My slippers covered with the orange goo
Crossed a barbed wire fence to get to the rice paddies
Overlooking view from the hilly part of the trail
Souvenir photo with the rice paddies and steep mountains

At the end of my trek was a stream that I probably had to cross if I wanted to go further. I tried to cross but the water current was too strong, so I decided to call it a day and started heading back to the main village.

Day 3

I wanted to stay longer at Muang Ngoi Neua. It told myself to spend another day if the weather cleared up or move on to Nong Khiaw otherwise to maximize the rest of my trip in Laos.

The sky was still cloudy when I woke up. I was a bit bummed out with the weather but overall, I was amazed and satisfied at what I’ve seen and experienced in Muang Ngoi Neua.

Last glimpse of Muang Ngoi Neua on the ferry back to Nong Khiaw
Smiling locals navigating the Nam Ou River on a wooden paddle boat
Approaching Nong Khiaw