This small town boasts one of the most beautiful settings in Asia. It is surrounded by towering limestone mountains fronting fantastic river views. There is not much to do in the town itself and facilities are still very basic. At nighttime the town remains unlit, and electricity itself is in short supply. Brace yourself for cold showers in winter.
If you go by road it takes about 3 hours from Luang Prabang and buses leave twice daily ($3.20). Taking the boat takes twice as long but it is the journey, that is the reason to be heading this way. Boats to Nong Kiaow leave frequently from the ferry pier in Luang Prabang ($12).
There are a number of caves near Nong Kiaow worth a visit. One was the scene of tragedy during the last Indochina war when a bomb struck, incinerating all those sheltering inside. The village temple is also worth looking at since it is 250 years old, making it one the oldest surviving wats in the region.
One of the best things to do here is take the boat tour up the Nam Ou past Moung Ngoi to the canyons. Boat tours can be easily set up riverside.
Where to Stay & Dine -- All the accommodations and restaurants in Nong Keaow are clustered around the bridge over the Nam Ou where the boats arrive and depart. The Nong Kiau River Side (tel. 020/570-5000; www.nongkiau.com; 320,000 kip double) is the best place in town. It has comfortable rooms, great views, and wireless Internet. The Chan-a-Mar Resort (tel. 071/253-939; www.greenheartfoundation.org; $100 double) offers luxury bungalows (at a rather inflated price), in a private setting, surrounded by breathtaking views of five mountains and two rivers. This combined with gourmet Lao cuisine, happy hour cocktails, informative local tours, and an optional traditional Baci ceremony to welcome you, creates a real Lao experience unmatched in northern Laos. The Sunset Guest House (Riverside; tel. 071/600-033; 200,000 kip double, 100,000 kip single) is an excellent option. It is tastefully decorated. A large balcony restaurant overlooks the river serving traditionally prepared Lao food. The Sengdao Guest House (tel. 071/600-001; 80,000 kip bathroom, 30,000 kip shared bathroom) offers small and basic bungalows with diminutive balconies overlooking the river. Each room has mosquito nets, electricity all night, a small fan, and a towel supplied. There is also an atmospherically lit restaurant. It may not be luxurious but it is a bargain given that it offers the best views in town.
Muang Ngoi Neua
This is a pleasant, sleepy town with no road access. The lack of motorbikes and pickups gives it a very ethereal feel. Limited electricity means that the day starts at sunrise and the town shuts down by 9 or 10pm at night. No phones and no Internet add to the feeling of being constructively lost. In fact there is no infrastructure at all, so make sure you bring everything you need. It is a taste of what much of northern Laos was like only a decade or so ago. Although it is smaller than Nong Kiaow, Muang Ngoi offers more to see and do and some guesthouses offer trekking, walking, boating, or caving trips. Almost all guesthouses have hammocks on their balconies, and indeed hammock swinging is an activity approached with relish in this town. Historically Muang Ngoi was part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail so it was quite heavily bombed during the war, and locals often lived in caves to avoid the falling fire from the sky. Some of these caves can now be visited. Accommodations here are basic. There is a series of guesthouses offering simple bamboo huts for between $2 and $5 a night. They are all very much the same and they all serve food. The Ning Ning Guesthouse has hot showers, which makes it "luxury" in this neck of the woods. Muang Ngoi Neua can be reached by boat from Nong Kiaow ($1.80, 1 hr.).
Three days' travel up the Nam Ou River is the far northern town of Phongsali. This remote mountainous place is home to the greatest variety of hill tribe ethnicities in all of Laos. You will see that in the variety of tribal dress you see around you. There is also a strong Chinese influence. The picturesque Chinese Quarter of cramped, cobblestone streets lined with small, low-roofed houses is really quite atmospheric and decorative in a pleasingly simple style. You feel like you have just leaped through a Hollywood time warp onto a misty film set showing how southern Chinese towns appeared 100 years ago. It also gets pretty cold up here at 4,200m (1,400 ft.) in the winter months so a pullover or a fleece, or both, is a must. The two principal hill tribe groups here are Phou Noy, whose members wear white leggings, and the Chinese Ho. They are descendants of the old Yunnanese traders as well as the bandit Haw hordes who ravaged so much of this region in the 19th century. They wear traditional baggy trousers. Chinese is a far more widely spoken language here than Lao, and Phongsali is a Yunnanese town in both feel and culture. It was really only because of the presence of the French that this place remained within Lao borders at all. The town snakes along the top of mountain ridges overshadowed by the Phou Fa, or the Sky Mountain. The views are spectacular and the air is crisp, damp, and clear. Phongsali is a good base for trekking trips to explore this wild and remote region. It is a tough place to get to, but the rewards are worth the hardship. A visit to the Museum of Tribes (Mon-Fri 8-11:30am and 1:30-4:30pm; 20,000 kip) is well worth the effort if you want some background to the patchwork of ethnicities in Phongsali Province. If you are feeling fit, take a stab at hiking up Phou Fa itself. It is a mere 400 steps up. The views from the top are spectacular.
Banks & Currency Exchange -- There is a Lao Development Bank here that can change cash only, whether that be U.S. dollars, Thai baht, or Chinese yuan.
Electricity -- Electricity is available only between 6 and 10pm.
Post Office -- There is also a post office and a Lao Telecom Office offering card phone facilities within Laos.
Tourism Information -- The Provincial Tourism Office (tel. 088/210-098; Mon-Fri 9am-4pm) can fix you up with trekking information and they also organize tours.
Where to Stay & Dine -- The Phongsali Hotel (tel. 088/412-042; 50,000 kip double, 30,000 kip single) is Chinese built and austere to a degree that might have you yearning for the cheesiest of Luang Prabang's most mindless boutique offerings. The rooms are reasonably bright and a little grubby. The more expensive rooms have hot water during the hours of electricity. Think functional. The restaurant serves adequate Lao and Thai food although you have to put up with a TV blaring out Chinese soap operas or deafening karaoke. The Viphaphone Hotel (tel. 088/210-111; 80,000 kip double) is the best in town although that does not mean it is actually particularly good in the larger scheme of things. The rooms are big with Western-style toilets and hot showers. They have made some efforts to make them homey. The Phou Fa Hotel (tel. 020/569-5315; 50,000 kip double) is built on a hill, used to be the Chinese consulate, and is suitably fortified given the fractious history of the area. The rooms are perfectly well appointed but dark. The views are fantastic from the garden and the restaurant is acceptable.
If you are taking the slow river trip from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang you will spend 1 night in Pakbeng, the only settlement of any size between the two. It is a fairly unprepossessing place. On the walk up the sharp incline from the boat landing to the one main street, you may be accosted by some fairly insistent kids offering to carry your bags to a guesthouse. Once there, they will ask you for the equivalent of about $10, so if you do want to engage their services agree on a price first. Although Pakbeng has long been a stop for those transporting trade goods, it is only in the last 20 years that it has been dragged out of poverty by the captive market in tourists. As late as the mid-'90s there was only one government-run guesthouse and you washed from a giant jar of cold water at the back. Electricity only ran for 2 hours a day between 6 and 8pm, when people would sit glued to Thai boxing and British Premier League soccer. Evenings were dark and the town was thoroughly basic. These days there is electricity powered by a hydroelectric dam in the Beng River, but it is erratic. There are now fridges, which means that at last the beer is cold. Although the main street is still ramshackle there are a few incongruously fashionable-looking restaurants staffed by waiters with hair gelled in spikily MTV-inspired styles. Pakbeng remains a slightly uncomfortable place both physically and in atmosphere. The sheer numbers of well-heeled tourists passing through for 1 night only in a village that until recently was very poor indeed has created predictable problems inspired by the extremes of poverty and wealth. The locals are not particularly friendly and it is no surprise that greed is rampant. There have been reports of thefts from guesthouse rooms, although whether the perpetrators were Lao or foreign is unsure. Keep your valuables with you. There are also reports that hard drugs have made an appearance here, which is very bad news indeed considering the ravages that have occurred elsewhere in Laos as a result of this evil scourge. Pakbeng is a perfectly agreeable place to stay a night (you don't have a choice anyway), but you wouldn't want to linger.
where to Stay & Dine -- Accommodations in Pakbeng are generally pretty basic wherever you choose to lay your head. The available restaurants in town don't serve the world's best food, but there are some nice views of the river as it carves its way through the rock valley below. All guesthouses and restaurants are on the same street because it is the only street in town.
Villa Salika (tel. 081/212-306; 70,000 kip double) is minimally less basic than most other accommodations. Large, clean fan rooms constructed from concrete with cold showers make it feel a little like a gulag. That impression is ameliorated by a balcony on the top floor offering stunning views of the Mekong. The restaurant (main courses 7,000 kip-15,000 kip) below also enjoys excellent views. You will be woken very early by the speedboat drivers revving their engines in preparation for the day's forthcoming adrenaline-fueled river antics. That's not a bad thing, though, since you will want to be up early yourself to get your own boat up or down river. The Phonethip Guest House (no phone; 40,000 kip double) is typical of most accommodations here. None-too-clean rooms with a bed and a mosquito net. Shared bathrooms are a bit grubby, although the staff is quite cheery. The Monsaven Guest House (no phone; 40,000 kip double) is pokey but clean. The rooms are tiny and very basic, with bamboo walls, a bed, a fan, and a mosquito net. The shared bathrooms are newly tiled and reasonably sized. There is a hot shower when the electricity is working. The new Pak Beng Lodge (tel. 081/212-304; fax 081/212-304; $30 double) is the town's only real midrange option (apart from the Luang Say Lodge, but you need to be on a Luang Say cruise to stay there). For Pakbeng this is the equivalent of the Palace of Versailles. Pretty rooms with shiny wooden floors include a minibar and bathrooms with hot water. The main balcony, made of gleaming dark wood, also affords good views of the river. The Kopchaideu Restaurant (main courses 10,000 kip; daily 10am-11pm) specializes in Indian food although they also do some Western and Thai. The dining area is on a deck overlooking the river. In the morning little stalls selling baguette (khao ji) sandwiches dot the main street providing you with a lunch option for the final leg of your boat journey.
Attractions -- Pakbeng is worth a wander about. There are two wats, of which one is quite interesting. Wat Sin Jong Jaeng is a 10-minute walk up the only street turning right from the boat landing. The sim (ordination hall) boasts some great murals depicting early European traders or invaders. The views from here are very good. There is also a small market in the center of town. Look out for the local delicacies, such as barbecued field rat on a stick.