Exploring Northern Laos

Limestone cliffs of Nong Kiow in Northern Laos

I’ve just returned to Luang Prabang from an altogether too-short foray into Laos’ north, replete with cave spelunking, markets teeming with new foods to try and a seemingly endless stream of smiling, giggling children. And soup. Lots and lots of soup. As it was with my initial days in Burma, words seem inadequate to describe the loveliness of these last days. I will say this: Northern Laos is crazy beautiful. Up at dawn to see the mist off the Nam Ou river and fading behind Nong Kiow’s huge limestone cliffs, then a series of lazy river trips on rickety boats, hikes through teeny villages and evenings sharing delicious food with newfound friends.

An introduction to Northern Laos

When the view from your window is this:

Limestone cliffs of Nong Kiow in Northern Laos

and your breakfast is this:

Pork noodle soup from Luang Prabang in Laos

What else do you need?

Travellers often come back from Laos a little wistful.  “It’s like Thailand 15 years ago,” they say. “I wish it could stay the same.” Tourism and development change a place quite quickly and in Laos’ case, the slower-paced country has remained at its own rhythm, but pockets of touristed towns like Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang have been in the news more frequently.

In the coming years the country is planning to continue building large hydro-electric dams (11 of them in total thus far), requiring resettlement of thousands of people and the inundation of biodiversity hotspots. As Laos struggles with development, and neighbouring countries eye it for the effects on their own lands, it was good to see it now, but I am sad for what it might become.

I’ll be heading to Vientiane in the next few days and taking the bus across the border, back to Chiang Mai. Until then, I’ll be eating as much soup, grilled pork and sticky rice as I can handle.

The breakfast above was one I particularly savoured: I had come down with a terrible case of food poisoning in Thailand, from eating a yoghurt that was before its due date but a bit bulged on the sides. I suspect it had been left out for too long in the sun, and that’s why it curdled in my stomach (and generally). A full few days of eating nothing and drinking water, followed my a flight to Laos and a breakfast soup that made it all better.

It’s the little things.

More to come from Laos, as well as the first of the Thrillable Hours posts. With no internet access this past week I’m behind schedule but will catch up shortly, once I’m back in Chiang Mai.

My photos from Northern Laos can be found here.


34 thoughts on “Exploring Northern Laos”

  1. Wow, that first picture is amazing. (Well, so is the soup, but I got a little souped out after three weeks in Laos. One day, I ate soup for every meal). We did the usual circuit in the middle and then went south, but looks like north would have been awesome too. Future trip, I suppose.

    1. Hi Amy! Currently in Vientiane after a long bus ride from Luang Prabang, and dinner was Indian food as I’ve been souping-it-up for the last week! I won’t get to see the South this time as I’ll be returning to Chiang Mai, but it too looks beautiful. As you said, next time!

  2. Looking forward to your Laos posts. Don’t laugh but I really got interested in Laos after reading mystery books by Colin Cotterill. Most enjoyable…
    Take care.

    1. Not laughing. After all, I was the person who went to the Philippines because I was obsessed with a tiny lemurlike creature (the tarsier) so no judgement from this end ;)

  3. What?! (Re: the top photograph.) That’s insanely beautiful.

    I explored Vientiane a bit (passed through from Nong Khai) and it was cool seeing the influences of the French in storefronts and facades — swirling art nouveau lettering on windows, for instance. It was a long time ago, though, and I don’t recall as much as I’d like. It was very quiet when I visited, which I loved. I couldn’t get enough of the food, either.

    Have fun exploring, Jodi.


    1. Thanks Cheri. I ust arrived in Vientiane and it’s quite the nosy, crowded place compared to the north. Looking forward to exploring tomorrow, starting with the morning market. Did you explore other parts of the country outside VTE?

  4. We took one of those small boats with tiny kindergarten stools (yes, imagine Dan on those stools for 8+ hours) from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw many years ago. It was one of the most beautiful boat trips ever – the scenery is spectacular and the kids running and waving as the boat passed was just priceless. Your gorgeous photo at the top brings back great memories.

    Can’t wait to hear more about the areas further north! And, of course, all the soups you tried along the way.

    1. Ha, Dan stuffed into a tiny boat does provide quite the picture! The boats I took had no stools at all, meaning that when the water seeped through the side panels, it went straight for our laps. Agree that the scenery is gorgeous; it’s hard not to fall into cliches when describing it! Sad to miss you two in Thailand but I’m looking forward to hearing all about your time in Bangladesh.

  5. Jodi,

    Please tell us exactly were you went in Laos. I think you are going to discuss this in upcoming posts. If not, let me know where you went. I am always interested in learning about new places. I haven’t heard a lot about Northen Laos.

  6. I loved Nong Kiow! Planned on staying 1-2 nights and finally left 4 days later. Quiet peaceful and friendly — cheap too!

  7. Looking forward to reading about your northern Laos adventures Jodi – particularly what you did and where you ate in Nong Khiaw. It was my favourite spot in the whole of Laos, not only for the breathtaking scenery but also because we found the most delicious freshly home-baked key lime pie!

    1. Hi Andy, will be posting a bit on my trip and likely a small roundup of where I stayed and what I ate too. Sadly, I can’t eat pie – celiac = no wheat for me! No baguettes in Vientiane either. But plenty of steamed rice crepes, great soups and coconut and banana desserts to keep me entertained. Thanks for the comment!

  8. Northern Laos is great, great people and amazing landscapes, and still quite wild, especially if compared to northern Thailand. I’ve been travelling for 3 months in SE Asia and probably is the place that I loved more ( I spent there 3 weeks and I visited more than 50 villages, always on my own, no touristic tours ), though also Burma ( where I am now ) is pretty fantastic, and I still have to see the northern part of the country.
    BTW: I also climbed mt. zwegubin near hpaan and I spent the night in the monastery, what a wonderful place!
    Ciao! ( from Bagan )

      1. Yes, they were very nasty, one almost bit me!! But I took very nice pics in the morning of the monk feeding them with a giant basket of rice…

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