Resting at the foot of a striking red-faced cliff, amid towering blue-green limestone escarpments, the dusty town of NONG KHIAW on the banks of the Nam Ou River lies smack in the middle of some of the most dramatic scenery in Indochina. The relatively slow advent of tourism here has allowed it to retain its village-like charm; it’s a great place to lose a few days, preferably watching the river from your own private balcony.
Though there’s not a great deal to the town itself, Nong Khiaw makes a good base for day-trips in the scenic surrounding countryside, though it’s also a lovely place to just do nothing for a few days. The old town is worth a wander – heading left at the T-junction immediately after the bridge will take you along the rather dusty road to the morning market, which is worth a look; the town temple is situated on the street behind.
One day-trip that can be done independently is to the Pathok Caves, 2.5km north of town, where villagers hid during the Second Indochina War. The easy walk takes you along quiet Route 1 past wooden village houses as the scenery becomes gradually more dramatic, with limestone karsts rising around you. The caves are indicated by a small blue sign on the right; buy your ticket from the little wooden hut before the bamboo bridge and you’re then free to explore the caves by yourself. They are surprisingly extensive and very dark, so bring a torch or hire one from the hut. Mountain bikes can be hired from the northern side of the bridge, next to Vongmany Restaurant, and are well recommended for exploring the area further.
There’s an excellent herbal sauna and massage place in town, just north of the turning to Sunset Guesthouse. Sabai Sabai, run by the family of Hom at Tiger Trail is the ideal place to unwind, with the fragrant steam bath (using cinnamon, lemongrass, eucalyptus and basil, among other things) leaving you utterly relaxed.