An emerging backwater: Nong Khiaw

Nestled between two karst towers on either side of a river bridge, Nong Khiaw is an idyllic backpacker hangout on the brink.

The western owner of Coco House, our first stop for a late lunch straight off the boat, discovered the place 5 years ago.

“I decided that it was paradise; a place I could live. My wife is from a village in the north.”

“Does all this bother you?” I gesture to the numerous guesthouses now occupying the bank on the other side of the bridge. The construction work going on below his terrace provides an apt soundtrack.

“Yes and no. More tourists means more business.”

Scores of travellers dream of being the first to find a place like Nong Khiaw. But alongside the remoteness, they are increasingly demanding high-speed wifi, food options that remind them of home, and air-conditioned accommodation.

Before long, enough infrastructure has been added (inevitably at the expense of the natural environment) so the banana pancake for breakfast brigade can move in and enjoy our lattes in the Lao countryside. Prices skyrocket and locals are faced with a choice of catering for the tourists or leaving. Those that leave take with them the authenticity that persuaded the original travellers to stay, and as soon as the updated Lonely Planet has made it into print, places like Nong Khiaw are dismissed by ‘true’ backpackers as over-touristed. Unworthy of bragging rights, essentially. Guesthouses then get larger and Chinese characters are added to the menus…

“Go to Kazakhstan,” a Serbian traveller once told me. “It’s the new Mongolia.” 

Writing this over a Coca-Cola from the wifi-enabled terrace of Coco House as I am, there is clearly nothing for me to moan about. Especially when the surroundings look like this. 

But if only we’d got here first…

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