Nakai, one of the first places I've visited during my first Laos trip, instantly became my home where I've met my second family. At first glance, Nakai looks like a tiny village with not many interesting things to do, but after staying there for a month, I've had a chance to explore the beauty this place has to offer. You won't see many foreigners around, just a few who're doing a famous Thakhek loop since Nakai is one of the stops on the loop.
Locals are extremely friendly and you can hear 'Sabaidee' followed with a beautiful wide smile on every step. I've been to Nakai twice and plan to visit this beautiful place many times in the future.
What's special about this tiny town in the middle of central Laos?
Let's check out the most amazing things to do in Nakai.
Lao people love to say if there is a market, it's a town. In the town center there is a small market where you can get various goods including fabrics, toys, candies, prepared meals, drinks, fresh vegetables, fruit and much more. Pretty much like any countryside market in Laos.
Oh not to forget, there is a non-recognizable bus station with daily lines to Laxsao (near Vietnam border) or Thakhek. A local market is one of the main drivers of the economy in Nakai.
I've tasted many delicacies on the market, but by far the most delicious are local-made meals. You have a few pots with a cooked dish, so you can pick whatever suits you.
Fried vegetables with beef is my favorite. Also, every food stand tends to have the same food, but sometimes the food differs in freshness, so I recommend not buying all the food from the same vendor.
That way, not only you're getting the freshest food, but also you're financially supporting more families.
You can't miss with fried chicken or liver on a stick and of course, a bowl of their sticky rice.
You can expect to pay 5,000 LAK for each dish, so I was spending about 20,000 LAK per day on food in Nakai (around $3).
#2- Visit Open Nakai English School
This was the picture from my last day in Laos with my students. I've had a chance to meet all of them on my second visit. Some of them stopped studying, some of them improved so much. I'm very happy for them and looking forward to seeing them again.
The main reason I've found myself in Nakai, in the first, place was volunteering at Open Nakai English School.
The school started as the idea of a young and energetic man called Thon who've learned English while working in a local resort.
He recognized how many opportunities opened his way once he was able to clearly communicate in English, so he decided to start his own classes to teach young students English. When I've first arrived, I was stunned how much dedication this man has since, at that time, he was working three different jobs. His brother in law, Khen is the second teacher who focuses on teaching younger students.
They have a huge family and I can say they became my Lao family. We usually eat lunch and dinner together that features traditional Lao food including their staple, sticky rice combined with bamboo soups, diverse vegetables, fish, sometimes fried crickets, snails and ant's eggs. You can really experience a life of a local Lao family while staying with them and if you're doing Thakhek loop, be sure to check out his place.
After the first visit, I wanted to introduce my Lao family to my girlfriend, so we visited my family again and had a blast. In case you'd like to experience teaching and living in the Laos countryside, here you can find a project on Workaway.
If you need any help or would love to hear more about the project, please don't hesitate to reach me out.
#3- Try a Spicy Papaya Salad
Whenever I asked my students about their favorite food, I've always got pretty much the same answer - spicy papaya salad. It's important to mention that Lao food is probably the spiciest food I had a chance to eat. They make everything extremely spicy and they love it! I've decided to try their specialty on the local market and I must tell it's very delicious...and spicy.
If you're not used to spicy food, tell a friendly lady who makes food to not put many chili peppers. After a while, I was eating papaya salad with more than 10 chili peppers inside. It's very funny how locals are very judgemental about the blend or mixture in papaya salad. It's the most important part, and the secret of delicious papaya salad since locals mix spices, herbs and sauces together.
The quantities and ratios are crucial to Lao people and after a few papaya salads, I could tell the difference between the blends.
#4- Watch the Sunset From Ghost Boat
I've found some beautiful girl and couldn't hesitate to take this photo.
Sunsets in Laos are very special, unique and different. I had a habit of watching sunsets from different spots every day while I was in Laos. During my first visit (dry season) you couldn't see a single cloud in the sky and sunsets looked spectacular. In the low season, it's the same thing. Probably everyone who's ever been to Laos will say the same.
You simply don't want to miss a beautiful Lao sunset. One of the best places to observe the sunset in Nakai is from their Ghost Boat. During the high season, the sunk boat becomes a restaurant where you can order drinks, local specialties (papaya salad is very good there) and enjoy the sunset.
I recommend taking a seat on the top of the boat and ordering a cold Beer Lao while enjoying the sunset. Thank me later. :)
#5- Boat Racing Festival
A blue team preparing for the race.
If you're visiting Laos in late September or early October, don't miss the chance to watch the craziness of the boat racing festival (Boun Suang Heua). The biggest events and races take place in the northern city of Luang Prabang, but you can experience boat festivals around the villages and towns that sit on the Mekong river. During the boat racing festival, Nakai completely transforms from a laidback village to a dynamic place (in Laos countryside context) where local families are outside with their kids while getting involved in various activities.
There are many stands where you can buy imported and locally made goods, play some games, sing karaoke, try Laos delicacies, and of course, enjoy cold Beer Lao in huge quantities.
It's a two-day festival where locals form racing teams who compete against each other in boat rowing on the lake. The energy is simply amazing and you don't want to miss this festival.
Also, after the final race, there is a huge party in the form of a concert where locals have a lot of fun and way too many beers.
The funniest thing about partying in Laos is that people start very early, always bottoms up the beers and go home extremely early.
Strolling through the market. Khen is very funny with his umbrella, but it makes sense since it's crazy hot.
The family and my girlfriend left so early, so I've decided to just enjoy and drink a bit more. Instantly, I've met a few local friends who were my dancing and drinking partners through the night.
Also, we didn't understand each other a single thing, but it was a great time! Oh yeah, not to forget, I was hungover for the following three days! :)
#6- Swim Around Song Sou Waterfall
As you can see, the actual waterfall is a few hundred meters away from the lake.
Song Sou waterfall is just 3 km away from controversial Nam Theun 2 power station and touristic (not so) visitor center. Before reaching the power station you'll encounter a small bridge with an unpaved path on the left and a sign to a waterfall. It's interesting that the Lao government started to 'invest' in tourism, so you can see a sign here and there leading you to an attraction.
Just follow the road for about a kilometer and you'll encounter a security guy who takes care of parking. The cost of parking is 5,000 LAK.
You have to walk for about 5 minutes until you reach a small lake where you can jump from rocks and swim. The waterfall is a bit behind and I've never gone near the waterfall since you have to climb and it's not the greatest idea to do it in flip flops.
Anyways, during my first visit in March, the stream from a waterfall was not existent and the lake was very low but still good for swimming.
It's a great place to enjoy the beautiful nature, get some sun or barbeque and enjoy swimming in a cold, but extremely clear water.
One anecdote from my first visit. I was very scared to jump in the lake at first since every time you put the leg or arm in the water, there are hundreds of fish around. These fish are harmless, but the crazy amount of them just scared me off.
#7- Go Camping
A camping site during the sunset.
Nam Theun reservoir features a massive lake with countless beautiful places to camp. I've brought my tent from Vietnam, but there are a few rental options in local resorts. I recommend just going around the lake and find a suitable place for you.
You don't have to worry about the officials or other people since this area isn't densely populated, so if you set up your tent a bit away from the road, you'll probably see anyone around except fishermen driving their longboats. Be careful with the fire, especially during the dry season as everything is extremely dry and burns like crazy.
I've never experienced a campfire that big! Don't forget to take a mosquito repellent since you'll most likely be somewhere near the lake.
We were catching snails and eels during the night and prepared them for dinner on a fire. I really don't recommend doing it since snails can have different parasites that can be extremely dangerous for your body. I was very lucky that I've got not so serious form of parasites (Fasciola), but it made huge complications and scars on my liver.
Be extra careful about the food from the lake and drinking water in Laos.
#8- Hike to Pha Katai Viewpoint
That's the view from the top of Pha Katai mountain.
Around 25 km south of Nakai town, there is a beautiful limestone mountain just next to the river and the road. Pha Katai is the name of that mountain and you can climb using furnished metal steps all the way to the top where you can relax in a covered hut and enjoy stunning views. At the very beginning of a trail, there is a small house where you have to pay for an entrance.
The first time I've climbed, I paid 10,000 LAK and the second time they asked 20,000 per person, but since we didn't have a small change, they've let us climb for 8,000 LAK.
It means you can definitely bargain for the price since 20,000 sounds very expensive knowing that the majority of surrounding attractions cost less than 10,000 LAK.
There are around 700 steep red stairs that sometimes move while you're walking. It's definitely scary at some points. The whole hike takes about 20 minutes and it's definitely a great training.
Infamous (not so red anymore) stairs.
#9- Nam Theun 2 Visitor Center
Located just next to Nam Theun 2 Power Station, a visitor center shows the history of dam construction, relocations and positive results the hydro plant has on a community. It's very interesting to see how biased all the information is since they completely neglect the environmental effects, a negative impact on downstream communities, mighty relocation of indigenous people (around 7,000 people) and continual failure of elevating poverty.
If you're about to hit the Song Sou waterfall, then checking an NT2 Visitor Center should be on your list. It's pretty confusing when it comes to opening time as I've never had a luck to visit the center since it was always closed (even in the opening time?).
#10- Wander Around Nam Theun Reservoir
In 2008., during the wet season, the reservoir was created by flooding one of the latest remaining diverse jungles with a crucial impact on the ecosystem in central Laos. In the area of the current reservoir, more than 6,000 were forced to relocate to make the place for a gigantic dam project. Nam Theun Reservoir is a massive lake and it's hard to see its end when you're wandering around.
If you ignore the historical facts and consequences the reservoir has on the environment and livelihood of locals, it looks spectacular! The very beautiful and at the same time sad feature is a dead forest that can be seen all around the reservoir. Currently, there are a few boat tours operating in the reservoir where you can experience the biodiversity that's left.
There are still many villages on the skirts of the lake that don't have access to basic infrastructures such as electricity, schools or roads. It's very awesome to see local communities adapting to a new lifestyle (it's discussable if it's a successful adaptation). I recommend you to sit somewhere near the lake during the sunset as that's the time the majority of fishermen come back home.
You can capture amazing shots during this time.
#11- Explore Villages on the Way to Kong Lor Cave
Kong Lor Cave in the distance. There is still more than 20 km to Kong Lor Cave that is located somewhere in the middle of mountains ahead.
Kong Lor cave is an extremely popular destination for travelers who're doing Thakhek loop. It's located about 60 km from Nakai town and you can expect a real adventure driving a motorbike there. Prepare yourself for a rough and unpaved road that will lead you to the top of the mountain and then you'll slowly descend into the beautiful valley. On the way to the valley, there is a beautiful waterfall where you can rest a bit and simply enjoy the view.
A valley features numerous traditional villages where locals mainly live from farming, livestock, and logging. In the villages, you can stop for the food, but during my visit, I had a few bananas so I haven't stopped. There are many unpaved roads around so you can just get lost and wander around the beautiful place. The roads aren't marked on the maps, but you can navigate by locating the highest mountain (the one you've come from).
#12- Climb the Orchid Path
The Orchid Path is an off-the-beaten hike about 10 km north from Nakai, just next to the way to Kong Lor cave. The whole hike is about 900 m long and it will take about 20 minutes to reach the final viewpoint. Since this hike is just next to the main road, be sure to lock your bike properly. There is a security guy on the entrance, but don't rely much on him.
Once you reach the top, you'll be greeted with stunning views over the reservoir featuring countless islands, dead forests, and mountains in a distance.
#13- Explore Resettlement Areas
One of many resettlement villages around the NT2 reservoir. The road in the village (behind the table) is paved, but to reach the village, you have to prepare for an offroad adventure. :)
Since the big flooding to make the place for a reservoir in 2008., more than 6,000 people were resettled to newly made villages with 'better' infrastructure. There are around 15 resettlement villages around the area that you can visit from Nakai town. I've visited a few since I was very curious about the life these people live nowadays.
It's true that infrastructure is better now since these people were living in the thick jungle and right now, they can reach Nakai and other towns through unpaved roads. The kids can attend the schools, but the problem is that the schools are far away and the transportation costs are high and usually unaffordable for an average family whose well-being depends on a depleting reservoir.
Despite difficulties, these people seem to live a very relaxed life enjoying a mid-day nap in their hammocks. Also, their smiles and friendly gestures were memorable. It's definitely my recommendation to visit at least one of these villages.
As you can see, Nakai is a relatively small town in the middle of nowhere, but there are many beautiful things to do in Nakai. If you're doing Thakhek loop, be sure to stop, explore beautiful things around, enjoy spicy traditional food and share memorable moments with friendly locals.
Antonio is a long-term traveler with a deep passion in exploring off-the-beaten-paths around the world. Currently, he’s living in Da Nang city and when he’s not busy pushing the new content, he enjoys taking his motorbike around Vietnam or Laos. Some of the most remarkable experiences were teaching English in a remote village located in central Laos countryside, Nakai town. Or, living in a rural Nghe An Province while helping a local community with their English. Or, driving with the worst ‘Honda’ Win around the country experiencing daily breakdowns. Or, just read a few stories on our blog to get more information about our journey and adventures.