Published: September 24th 2007March 6th 2007
We stop for a needed break as we head toward Nong Kiaw on a sealed road squashed in the back of this truck.
Arriving in Muang Ngoi by river boat was a pretty exciting prospect. Lonely planet describes it in a way that sounds like an idealistic travellers get away and I wasn’t disappointed. I travelled with some friends I’d met trekking in Luang Nam Tha and we met others in Nong Khiaw, just down river from our destination, where we stayed over for the night. Getting here from Nam Tha took an entire day traversing dusty bumpy dirt tracks by bus and an uncomfortable sâwngthâew journey, but at least it was mostly sealed roads. This sleepy market town on the banks of the Nam Ou cuts through close mountains and the scenery sours up on all sides displaying some dramatic lighting as the sun goes round combined with an eerie feeling as blankets of morning mist roll through the valleys. We took the 40 minute walk to Tham Pha Thok - a limestone cave where villagers lived during the Second Indochina War. Battered signs are displayed in the dark caverns where there was once a bedroom, kitchen or a place to care for the injured. To my surprise they have had a pretty rough time of it. During this war, Laos became the
The picturesque town of Nong Kiaw lies on the Nam Ou a days journey from Luang Prabang.
mostly heavily bombed country per head of population in history til this day. After the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam that turned around the war in Vietnam’s favour, the US instead intensified bombing and fighting in Laos. A secret army was established with the local Hmong people and the US equipped them and turned them against their Vietnam neighbours. Just another day in the life of American war?
So after our history lesson it was time to take the boat ride for the remaining 1 hour journey to Muang Ngoi, our driver skilfully navigating rapids that sent the occasional spray into our faces and mostly avoided the rocky river beds; a result of the low water levels that hamper boats this time of year. It is the only way in or out of this isolated village that until recently depended more on traditional livelihoods from fishing and farming than the tourism supporting it today. Surrounded by steep mountains on both sides of the river Ou the scenery is stark and jagged. The people shy, quiet and conservative. They go about their daily business, fishing, boat building, running the guesthouses and cooking for the travellers. The majority of accommodation comes
We explored inside these dark caves that were used as a hide out during the war.
in the way of little wooden bamboo huts but we were lucky to get one of the few decent rooms available. Outside the animals roam around freely. And according to the confused cockerels it appears to be morning 24/7 as they can be heard crowing at all hours day and night.
Richard, Sophie and myself decided to hire a rickety wooden canoe and set sail up the river only to become snagged at the first bend by the rapids. It looked so easy watching the local kids paddle through it single handed. I had to get out of the boat and pull it up stream while the others followed. It was worth it once we got to a calm flowing section and were able to cruise up the river a short way and enjoy the scenery.
Tour guides run treks around the local mountains, into the paddy fields and beyond. But Muang Ngoi is also known for its 'do it yourself trekking'. Lush green rice fields stretch for miles along the small flowing rivers and cattle roam amongst the disused dry season paddies. Several small villages are within a few hours walk and travellers can stay in a
These young lads knew all the nooks and crannes in these caves. But we really didn't need their help finding them in the first place.
few small huts providing basic restaurant facilities. In more remote parts, key members of the village may take you in and provide a place to sleep on the floor of their home. There are no fancy goods imported for tourists in these villages that until recently had probably never seen a westerner before let alone invited one into their home.
There were five of us in all that took a guided 2 day trek. After a hard first day trek we arrived late in the day and were watched as we entered the village and made our way to our host’s house. Some look on as if they have never seen a tourist before and others offer us polite greetings as we pass. Chickens ran around pecking up whatever scraps could be found in the dirt underneath stilted housing. Villagers were de-husking rice with a large wooden mortar and pestle and shaking and tossing it through round bamboo trays. On the steps outside a house, a naked boy was having a rough hair cut with a pair of rudimentary scissors and girls were preparing a plant named broomweed by beating it before it is made into brooms. Men split
The boats are basic, long and slender but they seem to do the job as we arrived safely in Muang Ngoi.
bamboo sticks into thin strips using large knives and women weaved bamboo containers of all types and sizes that are sent to Muang Ngoi for trading. Some of the more adventurous children stood nearby looking at us in wonder and sometimes ran away laughing and giggling when approached. The LCD screen on our digital cameras were used as an icebreaker to engage the children as they can't help staring in amazement at their faces staring back at them before erupting into laughter and excitement as they pointed out their friends. Our guide asked us to shower at the communal tap along with everyone else and we ate the same food and slept on the same thin mattresses laid on the floor. To my relief the walk downhill back the next day was considerably easier. And there were some more caves to explore in the afternoon to satisfy the strange urge I have to get myself lost in the pitch black.
I took a few days to chill out in Muang Ngoi before venturing even farther north up river. It was industrial and back to basics for much of the way. At one point I had to wash in the
This is the landing area for all the boat traffic in and out of Muang Ngoi. River is the only way the town can be reached.
river and find my own toilet. But I met some really nice people once in Phongsali, a sizable town with good facilities in the throws of northern Laos, who invited me to join in the celebration of their new born son. That was a great party; there was more food and booze than anyone could manage and my new friends seemed determined to finish it all! It rounded off a perfectly rural experience that I had been looking for when dreaming about travelling to far flung places. And I have so many great photos there is not one but TWO pages of them for you to enjoy. Thoroughly satisfied I next headed back down south to central Laos and ended up the party town of Vang Vieng.
There are more photos below