The standard backpacker route out of Louang Phabang heads south to Vang Viang and then to Vientiane. With the horror of the slow boat trip still fresh in my memory, I felt it might be more appropriate to head east instead. The town of Viang Xai near the border with Vietnam had the dual attractions of the caves where the communist resistance (now the government) had sheltered during the war with the royalists, as well as karst rock formations similar to Vang Viang's. However it would be a bit of a slog to get there due to the primitive transportation infrastructure in the region.
First stage of the journey was to get to Nong Khiaw, requiring a mere 3.5 hours of travel wedged into the back of a songthaew. With only 20 people in the vehicle, it was roomy by Laos standards. Nong Khiaw itself is a village with basic facilities and few foreigners, its appeal being its location on the Nam Ou river with towering cliffs rising on either side, and sandbanks and little islands dotting the water.
The guesthouse was distinguished by an extremely friendly cat (actually a characteristic of the village) and a water tank in
the bathroom that you could have gone scuba diving in. In fact, when someone carelessly left the water scoop bobbing on the surface and it drifted to the far side, I was glad to be 6'3" tall or else I'd have been swimming over to get it.
After an impressive rainstorm that set the shutters banging and cleared the streets of people within seconds, I ventured out for some exploration (hardly a time-consuming task given the size of the place) then was tempted into a cafe for a beer watching the sun set over the river. I met a guy who'd been working in the AIG building in NYC (i.e. where I had a vast amount of expensive dental work done) who had decided to pack it all in and was keen to work in IT in India, a country he'd never been to. He had met his wife through swing dancing, learning his moves at the same Sandra Cameron dance centre where I'd trodden on many an unfortunate woman's toes. Once again, it was interesting to meet someone in a similar boat to me.
The walls of my room were so insubstantial that when the guy next
door to me turned on his light in the wee small hours, a million holes and cracks were revealed in the wood. When I mentioned this to the girl on the other side the next day, she gave me a look that suggested she thought I'd already been looking for holes in the opposite wall.
I didn't sleep too well, due to the bed being pygmy-sized and there being a couple more rainstorms, after each of which the neighbourhood roosters started crowing. When I came downstairs in the morning, there was a guy lying prone on the reception floor, pants down, and the owner was giving him a shot in one buttock.
The place looked eerie in the dawn, with mist and low clouds clogging the valley and the cliff tops drifting in and out of eyeshot. My breakfast cheese sandwich contained lettuce that was tastier than the cheese. With nothing to do in Nong Khiaw except relax, that's exactly what I did for the day, except for a brief chat with a guy at the bus station to establish just how I could get from there to Viang Xai. Even though in theory it should be possible
to get there in 2 days, I could tell from his hedging that 2.5-3 was a likelier estimate. And this to cover not much more than 200km.
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