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Published: August 27th 2011
After a few days in the ‘big city’ that is Luang Prabang, we decided to head four hours northeast, to the riverside town of Nong Khiaw, where we planned to spend a night before furthering our journey upriver to sleepy Muang Ngoi Neua. Arriving into Nong Khiaw was the perfect tonic following another nerve shattering minibus ride. A meandering twenty minute walk from the bus station took us through this dilapidated village, where the only commerce shops of any sort appeared to be pharmacies. After a while we happened upon an aging bridge, hanging high over the Nam Ou river and it was on the opposite side of this bridge where we found our lodgings for the night – Sunrise Guesthouse, which given its perfect location on the banks of the river, with obligatory limestone mountain views was a bargain at £3.75 per night!
After the long journey, we lazed on our deck for a while taking in the view from our hammock. After dozing off for an hour or so (afternoon naps are rapidly becoming a habitual occurrence), we ventured around the small village on our accommodation’s side of the river, a one street village where we were greeted
to some of the sights which, like the afternoon nap, have become frequent in Laos – villagers washing themselves and their children in the nearest available water source (often a river), small children amusing themselves in the street with whatever they can use as a toy and also some child monks at the local temple. However, as we approached we noticed they were each smoking cigarettes and as we got closer, one started shaking his bum in our direction and laughing! Somehow, I doubt this particular monk was destined for an enlightened Nirvana!
Further along the road, we also happened upon the customary vehicle in dire straits. This time, it was a large truck transporting scooters which had unfortunately veered too far to the roads edge and subsequently found itself stuck in a muddy trench! After helping the driver and other locals support the truck from falling using large bamboo sticks, we proceeded further up the road on our continuing afternoon walk!
Later that evening, we settled ourselves into a comfortable corner in the ‘Mekara’ restaurant, where the menu is brimming with traditional Lao food dishes (it also helps that a westerner has wrote their menu for them,
making each one of their dishes that much more appealing than the competition). I decided on Oor Lam, a beef stew with sticky rice and Amy had Keng Mantent, a tomato and vegetable stew. Both were delicious and we’d recommend this restaurant to anyone passing through Nong Khiaw. After dinner, we relaxed in the restaurant with our drinks and a deck of cards, with countless cicadas hiding in the dark all the while providing music to set the mood!
The following morning we walked the short distance to the jetty to take the boat up to Muang Ngoi Neua, an isolated riverside village where the villagers are still adjusting to the sight of tourists. Indeed they are still adjusting to electricity amongst other things, which the currently enjoy for just three hours per day between 7pm and 10pm (more on this later). The setting of the village is truly beautiful – nestled on the banks of the Nam Ou beneath rugged limestone karsts, we honestly found it difficult to pull ourselves out of our hammock (again with river and mountain view) and away from the breathtaking scenery. How glad we were that we did so in the end...
Like Nong Khiaw, Muang Ngoi Neua is a one street village but on a much more compact scale, its single street stretching perhaps 300m from the towns primary Buddhist temple to the opposite end of town where the street gives way to one of many surrounding mountains. Lining the street are the homes of Muang Ngoi’s residents, basic in their construction and each complete with resident pig, hen and dog! Indeed, when one of the town’s locals who became familiar with seeing our faces claimed he was off to “feed the pig,” it took a few seconds to register that he wasn’t speaking figuratively.
Of course, with a very recent influx of tourism (and by influx it is hardly overrun with tourists, particularly as we were there out of season) there are a couple of stalls on the street offering to take visitors into the hills on day treks. After our recent experience in Chiang Mai, we were still a little peeved at the organised trekking scene, so decided to forgo the organised route and embark on our own ‘adventure’ up the mountain to seek a number of local caves which the town boats as an attraction. After the
arduous journey up the mountainside, constantly slipping in the treacherously muddy trail, swatting away the insects and trying to avoid grabbing hold of what looks like a snake but is really a harmless tree branch!
After reaching the caves, we had only a single torch between us but nonetheless entered into the darkness. Amy took note of the small Buddhist stone carvings on our way in and the fact that each was missing its head...on ominous sign perhaps? After venturing into the cave a little further, the place became pitch black, the only sounds coming from the dripping of the damp cave ceiling. After a frustrating journey up the mountain, and only armed with a dodgy torch to provide limited light in the cave, Amy decided enough was enough and headed for the exit! I decided to continue on (I have absolutely no idea why!) and made it perhaps 80 or so meters into the cave before I had to get down on my stomach and army crawl through a tight passage. I began to do so and half way through heard a sound which distinctly sounded like the repeated hiss of a snake! And with that, I departed...after
all, how interesting can a cave really be!?
In the evenings, after dinner, we retired to our balcony where we climbed into our hammock, a sliver of candle light for company in the darkness while we watched the distant lightning storm illuminating the valley of the Nam Ou.
To us at least, each afternoon taking a stroll down the single street, it was easy to see what makes this tiny village so special (other than the aforementioned view!). With its lack of electricity, the residents of the town would, each afternoon and evening, sit out in the streets while their children play happily together and talk, laugh and have fun, although fun for one child included catching a dragonfly and inserting a birds feather up its backside before allowing the dragonfly to fly away (while a horrified Amy watched on!). This social coming together harkened back to the days our grandparents would tell us about how they could always leave the doors open, everyone knew everyone and children could play safely in the street, and were not slaves to television. However, a menace is on the way...
Some of the locals informed us that in just three
months time, a few miles away, work would begin on a new Chinese power station which could arm the town with 24 hour electricity. Of course this brings with it added benefits for the villagers, including better care at the local hospital; it may do irreversible damage to the local environment and the sense of community and social harmony that this town has so beautifully achieved. I’m not sure how things will develop for these villagers, but it holds intangible qualities that leave each of its visitors to marvel at, and that is something that I hope is not lost.
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