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Published: January 19th 2013
Nong Kiau Riverside Resort Cabin 8
This was my cab, set overlooking the river and accross the way the forested hills.
23 Dec: First night in Nong Khiaw; and 24 Dec: Tour to Muang Ngoi (note: a number of photos appear towards the bottom of the page).
Upon arriving in Nong Khiaw I and a couple other women staying at the same accomodation grabbed a tuk tuk over to “Nong Kiau River Side Resort” (http://www.nongkiau.com/
). This turned out to be my highlight destination on the trip for relaxing and definitely makes my all-time top 10 list for places I’d like to return to – I can’t recommend the location enough. While it’s was expensive in Laos terms it was nothing to what one would spend on a similar accommodation in NZ, AUS or USA.
While checking-in I noticed that they were having an Xmas eve dinner for the following night so I booked myself a seat – not knowing what to expect for the evening. A short walk from reception brought me to bungalow #8. Wow, what a room and what a view – a room fit for a king. From the room’s balcony you look out over the river below and up to the mountain across the river.
Once set up in
the room I went to dinner to watch the sunset over the river and town. While enjoying a lao beer I bumped into an American guy (I think his name was Reid) from Wisconsin that had been on the boat ride up from Luang Prabang. He mentioned that he’d signed up for the Green Discovery (a tour operator in Laos – and I can say with confidence one of the better and more socially responsible operators in the region) for a river tour to Muang Ngoi, cave hike and kayak back down the river the following day.
I thanked Reid for this heads up and after dinner I found my way to Green Discovery to sign-up for the same trip as it would be at a reduced rate given that more than one person was going – in Lao you can go on most tours on your own, but you end up paying through the nose if you can’t split the cost between two or more people. After this I stopped off in a bar (Coco Home Bar) owned by a British couple and watched pirated films with a group of backpakers in a very cool opium
den like room, drank beers and chatted.
The next day (24th
) was an early start for the tour. I got to Green Discovery around 8am for an 8:30am departure. The boat ride up the river was much like the ride from the previous day, just shorter (in total about 1 ½ hours).
On the way to Muang Ngoi, we stopped at a “cultural village”, which doesn’t allow tourists to stay. The village had been established about 50 years ago, when a shaman and village elders had gone out looking for a new home. The process involved planting five grains of rice, each grain representing key elements of village life and prosperity. I think the five were – people, livestock, vegetables, rice and the river. After planting the grains they returned a week or so later and found all five had sprouted. I was told had any one of the grains not germinated or had disappeared it would be a bad omen and they would have started their search all over again – as the missing grain(s) would indicate bad luck for the particular attribute the grain represented. The success of this expedition was memorialised
by five stakes that were painted yellow and protected by an enclosure fence. The villagers leave various offering at this memorial so as to ensure continued success.
My fondest memory on this side trip was taking two shots of freshly distilled rice whiskey (lao lao). As we came up over the river bank and entered the village there to our left was a small old woman hunched over a fire that was heating a large pot that had a bamboo shoot projecting out the side of the pot. Around the woman were a half dozen or so glass bottles – some of which appeared to be full with a liquid that was dripping out the end of the bamboo shoot.
Our guide to us over to the woman and spoke to her in the local dialect for a minute or so. The guide then explained to us that the woman was operating a traditional still to produce lao lao, a rice whiskey that is a favourite of the locals. He went on to translate that this woman was making a batch of lao lao for a family party scheduled the following weekend – based
on the quantity that she was making she either has a large family or they really love their lao lao. The woman grabbed a small class as the guide informed us she wanted us to sample the whiskey – I said sure, despite it being just after 10am in the morning. One shot of this home brewed lao lao made me regret me being so eager. The stuff went down like a whiskey, but it had a very bad aftertaste that I couldn’t get out of my throat – it was a very earthy/pithy taste, with some added granular texture of who knows what…. I made signs and facial expression like it was excellent to the woman… well this was a mistake as she insisted on sharing another shot with me, and the guide said it would be rude to refuse, so down the hatch it went. So by 10:30am in the morning I’m starting to feel a little warm from the 50+ proof alcohol and wanting to heave from the same stuff – much to my relief I kept it down.
We continued our tour of the village. I couldn’t help noticing that despite this being
a “cultural heritage village” there were a lot of modern conveniences – block home construction (for the more affluent), western clothing, some power, satellite dishes etc… we debated with the guide for some time whether tourism was good or bad for the traditional life that tourists came to see (and what from an outside observer looks like a less stressful agrarian lifestyle). The guide insisted that tourism was good and that the only bad thing was satellite TV that was making the younger generation more western and disenchanted with village life. I didn’t leave this conversation satisfied and through the duration of my trip was not able to satisfy myself with an answer – what I do know is Laos has been open to tourism for the last 15 years or so (and apparently has already adopted a number of Western ideas) – if I was to return in another 15 years I suspect due to tourism and technology the Laos I know would only exist in remnants and will likely be unrecognisable.
Back to the boat we went and travelled a few more minutes up river to Maung Ngoi; which according to guidebooks is mythical in
its isolation (only river access), though I found it to be less authentic than Nong Khaiw, overrun with tourist and tourism facilities. The main street felt more like the Las Vegas strip than it did some end of the line village in the jungle.
From Maung Ngoi we walked 30 minutes or so to a cave where upwards of 200 villagers hid themselves during the so called “Secret War” that was carried out by the CIA during the Vietnam War. This was my first Laos limestone cave and of all the caves it was the least impressive, however it was the most oppressive to the senses and it saddened me to think of the 200 people trying to hide in this hot and very humid hell hole of stagnate air.
On the trail to the cave we encountered a number of locals making their way back to their home village some two hours away. They’d hiked into Maung Ngoi in the very early hours of the morning to sell/buy their produce, crafts and other trade goods at the village market. Now that the market was closed they were already heading home with their goods
stowed in bag that they carried with their heads. I remember one couple (man and woman) we passed on the trail had a brief discussion with our guide – the guide translating that they hadn’t sold much, but the wife had gone shopping and had purchased more than they had planned. I told the guide this seemed to be an international phenomenon – he translated this to the husband and they both laughted. Also on the trail we came upon two men that were making their way back from the outer villages back to Maung Ngoi – they were still hung-over from a party they’d gone to the night before – now that is one long walk of shame!
Back at the boat we went a mile downstream and disembarked. While the boat captain setup our kayaks we laid out the traditional Lao lunch on banana leaves – by far the most memorable (and perhaps even the most tasty) lunch on the whole trip.
With lunch complete Reid and I grabbed the double kayak and the guide the single kayak and we paddled our way for 2 ½ hours downstream back to Nong Khaiw.
View of the town from the bridge.
Taken from my dinner table as I watched the sky light-up with the sunset.
We had to pass through three sets of rapids that we were able to navigate, much to my surprise given that neither of us had kayaked together before.
By the time I got back to the resort it was about 4pm and I was pooped – I took a two hour cat nap / reading break. Around 7pm I made my way to Christmas Eve dinner at the resorts restaurant. I was pleasantly surprised that about 30 people attend. I had a great time chatting up a bunch of Germans and had a good conversation with an older English couple that are spending their retirement years traveling the world.
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