North of Luang Prabang is a less-touristed area of natural beauty–mountains, caves and rivers. The roads in the north are either dirt tracks or poorly maintained one-lane drop offs snaking around the sides of mountains. I left Luang Prabang early in the morning to catch one of the two daily buses to Nong Kiaw–the closest town accessible by road. A friend I had made in Southern Laos decided to tag along before he had to head back to civilization.
Although we arrived an hour early we were confronted by a typical bus in Northern Laos, a songthaew, which is basically a small pickup truck with a metal carriage with two benches welded onto the sides. The back and sides are open and by the end of even a short ride the passengers are covered in dust and sweat. The buses in Northern Laos were the most crowded I have experienced so far. Not only is every place on the bench taken (passengers have to sit for hours with their torsos rotated at a 45 degree angle to accommodate more people), plastic chairs were also placed in the middle of the truck where everyone?s feet were supposed to go. I rode on one of the plastic chairs for the first two hours. Although I had more shoulder room, the level of concentration required to stay on the non-anchored chair throughout the ride was significant. Frankly, I was also worried that the legs would break–I?m heavier than even most Lao men.
The songthaew took us only as far as the river where we caught a small boat upstream one hour to Muang Ngoi. The river was surrounded on either side by pointy mountains and otherwise beautiful scenery. Very few villages were visible along the banks although we were passed by local passenger boats and fishermen. One man was even gliding downstream in a canoe hollowed out of an old torpedo or missile–probably left over from the heavy bombing Laos suffered during the Vietnam War. As soon as we landed on the steep, sandy landing of Muang Ngoi we were surrounded by children trying to take us to their mother?s/aunt?s/friend?s guesthouse. I went with a young girl who no one else had chosen and was patient enough to wait while I dried off my feet and put my shoes back on after climbing through the shallow water to get ashore. My German friend and I decided to share a bamboo hut since we wouldn?t be spending much time in it anyway. The small hut was connected to others by narrow planks of wood suspended over the edge of the hill over the river. It was a very picturesque location and, because we shared a room, only cost $1.50 each per night.
Like many towns in Laos, Muang Ngoi is a town that was completely changed by a simple mention in The Lonely Planet: Laos guidebook. It is in a beautiful area surrounded by mountains and farms and, of course, the river but there are no real attractions. I was interested in seeing the beauty of Northern Laos and spending time in a low-key setting. We walked through the entire town in about five minutes, and even had time to stop and play with the local children. The only real road is a dirt track that runs parallel to the river with a Buddhist monastery on one end and a tiny electricity-producing damn on the other. Even with this damn electricity was rare and turned off by ten at night. A group of us learned this the hard way when we were stranded at our restaurant and had to find our way back with candles provided by the owner. Although we didn?t know about the (lack of) electricity we had been warned about the rats. Apparently the entire town is infected so no bamboo guesthouse is safe. I had acquired a very fresh roll of Oreos in Luang Prabang and couldn?t bear to throw them out. Instead, I hung them along the wall about five feet from the ground. Even with my precautions we were were awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of rattling plastic and scampering feet. My friend had a flashlight and was brave enough to scare the rats away. It was very hard to go back to sleep, knowing that a rat could scamper across my bed at any time. In the morning we discovered that the rats had somehow jumped or climbed up and eaten a small hole in the bottom of the Oreo wrapper–I would have to go without chocolate until I reached another large town.
Tiny damn for the town?s electricity
The second day a group of us set out to explore the surrounding countryside. Local guides were asking about $20 per person for a day trip so we decided to do it on our own. Unfortunately, one person in our group was a major outdoors woman and set an incredibly quick pace. I found myself staring at the ground so I would fall in a hole instead of enjoying the scenery around me. We found some caves which were guarded by a few locals asking a small admission fee. We obliged and worked our way into the first large opening. The fast-walker was excited about dropping into the pitch black opening filled with waist high water. I declined and soon was backed up by the rest of our small group. I have gone spelunking (underground cave exploring) in England before and don?t feel the need to ever do it again. At least that time I had a wet suit and headlamp–my flashlight died at some point in Cambodia. We headed on through the trees which soon opened up to large fields dried crops of some sort. On a whim we headed across the fields and crossed a small creek.
As soon as we started to turn back we were spotted by a group of children on their way home from school. One of the girls in our group was Malaysian and spoke a small amount of Thai. She was able to communicate with the kids and we were soon following them to their village. The walk took over an hour across more fields, down mud slopes and across more than five streams. The kids waded across in their flip flops and laughed at us as we tried to balance along the small rocks the positioned for us. The weather in Northern Laos is much colder than most of us were used to and we all had on socks and hiking boots or shoes which we desperately tried to keep dry. Once we got to the village we were ushered up onto a stilt platform and asked to order food. I figured it was the least we could do but the food ended up taking about an hour to make! I would not be surprised if the chicken I ate was killed on the spot. We didn?t stay in the village for long since we had to backtrack over an hour and re-cross all of the streams again. Once we got our bearings we headed to another village we?d heard about where there was a guesthouse. It was very beautiful but in the end we all headed back to Muang Ngoi for the night.
A few of the girls who showed us the way to their village. Notice the red t-shirt…
Along the main road was a restaurant with low tables, mats and cushions to sit on and pretty lights strung around. A large group of us met for dinner and we were soon amused by the Malaysian girl who, quite uncharacteristically, was traveling alone. When wondered if she could ask us, as Westerners, a few questions. We thought we?d get some insight into the cultural differences between us but we didn?t know it could be quite so funny. She asked questions like:
- Do all Westerners sleep with their socks on?
- Do girls really ask boys on dates?
- Is it socially acceptable to walk around in a public space (like a hotel lobby) in just a towel?
- Do people get dressed up to go to Starbucks?
This went on for quite some time and we were all laughing in the end. The answers were hard to come up with because the group of Westerners included people from the U.S., Canada, Germany and Australia. One obvious cultural difference between us Westerns was pointed out that night when I ordered dinner. I was tired and hungry and sick of rice so I ordered a banana pancake and fries. When my order arrived everyone stared at it hungrily and said that they should have ordered some junk food too. I cringed and replied ?I just wanted something American for a change.?
You can see the photos from Munag Ngoi here.