BootsnAll Travel Network

Muang Ngoi: United Nations Chillout

When travelling around Southeast Asia, there’s a fairly well-worn path that most people take. And it is far too easy to follow that path from the comfort of a tourist-only mini-bus getting you from one destination to the next. It tends to shut you off from the country, and it’s easy to feel as though you’re on some sort of school excursion. This is something Bec and I encountered on our last visit, and was at it’s worst on the trip from Luang Prabang south to Vang Vieng and onto the Laos capital of Vientiane.

In order to avoid feeling like lambs this time, we opted to head north from Luang Prabang to the village of Muang Ngoi. We hadn’t heard of the place on our last trip to Laos, and didn’t know anyone who’d been there. Our guidebook gave it a brief mention as a village that could only be reached by boat, so it sounded as though it would be nice and relaxed after the hectic shopping in Luang Prabang. Plus it was pretty much on the way to the Vietnam border crossing closest to Hanoi, which was where we eventually wanted to go. To get to Muang Ngoi, we had to return to the village of Nong Khiaw on the Nam Ou river, from where we could get a boat an hour up river to Muang Ngoi.

Even given that this destination was not on the most common tourist trail, we still had the option of geting a tourist bus or a local bus. Eager to avoid the mini bus, we opted for the local bus. We booked a ticket in town the night before we left, and headed out to the bus station (a patch of dirt on the outskirts of town) early the next morning. Our tuk-tuk driver pulled up next to the bus going to Nong Khiaw; it was a mini bus, and half the people in there had white faces. Oh well, you can’t win them all.

We arrived in Nong Khiaw just after 11am, and were told a boat would be leaving to go up to Muang Ngoi around two-ish. We wasted a couple of hours doing nothing. We’d been oinly a week earlier, and there wasn’t much else to do but sit back and admire the scenery. The boat turned up on time, and, to the utmost relief of Bec and myself, there were no storm clouds in sight; this would be a thankfully dry river trip.

An hour up river, having eased our way through more impressive scenery – rolling green mountains interspersed with dramatic limestone cliffs – we approached the quiet village of Muang Ngoi. It is nestled on a bend in the river, and from the water, all we could see was a bank dotted infrequently with bamboo bungalows hiding beneath thatched rooves, and standing tall on long bamboo legs above the steep river bank. Each had a hammock or two strung up on their balcony. Bec and I smiled at each other. I had a feeling we were gonna like this place.

Successfully making it off the boat without falling in, we found ourselves a bungalow, and went for a stroll through the village. It was basically a single road village, which ran parallel to the river and behind the bungalows. It was a dirt/mud track (depending on how much rain there’d been). Families sat on the steps of their concrete or wooden houses, doing nothing in particular, maybe cooking up some spring rolls, but mostly just passing the time. Chickens ran across the road squawking. The track stretched for just a few hundred metres, then came to an abrupt end where a huge limestone mountain spewed up out of the flat ground.

The village only had electricity from 7pm until around 10 to 10.30pm. There was nothing left to do but sit back in the hammock, gaze out at the river and mountains across the way for a while, and then start a new book. As I sat swaying in the hammock, becoming enthralled in Orhan Pahmuk’s Nobel Prize winning book Istanbul, a large drop of rain splashed onto the hammock just near my right hip. This seemed strange to me for two reasons; a) I was sitting under a balcony, and b) it wasn’t raining.

I looked up and to my utter bemusement, saw a gecko hanging to the underside of the thatched roof, exactly above where the rain drop had landed. I looked back down to my right hip and realised that this was no rain drop – it was a nice healthy chunk of gecko shit. I quickly turned my head back up to the gecko. He was hanging there and, I swear, as he looked at me with a big cheeky grin, slowly cocked his leg and let fly with another missile of gecko shit. My hammock was still swinging gently back and forth; whether I was hit or not was in the hands of the hammock gods now. Time slowed down as that piece of shit fell towards my squirming body. My eyes followed it as it fell and, miraculously, the second effort landed smack bang on top of the first, just shaving my right hip. I glanced back up to the roof. The little bastard was gone.

Later that evening we sat around the common table at the guesthouse. There were four or five bungalows set around it, and we lazily chatted away with the others staying there. There were about nine or ten of us, hailing from Holland, Italy (a great guy named Andrea who had spent three weeks here in Muang Ngoi doing nothing much), France, Spain, Israel, Germany, and England. Bec and I were the only two people from the same country. It was great to have such a diverse mix. Much like catching the tourist bus, it is all too easy to hang around other Australians in this part of the world.

We had just three nights in Muang Ngoi, but could’ve easily stayed a week. On our final day there we walked an hour out of Muang Ngoi, away from the river, to the tiny village of Ban Na. This was a village in the most traditional sense of the word. Reachable only by foot, on a leech-infested mud path that weaved through the jungle, through a river streaming out of a nearby cave, and finally through a maze of rice fields, it was surrounded by limestone cliffs, and consisted of just thirty or forty wooden huts scattered about in the dirt. Every piece of flat land around the village flashed a brilliant green in the midday sun; rice fields that led to the foot of every mountain. Amazingly, there were two places you could stay the night here, but unfortunately we only had time for an afternoon visit. Strolling through the village, we were called over to the school building, a run-down wooden shed, where five or so kids were playing dodge ball. Having been missing the kids back in Nepal desperately, it was great to be able to run around again and pretend to be eight years old!

On the walk back to Muang Ngoi, we stopped at the river coming from the cave for a swim. It was refreshingly cold. We followed the thigh-deep water into the cave, where I was surprised to see that the cave stopped just fifteen feet or so from the entrance. The water wasn’t coming from some huge deep cave as I’d expected, but was gushing out of the ground at the back of the cave, like a giant spa. Like nothing I’d ever seen.

Returning home, we made sure we hadn’t brought any leeches back with us, then settled in for an early night. Early the next morning Bec got up to answer a call of nature. Our simple bungalow consisted of nothing more than a bed and a mosquito net, and as Bec dressed to make the journey to the toilet about twenty metres away along a dirt path, she gasped.

“What the hell is all that blood?!” She motioned down towards the bed.

I rolled over sleepily. There were blotches of blood on the sheet where Bec had been sleeping, about halfway down the bed.

“Ohhhhhh, crap!” She turned her hips around to get a look at her behind, and there on her butt-cheek, just on the line of her undies, were two bloodied spots. Leeches! They’d got her during the night, the slimey little bastards.

So whilst we were disappointed to be leaving behind the peaceful beauty of Muang Ngoi, we weren’t that disappointed.

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