South East Asia - Winter 2012 travel blog

Garden view from my bungalow (Nong Khiaw)

Dusty street in Nong Khiaw

View from Nong Khiaw bridge

Life along the Nam Ou river

Arriving in Muang Ngoi

Main "street" in Muang Ngoi

River weed sheets ( a popular snack) drying in the sun

View from terrace (Muang Ngoi)

Hike to the villages

Approaching Ban Na village through rice field

Ban Na village

Rice field on the way to second village

Second village

Crossing small river on the way back

Tourists waiting for the boat back to Nong Khiaw

Last Sunday (Jan 29) I took a mini-van to the village of Nong Khiaw, 3 to 4 hours drive north east of Luang Prabang. The goal was to see some rural Lao life and some landscapes without getting too far from the city. I had heard dismal stories about those long bus rides on tortuous mountain roads.

The mini-van, I was told by the agent selling the tickets, was more expensive than the local bus, but faster and more comfortable as it sat only 11 people and made no stops en-route to pick up additional passengers. OK. It turned out that the mini-van fit more like 9 (of us big western people), and we were 12, including two children. After much complaining by us and stressed-out looks by the driver (the first time I saw a stressed out Lao) they added a second mini-van for the extra couple. But that van couldn't leave before more people showed up to go to Nong Khiaw, as the Lao will not run any vehicle half empty. For some reason, that delayed us by 50 minutes, even though we were full and ready to go. Not sure why.

In the mini-van I met this British family of four, with the two young boys aged 8 and 10. They'll be travelling for a year before re-settling in Spain. The older son is allergic both to gluten and lactose, making it quite a challenge at meal times.

In Nong Khiaw, I had reserved a bamboo bungalow through my guesthouse here in LP. Only one of the staff spoke any English. The room was basic (all made of bamboo except the bathroom) but had electricity and hot water and was set in a peaceful garden. Nong Khiaw is set on both sides of the Nam Ou river connected by a modern bridge. The views from the bridge are very pretty, but that's about all there is to see and do in this town. The main street near my guesthouse was dirt and looked like a construction site. But that didn't matter, because I was just spending a night here. I had very good Indian food for dinner, which was a nice change from the usual Lao flavours.

The following morning I took the 11 am boat to Muang Ngoi, my final destination. In good Lao fashion, the boat left 50 minutes late. In fact, there were two boats, none of which was completely full (that is to say, cramped) so I guess that's why they were waiting. The boats are long and narrow, made of wood, with seating on long narrow wooden planks on the floor. Rather uncomfortable, especially when the one hour ride turns into almost two because of waiting.

There were nice views along the way, with locals bathing or fishing along the shores, or rowing in canoes. I arrived in Muang Ngoi without a reservation, because most of the guesthouses listed in my guidebook had no phone number. I had my previous guesthouse call one beforehand, but it was closed. So I resolved myself to wing it once I arrived, just like everybody else does.

A minute after disembarking (had to take off my shoes as it was a "wet" landing) I was approached by a friendly lady touting a room in her guesthouse. Since she told me the room had views, a bathroom and hot water, I decided to follow her down the dirt "main street". This village being only accessible by boat, it has no car traffic, which I thought would be very pleasant. It also has no electricity...

The room turned out to be quite ok, with no cracks in the walls, a big mosquito net, and a clean bathroom. It had a little balcony, but the view over the river wasn't the best. However it cost less than $8 a night. So I took it, and figured I could always look for something else later. I also quickly discovered that there was no hot water... but the owner said he could give me some in the evening if needed. I knew this meant bucket showers, like I had in India once. Basically, they boil the water over a fire pit, then pour some in a bucket for you, which you mix with cold water until you get the proper temperature, and pour over yourself with a big plastic scoop.

In the end I stayed there both nights (the time I had allocated for Muang Ngoi) because the owner (Joy) was so friendly and helpful. He drew me a map of the area, and how to walk to neighbouring villages (1 to 2 hours away on foot). He even invited me for lunch on the first day but I declined because I was eager to do some exploring and get better views of the river. :)

Muang Ngoi consists of a single dirt street with little lanes running off it to access more houses. The houses are mostly wood or bamboo, with a few more solid concrete ones. I had a late lunch on the terrace of a restaurant with stupendous views of the river, encircled by tall karst mountains. I stayed there for a couple of hours enjoying the view and reading, then went back "home" and kept reading in my hammock until night fall (which is around 6 pm here). At 6:15, the generators kicked in and we got electricity for 3 hours. I had my bucket shower (after a little chat with the owner and another guest while we waited for our hot water to boil over the fire pit) then went for dinner (and ran into the British family who invited me to join them). I was in the middle of brushing my teeth when the electricity went out at 9:15. In bed by 9:30 pm. Wow, that has to be a record for me!

On my second day, I went walking through the forest, across a river (there was even a bamboo bridge) and through a dry (already harvested) rice field to a village called Ban Na. The walk was along an easy, mostly flat dirt path and took me an hour and a half instead of an hour because I kept stopping to take photos. Ran into a couple of Quebecois and a couple of British. Entering the village was like stepping into a documentary. This place has no road access and not even river access to anything. They have to walk one hour to reach Muang Ngoi. Babies run around half naked, with dogs, pigs and chickens. A couple of kids ride bicycles too small for them. The houses are bamboo or wood. Hard to believe that places like that still exist in 2012.

Then I hiked another half hour to the second village, which was similar but even smaller. Then I hiked back. My "trip" took about 6 hours total. This was followed by another late lunch on the same terrace with the views and then hammock reading.

That night, the guesthouse owner was having a big family dinner where many friends and family members (some coming from as far as Vientiane) had been invited. To my surprise, he invited me, and not wanting to turn him down twice in a row, I accepted. I also thought it could be an interesting experience.

The meal was sticky rice with different fish dishes (bbq'ed, cooked in banana leaves, and the famous "laap", ground fish with herbs (one version very spicy), plus lettuce. And of course large amounts of lao-lao liquor (mostly drunk by the men) and beer Lao. Despite what I had read about Lao people being so clean and not double-dipping, these guys were basically serving themselves from the communal dishes with their own utensils, and didn't hesitate to serve you in the same manner. As many of you know how germophobic I am, I wanted to puke. Eeek! I tried to grab stuff myself before anybody got the idea to put it in my plate, and stayed away from the soup! I asked if the glistening drops of water on the lettuce were bottled water and was told that it was river water (i.e. tap water) so I stayed away. I decided that if I drank enough lao-lao and beer, perhaps the alcohol would kill any germs coming from the cheerful guests.

Interestingly, the men sat at one end of the table and the women at the other, with me in the middle. The guys kept wanting to refill my glass, while the guesthouse owner next to me was getting ever friendlier, revelling in the fact that we were born the same year. The woman on my right (from Vientiane) was very elegant and even spoke some French. At some point I excused myself and went to take my hot shower, which this time was from the leftover thermos water used for coffee, since nobody had time to boil water over a fire. I could hear the voices getting louder and louder. Then by 9 pm all got quiet again and the generator stopped at 9:15.

The following morning I took the boat back to Nong Khiaw, coming across every single person I had met in this village of 800 people. From Nong Khiaw I took another mini-van back to Luang Prabang (older and less comfortable than the first one) and was back at my guesthouse by 5 pm, completely exhausted.

Since then, I've had a bout of diarrhea. Hummm, where do you think that might come from?

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