Thursday, February 18, 2010


Here's a recap of the last few days while I was out in the middle of nowhere:

The trip from Luang Prabang to Muang Ngoi was mostly uneventful. I arrived in Nong Khiaw just after 2:30pm and had missed the last boat to Muang Ngoi by a half hour or so. The logistics of how I got to Muang Ngoi don't really matter. In the end, I got a boat and only paid a little more than what I should have, after some hard core bargaining (and another passenger coming by, which helped, too).

(What a view!)

The boat trip to Muang Ngoi took an hour and gave me a chance to talk to Adam, a British guy who'd been in Nong Khiaw just to grab some cash before heading back to Muang Ngoi. He said that the whole village had been preparing for a wedding. Foreigners and locals alike were chipping in to help, particularly since there's a huge set of steps leading from the boat landing to the main road. Adam was clearly psyched about the place which got me in the mood for it since I'd been less than thrilled with my Laos experience up until that time.

(Foggy morning beginnings)

Muang Ngoi is truly a village. There are dirt roads and electricity only works from 6:30-9:30pm. There are just a handful of places to eat and locals outnumber foreigners. I went to a few guesthouses to see about a room and everyone was full. Not a great sign since I was hours away from civilization. Then someone said that I should go to the guesthouse on the corner because the owner was letting people sleep on the balcony. Apparently, the wedding party was the cause of all the full guesthouses. One enterprising owner, Penny, recognizing that she had unused space, decided that she'd supply hammocks, mattresses, and mosquito nets, let people sleep on the balcony, and only charge 10,000 kip a night (just over $1). Not too shabby, huh? I got my bag situated and immediately felt like I'd just joined a hippie commune except Pink Floyd was playing instead of Grateful Dead - more my speed anyway. :-) I walked down the street for a bottle of water and got a proper welcome to the village. A group sitting outside called me over to offer me a shot of lao lao (rice whiskey). It's bad form to turn down a shot lol, so of course I took it. Some people like it and some people hate it, but I think it's pretty tasty. The locals asked "good?" with a thumbs up and when I said yes, good, they cheered and offered me more. That time I had to laugh, but pass, and I went back to the guesthouse.

For the next little while, the guesthouse was the hangout spot. But then someone said something about a bonfire on the beach and the whole crowd started the somewhat treacherous trek to the beach. It was dark, see? Very, very, dark. So the people who didn't have torches (flashlights) stuck really close to the people who did. Once there, the bonfire was built and everyone settled in. It was a great night for a bonfire beach party. It was cool enough that the fire was needed and the sky was dark enough and clear enough that as far as your eye could see were stars, stars, stars. Some people had iPods, some had guitars, most had a Beerlao or two and we just hung out, joked around, and got to know people.

The next day my first order of business was to find a room. I found a riverside bungalow, complete with my own (cold water) shower and a hammock for 50,000 kip. On my way to the bungalow I'd seen some people from the night before, so after I checked in I went back to join them for breakfast. They were trying to get a group together to go on a fishing trip and since I didn't have any other plans, I decided that I would join them. On the trip were our Lao guide (Kao) and two of his helpers, me, a Japanese couple (whose names I never did catch), three Aussie guys (Tom, Aiden, and Cam), and a guy from New Zealand (Jason). We fished with nets rather than with poles and it entailed getting in the water and really wrangling the fish. On our first attempt we caught a fish and we were all so excited! After more fishing, some nets coming back with fish, some not, we did some tubing and then went to a weaving village about an hour up river from Muang Ngoi. The villagers didn't speak Lao, but they were happy to see us and show/sell the silk scarves that they are known for. The kids, particularly, were very excited and wanted to play and see the pictures we were taking of them. As excited as they were, they were also very wary of Cam and Tom who both have beards (Cam's especially is pretty big and bushy). The kids got used to the guys, but you could tell they still weren't totally sure that there were actually men behind all that hair. :-) When we eventually left, all the children followed us down to the beach to wave us off and say goodbye. It was really sweet.

It was finally time for lunch and what a spread we had! While we'd been shopping and playing with the kids, Kao's helpers had been preparing the food. Huge banana leaves had been laid out on the beach with place settings for each of us. We had grilled fish, sticky rice, community bowls of fish soup, pickled greens (which we guessed were a local green called morning glory), and sardines in a spicy sauce. Man, was it ever good! Everyone dug in and we ate until we didn't think we could eat any more. Then the lao lao came out and was passed around before we all helped clean up the banana leaves and clean the dishes in the river. Back into the boat for us, back down river to a spot where we were going to tube the rest of the way to Muang Ngoi. As the sun was going down and it was starting to get cool, I wimped out and decided to stay in the boat and not tube. In order to save face, though, I offered to take pictures of everyone with their cameras and that seemed to do the trick!

(Cam, the Japanese couple, Tom, me, Aiden, and Jason, getting ready to enjoy lunch.)

After a quick shower - and a shot or two of the sunset from my balcony - I was ready for the evening. Kao, our fishing guide, had invited all of us to his family home for dinner that evening. None of his family joined us at the table, but they all crowded around to join in the conversation (or try to, at least, as most of them spoke very little English). We had the most delicious noodle soup with chicken and some more of that ever present lao lao. The group of us ate, laughed, and hung out for hours before we decided that we should mozy on and let the little kids go to sleep. There was brief talk of another bonfire, but I think everyone was tired from the night before and the fishing, so we mostly just hung out at the restaurant near my guesthouse until people slowly started dropping off and making their way back to their rooms to call it a night.

Day three ultimately brought complete laziness. By this time I'd met my bungalow neighbors Julie and Adam, siblings traveling from Australia. The three of us seemed to get on well right from the beginning and it didn't take long for us to be laughing, joking, teasing, and all around giving each other a hard time. The cause of the laziness were the hammocks - they're just too darn tempting and way too comfy once you're in them! The most any of us could muster was a trip to the restaurant about 10 yards away. :-) Eventually Julie and Adam did go for a walk to a nearby cave (which they declared "meh"), but I pretty much didn't move. Later, Leslie (Canadian) and Lars (Norwegian) came around and we all hung out on the balcony, watching the sunset again and listening to Adam and Leslie play their guitars. The rest of the night was more of the same, pretty quiet, as a lot of people including me had decided that the next day was going to be the day they left. The first boat is at 9:30am, but it can often sell out so people try to get their tickets as early as possible. The following morning, I joined Adam and Julie for breakfast after packing up (and giving a passing-by Aiden money to buy my boat ticket for me!). Emails were exchanged all around with promises of "If you're ever in Australia/America, let me know and you can stay with me!"

(Dusk from my balcony with a tiny sliver of a moon.)

So what boat was I getting on and where was I headed? Well, after much back and forth, I decided that I was going to have to leave Laos a bit earlier than I'd originally planned. I'd wanted to head east and cross the Laos/Vietnam border overland, but the bus from Nong Khiaw to Sam Neua is 12 hours long and leaves once a day. Logistically, it was looking like it was going to take me longer than I'd have liked; if I have any hope of being in Beijing by mid-March, I need to get started on Vietnam to do it justice. It was back to Luang Prabang for me where I've booked a flight on Friday to Hanoi.

In closing: Muang Ngoi was just what I needed to end my short jaunt through Laos on a positive note. It was incredibly beautiful and laid-back. The people were fabulous - I can't remember the last time that I saw so many foreigners working together with locals to get a job done. And I met people from all over the world: Lao, British, Italian, German, French, Swedish, Norwegian, Israeli, Japanese, Australian, New Zealanders, American, Canadian, and probably a handful of others that I'm forgetting. I think I must not be doing a good job of explaining why it was almost a magical place. Not just for me, either; some people would come for one or two nights and end up staying for four or five. Eventually you have to leave because if you don't, there's a chance you never will!

* * * * *
Pictures: Yeah, who knows when they'll be uploaded. I think there's a total of 24 shots on Flickr now, but there are at least 100 more to go. The connection for uploading is painfully slow, but I'll get there eventually.


  1. I'm so glad you're feeling better and leaving Laos on a good note! Love ya and miss ya!

  2. Wow, that was a great overview you wrote! Glad to know you're feeling okay and it sounds as though these last few days have been interesting and fun for you. Love you, cyndy

  3. This sounded like a real way to end this visit to Laos, and a lot of e-mail buddies along the way. It sounded like a lot of fun. You are becoming quite a writer, so thorough and interesting. Are you going to be doing a book about your travels on your return? Love and miss you !!!

  4. i'm so happy that it sounds like you are feeling a leetle bit more upbeat! a cool place, cool people, food, alcohol, and hammocks make everything better, right??? take care, young miss. xoxoL

  5. I'm glad everyone enjoyed the Muang Ngoi overview and could see that my mood had improved. I know for a while there my posts had kind of a downer overtone to them which I didn't really like, but it couldn't be helped.

    Grandma - Thanks for the compliment! I've been asked whether I'll write a book or try to become a travel writer before...that would be awesome, but I honestly don't think that I'm good enough or experienced enough. There are tons of other people out there better qualified than me. It would be fun, though!

  6. Wow Shan! nice posting, glad you ended up having such a nice time your last days in Laos.
    Your right Cam does have some beard! Great!
    pictures too.
    love ya