Muang Ngoi is a sleepy town along the Nam Ou River in north-central Laos. The town received its first dirt road connection and first 24-hour electricity earlier this year, though the “24-hour” description would prove to be a bit ambitious. We reached town after a 4 hour boat ride from Muang Khua. The river snakes through beautiful, untouched mountain scenery. We made a few stops along the way. Someone would appear seemingly from nowhere along the shore to pile on a load to be shipped further down the river or hop on for the ride. When we arrived in town we set out looking for a place to stay. We settled on Nicksa’s Place, where we had a private bungalow with a porch and a pair of hammocks overlooking the river. It set us back a cool $3.89. To put that in perspective, that’s cheaper than if we each bought a Happy Meal in 1996. Nicksa’s is run by a family, but it seems that their ten year old daughter does most of the work. She took all our orders at the restaurant, handled check-in and check-out, and was constantly scurrying around running errands. She was a far cry from most of the American ten year olds we’ve met.
Muang Ngoi has only one unpaved street that stretches about 300m along the river. It doesn’t take long to exhaust all the exploring possible in a town that size. At that point, its best to find a place with a nice view and settle in with a good drink, a good meal, and a good book. The first night we ate at Bee Tree Cafe, a great outdoor restaurant with a cozy ambiance all the way at the far end of the road. We enjoyed delicious versions of a variety of Lao dishes: sticky rice which is balled up, dipped in other dishes and eaten with your hands; fish laap, a minced meat salad with herbs; aw laam, a traditional stew. Bee Tree also left us both fully hooked on fresh fruit smoothies. We finished out the night relaxing on our hammocks before heading inside to bed. That night there was a terrifying thunderstorm with lightning illuminating the entire sky directly above the village. They say your car is the safest place to be during an electrical storm. We can confirm that a flimsy bamboo hut is not.
On our second day in Muang Ngoi we headed out on a hike to explore some nearby sights. After about an hour walk through blistering heat, we reached Tham Kang Cave. The cave was home to the villagers of Muang Ngoi for nearly 5 years during the US bombing raids over Laos in the Vietnam War. They lived in the caves during the day, only coming out at night to tend to their crops. Inside the cave, we found a grotto filled with beautiful butterflies and amazingly clear water. We went for a quick dip to cool off.
Next we continued on to Bana Village which we’d read was only a short walk away. At midday in Southeast Asia, nothing is a short walk away. First, we tried a shortcut to the village, which led to an impassible river. So we backtracked and followed the original road on a much longer than expect route to the village. In Bana, we enjoyed a quick lunch overlooking the rice paddies and chatted with some of the villagers. We met a Dutch couple who had also made their way from Muang Ngoi and we agreed to try to do the shortcut in reverse together on the way back. The path had us wandering along the narrow walls that make up a rice terrace. Eventually we reached the impassible river and decided that this time it was passible.
Once back in town, we had some cold drinks to recover from the hot hike. At one point, three little girls came up to Eric and motioned toward his bottle of water. Thinking they were also struggling in the heat, he offered them a drink. They grabbed the water, dumped all its content on the ground, and added bottle to their collection of recyclables.
The storm the second night was similar to the one the first night, except this time the rain didn’t stop and the power didn’t come back on. For the entire third day, third night, and the morning of the fourth day it rained and the whole town was without electricity. There was one restaurant with a generator, but everything else was done by candlelight. The lone dirt road turned into the lone mud road. Luckily, hammocks and kindles still work in the rain. On the final day, with rain continuing to fall, we took a 9:30 boat to Nong Khiaw. From there we reached Luang Prabang by what I guess you could call a bus but really seemed more like a boy scout project from the 1940s. The nest of exposed wires hanging from the dash didn’t seem very promising, but luckily with a top speed around 10mph, the bus was too slow to do much damage.