Charmed by Muang Ngoi Neua, Laos
// October 12th, 2010 // Laos
After my adventurous bus ride from Vietnam to Laos, we got to Muang Khua and just got lucky. A man was heading in his boat to Nong Khiaw and agreed to give us a ride for a cheaper rate than normal. We thought we’d have to stay overnight in this village, so the fact that we were able to leave that afternoon and get a good price, well, it was exciting. The two-hour ride to Muang Ngoi Neua was relaxing and a great introductory to Laos. Men and women fishing from their boats gave jovial waves while naked little kids splashing in the river were all too eager to wave and yell.
We arrived at the boat dock in Muang Ngoi Neua, and since we weren’t with a scheduled boat arrival, there were no guesthouse touts waiting. We stayed at bungalows right on the water near the dock. We had a little porch with a hammock, beautiful views, and an en suite bathroom for $3.85. Split that between two people, and it was downright cheap.
About Muang Ngoi Neua
Muang Ngoi is actually the name of the province but for the sake of ease I’m going to refer to the village that way (and many locals do as well). Muang Ngoi is a small village on Nam Ou River. It is only accessible by boat. During the Laotian Civil War (also known as the Secret War), the village was uninhabitable for several years and locals were forced to move into caves. We met several locals who were born in the caves and one man’s father spent 12 years living in a cave. Bombs were dropped daily here, so the people only left the caves at night to go work in the fields for survival. Today’s population is around 700 people. The village only has electricity from a generator for a couple of hours in the evening. They get ice brought to them from Nong Khiaw everyday and of course we didn’t have even a fan at night. The daily life here is rustic.
During our stay, we got to know the local culture and people quite well. There was something about Muong Ngoi, well many things actually, that made it impossible for us to pull ourselves away.
We spent our first full day trekking to Tham Khang cave, one of the caves where the locals hid out during the bombings. It was a pretty little hike past steep karsts and lush, green rice fields. After the cave, we wanted to hike to another remote village. We crossed a few streams, waded through a river, and walked through one of the most stunning rice fields I’ve ever seen, but we still didn’t find it. After speaking to another couple later that day, it sounds like we were almost there. Although we never did find this other village it was a beautiful walk.
That evening we struck up a conversation at a café with Sang, a tour guide and owner of Sang’s Tours. He was building a new boat to prepare for high season and asked us to help him paint it. There’s not all that much to do in this little village and after tempting us with barbecue lunch and a free tour, we showed up in painting clothes the next morning. When I saw him, he told me to go change. I was in a tank top so maybe the village was more conservative than I thought. Then he said, “My uncle is getting married today and we’re going to the reception.” Well, okay then. I changed and showed back up at 10 am. We walked about 200 meters down the ‘road’ to an area where tables were set up and tarps were hung to provide some shade. Everyone, I mean everyone, from this village was at this reception. It was a Tuesday morning and the whole village was at the party. People were drinking and having a good time. We kept getting passed shots of lao-lao, the local whiskey. It’s absolutely terrible, but trying to refuse it is a waste of energy. A man at each table took it upon himself to play bartender by filling the shot glass up and passing it around. When it got back to him, he took another shot, which signified that another round was coming. By 12:30, Lauren and I had to call it quits. It was a funny evening, because usually the villagers are sitting around in front of their houses, but even at 6 o’clock that evening, it was so quiet. I think a little too much drinking was done. The next day a woman came by the restaurant we were at to let the owner know that her daughter had just had a baby and there would be a celebration in two days. These people know how to party!
New Friends & An Alms Ceremony
Our first night in Muong Ngoi, we went in search of a restaurant. We came across Boupha Restaurant, a simple little place with a handmade sign of food selections. In all honesty, it didn’t appear as nice as some of the others but it had cheap food. We sat down and were greeted by a woman named Nong (which actually just means Miss). I ordered some fried noodles and was delightfully surprised. They were delicious. We raved about the food to her and promised to return the next day. We did return, in fact, every day to Boupha Restaurant, just as much for the food as to see Nong. She was so sweet. She had picked up her English from tourists. Her husband didn’t speak any English, but when we showed up, he would announce our arrival, “Nong! Lau-RA, Lau-REN.”
I wanted to participate in giving of the alms one morning. This ceremony takes place daily very early in the morning. Buddhist monks walk along the street while people (mostly women) offer up sticky rice and other foods, sometimes even cookies or money. The monks then bless those who have provided them with their daily food. Nong offered to make sticky rice for me to give. I got up early the next morning and was at her restaurant at 5:50am. I was told the monks would come through at 6. They actually came through closer to 7. Nong dressed me in a sash, gave me my rice, and showed me the ropes. She even made her husband take photos of it (I wasn’t sure this would be okay, but apparently it was). We were the only tourists participating, and even some of the young monks couldn’t help but stifle a laugh and whisper to each other. In places like Luang Prabang, tourists participate all the time, but here in Muong Ngoi, I don’t think it’s that common.
It was my sister’s birthday and Nong had offered to let me use her phone. With no electricity, I didn’t have internet or a way to call my sister. I bought credit for her phone, and made a call home just in time (due to the time difference).
It was difficult leaving the village of Muong Ngoi Neua. Yes, it was a bit boring and unbelievably hot and sweaty during the day with no fan or A/C, but the locals were so charming and I made dear friends. Nong’s brother actually lives in California, and she is considering moving there in a few years. We talked at length about that. We hugged and sadly said goodbye, and she promised to call me when I get home in November. I really hope I manage to stay in touch.
If you get the chance to visit Muong Ngoi Neua, you will have a great time. Bring a couple of books and be ready to relax in a hammock. Eat at Boupha’s Restaurant and stay in the bungalows behind it that Nong runs. And please give her a hug for me!