Caves, karst and rivers at Muong Ngoi
The main dengue fever had gone, but I was still pretty exhausted when I arrived at Muong Ngoi Neua. After a typically Lao disorganised and time consuming process of preparing the mini-vans we left for Nong Khiaw. I was completely amazed when we arrived after two and a half hours, well shy of the quoted four hours. A feat completely unheard of in Laos. I’ve heard people talk about “Thai-time” or “Nepal time” to describe things happening slowly, but Laos takes it to a new level. Once you escape Luang Prabang and Vientiane everything in Laos is relaxed and slow. Nothing happens in a hurry.
Of course once we arrived in Nong Khiaw we waited another couple of hours for the boat up the river, despite the fact the boats and drivers in the town, and everyone who ended up riding the boat was there. Whilst waiting I met a few fellow solo travellers who would become my crew for the next few days.
The scenery in this part of world is incredible. Filled with dramatic jungle-draped karst peaks and shear limestone cliffs riddled with caves. After another typically Lao style 45 minute wait after we’d piled into the cramped boats we finally wound our way upstream over the shallow rapids to our idyllic riverside destination. I thought I’d done well ending up sitting at the front of the boat away from the noisy engine, but changed my mind after getting splashed after every rapid we ascended on the way to town.
I was surprised how many tourists were on the boat, and how many were in the town, as I’d though I was getting a little more “off” the tourist trail. But the town was fantastic, still managing to retain a local feel, whilst having comfortable cheap rooms and that dramatic landscape. I was shattered when we arrived and had a power nap before we “hit the town” that night. This consisted of a fantastic (and cheap) Lao style vegetarian buffet followed by sitting around a fire and drinking the single bar in town out of beer. This may sound like an impressive and drunken endeavour, but in fact they only had two beers left at the bar, so it wasn’t much of an achievement. The bar owner was a rather eccentric young lazy Laos guy, who gave the excuse of “I’ve been too drunk to buy beer for the bar.” It seems this part of Laos loves a party, and takes any excuse to get stuck into the fifty percent proof Lao-Lao and beer Lao. When we arrived in town we passed a Laos party which was in it’s death throes, the rough dirt floored bar covered in playfully wrestling drunks. This is impressive as this was about 3:30 in the afternoon. Later that night the same bar was filled with what looked like kids restarting the party. Presumably after their parents had safely passed out after the afternoons activity. Laos is not a late night place, but the locals certainly love an afternoon drink.
The next day consisted of trekking to caves and small villages. The going was fairly flat and easy going, but we covered a fair few kilometres. I was impressed at my effort that day after the dengue. Again I crashed and burned when we returned to town at the end of the day. The cave was fairly impressive, and disappeared a fair way into the hillside. There were a couple of entrances into the cave system, one through the river (which only continued if you did an underwater swim(!)) and one a small dead end. We did however see one of the most insane creatures I’ve ever seen. It was like a centipede, but had long spindly legs like a daddy longlegs. The photo doesn’t show it, but this cave monster was about 10cm long. It reminded me of the bizarre eyeless transparent-skinned cave lizard I’d seen earlier in the trip. These things are weird, you can see all the organs working through the skin.
By this stage our numbers had surged to a six-nation seven member squad. We ambled our way through the scenery to the small village of Huay Xai, where we were greeted by the enthusiastic owner of the only small local restaurant in town and his endless shots of Lao Lao. After a simple lunch and the requisite circumambulation (I love that word!) of the town, we made our way back towards Muong Ngoi. The pace wasn’t super quick after the lunch time Lao Lao.
The next day was a similar trip, however instead of foot powered we were on the river in a small longboat. The first village we visited was fairly famous for its weaving, and is a popular destination for textile-craving Laotians. This gave the town a fairly colourful look as the locals plied their wares. We sat and watched a group of the local kids for a while as they played a game of spinning tops. They used these wooden tops that they had carved themselves and seemed to have rather impressive skills. I never quite understood the rules of the game, it just seemed like the goal was to knock all the other tops out of the way, but it looked like fun. It’s great in this part of the world to see the kids playing outside in the street. Forming big social groups and making up these games. It’s not something you see back home any more. It made me wonder, not for the first time on this trip, if in Western countries we over complicate things. These kids looked happy.
The second village seemed a bit like a ghost town as we wandered through the dusty streets. It was only when we got to the far side of the small village we heard voices in the forest and followed our way down a path into the trees. We stumbled across the preparations for the big Hmong peoples new year celebration. They had freshly slaughtered at least one cow and the ground was covered in the butchered meat, being divided between the families for the new year. The whole town was gathered around, with the kids playing to the side, while the men argued over the weight of the meat portions. The more interesting side was the “offal kebabs” which were segments of all the different organs of the cow strung out along a sliver of bamboo. This is apparently a spirit offering and we spotted them making some kind of soup of stew. Nothing is wasted and the skin is used as well.
I spent two more days in Muong Ngoi, these were more relaxing, with some short walks into the surrounding forests and catching up on some guitar. After a couple of relatively busy days, my body was crashing again so I needed some down time.
I was sad to leave Muong Ngoi, certainly a highlight of my trip. After the typically disorganised and time consuming boat trip it was time for the “bus.” I decided on the local form of transport, the songthaew. These are converted small trucks with bench seats in the back. Being local transport, it was packed with extra plastic seats in the aisle and sharing the ride with bags of rice, vegetables and of course live chickens. The ride was squashy and uncomfortable but it’s always great to have these authentic experiences. I did however loose feeling in my buttocks for a couple of days afterwards.
As Muong Ngoi was my last “real” destination it was time to start the journey home. First to Luang Prabang, then Vientiane and back to the black hole of Le Village in Kuala Lumpur...