We left Phongsaly, the city above the clouds, early to get the bus to Hat Sa. From there it would be a two day boat ride with an overnight stop in Muang Khua. Our final destination being Muang Ngoi Neua, a supposedly blissful fisher village at the banks of the Nam Ou River. But first Phongsaly bid us farewell with another beautiful vista of its sea of clouds.
In the guidebooks it is said, that it might be difficult to arrange a boat trip down to Muang Khua due to the possible lack of people going there. There was no need to worry though since there were more than enough people to pay for the ride. The boat itself was a lot smaller than the first slow-boat I took on the Mekong. No chairs, just wooden planks to fit three people. Needless to say that the boat, as with every other means of transportation in Laos, was way overloaded. With lots of draft we started our journey rocking down the Nam Ou.
From Hat Sa to Muang Khua
The Nam Ou was different than the Mekong, much narrower, not as deep and hence a lot faster. We soon approached the first rapids which were not really big, but going through them with a small boat loaded with too many people just had to get some people soaked. Sitting on the side of the boat I was of course one of them. It was fun though and I took it as part of the trip that makes it worthwhile. The whole journey took about 5 hours, passing lush forest, high mountains and little villages before we arrived in Muang Khua.
Supposed to be just a transport hub which not much to see, the town made a surprisingly charming impression. After a late lunch and a swim in the river, we walked around a bit. Already dark, we discovered a badminton court in one of the little alleys. Equipped with floodlighting the locals got at it and invited us to play. Being one of their national sports, I got a beating by a 14 year old boy. We ended the day celebrating the birthday of one of the guys who was on the boat with us. A few Beer Lao and some local grub made for a proper birthday party.
From Muang Khua to Muang Ngoi Neua
The second day we had to board the boat at 9 o’ clock in order to go down to Muang Ngoi. This leg seemed to be more popular since there were way more people than the day before. Unfortunately we were a little late ending up being cramped up in the back of the boat. Being a bit taller than the average Asian, this was more of a torture for me than anything else. Approaching Muang Ngoi, I got more than compensated with spectacular views of gigantic karst cliffs lining the river. The cliffs there rise almost vertically into the sky,overgrown with thick, green tree giants. Watching the river cutting through the cliffs was magnificent. Going around the last bend, we spotted sleepy Muang Ngoi, set amidst lush jungle and overlooked by the huge karst.
Relaxing and an (un)eventful fishing trip
Muang Ngoi is the perfect place to unwind and relax after the strains of traveling. Me and Chris from Germany got a bungalow by the river with hammocks overlooking the beautiful scenery. On the way to get lunch, I ran into another Chris – this one being from Belgium. He was chatting up a local guy showing off with his fishing gear he brought from home. We got to talk and he said, that him and his travel mate Dolf would rent a boat the next morning for a full day fishing trip. Sounded like a great plan and I happily accepted Chris’ offer to tag along. The rest of the day we spent enjoying the sunset by the river and testing the local buffet place. After dinner we established our ritual for the following days – barnfire by the little beach. I was happy – meeting like minded people, spending time in a quiet and remote place and some good outdoors fun ahead of me.
The next day we got up early to set off for our fishing trip. Equipped with some beers we waited for our captain named Kham. He showed up late and explained that he had too much Lao Lao, the local moonshine, the night before. Good excuse and making fun of him for a while (he was really miserable) we took off. In terms of catch, the trip wasn’t the most successful. We didn’t catch anything to be honest. If it wasn’t for Kham catching some little fish with his net and his local techniques, we wouldn’t have had our little barbecue. The trip was still great – we laughed a lot, enjoyed the scenery and made some more fun of Kham who was still suffering. The day ended with another cosy barnfire at the beach – by that point word had already spread that these three guys make fire by the river at night.
Overnight stay at the village – the definition of basic
The next day Chris, Dolf and I decided to hike to the villages close to Muang Ngoi. There are actually three villages and our plan was to spend the night at the one farthest away. All three of them are only accessible by foot. The first one was easy to find and after a good hour we arrived for some refreshments, some grub and some rounds of Petanque. We continued walking, passing beautiful but dry rice paddies, herds of buffalo and a pristine river. We had to cross that one and follow some hand-painted signs. After another hour we arrived in Ban Huay Bo. It was obvious, that this village is less visited and very basic. The perfect place for an overnight stay. The family which had actually hand-painted the little signs leading to the village greeted us and offered to host us. The huts featured a thin mattress and a moskito net, that was it. Price = 5.000 Kip equaling 46 Cents. This was and probably will be the cheapest place I stayed at, period. We spent the day walking through the village, talking to our host family and showering with the locals underneath their public bamboo shower.
The next day started with the presentation of the night’s hunting trophy – a cat like animal which we had never seen before. Our host instantly started to pluck the fur and roast it on the fire. A little bit disturbing at 7 in the morning. After breakfast we agreed to help the family to carry some bamboo out of the jungle to their place. What was said to be an easy task of 15 minutes turned out to be a 2 hour labor. The guy sure knew how to make these white folks work for him. But we had fun and another good story to tell. We returned to Muang Ngoi to have a swim in the river and end the day with our last barn fire. This time a big one so people would remember the three barnfire guys.
It is safe to say, that Muang Ngoi is probably the highlight of my Laos trip. It is so relaxed and quiet that I could have easily spent a week or more there. The lack of electricity for most of the day makes it a great mix of relaxation and being in the outdoors. Most importantly, there are some but not that many tourists. However, this paradise is in danger. Just at this moment there is a road being finished leading to Muang Ngoi. Once this and the provision of constant electricity is done, the Minibuses will hit the town and tourism will explode. Same probably goes for these villages near by. Of course this development will benefit the locals but it leaves a bitter feeling to know that these places will undergo some dramatic changes soon. I am glad that I got to see it before all of this sets in.