To Muang Ngoi and Back

I was ready to leave Vang Vieng. Though peaceful enough, my feet were itching plenty and it was time to move on.  My direction was north on a 7 hour bus ride set through a glorious wild backdrop of cliffs and steep hills to the ancient former capital of Luang Prabang.  I wasn’t entirely sure how long I would stay there, only that I would stay as long as I felt relaxed and unhustled. Luang Prabang is a beautiful little city with a small spit of a peninsula that acts almost like a centre separated by two rivers, the Mekong and Nam Ou. You can see why it attracts tourists from all over, with its pretty streets and houses and evening market where you don’t feel hassled to buy as you perhaps would in other Asian cities.

I stayed for two days, enough to visit a beautiful local waterfall and a day of sitting in cafes doing a bit of writing and drinking the odd beerlao, which is probably one of the best beers I tasted. I had itchy feet again however and there were too many tourists for my liking so again I set off North for a tiny village of Muang Ngoi that I’d heard about from a French guy I met whilst rock-climbing.

To get there I had to take a 3 hour mini bus ride to a small town, similar to Vang Vieng, called Nong Kiaw. This again was another event, with me having to change bus twice, eventually arriving at Nong Kiaw with my bags on the roof of another vehicle……….I then took a small skiff boat ride that took an hour and a half to my destination of Muang Ngoi.  This was quite an experience; the scenery is of incredible natural beauty and we would regularly glide past countless buffalo grazing by the waters edge whilst villagers would be conducting their normal daily business fishing without casting too much of a curious eye at our boat of pasty tourists.

The skiff eventually docked on a small beach and at the foot of the village of Muang Ngoi. It was pretty breathtaking. The village itself is tiny, flanked by hills showing little sign that much exists there apart from a couple of bars and restaurants to cater for those who were out to seek its secret tranquility.  Whilst it is noted for its beauty in the Lonely Planet, coming here is not one of the must do’s on its list but it was clear on my arrival the place had a magical backward quality to it.

A gentle middle-aged woman found me meandering down the ‘main drag’ with my kit and guitar in tow and asked if I wanted somewhere to stay with a river view. I said I’d take a look.  I followed her down a side street, through something that resembled a farmyard, with ducks, roosters and dogs all clucking chaotically in the midday heat.  My lodgings were humble; 40,000 kip a night (3-4 quid), no fan or a/c, no internet and electricity came on between 6.30-930 in the evening.  My mosquito net had hundreds of holes in it and one big one which I eventually managed to close by twisting the net continually until the hole was no more, binding it with my Help for Heroes wristband.  There was a slight smell of BO and my bathroom had no washbasin and no flush for the loo but I wasn’t too fussed and it was all entirely manageable. I said I’d take it. I then spent the rest of the day in my hammock on the front porch, drifting in and out of sleep and simply watching the current of the river head south.

I awoke the next morning at around 6am to the noise of thunder, cracking furiously before the onset of a heavy downpour of rain that continued until about 9;30 that morning. From about 7, I sat on my terrace, again in my hammock and surveying the magnificent view of the Nam Ou river which sits at the bottom of a set of peaks, hills, mountains that were shrouded in the morning haze.  This range of peaks dominates the area and continues further northward.  Quite spectacular.  It was a place of such tranquil beauty and yet seemed to retain a ghostly feel to it, especially that morning.  What completely transfixed me was a cloud that almost resembled an old sailing ship lazily saunter past down the river valley, almost as if it was on patrol. I thought it may have been no more than 75m from the ground. Only in such a place can one see such things.

I stayed for 4 days and almost constantly the place was in wonderful song, from crickets, birds and roosters, to the soothing hum of the boats chugging up and down the river.  I didn’t really do much but read, write, snooze, play some guitar, eat, swim in the river and let the local children use me as a diving platform and always wait for a sweaty nights sleep.  During the evenings I would join other travelers for something to eat, usually a rice dish accompanied with either a Lao Lao (lethal lethal moonshine) cocktail or a delicious beerlao. The former gives a hell of a hangover even with little consumption…….

I was also there for a novel spectacle of the village gaining electricity for the first time. I watched as locals gathered around a man with interest putting up a short wooden pylon and attach one of many boxes that went up that day. It was a privilege to see the fascination and it is clear Muang Ngoi is on the brink of change. Almost in tandem, a figure from Vang Vieng appeared, swaying on the street shirtless and swigging beer at 3pm on my last afternoon. The beat, inebriated American was somehow back to bother me, the village and travelers.  Things came to a head later that evening. In a restaurant full of Europeans, he staggered in smoking, demanding beer defiantly from the poor frightened local teenage girl who was there helping out in the family business.  Looks of disgust and amazement resounded from the floor as he then flicked his half-smoked cigarette with disdain at the bamboo wall.  At this point my blood boiled and I stood up and confronted him.  He then left, only to come back later, spitting expletives, again shirtless and mouthing off his contempt for the world.  He was so pissed that when he came back in, I’d returned from the loo and obviously not recognizing me, thought I was one of the staff and asked for a beer.  I then told him to get out and that he wasn’t having any more beer.  He turned his back, called me a cocksucker, lambasted us all for taking off our flipflops (as is custom on entering any dwelling in Laos), before another Brit had decided he’d also had enough and together we chased him off down the road. I decided then and there I would leave the next morning, my haven of peace ruined and ashamed by the lack of respect shown by a troubled alcoholic westerner.   In hindsight, what was reassuring, was to see the football team of Frenchmen sitting down behind their rice and pastis saying nothing. Plus ca change…..

As I write, I am currently back in Luang Prabang, soaking wet head to toe and covered in paint. The city is on the eve of celebrating Laos New Year and though it doesn’t start until tomorrow the festivities are already starting. The streets are filled with the vibration of this joyous people, armed with charming smiles, water-hoses, buckets, and supersoakers, ready to soak anyone on foot, bicycle, or motorbike who comes in the path. April is one of the hottest months and pouring water on people commemorates (i think) cooling down the buddha with water. Well, this is the translation I’ve been given. In any case, it is refreshing given the heat and everyone, tourists included are encouraged to take part.  I myself, now that I am officially a civilian as of yesterday, have refrained from buying a watergun and so I am at the mercy of any person with a water-chucking device. I’ve been absolutely hammered.

Tomorrow I fly to Bangkok for a day, and then on to Bali.  Laos has been wonderful, delighted me with its scenery and people and my writing is going well so far. I have finished 3 songs and have another 5 ideas in tow so things are flowing.

Thank you for reading and I hope all are well.

Antony x

Music I’ve been digging last week or :  Festival – by Sigur Ros,  Lemonworld – by The National

Reading: On the Road – Jack Kerouac


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. manda2212
    May 06, 2013 @ 20:36:38

    Sounds like you are having a super time ! Take care Auntie Mo xx


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