Thursday, June 18, 2009

SE Asia Trip, Part 7 - Carry on up the Nam Ou

04/03/09 - 08/03/09

Further north of Luang Prabang, along the Nam Ou river, nestles the small town of Nong Kiaow. Even further upriver lies Muang Ngoi. And when I say upriver, I mean it. You can't reach Muang Ngoi by road, only by boat. Nong Kiaow is reachable by road now, but you can also catch a slow boat up from Luang Prabang.

I decided to take the minibus up to Nong Kiaow and then boat the rest of my journey. Judging by the amount of backpackers arriving into Nong Kiaow late in the afternoon and struggling to find rooms, it is probably a good idea to get to Nong Kiaow earlier - I arrived on the bus at around midday, and had no problems finding somewhere to stay.

Nong Kiaow is really two villages, joined by the bridge across the Nam Ou. I headed over the bridge to the east side where I found a cheap and basic bamboo hut (I think this was CT Guesthouse, otherwise known as Pha Noy Guesthouse).

View of the bridge from my balcony.

Some more bamboo huts - there were a lot to choose from!

View across the river to Nong Kiaow - you can make out the boat landing if you look really closely.

During the afternoon I wandered down to the beach below the bridge, where kids were swimming and a few fishermen were working. I stumbled across a female tourist topless sunbathing (though she was lying on her stomach). A few kids came by and started staring and laughing about it - I'm not sure she realised how much of a spectacle she was making of herself. It was really quite culturally insensitive of her to show that much flesh, particularly as this is a fairly rural, traditional area, not some resort. Lao people even swim fully clothed.

Nong Kiaow is a very quiet peaceful spot. I know a lot of travellers come through here, but honestly they must not stick around long - I barely saw any walking around the town. I had a good wander around the dusty streets, taking in the stunning scenery and chatting to the gaggles of local kids.

The gorgeous view of the Nong Kiaow boat landing from the bridge.

The next day I set off on the 3km-ish walk to some nearby caves where guerrillas and local people sheltered during the Indochina War. It's a pleasant walk, though I wouldn't recommend walking it in the heat of the day as there wasn't much shade.

A young boy was waiting at the makeshift ticket office to take my entrance fee. I asked him if he went to school and he told me he did sometimes. A short walk over a bridge and through some paddy fields brought me to a rickety bamboo staircase leading up to the mouth of the cave - halfway up the karst cliff.

The young fee collector.

I wonder if this existed when the Lao people hid there?? I doubt it!

Cool cave formations.

The cave was massive, probably could have fit a few hundred people in there.

There was another cave a little further along the path which I thought I would visit next. However on my way out of this cave I was accosted by a very smelly, dirty Lao man, who desperately wanted to tell me about the other cave. I told him I already knew about it thanks, and headed off in the right direction. The man started following me, really too close for comfort (he smelled REALLY bad) and I was getting a bit nervous and annoyed so I kept stopping and taking photos in the hopes he would pass me by. But no luck for a while until I stopped by a stile and he climbed over it. Then I quickly legged it back the way I'd come! Missed out on the second cave, but really my alarm bells were ringing that that guy was dodgy. I heard from another traveller later that she had had the same issue and when she reached the cave the man had confronted her and tried to kiss her and told her he loved her. When she attempted to leave, another man appeared and she had to give them money before she could get away. Not sure if it was the same guy, but I assume so. Beware if you are a female visiting on your own!

Paddy fields and karst mountain scenery. Lovely!

Sunset from the bridge - I lingered on this bridge a lot!

Nong Kiaow is a great place to chill for a few days, but there isn't an awful lot to do. There are a few treks advertised in town, including one to some waterfalls I would have liked to do, if I could have found anyone in the office to talk to me about it. The other problem that I have had continually on this trip is that because I'm on my own everything costs more unless I can find people willing to do these activities with me. So I'll be saving that trip for next time, hopefully I'll be back with a friend (or sister, hint hint)!

Of course, if you can't cope without cellphone reception and Internet, you probably won't like Nong Kiaow, and Muang Ngoi even less, if you can't do without electricity! But then you probably shouldn't be in Laos in the first place!

The next day I took the long tail boat up to Muang Ngoi, about an hour's ride up river. The scenery was absolutely gorgeous, I can see why people say this boat ride should not be missed. I'm glad I chose this route instead of the oversubscribed Huay Xai to Luang Prabang one.

Cows enjoying a swim!

Muang Ngoi from the boat.

I met three girls on the boat who had been travelling together for a few days and they invited me to find a bungalow with them in Muang Ngoi. We found bargain basic huts with hammocks for 30,000 kip (so 15,000 each for two people - $3NZ) - the cheapest accommodation I had in Laos.

Our rustic little hut :)

Beautiful sunset - always seem to be able to find one of these in Laos!

My time in Muang Ngoi was mostly spent relaxing by the river and reading. Again there are a few walks and tours you can do, but really the nicest thing is just to relax and enjoy the surroundings. Muang Ngoi is a very quiet place - there is just one main street which leads to nowhere, and no motorbikes or cars. The only noise comes from the generators which kick in for a few hours in the evening for a bit of electricity.

Whilst we were there a big delivery of Beer Lao arrived by boat. It was dropped off in large crates at the bottom of the boat landing. We came across a handful of women who were busy carrying these heavy crates up the steep steps to the village, whilst the men just looked on. I firmly believe nothing would get done in this country if it was left up to the men - the women seriously do all the hard work. The women were carrying 2 crates at a time - one on their backs tied on with a sling around their foreheads! Seriously worried about neck and spinal injuries in these women! We gave them a hand and carried up a few crates ourselves, much to the amusement of the local men.

The beach where I relaxed and went swimming.

An enterprising young Lao lady called Penny with a cute little baby had set up some bamboo sunbeds and umbrellas, which were free if you bought a drink or two. Bargain, Beer Lao and relaxing on the beach! I met a few other foreigners here, including an older American couple who had sold up their lives back home and were travelling the world. It was inspiring to find the adventurous spirit can still live on through years of marriage and grand kids etc.

The bustling main street of Muang Ngoi...

Me and the girls at one of our favourite meal spots.

After a couple of days of R&R up north, I felt it was time I headed back to Luang Prabang. One of the girls I'd met came with me, while the other two stayed a bit longer in Muang Ngoi. We caught the long tail boat back to Nong Kiaow, and were then switched to a slightly larger slow boat for the trip to Luang Prabang. Unfortunately because it was the dry season, the river was quite low. This meant there were a couple of times when the boat got stuck and we had to get out and walk!

Walking along the riverside while the boat was navigated through the shallows.

Wading back out to the boat.

The boat ride was pretty long and cramped, but the scenery was lovely to look at. The nice thing about boat journeys is that there is always a slight breeze so you don't have to deal with the sticky heat! We arrived in Luang Prabang at around 5pm and I headed to another Guesthouse I had been recommended that was slightly cheaper than where I had stayed before.

I really enjoyed my time up north and in retrospect I probably could have spent a bit longer up there. Still there is always next time! Hopefully the area will still be as tranquil as it was when I visited, but I'm a little doubtful. I heard the Chinese were planning to build a dam further upstream that would devastate the Nam Ou and this area of Laos. Let's hope that never comes to pass.

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