Saturday June 6, 2009
Taking time out
By LIZ PRICE
Chill out in peaceful Nong Khiaw or explore the outdoors in Muang Ngoi, Laos.
I was sitting on the balcony of the coffee shop mesmerised by the scenery and thinking of nothing in particular. I cleared my mind of all thoughts and just concentrated on absorbing the beautiful view. The wide river flowed below me, buffaloes wallowed and boats chugged past.
I was in Nong Khiaw, a peaceful village bisected by the Nam Ou River, in a gorgeous setting surrounded by limestone mountains and caves. The main street is basically a row of houses, guesthouses and small shops ending at a school.
Life is laid-back and calm in Nong Khiaw and Muang Ngoi. — LIZ PRICE
Located in Luang Prabang province in northern Laos (Lao PDR), Nong Khiaw is a small district and a popular stopover for tourists. It’s a 2 ½ hour drive north by car from the World Heritage town of Luang Prabang, or a six-hour boat ride.
There’s not much to do except sit and stare at the scenery, or go for a walk, boat ride or watch the fishermen. Discovering the area on foot is great as you experience life in rural Laos. You greet everyone with “sabaidy” which is hello, and they usually respond with a smile. There are kids playing and animals wandering around.
The children spend time on the sandy areas by the river and love to give flowers to passing tourists. But there is a catch as they then ask for a pen, candy, bag or kip which is the local currency. Another drawback of tourism is that the restaurants really cater to Western tourists who want baguettes and pancakes, Nescafe and French wine, rather than the local sticky rice and Lao coffee.
Near the bridge is a small temple with images of hell. If you walk along the road leading out of town, you come across some stunning scenery as the road passes between two limestone hills. On the right, a sign says “Welcome to Historical Pathok Cave”. The cave entrance in the cliff is visible from the road and you have to walk through the rice paddies to reach it and then climb a bamboo ladder.
There is still a huge problem of landmines and bombs left over from the Vietnam War, and many parts of Laos have not yet been cleared, so make sure you stick to well used paths.
There are other trails in the village and you can get information from the restaurants. If you are feeling energetic, you can trek up the mountains. If you plan to do a long walk, be sure to take a torch in case you get caught in the dark. Electricity supply is still a problem and is generally on from 6pm to 10pm. Although all the guesthouses now have light, some only have it outside the rooms.
The river taxis are mostly moored on the downriver side of the village. On the upper side are small dwellings and guesthouses alongside the river. The speedboats are becoming an intrusion into the peace of the village. They cater for tourists going to Luang Prabang and Muang Khua.
It’s fun to go on a boat up or down the river, but be warned that the fares are rather expensive. Some boat trips require a minimum number of people, so this increases the cost if there are not many passengers. It may be more pleasant to take a slow boat, such as the one upriver to Muang Khua which takes six hours.
If you want a shorter trip, take the boat upriver to Muang Ngoi. This is a pleasant one hour ride, passing some nice scenery and small villages. The riverboats are long and narrow with hard wooden single seats on either side of a central aisle.
The longtail motorboat precariously powers up the rapids and you can feast your eyes on limestone cliffs and mountains dripping with foliage. If you are lucky you may see elephants working on the riverbanks.
Once you get to the village, spend a pleasant few hours strolling around. Muang Ngoi is only accessible by foot or boat as it is surrounded by steep hills, so is delightfully devoid of cars and motorbikes. There is one red dirt main road that runs parallel to the river through town.
The long main street is lined with palm trees, guesthouses and cafés for backpackers. At the end are some brick steps and the remains of a temple destroyed by bombing in the Second Indochina War. At the other end of the village is the main temple, Wat Neua.
Although only recently discovered by the backpacker travel crowd, Muang Ngoi already boasts plentiful cheap accommodation and restaurants. Electricity powered by small hydroelectric generators in the river is only on between 6pm and 10pm.
It’s great to lie in a hammock watching kids play in the river and parents watering their riverside vegetable gardens. When the sun sets behind a limestone peak, the frogs and geckos begin their nightly chorus.
Muang Ngoi has become a centre for trekking and other activities which include birding and caving. There are some caves along a tributary valley of the Nam Ou. One cave has a stream coming out and there are fish in the water. As with many caves in Laos, this one has a net stretched across the entrance to catch bats and swifts as they leave.
If you stay longer, you can do a two-day, community-based trek. On this, you can enjoy the nature and interact with the local people, knowing that you are contributing to the sustainable development of tourism in Laos.
From Nong Khiaw, you can go by bus to Vieng Thong and then on to Nam Noen, and from here you can get to Phonsavan to see the magnificent Plain of Jars. It’s certainly a stunning part of Laos and well worth a visit.
From Luang Prabang, take the bus (three hours) or boat (seven hours) along the Mekong and Ou River.
Buses leave Luang Prabang’s Northern Bus in the morning. The river trip is more interesting but is more expensive. Tickets are sold at various travel agents in Luang Prabang, and boats leave from the pier in the morning.
Boat departures depend on the number of passengers. In the low season, you may have to charter the boat.
From Nong Khiaw, there are bus connections to Udom Xai, Muang Vieng Kham, Sam Neua and Luang Nam Tha. But public transport heading east is scarce.
ACCOMMODATION There are basic guesthouses and cafés in the town. Make sure you have enough Lao kip with you as credit cards, travellers cheques and foreign currency are not accepted, although one or two guesthouses may change US dollars.