Muang Ngoi Neua, 10-12 April 2009
10.04.2009 - 12.04.2009
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Once in the Laos hinterland everything shifts down a few gears, and Lao time soon becomes our best friend. It's been an arduous journey but at least our driver wasn't the typical 'homicidal maniac on speed' that haunt the chaotic streets of Vietnam, duly taking his time skirting along the dusty gravel road that fringes the mountain ranges of the far Laotian North. Just as well, judging from the few burnt-out truck wrecks that solemnly but staunchly resist the ages of time at the bottom of the ravine. Besides, the scenery here is way too fabulous to rush through.
Primary rain forest chocka with lush vines and branches that clamber their way down the cliffs. This is Phongsali province, one of Laos' most remote which few roads, none tarmac, penetrate. Home to about two dozen ethnic minorities who inhabit its undulated hills. Many of the hill tribes remain firmly animist and shamanist, believing in all manner of house spirits or ghosts. The clock wound down centuries, their encounters with the West are few. Though driving past a 'poppy replantation reserve' sign we figure the H'mong must also be among them. Historically opium plantations have always thrived here, being their prime cash crop but by all appearances it seems to make way for the next best thing - leafy tea plantations. At least if the government would have you believe! Anyone fancy a cup of Earl Grey? Aside from a brief lunch stop in an otherwise non-descript village where we subsist on watery noodles with chicken ass bits, the journey trudges on uneventfully otherwise.
Until several hours later, we get to Muang Khua - focal point of our cross border trip and end of the line for now. A thriving trade town with a rather split personality bearing the name of the Nam Ou river. Wooden shacks sell noodle snacks, car and bike parts, seemingly indicating that not many peasants plan to stop here for long. A thoroughfare more than anything else we still somehow manage to grow a beard while our attempts to get out unfurl at snails pace.
Chartering a boat to Muang Ngoi for $80 means we have to resort to pooling our resources and try to up the size of our crew substantially. Many long bus journeys have made us as patient as the monks themselves and finally we get together Bettany 'the talkative American', Simon the German 'wannabe' hitcher, Canadians Brent & Sierra, and a Belgian couple who cannot seem to make up their mind as to their plans. Ultimately though, we reach cohesion and head off. Ten of us strong plus packs and gear, our boatmen pushes off into the current and revs the car engine contraption of his feeble long-tail.
We're in for a 4 hour sojourn downriver to a picturesque riverine village Muang Ngoi Neua, passing some of the most superb rainforest on the way, interspersed by mud-shack villages and fishermen who attempt to pawn off their catch of the day. Our boatman came prepared, scale, knives and all - some good deals to be had here!
Our first encounter with Lao village life. A one street affair stretches out in front of us, flanked by bamboo thatch huts raised on stilts along the riverbed. Some of which employ cluster bomb casings as makeshift fences or vege gardens - yep, this must be Laos. True, there is also quite a few falang guesthouses and the ubiquitous 'sunshine' resto franchise around so perhaps it's not the most rural village.
But then again these niggles are momentous and quickly brushed aside as the town, hemmed in by steep mountains on all sides is undeniably beautiful while relaxing by the river has a lure not to underestimate - don't tempt me! With little else to do but people watching, napping and swinging in hammocks its ample opportunity to adjust to Lao time. The infamous sticky falang roll also leaves lingering memories in shape of peanut butter, jam, sticky rice and sesame seeds which stick to the roof of your mouth.
Alana and Bettany go exploring to visit the caves and a picturesque remote village where animals roam free and the gardens are caged up - a novel idea! We've found our rural village and soak up the atmosphere at a peaceful resto overlooking the mountains. We snooze in the hammocks while we wait an hour or so for some buffalo salad (Laap) - maybe they had to go catch one first?
Leaving the town is another challenging proposition with half of the town's fleet sunk after last night's storm. By far the worst we've had here and even sent the locals running with their pots and pans (a preemptive warning should you need one in the future). At least our bungalow held up, just, and didn't slide down into the river. Which is more than what could be said of some other places. Still, the carnage is surprisingly temporary as soon crews that consists of half the village bail out most of their fleet, allowing us to set sail for Luang Prabang to celebrate Laos New Year. Hooray!