Muang Ngoi – The Northern Villages of Laos

Muang Ngoi Neua is a tiny riverside village even further north from Nong Khiaw.  To get there, we took a lovely one-hour boat ride up the Nam Ou River, passing water buffalo and fishing villagers surrounded by beautiful jungle and limestone karsts.

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Jojo on the boat from Nong Khiaw to Muang Ngoi
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Some passing water buffalo
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Villagers fishing in the river

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Once off the boat, we found a private bungalow overlooking the river at Nicksa’s, equipped with a mosquito net, a private bathroom, and two hammocks in the front.  Once we dropped our packs off, we walked along the main dirt road of the tiny town, populated by about 700.

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The main road of Muang Ngoi

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We chanced upon a sign pointing to the Tham Kang Cave and decided to follow.  We followed the dirt road for a little less than an hour, stopping now and then to admire the surrounding scenery.

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On our way to Tham Kang Cave
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Silly sign at the entrance

The Tham Kang Cave was used as a bomb shelter during the Vietnam War era, protecting people from the nearby villages.  The cave went reasonably deep and we spent some time exploring the crystalline rock formations until we could go no further.

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Tham Kang Cave
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A small grotto inside
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The mouth of the cave
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Exploring the inside of the cave
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Hard to see in the picture, but those structures were glittering with crystals!

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As we turned to make our way back, we quickly realized that the way out was not as obvious as the way in.  It took us nearly twice as long to get out of the cave because we kept getting lost and stuck at dead ends.  At this point, a group of four other travelers joined in our quest to escape the cave and after some time and only a brief moment of anxiety, we finally found our way out!

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Terrifying creature we found while we were lost (about 3-4 inches long)
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We made it out!

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After bonding over getting lost in the cave, the six of us decided to continue onward to the nearby village of Huay Bo.  We walked and walked and walked through vast farms and dirt roads, all the while surrounded by the stunning feats of nature.

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Walking to Huay Bo Village

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A helpful sign… (cross river?)
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Yes, this is what the sign meant.

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The village of Huay Bo is teeny tiny, with a population of just over 200, and looks sort of like one big farm.  We explored the village, waving to people and watching the children play together.  Similar to Nong Khiaw, some of the kids in this village had some serious ‘tudes, which was really hilarious at times!

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The school in Huay Bo Village
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Some sassy kids

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After stopping for a beer and a sit break, we made our way back to Muang Ngoi as the sun was going down.  The sky lit up in beautiful reds and purples, illuminating the landscape in a way that was truly magical.

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Walking back to Muang Ngoi
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Gorgeous sky at dusk

Then it got dark, and then it got really dark.  After walking with our flashlights for a while, we decided to turn them off to look at the stars.  It was pitch black, without a hint of light pollution, and there were hundreds of thousands stars to be seen when we looked up at the sky.  We stood there for a long time, to the soundtrack of a hundred thousand chirping crickets.

We were starving when we finally made it back to Muang Ngoi, and stopped at an Indian restaurant called Meen for dinner before heading back to our bungalow for the night.

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The next morning, we woke up intending to take advantage of the endless relaxation to be had in Muang Ngoi.  We got breakfast at a nearby restaurant, then came back to our bungalow to lay in our hammocks and sip Beer Lao, read, and enjoy the stunning view across the river.

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The view from our bungalow
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Doesn’t get much better than this. 🙂

After hanging out and relaxing all day, we went to Riverside Restaurant for dinner and a drink.  The restaurant was also right next to the river and lit up with colorful lanterns.

Muang Ngoi was one of the places where we would have been happy to linger forever, and it was really difficult to leave.  However, we had an epic journey ahead of us and needed to get back to Nong Khiaw in the morning, so we spent the rest of the evening enjoying our last few hours in the tranquil town before retiring back to our bungalow.

2/8

Breakfast: 54,000kip

Boat to Muang Ngoi: 50,000kip

Lunch (Nicksa’s): 35,000kip

Water/Beer: 15,000kip

Cave/Village Entrance: 20,000kip

Beer: 15,000kip

Dinner (Meen): 95,000kip

Nicksa’s Bungalow: 60,000kip

Total Spent: 344,000kip ($42.36 USD)

2/9

Breakfast: 28,000kip

Riverside Restaurant: 123,000kip

2-Water: 10,000kip

Beer: 10,000kip

Nicksa’s Bungalow: 60,000kip

Total Spent: 231,000kip ($28.45 USD)

Luang Prabang – Relaxing in the City

We took a sleeper bus from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang which might have been one of the worst decisions we have made thus far.  Firstly, the sleeper bus cost us more than a day bus would have (which means we didn’t actually save any money by not paying for accommodation), and this sleeper bus made the sleeper buses in Vietnam seem like a luxury.  Instead of getting our own reclining seats, we were both cramped together in a space on the floor, about the size of a child’s bed, with nothing but two blankets and a couple of dirty pillows.  After attempting to sleep in positions that would make a chiropractor’s eyes bleed, we finally made it to Luang Prabang at about 6:30 in the morning.

After negotiating a tuk tuk down to 15,000kip per person into the city center, we wandered the streets exhausted, looking for reasonably priced accommodation.  After going from guesthouse to guesthouse, another traveler approached us and told us that he too had tried to find accommodation in the price range we were hoping for, only to find that everywhere in the area was at least 120,000kip for a double room.  By Western standards, 130,000kip ($16) is not much for a double room, but by comparison it’s quite a lot more than most budget accommodations in Laos and more than most places we stayed in Vietnam.  We relented and booked a room in Central Backpackers Hostel (which is not central at all), assuring ourselves that the nice room and free breakfast made it worth it.

We decided that we deserved a nap after a sleepless night, and woke up around noonish.  We walked to the center of town where several stalls are set up next to each other selling sandwiches, crepes, and fruit shakes.  All of the stalls sell the exact same things and they are there every day.  A couple sandwiches and a banana shake later, we wandered around the city to get an idea of what it had to offer.

Luang Prabang is sleepy and laid back like Vientiane, but the scenery is admittedly much better.  It sits at the confluence of the Mekong and the Nam Khan river, so many of the guesthouses and restaurants sit next to the water.  Additionally, the city itself is lush with trees and jungle plants which add to the charming atmosphere.

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Monks across the river

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We headed to a local cafe with the intention of using the internet, (only to find that it didn’t work) but we got some treats anyway.  We decided to hang out in the common area of our hostel to do some internet surfing instead which ended up working out much better…until the city wide blackout!  It happened out of no where and no one seemed to be perturbed by it.  Everything was normal, then all of a sudden we were sitting in complete and utter darkness.  It was actually kind of exciting!  Plus, the power came back on after 20-30 minutes so it wasn’t a real issue.

For dinner we decided to try a place called Lao Lao Garden.  After walking through the main entrance, we found ourselves outside again in their enormous garden patio surrounded by trees and plants.  It literally felt like we were sitting in the middle of the jungle even though we were right in the middle of the city.  This is where we got our first chance to try traditional Lao barbecue.  Our waiter lifted the center tile of our table to reveal a small pit where he put a cement block filled with burning coals.  After setting a hot plate shaped like an upside down bowl on top, he poured soup in the ring around the plate and set a big chunk of animal fat in top. He put baskets of raw meat and vegetables on the table next to us and instructed us to start cooking!

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Surprise hole in the table where the coals go

First you put vermicelli noodles and vegetables in the soup, then set the meat on top to cook.  It was a little time consuming but also quite fun.  We were given buffalo, chicken, and pork along with a large assortment of veggies.  The food was decent but what really got us was the peanut tamarind sauce they serve on the side…yum!

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Big hunk of fat in the middle in to grease the hot plate!

After dinner we walked across the street and down a small path to a well known backpacker hangout called Utopia.  After getting a couple of Beer Laos at the bar, we sat down in the center space where they have a bunch of mats and lounging pillows on the floor to hang out on.  The place was really large; it also had a sand volleyball pit, a deck overlooking the river, and scattered tables all in a jungle like setting.  They also played some half way decent down tempo music (for the most part) which was a welcome change from most bars in Southeast Asia!  We had a lot of fun here, and ended up hanging out with a big group of people from Brazil, Italy, the UK and a dozen other countries.  Unlike in Vang Vieng, we had the sense (and we were just tired) to leave before going over the top, and called it a night around 11:30; a relaxing but good start to our stay in Luang Prabang!

Sandwiches: 45,000kip ($5.54 USD)

Shake: 10,000kip ($1.23 USD)

Water: 5,000kip ($0.62 USD)

2-Beer: 20,000kip ($2.46 USD)

Joma Cafe: 30,000kip ($3.69 USD)

Lao Lao Garden: 123,000kip ($15.14 USD)

Utopia: 50,000kip ($6.15 USD)

Accommodation: 130,000kip ($16 USD)

Total Spent: 413,000kip ($50.83 USD)