After two phenomenal days spent in Muang Ngoi, it was time for us to start heading south. Our visa would be expiring in 11 days and and we had to get all the way down to Cambodia before that.
We took the boat back to Nong Khiaw in the morning and decided that we couldn’t resist staying one more day, so we walked across the bridge and booked a bungalow for the night.
After dropping off our things, we decided the day would be well spent hiking up the steep trail to the Nong Khiaw Mountain Viewpoint; for what promised to be a spectacular 360 degree view of Nong Khiaw and its surroundings.
The next hour and a half was sweaty trekking up steep inclines and steps through dense jungle and bamboo forests.
Every once in a while, there would be a clearing in the trees and we could get a peak of what awaited us at the top of the mountain.
We pressed on and on until we finally made it to the very top, and it really did not disappoint!
The view from the top made the difficult journey seem like nothing and we were happy to spend half an hour up there, enjoying the scenery while we regained our strength.
In some ways, the way back down the mountain was even harder than the way up due to the risk of sliding. On the particularly steep parts, there were ropes on the side of the trail that you could use to brace yourself, but sometimes the pebbles underneath our feet would start rolling while we were standing on them. We lost our footing more than a couple of times, but we made it to the bottom unscathed.
Once we were back down in Nong Khiaw, we crossed the bridge just in time for sunset, before a delicious curry dinner at Alex Restaurant and the comforts of our bungalow.
We were really happy to squeeze one more day in Nong Khiaw before making our journey down through Laos. Thus far, the Northern villages had been our favorite part of the country, but we were also excited to get down South!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
About 25 km north of Luang Prabang lie the Pak Ou Caves, two caves that are full of hundreds and hundreds of Buddha statues. To visit them, you can take a tuk tuk, a boat, or do what we did and rent a moto for the day.
We knew that the route we were taking was going to be lots of dirt paths and some major roadways with traffic, so we opted for a manual motorbike in hopes it would make for an easier journey. Off roading on a manual motorbike we’ve never driven before? Sounds like a great idea, right?
The trip started out a little jerky but once Jojo got the hang of the gear shifting, we were cruising along just fine. Then we reached the beginning of the dirt road.
Bumpy does not even begin describe this road. We were flying six inches off the seat as we made our way around hairpin turns and up and down dangerously steep inclines. While it was admittedly terrifying and painful, it was also absolutely thrilling! We were alone on the road apart from a few locals whizzing by us (and probably laughing at our pathetic attempt at driving on this road.)
We came to a particularly precipitous incline and started our ascent in second gear, but we were moving too slow and about half way up the hill, the bike slowed to a halt. When the bike stopped, Jojo switched to first gear, but he was still holding the throttle all the way open.The bike tried to fly forward, but our weight pulled it back so that instead of taking us up the hill, the front wheel flew up in the air and threw me backwards onto my back. Time slowed, and I watched in horror as Jojo and the motorbike stood straight up and began descending toward me. I saw it before it happened: me breaking Joe’s fall, and Joe breaking the bike’s fall. It would have been a grisly event if Joe hadn’t thrown his weight forward at the last second, re-grounding the wheels and saving us both from being crushed by the bike. We made it out with a few scrapes and bruises, but we were thankfully unhurt otherwise. Not to mention, our tablet that I landed on top of, and our camera that was in my hands during the fall suffered no damage–we seriously lucked out!
The rest of the way was mercifully uneventful. The roads were still treacherous, but Jojo had gotten more acclimated with the bike after our close call and we enjoyed the beautiful scenery as we passed by.
Finally we came to a village across the river from the caves. We parked our bike and hired a boat to take us across for 26,000kip.
When we got to the other side, we got off the boat and walked up the steps to the first cave. They call it a cave, but it was less of a cave, and more of an overhang–and as promised, it was crammed with Buddha statues of every style and posture!
After exploring the lower cave, we climbed the stairs up to the upper cave. It was filled with more Buddha statues and went a little deeper than the lower one. It wasn’t lit up at all, so we had to use our flashlights to explore its depths and find the rest of the statues.
When we were finished with the caves, we got back on the boat that took us to the village where our bike was parked. We decided to take Route 13 back to the city rather than the back roads, this time! We made it back to Luang Prabang in good time, but we were really nervous that we would be held responsible for the significant amount of scratches the bike had acquired during our trip to the caves. We’d heard a lot of horror stories regarding motorbike rental in Luang Prabang, and feared we might be demanded to fork over hundreds of dollars for the damages. If they noticed the scratches, they didn’t say anything about it and we were relieved to be off the hook! We finished the day with another dinner of Lao barbecue, grateful for our day of adventure and minimal injury.