Photo by Jochen Westermann
YOU FLOAT DOWN the Nam Ou, a large, clear river flowing through the tropical mountains of northern Lao PDR.
A light breeze cools your face and tranquility resonates in your bones. The holy city of Luang Prabang was magical, but now you are leaving the luxury hotels and package tourists behind, venturing deeper into the heart of Indochina.
Village children play by the edge of the water and wave and smile as you slowly float by. Other villagers wade in the river, casting silver fishing nets.
Your boat catches sand by a landing dock and a shocking sound of silence overwhelms you: no motorbikes, no cars – not a trace of man-made clatter.
Welcome to the village of Muang Ngoi Neua.
Muang Ngoi Neua is a day’s boat ride north of Luang Prabang. The riverside village consists of a single path that is only 100 meters long. The word ‘path’ must be used instead of ‘street’ because there are no vehicles or bicycles in the village.
There is generator powered electricity for a few hours in the evening, but even then it’s used sparingly. It’s precisely this lack of modern technology that gives Muang Ngoi Neua its charm and appeal.
What to do without electricity? Some travelers head straight into the jungle to follow hiking paths that snake between the mountains, but many others crash into their hammocks and lounge away the days. Muang Ngoi Neua exemplifies the word “chill”.
The people of Lao are widely regarded as some of the most friendly and easy-going people in the world, and Muang Ngoi Neua locals are even friendlier than folks in the larger towns.
They are accustomed to hosting travelers, but are still eager to chat you up over a bottle of Beerlao or shots of lao lao (sticky rice whiskey). Most locals are enthusiastic about practicing their English, while others just pass time Lao-style: “take it easy, no problems, same same.”
Sights and Activities
Two days is plenty of time to enjoy the village and explore its surroundings, but many travelers fall in love with the tranquility of Muang Ngoi Neua and stay for weeks.
An excellent hiking path originates on the south side of the village. Follow the path by the school and after about 5km you’ll come across Tham Kang (Middle Cave) and Tham Pha Kaeo (Holy Image Cave). The caves extend deep into the rocks, so bring a torch and watch your head.
For the more adventurous, a narrowing hiking path continues deep into unsettled wilderness and winds between soaring mountains. The path splits at least twice, so be sure to get a map from the village, bring a compass, or hire a local guide if you plan on venturing more than 5km past the caves.
If you’re interested in the 130 foot waterfalls of Tat Mok and the swimming holes they crash into, you’ll need to find a local guide with a boat. Fear not, however, as the guides will find you! It’s a half-day journey to go and return as it requires a short boat ride and a hike into the wilderness to the falls.
Haggling with your guide is expected, but 50,000 Kip (about $5) per person is a typical fee. Don’t forget your swimming trunks! Locals and guesthouse owners are happy to arrange other various river activities like tubing, kayaking, and fishing – simply ask and they’ll set you up.
Lao Lao and Malevolent Roosters
One lazy afternoon a local teen convinced me to buy a bottle of lao lao for 10,000 Kip (~$1), which I considered a pretty good deal. He then led me over to his family’s shop and proceeded to dunk a used water bottle into a rusting 30-gallon vat of moonshine.
“Hum,” I mused, “this can’t be good.” Later that night I presented my bounty to a crowd of fellow travelers and locals huddling around a bonfire and was surprised to find that my lao lao was actually better than the labeled glass bottle variety.
Please be forewarned: even good lao lao is not very good. It’s certainly a matter of opinion, but most Westerners only drink it because it’s local and does the trick – certainly not for the taste.
Muang Ngoi Neua rejects vehicles and technology in favor of naked babies and exceptionally loud roosters. The roosters sound like they could raise the dead. Be prepared for the bird alarm clock to sound at 4 am and for the choir to last until noon. People go to bed early, get up early with the roosters, fantasize about turned the birds into chicken soup, and then take an afternoon siesta.
Life in Muang Ngoi Neua is relaxed, easy-going, and very Lao.
Arriving and Departing
Slow boats up and down the Nam Ou are becoming less frequent as Lao roadways are improving and regular buses become more frequent. Slow boats still run to and from Muang Ngoi Neua, however, and the scenery makes it worth your while to haggle with boat drivers.
If coming from the south, arrange for a boat from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw. Slow boats have sporadic schedules that are subject to demand, so you might need to make a few trips to the dock before finding a boat.
Chartering a boat tends to cost around 1 Million Kip (~$100) and comfortably holds 10 people, so it’s possible to bargain for 10,000 Kip (~$10) per person. If the slow boats do not gather enough riders to travel, less scenic buses regularly travel from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw. Once in Nong Khiaw, regular boats go to Muang Ngoi Neua for 20,000 Kip (~$2) and take about an hour.
If coming from the north, arrange for a boat from Muang Khua to Muang Ngoi Neua or Nong Khiaw (the driver will drop you off at Muang Ngoi Neua if the boat continues to Nong Khiaw).
Once again, departure times from Muang Khua depend on demand. There’s generally one or two each morning and it’s sometimes possible to charter a boat and front the 1 Million Kip (~$100). Waiting for a full boat, however, gets the price down to 10,000 Kip (~$10) per person. The journey from Muang Khua to Muang Ngoi Neua takes about 7 hours.
Guesthouses & Restaurants
There’s no shortage of guesthouses along the village strip. Yellow signs with red lettering advertise most of the guesthouses and restaurants. Standard accommodation is a bungalow with hammock and outside bathroom for ~30,000 Kip (~$3) per night. There are some guesthouses that offer rooms with private bathroom, but no electricity means no A/C, fans, or hot showers.
Many guesthouses have attached restaurants and balconies that overlook the river.
Restaurants serve local Lao food along with local interpretations of Western food. Laap is an excellent Lao dish served everywhere.
Look for a sign towards the end of the main stretch that says “BBQ Fish” with an arrow pointing to the right and you’ve found my favorite eating and bonfire stomping grounds. May is the plump old lady who runs the place and she’ll take care of you like one of her own. Definitely try the fish: caught that day a mere 20 feet away from your plate.
Drugs, Cash, and the Internet
Drugs are illegal in Laos. That said, teenage locals in Muang Ngoi Neua may offer to sell you marijuana and you’ll likely see more than one backpacker with a joint. The village is nothing close to the free-wheeling drug scene of Vang Vieng, but soft drugs are common place.
As far as cash is concerned, there are no ATMs, banks, or Western Union stations. Most guesthouses will accept US dollars and a few may be persuaded to accept Thai Baht, but they’ll quote poor exchange rates for their troubles. You’re best off stocking up with Kip before arriving.
At the top of the boat landing stairs is a small building with a sign that proclaims the existence of “Internet!” in Muang Ngoi Neua. Don’t be frightened, however, because I’m not convinced it really works. Posted hours of internet operation are 5pm-6pm, but separate day visits at 5:05pm and 5:30pm revealed locked doors, lights off, and no sign of a generator. Write any necessary emails before departing for the village.
Muang Ngoi Neua is short on luxury, but rich in character, Lao culture and roosters. This sleepy little village has certainly been discovered by your fellow backpackers, but it’s off the beaten track and provides a revitalizing destination for jungle treks, swimming and just chilling out and watching the river flow by.
The Gibbon Experience is hands-down the best eco-tourism experience in Lao. Check out the article “The Gibbon Experience” in Matador’s Traverse magazine, or Punchy’s blog about his zip-line experience in the canopy jungle.
Ever wonder what writing for a guidebook is like? Matador member LornaNorth’s blog “Laos – Working As A Rough Guide Writer” offers a behind the scenes picture of guidebook research in SE Asia.
Also check out the uncensored version of an article MatadorTrips.com editor Tim Patterson published in the San Francisco Chronicle – Lusty Luang Prabang.