The minivan trip to Nong Khiaw – our first destination – involved the typical madness of road transport anywhere in Laos. Lots of people crammed into a minivan, with noone sure when we are going to leave or how long it will take to get there. Once the journey starts, its best not to look out the window – near collisions occur regularly as our driver flies past every other vehicle he can find, often overtaking around blind corners. Throw in chickens (in Laos there seem to be at least 4 chickens nearby at all times), buffalo, goats, children, road works and potholes that could we filled with water and turned into swimming holes, and its a recipe for disaster. If you get a seat near the front on these trips, and the windows can open, things will be ok. If you are near the back axle, and the windows are closed – expect a stinking hot roller-coaster ride.
Also be warned, Laos people seem incredibly prone to car-sickness. If you see a plastic bag come flying out of a bus window – and in Laos, you will – beware, its a vomit bomb. Seriously, we have seen old ladies, young monks, even a whole family, vomiting on roads that aren’t too bad. Anyway, three hours after leaving Luang Prabang, we arrive in Nong Khiaw.
Nong Khiaw is a small town the straddles the Ou river, with stunning limestone carst formations towering above the town. The town isn’t dominated by tourists – a refreshing change – and we check into a $5 a night bungalow across the river – complete with hammock and resident geckoes. Its a family run place – the washing is hung up out the front of our bungalow and little kids scamper around – and when we sign in we see the last tourist to stay was almost a month ago.
The middle of the day here is scorching hot – humid and often reaching close to 40 degrees – but the mornings and evenings are amazing. The stunning limestone mountains change with the passing of the sun, and its a spectacular part of the world to sit back and watch the sun go down.
By chance we timed our arrival in town remarkably well. The new year celebrations here started on the day of our arrival (a few days before everywhere else, oddly enough). The highlight of the festivities – and of the year according to the locals – was the day long boat races held on the river.
Nong Khiaw New Year’s Boat Races
The boat races began at 9am on the Ou river and continued well into the afternoon. Teams of young men from right around the district converged on Nong Khiaw to take part in the races, with maybe 20 teams of 30 men decked out in brightly coloured uniforms taking part.
A starters boat was tied up to the bridge, and the boats would line up with the starters boat before racing, one on one, down the river and around the corner. Each boat raced at least ten times from what I could see, and the refreshments of choice between races seemed to be cartons of cigarettes, whisky and beer.
Each boat seems to have about 25 men with a short paddle who sit down and row in unison, and 5-10 men with longer paddles who stand at the back and row at a slower pace, with one or two people steering. They get up to some serious speeds, and it must be exhausting – often the boats are neck and neck as they race down river for perhaps a kilometer or more.
Its hard to know who wins – or if there is an overall winner – but the townsfolk sure love it. People cheer and yell from bars perched above the river, or from beneath tents setup on the banks.
Nong Khiaw is also where I had one of the best meals of my trip so far, at a dirt floored shak-restaurant Alex’s, run by a husband and wife team. The wife cooks the food, the husbands job seemed to be chasing away chickens and dogs that wander in. Food in Laos hadn’t impresses us much so far – its hard to find anywhere to eat that doesn’t have the same whopping great big menu as everywhere else – fried rice, noodles, bad cheeseburgers, and an artists impression of pizza. The alleyway buffet in the Luang Prabang night market is amazing, but after visiting a couple of times it all seems the same. What we wanted was authentic laos food – but of a high quality, with fresh ingredients.
Anyway, the dish was locally made Laos sausage – a pork sausage, made with a fair amount of fat so it seemed halfway between a sausage and salami, and chock full of lemongrass and ginger. It was served with a homemade spicy eggplant dip, and a chilli and tomato dip, both served cold, along with a steaming basket of sticky rice. Compared to the bland food we had been eating, this was a knockout. I was pretty dismayed when I returned the next day to find out I had eaten the last of the sausage the day before.
Muang Ngoi – No roads, no electricity, just a whole heap of chickens
After having enough of the boat races, we boarded a boat ourselves, heading upriver for an hour to the remote village of Muang Ngoi. Once again, the chaos of transport in Laos took over. The guy at the ticket office just seemed to shrug at every questioned we asked. The boat seemed full, then a few sacks of potatoes were added, then about 5 more people. Then when we seemed full to the brim, another 6 or so people were shoved onboard. Then we waited, and waited, then 10 people got off and appeared angry. Then 5 more got back on. Then a large group of men held some serious discussions on the bank looking for something. Then a few more people got back on. Then our driver got onboard and we got excited. Then he got off again and ran up the hill. It was sweltering in the boat, the roof of which is only tall enough to crouch down. Then, when mutiny seemed the only option, the driver returned, we pushed off, and began the trip upriver.
It was worth the wait – the trip was fantastic, cruising upriver to places only accessible by water, riding up rapids and watching water buffalo on the banks.
There is no road access to Muang Ngoi, and the only electricity is provided by generator, to those lucky enough to have one. There is one long dirt street (we called it main street but I guess ‘street’ would have been sufficient). Our bungalow here was just as cheap – $5 a night for two people – with a fantastic view over the river, and two hammocks out the front, where we sat each afternoon watching storms roll in, bringing rain and a much needed drop in temperature.
Muang Ngoi gave the impression of being a very fertile place – everywhere you looked there were chickens and ducklings following their mothers around, puppies lying in the street, children and babies poking puppies with sticks – even the plants in the gardens looked laden with fruit.
We had high hopes for kayaking, however our luck had run out. Seeing it was new year (in this town and nowhere else), we had arrived in town on the two days of the year when everywhere shuts down. So instead we opted for a hike out to a nearby cave where the local villages hid from bombing raids during the Vietnam War. We hear the cave is very close – maybe 5 minutes – but we soon realise we shouldn’t have set out in the middle of the hot day, and that we shouldn’t have worn thongs. Its steep and pretty hard going, but eventually we reach the cave.
Laos holds the extremely unfortunate record of being the most bombed country in the world. In fact the US dropped more bombs on Laos than they did the entire second world war. During the Vietnam War, the United States, in a bid to smash the Ho Chi Minh Trail (an important logistics trail supporting the North Vietnamese), dropped 288 million munitions on Laos. From 1964 to 1973, Laos was hit with a B52 bombload every 8 minutes. 40 years on, and the country is still crippled by this, with unexploded bombs littering the country, and making vast amounts of land unuseable. Of all the bombs dropped on Laos – many of which were cluster bombs – it is estimated that 80 million failed to explode, and still pose a huge risks – each year many die and hundreds are injured when the bombs explode.
We rented a torch of an old local man near the caves, who no doubt would have gone through the harrowing experience of scrambling through the forrest in the dead with his family to hide when the bombing raids came.
Despite the lack of any activities, Muang Ngoi is an increble place to visit. Walking through the back of the village in the late afternoon – watching people tend to their gardens, little chasing chickens and women preparing dinner – it just has to make you feel at peace.
Our return journey to Luang Prabang was expedited by Ryan’s desire to spend some quality time close to a toilet. After eating street food with no ill-effect for a couple of months, Ryan relearnt one of the cardinal rules of travelling. “If you are in an isolated town, with no electricity and certainly no fridges, don’t eat chicken for lunch on a 40 degree day, or you will wee out your bum.”
Onboard the van back to Luang Prabang, it is obvious the New Year waterfight is underway, as children line the streets and belt out van with buckets of water. By the time we arrive out our guesthouse, we are drenched.