A gorgeous, sleepy town, Muang Ngoi gets our vote as one of the friendliest places in all of Laos. You won't find any banks, public internet access or landline telephones, so remember to bring cash and tell your friends and family you'll be incommunicado. However, given the pace of development around Laos, it is only a matter of time before the modern world arrives in Muang Ngoi.
The town is home to about 800 people and has a small school and a temple. Limited electricity means that the locals' lifestyle is aligned with daylight hours, and the town shuts down by nine or ten at night and wakes up with the noisy roosters at daybreak (or actually, a little earlier...).
While the locals are genuinely warm and welcoming, they're also eager to cash in on the tourists flocking to their tiny town. Some locals may persist in offering you their services as a trekking guide, but they're just as likely to invite you to join them for a game of sepak takraw or petanque.
Smaller than Nong Kiaow, Muang Ngoi offers a similar scope of activities that makes the most of the area's natural beauty: trekking, boating, caving, camping, kayaking. Nearly every guesthouse can arrange a tour with a local guide, but Lao Youth Travel is the most reputable spot.
Almost all the guesthouses wisely have hammocks on their balconies, and the favourite pastime of most visitors is simply swinging and appreciating the view.
Directly in the path of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the area was quite heavily bombed during the war and locals lived in nearby caves to avoid the falling bombs. Some of these caves can now be visited on treks and it's less than an hour's walk to Tham Kang and Tham Pha Kaew caves, which are best appreciated with the knowledge of a guide. Keep your eyes open around town for war leftovers as a few guesthouses decorate their grounds with bomb casings.
Whether you only have a few days to spare and want to get out of Luang Prabang, or want to use these places as a stepping stone to a more in-depth exploration of the north, Nong Kiaow and Muang Ngoi are both great destinations.
One warning though. Over the last couple of years there have been persistent reports of theft from bungalows in Muang Ngoi. We'd suggest you're best not to leave anything of much value in your shack.
Lao Youth Travel: Near the boat landing, http://www.laoyouthtravel.com, (071) 253 340
By Adam Poskitt .