The quiet little town of Muang Sui is notable for a few reasons. During the American War it was famous for being the last site to be evacuated by the Royal Laos Army and the US CIA-backed Air America operation. It was known as Lima Site L-108 and the runway and some of the buildings abandoned are still visible today.
The other reason to visit Muang Sui is for the wealth of Buddhist sites in the local area, including historic temples and caves. As with some of the caves around Sam Neua, some of these were used as shelter during the American war and evidence of this (in the form of medical debris) can still be seen in some of the caves.
During the American War, Muang Sui referred to a town which is now called Nong Tang. The reality is that Muang Sui was always used by the locals to refer to the entire district and many years ago the district of Muang Sui was disbanded in a district reorganisation. Today if you want to head to the place formerly known as Muang Sui, look for the town of Nong Tang as all road markers and maps refer to it as this.
The town sits on the plain, just at the foothills of the mountains which take you westwards toward Luang Prabang and Vientiane. The town is steadily growing, but there is still plenty of space for expansion.
There is a quite scenic lake in town -- the Nong Tang -- with an impressive limestone cliff on one side. If you walk to the back of the cliff you will see a few caves. There is no particular history here, but the cliffs and caves are worth a look for their natural beauty.
Signposted at the sharp bend in town is the Buddha cave, which is located three kilometres away in the village of Sianga. Tham Pha, as it's locally known, is a fascinating place with a history of Hmong resistance from the 1970s. Today it's a place of Buddhist worship and houses a large gold Buddha within its confines. The cave extends for quite a way into the mountain and although there are lights inside, they're rarely turned on. In other parts of the cave you'll see stunning quartz, a natural gong and a couple of rocks that vaguely look like a turtle. It's amazing to walk along the flat paths of a pitch black cave with a weak torch in hand spotting the occasional sign on the walk. The entrance fee is 10,000 kip.
Just outside of town, but within walking distance, you'll find Wat Ban Phong, a ruined temple that is impressive if only because of its resilience to the onslaught of the fighting in the final months of the war. Monks are still using the temple and some restoration work has taken place.
Back in town, at one end of the lake you'll find the only guesthouse in town, with some food vendors operating opposite the lake's silent shores.
On the subject of Muang Sui's culinary scene, 'survival' cuisine is a little strong, but Muang Sui doesn't really offer much in the way of eating. It is the epitome of small town Laos. A couple of food shops are near the lake, with a few others dotted around, but nothing really caters to the traveller. Prices are cheap, the menus aren't extensive, but you will get some local Lao food cooked for you. We'd suggest avoiding the frogs, snakes and assorted dried rodents.
Muang Sui is probably not a place you'll want to stay for a long time; however there is enough to do and see to keep you interested for a day.
Having said that, the accommodation is very basic and, as the sights and attractions of Muang Sui can be seen in a day trip from Phonsavan (50 kilometres away), many opt for doing that instead.
By Adam Poskitt