Imagine stepping back in time to a world without cars, motorbikes or telephones; where the day begins when the sun rises and ends with the light; where malls have yet to be built and produce is limited to what can be coaxed from nature.
The relaxing village of Muang Ngoi in northern Laos is just such a place. It's also blessed with astoundingly beautiful mountain and river scenery and one of the friendliest populations in Laos -- in the land of a million smiles, that's saying something. Although there's not much in the way of creature comforts, the locals have done all they can to make it hospitable.
Muang Ngoi's historical claim to fame is that it was part of the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail, which snaked its way down the east side of Laos as a transport route for the Northern Vietnamese. Unsurprisingly, this area was heavily bombed by the Americans, with the locals fleeing to nearby caves to take refuge.
The town was decimated, and small reminders of the area's history can be seen as villagers find new uses for the detritus of war: outer bomb casings used as decoration or support for housing, or planter boxes for crops. The caves can be visited as tourist attractions, and are often included in day trips and trekking excursions.
One single stone-paved street runs the length of the village, and is lined with houses of which every second or third has been turned into a restaurant or guesthouse to accommodate visitors. Dirt paths lead off this towards riverside bungalows.
These are all very basic: not a hot shower, air conditioner or minibar in sight. The price is indicative of the styling, with most in the $1 to $2 range. All, however, have their own priceless assets: a balcony and hammock in which to kick back and enjoy the view over the river to the mountains.
No cars, motorbikes or even bicycles clutter the streets. The quiet you would expect is replaced by the chattering ducks blocking your path to the river, the chickens following their young around, and the nattering of people sharing gossip with their neighbours.
Restaurants serve a selection of local favourites, the most popular being laap, a salad of minced meat and herbs, eaten with your fingers and sticky rice. Here, this national favourite is served more as a paste than in pieces, and vegetarian versions make for interesting variations. Dishes rely heavily on seasonal availability of produce.
Beyond sitting around, eating and absorbing the scenery, there are mountains to climb, a waterfall and caves to explore, and a host of locals eager to take you fishing in their wooden paddle boats. Inner tubes can be rented for 50c a day while a boat will take you up river and leave you to lazily meander back.
Part of Muang Ngoi's charm is its inaccessibility by land. The quickest way to get there is first by road to Nong Kiaow, a similarly gorgeous riverside town three to four hours' drive from Luang Prabang. This can be done local-style in a songthaew from the northern bus station for less than $2 or in a private minivan for around $50.
Once in Nong Kiaow you can stay and explore local caves, perhaps staying the night in one of the many simple guesthouses, or you can transfer fairly directly upriver to Muang Ngoi by boat. The journey up the Nam Ou costs $1.50 and takes a little over an hour, crossing light rapids and passing small villages where children cavort in the water shouting the Lao greeting of "sabaidee".
Alternatively, travel the entire distance from Luang Prabang by boat along the Nam Ou, on of the most stunning rivers in Laos. The narrow, shallow waterway is lined with searing rock cliff-faces, jungle-clad mountains, small sandy beaches and bamboo shack villages.
The journey up or down river from Luang Prabang takes around seven hours, and will cost approximately $10 per person for a boatload of eight people. Boats are small, open sided with a low roof, and so while the journey is not the most luxurious, this is well compensated for by the beauty of the view and the experience of dangling your feet in the gold-dust sprinkled water after a picnic lunch on the beach.
The journey is special, and the destination is likewise magical.
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