Muang Ngoi and Nong Khiaw
March 14, 2015 – March 20, 2015
After arriving in Luang Prabang on our slow boat down the Mekong River, we stayed a night before heading out of the city to spend some time in two small villages in northern Laos. We had been spending a lot of time in larger cities and were looking forward to experiencing small town life. We hopped in a packed and very hot van for the three hour ride north over bumpy and dusty dirt roads into the mountains of northern Laos, to the small villages of Nong Khiaw and Muang Ngoi.
Nong Khiaw is a small town straddling either side of the Nam Ou River, and surrounded by steep mountains and lush green jungle. The area offers several hikes, village homestays, and bicycling through the farmland and some of the best food we’ve had in a long time. Besides the activities, staying here is all about taking in the slower paced village life, and relaxing.
Nong Khiaw has great views of the typical mountainous landscape in northern Laos. With tall knobby hills sprouting up everywhere and flat valleys covered in rice fields, great views are everywhere you look. Unfortunately as we have come to learn, the time of year you visit is very important. In years past there were only two seasons a traveler had to worry about, the dry season and the rainy season, and conventional wisdom advised travels to come during the bright sunny dry season. However, now there is a third season to take into account, the air pollution season brought on mainly by farmers burning their fields. We arrived deep into the classical dry season to find thick brown clouds of smoke filling the valleys between the mountains. Taking air quality in Asia into account, we would say the best time to visit would be the very end of the wet season, when the air has been washed clean, the plants are bright green and the fields are still too wet for the farmers to burn. Despite the poor air quality we were still treated to great views, particularly from the top of one the nearby peaks which is only about an hour hike to the top.
The food in Nong Khiaw is worth the trip alone, near our guesthouse we found Alex’s restaurant which had amazing food. Some of our favorites were the farmers breakfast, which was a fairy standard omelette with local veggies, a spicy eggplant sauce, fried river weed and of course a side of red sticky rice. To our great delight we learned that sticky rice usually comes with every meal regardless of what the meal is in Laos. It is usually served on the side in a little wicker basket. The rice is so sticky that if you turned the basket upside down and pocked at it with a fork it would not come out. In fact a knife is sometimes needed to cut through the thick tasty mass. Another favorite was Laap, or sometimes spelled Laab, it is a spicy chopped salad loaded with meat and veggies and spices all chopped very finely and of course served with sticky rice.
About an hour long ride north up the river from Nong Khiaw is the even smaller village of Muang Ngoi. The guesthouses here are nearly all private bungalows and line the river directly, offering great views of the river valley and the mountainous terrain. The views here were even better and despite its smaller size it felt like there was even more to do. With numerous hikes, caves to explore and bicycle routes it is easy to keep busy here, of course if you just want to relax in your bungalow’s hammock and watch the river and the day go by, Muang Ngoi is the place to be.
Our bungalow had great views of the river and it was nice to just sit and relax and take in the views. Each evening water buffaloes congregated just in front of our porch and we were treated to bright red sunsets.
We rented mountain bikes here and explored some of the nearby villages and farmland down long dusty roads. Be wary of the bikes you rent as some places will happily rent you a bike with no brakes and flat tires, sometimes the rubber is just hanging off. But good bikes can be found if you look around a bit and so we rented bikes for the day to check out the area outside of town.
A pleasant surprise, for anyone interested in caves, you can find many of them around the town. In fact they are all over Laos, the mountainous country’s limestone hills are filled with thousands of caves, and more are being discovered all the time. The locals will point to the entrance and then let you explore alone to your hearts content, so bring a headlamp or flashlight and watch your head!
Riding our bikes on the roads for the day we first noticed something very common in Laos, the roads are filled with many young drivers, some as little as 8 years old, riding motorcycles, sometimes with younger siblings on the back and no helmets in sight. There doesn’t seem to be any enforced driving age or helmet laws, as kids on motorcycles was a very common daily sight, and almost no one in all of Laos wore a helmet.
All in all we enjoyed our time in Muang Ngoi the most. If you only have time to visit one small town in northern Laos, Muang Ngoi is the place to be. Just the fun boat ride from Nong Khiaw to Muang Ngoi makes Muang Ngoi worth visiting. A private guesthouse bungalow along the river with private bathroom will run you US$10.00 or less and meals for two can be had for about the same. Bike rentals will run just over a dollar for the day, and some of the caves have a small entrance fee of a dollar per person. Taking air quality into account, we think the best time to visit is probably October, when the rainy season is ending, everything is still very lush and green, the skies are clear and the fields not ready to be burned yet.