Village Life on the Nam Ou River
By Zoë Smith
“You must take two,” my host insists, as his wife refills my shot glass with clear liquor. I wave my hands in protest and try to excuse myself, but of course, they insist. “No, you must. To drink only one is bad luck.”
I am seated, with a small group of other travelers, in a tiny, riverside restaurant. We have been invited to dinner with the family, an offer that conjured images of polite conversation and graceful table manners, but this is Laos, and things are always done a little differently.
It’s traditional to toast with a round (or, so it seems, two) of Lao Lao – homemade rice whiskey – before tucking in. It’s a potent concoction that seems to vary in strength from mildly intoxicating to completely debilitating and accordingly, a meal is rarely eaten in Laos without the feeling that the room is spinning around your fried vegetables.
Cruising the Nam Ou
The location is Muang Ngoi, one of several small villages littered along the banks of the Nam Ou river, which flows down from the north of the country, some 448 km to Luang Prabang. Muang Ngoi is one of the better-known riverside settlements thanks to its location – a mere one-hour boat trip from the transport hub of Nong Kiaow, and a manageable weekend trip from the cultural capital of Luang Prabang.
Never one to take the easy route, I traveled down from the Vietnam border and after an overnight in Muang Khua – a smaller village close to the border – braved a four-hour longboat trip downstream.
Squashed, alongside a handful of other travelers, amidst the obligatory sacks of rice and strings of bananas, longboat travel proved an equal mix of tranquility and discomfort. The wooden benches filled up fast and we soon found ourselves with our knees tucked under our chins, gripping the sides of the boat for balance. That said, the views were spectacular, the fresh air invigorating, and when we weren’t hurtling through the odd riptide, the gentle rocking was quite soothing.
Welcome to Muang Ngoi
Landing in Muang Ngoi, we were met by Penny, a doll-sized local whose entrepreneurial skills have made her the owner of the newest riverside guesthouse at the tender age of 21. She’s a bubbly and vivacious character, who manages to mix her saleswoman spiel with such genuine warmth that we were soon putty in her hands.
We are now guests in her new guesthouse, a collection of beautiful new bamboo bungalows set on stilts amongst the perilous rocks of the riverside – a terrifying stumble home in the dark after the customary lao lao.
Her family, she tells us over dinner, own one of the village’s best-known guesthouses, but she has recently set up this one on her own.
“I am getting old now, so it is time for me to have my own business” she confides to me later that night whilst I make a mental note to take a few years off my age if she asks. “My family worry that I will not be married, but they must understand, I am a businesswoman.”
It is the typical quandary of the younger generations in so many developing countries; move with the times or stick to traditions? And how to find the balance?
The effects of tourism
She’s not the only local resident seizing opportunities to entice travelers to the area although she may well be the most enthusiastic. Muang Ngoi is perhaps the only village in this area that has seen any sizeable growth in tourism in the last few years although the mere paragraph in the Lonely Planet does little justice to its roaming landscapes and undeniably rich slice of rural Laos lifestyle.
Truth is, ‘tourism,’ in its textbook definition, is not really in the Lao blood. The Lao people are so laid back that sometimes you wonder if they even want your money. “Pay me later,” I am told on numerous occasions, or, “Don’t worry, if you don’t like it, we can just try something else.” In fact, one of the most refreshing things for travelers arriving from neighboring Thailand or Vietnam, is the sheer lack of pretension and grandeur offered to tourists. In Laos you do as the Lao do.
That’s not to say that they don’t embrace tourism –- you will not find a country more welcoming or effortlessly friendly than Laos –- it’s just that they do things a little differently here. You will be treated as part of the family, the locals will be open and trusting of you, but you will have to wait in line for your breakfast the same as everyone else.
Life on the river
Muang Ngoi has a small but growing population of families (around 800 people) who have lived in the village for many generations, and is made up of little more than two dusty streets and clusters of rickety wooden or stone housing.
But times are rapidly changing, with new guesthouses being built and a number of small local-run tours and services for travelers springing up.
At first I am almost disappointed in the chalkboard advertorials and occasional touting of tours on the main strip, but after signing up for one of them –- a fishing trip — I soon change my mind.
After all, these are tours, Laos-style, and if you’re thinking along the lines of a package tour, think again. The locals may be trying to earn an extra few kip by showing you around, but ‘tours’ here are typically laid-back and unorganized affairs – you leave whenever you feel like it and continue for as little or long as you like.
The fishing trips, for example, are less of a ‘tour’ and more of a ‘tag along with the local boys as they kick back on the river’ day out, but they are also a whole load of good, old-fashioned (and wet) fun. The local boys take great amusement in schooling you in the art of catching a fish -– an exhausting routine of net throwing, bamboo-stick smacking and wading up to your arm-pits in the murky yet refreshingly cool river.
It is also the first time I’ve seen someone catch fish with their bare hands (try it -– it’s harder than you think). We topped off the day by making a campfire on the riverbank and toasting our miniature fish (sadly, nothing over a few inches) on skewers. Bite size, but delicious with a few balls of pre-packed sticky rice.
Back to Basics
Life in Muang Ngoi is simple; electricity is provided by timed generators, computer and phone access are non-existent and hot water is a laughable commodity (not that you will miss it in the heat). The locals live off the land and the majority are still extremely poor.
Yet, everywhere there is life. Laundry is hand-washed and hung from the rooftops; scrawny chickens cluck in the yard. There are kids climbing the trees and dive-bombing into the river; fishermen hawking their goods from floating stalls; stray dogs yapping excitedly at your heels.
The effects of tourism are evident, but not overpowering. Young girls helping take orders in the restaurants are shyly coaxed into practicing their English. The local boys bring guitars to serenade the foreigners after nightfall and excitedly dish out their new Facebook addresses. A local tour guide proudly brandishes a shiny new mp3 player. It is an indescribable juxtaposition of the old and new.
Despite the slow pace of life, there is a constant stream of things to do. I spend my days wandering through the fields, seeking out the local swimming holes and trekking through the mud tracks into the hillsides.
There are waterfall excursions, boat trips and the obligatory kayaking and tubing. A half hour stroll along a fork in the river, underground caves harbor some of the coolest, clearest water around and, for the brave, the opportunity to swim through a pitch black labyrinth.
Thanks in part to Penny, the village also has a relaxed but surprisingly vibrant nightlife, centered around her family’s infamous 15,000-kip buffet dinners. A crowd of locals and travelers congregate for a round, or three, of Lao beer and, on many occasions, another bottle of the potent Lao Lao.
It’s a perfect chance to mingle with the locals and get a grasp of the culture, as well as securing yourself a few free tour guides for the next day.
A good reason to get out of the city
For all its simple charm, Muang Ngoi is a good example of the changing face of Laos. The western world has clearly sunk its teeth into village life but so far the limited electricity and comparatively basic amenities have provided a good defense from the drinking and partying culture taking hold of other destinations such as Vang Vieng.
For those checking off the sites on a trip to Laos, a trip into the villages is an experience that will expand both your eyes and your heart to the many faces of this lively country. And for the cynical who all too often look to the negative impacts of small town tourism, Muang Ngoi may just prove you wrong. They seem to have got the balance just right.
Muang Ngoi is reachable only by longboat and there are several arrivals and departures each morning. Tickets can be bought from the ticket offices on the riverside.
From Nong Kiaow – one hour – around 30,000kip (approximately US$4)
From Muang Khua/Vietnam border – four hours – around 120,000 kip (approximately US$15)
From Luang Prabang – travel to Nong Kiaow either by share taxi – around four hours, 60,000kip (approximately US$7.50) or longboat – around six hours, 120,000kip (approximately US$15)
I stayed at Penny’s Guesthouse, on the riverside, a sister branch of her family’s popular Phetdavanh Guesthouse, at the end of the main street. Guesthouses owners are at the harbor awaiting longboat arrivals otherwise you can pre book by calling Penny on +856202148777. Doubles from 40,000 kip per room (approximately US$5.00).
All tours are available for booking on arrival and typically cost between 50,000-100,000 kip per day including food. Costs are negotiable based on the size of your group.
Zoë Smith is an ESL teacher, NGO worker and writer currently based in rural Cambodia.
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