Successfully navigating my way downstream with Mr. Neat I then found myself in the tiny town, Muang Ngoi wondering what to do. This post left me with excitement for the town but when I arrived that excitement started to dwindle. I found a beautiful room immediately (thanks to the eager woman that pulled me in) although it was more expensive than I was anticipating or hoping. Once settled in my room I decided to explore the town and that’s when I started to realize what a difference low and high season can make in small places like this. It seemed that half of the guesthouses and restaurants decided to call it quits as there were just not enough tourist to support them staying open. The streets were reminiscent of a ghost town and I only spotted a handful of tourists in the few open restaurants, where was everybody?
I would absolutely prefer having few tourists in a town as opposed to the overcrowded spring break feel I’d experienced in other cities, but the whole town was dead. I hand’t really eaten anything all day so my first and only thought was on food, after walking up and down the street a few times I realized again this was a case of ‘same same but different’, as I sat riverside enjoying my view I wondering if anyone was actually going to serve me. There was one other girl eating at this restaurant but there was absolutely no waitstaff in sight. Eventually someone came over to take my order and a good 10 to 20 minutes later I had my smoothie, at which point my stomach was nearly eating itself.
It was already late afternoon so I didn’t feel like doing much, not to mention the clouds on the horizon. I opted instead to return to my room, practice some yoga and settle into my hammock, book in hand. It wasn’t long before the clouds took over and the rain began. Unfortunately my smoothie didn’t ward off my hunger for too long so I had to brave the storm in search of dinner; despite the seemingly abandoned look of all the restaurants I found some delicious fried noodles. I wasn’t quite ready to return to my bungalow so I took one last stroll along the main road where I bumped into Mr. Neat, my boat driver, and he delivered on that beer promise he’d made earlier in the day.
I guess I still had ants in my pants from Vietnam because I decided to high tail it out of Muang Ngoi the very next day (the ants in my bed may have had something to do with that). I did wake up early to catch a morning walk through the village before enjoying the buffet breakfast at my hostel (big disappointment) and then caught the very full (where did all these people come from?) boat to Nong Kiaw. The boat ride was a bit more interesting than the one I took the prior day, thanks to the ‘rapids’ I had read about and a nice dose of rain. To be honest boats aren’t my favorite place to be so I was perfectly content with our ride only taking one hour.
I decided to test my luck and share a room with a french man I met on the boat (hey, anything to save a few bucks right?), and thankfully that worked out in my favor. He had some interesting travel stories to share and had already been to Nong Kiaw which was helpful for me. The first half of the afternoon we proved to be pretty lazy with hammock lounging, travel story telling, reading and oh yeah the discovery of my broken laptop. Not wanting to waste the entire day we rented bikes, met up with a nice kid from Germany (again don’t ask me names) and ventured off to the Pha Tok caves.
The ride there was a bit more challenging that I had expected, I guess I spent too much time on motorbikes instead of bicycles in Vietnam! The hills were a bit of a challenge for me but the views were absolutely worth it. Once we arrived at the caves there were three boys standing under a “Tickets 5,000 kip” sign but we didn’t take them seriously and continued on our way. When they chased to catch up and then blocked our path to enter we eventually gave in and handed over the money.
The path to the cave goes through muddy fields so by the time we reached the stairs to the entrance I felt as if I was walking on sponges, didn’t make the best shoe choice for the day. Inside the cave seemed to keep going until we eventually reached a drop off that none of us was willing to attempt. We started to explore, in search for a supposed second cave but came up empty handed. What we did get though was a huge downpour leaving us huddled under the stairs only to emerge minutes later to a beautiful rainbow reflected in the rice paddies. This happened about three times before the rain finally quit for good and we returned to our bikes
Sure enough once there we were met by the real ticket taker who demanded we pay him for our cave entrance. Through poor English, hand gestures and an attempt at Lao on our part we communicated what had happened and although not happy he stopped bugging us. As compensation we stayed to chat and shared our beer with him, he seemed content enough.
The one beer we brought was more of a tease than anything else which led us back to our bikes and back towards town in search for more. About half way there we passed a ‘bar’ complete with Boules courts which made for the perfect afternoon hangout. Having never played I got the hang of the game pretty fast, although it’s basically just the french version or name of Bocce ball, not too hard to comprehend. Also as an added bonus the bar played a few K-pop hits! It felt like home!
My third day started with a long session of yoga on my balcony, overlooking the Nam Ou river before things turned to the lazy end of the spectrum. We wandered over to Alex Restaurant where ‘Mama Alex’ took real good care of me, leaving both full and happy after nearly 2 hours. The afternoon showed threats of rain so there was more reading and hammock time before the clouds parted and we decided to take a dip in the river, not stopping to question the sanitary conditions in doing so. Eventually it was time for my travel partner to leave (he was heading East) which left me a quick tour around town, the room to myself and an early morning bus ride to Luang Prabang the next day.
I contemplated staying in the sleepy riverside town for one more night and probably should have done so but I just couldn’t shake that ‘gotta keep moving’ feeling. Despite the peace and serenity I had found in the sleepy village there was something driving me towards Luang Prabang which meant it was time for another long, bumpy, bus ride.
Often overlooked on the backpacker trail, this is a destination to not be missed. Without the influence of 7/11, Mc Donalds or Starbucks this is a country that offers a raw, rich experience.