Lost in Laos: Somewhere near Nong Khiaw and Muang Ngoi.

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I’m dropped off at the bridge along with a few locals carrying large sacks of foodstuffs by a friendly and smiling tuk tuk man. Nong Khiaw is a quiet town, maybe a village, separated by the mighty Nam Ou River. This place is ideal for the budget backpacker to unwind. I wander the almost empty streets and check into a private room with a super huge bed for 30,000 kip. A lot cheaper than Luang Prabang. Bargain. If you are a couple, you can get a nice bungalow overlooking the Nam Ou River with absolutely stunning views of the karst formations for 50,000 kip. Bargain.

DSC04819I walked down to the river before the heavens opened up. The weather was poor on arrival but this didn’t dampen my mood. The river, thick jungle and stunning karst formations give this place a truly magical feel. My camera was used extensively. Panorama function getting a full on work out.
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I find a little Indian restaurant that served me an absolutely perfect and authentic tasting cup of masala chai. God damn, I miss Indian chai. It was possibly one of the best cups I’d ever had the pleasure of digesting. It rained hard. I was trapped in the restaurant all afternoon. I met some interesting people, ate some vegetable masala and chapatis and sunk three large chais while checking my emails on the WiFi. I buzzed hard on the extreme sugar intake. One small cup of chai is enough to give you a boost. I managed to consume the equivalent of ten. I enjoyed the cool air the rain brought with it. I met an Israeli couple and a chain smoking French journalist who kept me in good company and gave me valuable advice on the local trekking trails. The day passed effortlessly in my Indian bubble of laziness.
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Later, at Lintong Guest House I met a funny couple of Norwegian girls. We talked. We giggled. It was all so nice. Even the guest house ladies were happy and smiley. Laos has really got me now.
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The following morning I caught a boat to Muang Ngoi. This place is accessible by boat, or if you are really brave, by foot. No roads lead to it from Nong Khiaw or any other main route, town or city. Electricity is supplied daily from 6pm-9pm. It’s a beautiful boat ride up the Nam Ou with stunning rock formations, jagged karsts and mountains making my view pleasant, really pleasant. The boat leaves late, as expected and arrives at Muang Ngoi late.

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DSC04854At the pier a few locals meet and greet us with smiles. The small two road town has a small scattering of bungalows. The road is a dirt track and the only transport is via scooter or one of those homemade tractor contraptions the farmer people’s use. The road has the usual array of dogs, cats, cockerels and children playing around. The pace was slow here. Real slow. Although there were a fair few tourists for such a small and out of the way village, the place seemed untouched from its traditional roots and the people were proper nice. Wooden houses, bamboo huts and newer looking concrete houses made up the street which had a nice looking monastery at the end.
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My bungalow had a double bed, a bathroom with solar panel powered hot water, which as standard, didn’t work, with a balcony and two hammocks overlooking the Nam Ou. Perfect. Shame about the crappy grey clouds, but it was nice experience, a little bit of a cooler climate for once.
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I took a walk along to a small cave. I talked with a knowledgeable local dude who was collecting a toll. No one else was there.
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That night I ate food at the riverside restaurant French journo, an Irish lad and a German couple. I had been unsuccessful in gaining a place on a trek so I decided to go it alone. All the trekking guides were either not open or had no bookings. We drunk a few beers and a couple of shots of laolao and once darkness had fallen, we were the only ones still awake in this sleepy little town. There was one empty bar still open and we drunk until it closed. On the walk home at approximately 11pm, we realised there were no lights on, anywhere, not even moonlight was not on offer, leaving us in extreme darkness. Notre sauveur, the French dude had a torch. Legend. Drunk and walking down a dirt track with only one torch between us in a village with no electricity, only accessible by river. A step back in time. The weird, the wacky and the wonderful.
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I got into my bungalow and clambered around in the darkness until I’d penetrated the insect net and found a pillow.
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As usual, a chorus of cockerels woke me up nice and early. Maybe it was the valley we were in but these fellas were extremely loud, the loudest in Laos so far. I smashed home a coconut milk sticky rice with banana and I managed to get some valuable information that put my two day trek into a fully organised plan rather than a wonder in the jungle with the hope that I could sleep somewhere.
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I trekked past the cave, along a newly dug out dirt road with only the occasional scooter zooming past and ended up in a village called Ban Na. Locals lived off the land, it was similar to all the other villages I’d seen up north. Locals weaves baskets, worked on the fields and wore traditional clothes. This village had three shops and one guest house for the few tourists that ventured here.
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DSC04916During my brief visit, I noticed a couple of chickens getting feisty with each other. Spending most of my life in towns and cities, I was unaware of what they were doing and put their strange behaviour down to a bizarre form of mating. But as I got closer, I realised they were just trying to kill one another. I watched. They didn’t mind putting on a show for me. I learned.
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I continued walking through the village and came out the other side. I walked towards the next village called Ban Hoy Bo unaware I was going in the wrong direction. I walked through small rivers, up and over hills, past waterfalls, on and through dry rice paddies and through lush jungle. I passed various beautiful butterflies, spiders nests and men with hunting guns. I arrived back in Ban Na with wet feet and sweat drenched clothes. I loved it. Pacing through the jungle with my Hospital Records podcasts blaring, talking to the occasional local. You don’t get this at home.
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This time I crossed the same river as before but took the right turning. I saw a few kids picking fruit and then noticed one cheeky chap up a massive tree, balanced on a thick branch about 20 metres high, he was lobbing fruit at his mates down below. The scenery was stunning,
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I was surrounded by limestone mountains, thick jungle and rice paddies. Butterflies flew all around me, cows grazed, grass hoppers jumped across my path, flies of all types buzzed by as I walk past. Some unknown animals choosing to quickly crawl back into their holes as I approached. The sun comes out and gives the grey clouds a break. I really loved this little adventure, exploring into the unknown. Every step is a new learning experience.
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I arrive in Ban Hoy Bo. Its a traditional village with the usual array of bamboo huts on stilts. Tired and hungry. It’s 3pm. I’m called over to a house by a drunk dude. I take him up on the offer. He talks slurred English. I realise that the house has a variety of drunk fellas in it. I sit on a raised wooden bamboo platform in the house along with five drunk dudes who look wasted and extremely dodgy, and a few younger and sober looking girls. Lao guys like to drink. This scene was a little sketchy. I should have bailed when the hammered old guy next to me wanted to feed me biscuits like a baby. My mum would have advised against this whole ‘getting to know the local gangsters’ scenario but I was fascinated. I was cooked some egg, with what I suspect was lashings of MSG and sticky rice by one of the girls while one of the guys tried to sell me off to his pretty and very shy 16 year old cousin. In broken English he drunkenly mumbled, repeated and drifted between two main topics; one was about foreigners paying 100 dollars for young girls and the other was that he taught at the local primary school in Ban Na. I was in poor company but had somehow become the guest of honour. Super. The men started to sway and argue among themselves. The tension increased and I knew it was time to leave. The whole situation was bizarre, and as my Mum would have said, ‘avoidable’. The teacher slash pimp then decided to try and charge me 70,000 kip for my egg and rice. This is the point I thought it could get nasty. I refused, laughed at his audacity and paid him 15,000 kip, shook his hand and got out, pronto.
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Captain Hindsight would have declined the invite but sometimes saying yes can give you exciting stories to write about on blogs.
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Moving down through the village I spot a young man swinging on a hammock, his name was Geo. He smiled innocently and looked a nice genuine guy. My saviour in nowhere land.
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I drank a coke and we talked about life in the village. I then relaxed in a hammock and read some more of Marching Powder.
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Geo persuaded me to stay the night and to pass the time he offered me a chance to go hunting with him. Hunting is a box I didn’t think I’d tick but naturally my ‘yes man’ duties took over and I agreed. We walked into the jungle with a small gun that looked home made, one similar to the young lads guns I had seen earlier in the day. Safety was left back in the village. Birds were the target. Or anything that moved, minus cockerels and pigs. Taking my first aim at what i assumed was a poor and defenseless little sparrow, I suddenly felt extreme amounts of guilt, danger as well as a sense of power. I didn’t want to blow this birds brains apart. I can eat vegetables. Screw eating bird for dinner. Plus, how much meat would this poor bird provide? As I stared down the barrel I realised that I couldn’t do it, but I was in the moment, this is what local Lao men spent their working days doing, hunting and scavenging for animals to kill and eat. Living off the land. I’d seen at least six men that day walking into the jungle with their weird wooden guns.
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I shot. I missed. I kept shooting at a variety of birds. I always missed. I blamed the gun. Maybe it was my guilty subconscious deliberately screwing my shots up.
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Geo shot one but we couldn’t find it in the thick jungle. Waste of a life. Poor little fella. We ventured deeper into the wet jungle in search for bigger birds when I realised that my trainers were crawling with leeches. We both ran out of the thick bushes and back onto the path, brushing and flicking the wriggly little suckers off our feet. The hunt was over. I was secretly relieved. My conscience clear.
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Geo showed me to my mini bamboo hut and my bed before asking me to help him move some planks for his new guest house he was in the process of building. I agreed to get my sweat on. I spent the next hour lifting wet wooden planks that were infested with millions of ants and hundreds of cockroaches from one place to another.
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Trying not to look disgusted I did my job with brawn and gusto. Geo happy that I was a strong and handsome man. His words, not mine. Flattery works.
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After my bucket shower I noticed a small cut on my foot that produced rather a lot of bleeding. A naughty little leech had crawled into my sock and sucked me dry. I didn’t feel or see him. The bucket shower was pitch black. Geo’s lovely and very smiley wife patched me up and fed me a feast of rice and vegetables with a pancake for desert.
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Meanwhile I had a very strange conversation with Geo about how he used to drink lots and thieve from everyone in the village. Although his English was difficult to understand, I got that he spent 8 years in prison and that they chained him up. As the darkness of the night surrounded us in this small and remote village, I still felt quite safe as Geo, the ex-con’s, only costumer. He’s a straight laced businessman now, he loves tourists. He especially loves boom boom with the tourists but I shouldn’t mention this to his wife. According to Geo, she would have chopped his head off. We also discussed Government taxes and his water machine he bought from China that turns water into electricity. His daughter goes to school in Nong Khiaw, as the local school in Muang Ngoi is only open for three hours a day. His daughter therefore lives with his sister, in order to receive a good education. He wants her to become a doctor and work in Luang Prabang. He has high expectations and wants to provide for his family. A strange yet fascinating insight into life in the village was gained. An end to a very bizarre day.
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The village buzzes with life at 6am, a couple of hours after the first cockerel started their first verbal assaults.
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Building work, animals strolling and feeding and men talking by the fire greet me as I climb down from my hut. I’m served a beast of a breakfast as I and the village wake up. I make my way out of Hoy Bo and back towards Muang Ngoi to get the 9am boat back to Nong Khiaw. The hills are misty and fog swamps the walk back through the fields, rivers and valley paths.
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DSC04990The boat fills up and takes only half an hour to return. A quicker return journey due to going down stream. This isolated part of Lao is a real visual treasure. Everything looks amazing.
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I reunited myself with the lovely ladies at the Lintong Guest House in Nong Khiaw, downed a large mug of masala chai and hired a huge 22.5 inch frame Trek mountain bike. Although the frame was a little large, it proved to be a great decision. That day I managed to explore Nong Khiaw and three caves used in the Secret War to hide from the persistent bombing raids by the US.
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Caves are cool. I like them. I didn’t see any tourist there either. I was alone. There’s something unnerving about going deep into a cave with a small torch, crouching down and working your way through a network of caves once inhabited by hundreds of scared innocent Lao locals hiding from the bombing frenzy outside.
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Outside the first cave I bumped into a German girl who I’d met in Varanasi over 4 months previously. Small world.
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The caves had small Buddhas arranged at the front and one had a small Buddha located deep in a small enclave. In the largest car a young boy showed me around as my guide. He was a happy boy who’s English was minimal but his enthusiasm was huge. He showed me the old living quarters, hospital, bank and governor office. A whole community survived in these caves for almost nine years. He climbed up and down the rocks inside. I tried to keep up. A huge bamboo ladder leading us down to an out-of- bounds area almost broke under my weight. The experience was made much better because of the cheeky little boy who showed me about. He even took pictures of me posing in the cave. He’d been trained well. At the end of my tour I gave him 20,000 kip, almost £2. For a 15 year old boy living in a Lao village he should have been happy, but he demanded 50,000. We both laughed and I said my good byes and jumped back on my bike and left.
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On my way to the next cave I stopped at a roadside shop to buy a coke and some sweets for the school kids who flocked around me. I was in a good mood and they caught me at the right time.
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I spent the entire day trekking through fields, mountain biking and crawling through caves. I loved every minute of it. Two of the caves still had signs and original furniture left from when they used to be peoples homes. It was stark reminder of the terror innocent rural Laos people experienced during the Secret War.
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I never did find that cinema. That night I met up with the Finish dude who had hired me out
the bike, the three Lao guides who worked at the trekking place and an American random. Sitting on chairs in the street, we ate home made Lao food and drank Beerlao and laolao until we were beyond intoxication. The rest is a blur. I think my new found Israeli friends walked us home.
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Waking up still drunk is never great but Laolao has a habit of staying in your system for longer than you want it to. Before my long and winding bus ride to Sam Neau I polished off a sticky rice coconut milk with banana and mango and a large mug of masala chai. Not even these tasty beauties made my hangover disappear. It proved to be a long day, a very long day.
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At this point I was too tired and hungover to realise or appreciate how amazing the last four days and nights had been. A true adventure. A gem in my travels. Travelling alone makes me go and do strange things. This is where the memories and the stories come from. This is real backpacking. Bear Grylls would have been proud.
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