In broad terms, the plan for our Laotian itinerary was to spend a few weeks in the north of the country, then head west to Thailand where there were excellent opportunities to visit with remote hill tribe communities near the border with Myanmar around Mae Hong Son. Having been in northern Laos in 2008, trekking in the Phongsaly and Luang Nam Tha regions, we were interested in seeing other parts of the north, but ultimately, we would need to return to Luang Nam Tha as it served as a convenient transit hub for the border crossing to Thailand. The Belgian couple on motorbikes that we met a few weeks earlier in Ha Giang had raved about Muang Ngoi and Nong Khiaw, two small villages along the Nam Ou River and easily accessible from Muang Khua, the terminus point from our Vietnam border crossing. Better yet, travel to Muang Ngoi and Nong Khiaw would be done exclusively on small wooden boats along the snaking Nam Ou, which reportedly made for a spectacularly scenic water journey and an excellent change from our dusty and packed-sardine bus rides of the previous few days.
Our rickety bus pulled out of Dien Bien Phu at 5:30am on November 29, 2017 and sputtered up and down winding roads for about two hours until we reached the checkpoint at Tay Trang, where we got off temporarily for customs clearance. There were maybe 12 passengers on the bus, all western backpackers varying in ages from early 20s to mid 60s. None of us had Lao visas but we had been assured by our trusty Lonely Planet guidebook that they were easily obtainable at the border. We cleared Vietnam customs within a matter of minutes and walked towards the Lao checkpoint. As space and weight were a limitation in our backpacks, we had hoped to meet some people coming in the opposite direction to exchange our Vietnam Lonely Planet guidebook for the Lao counterpart, and possibly also to exchange some Vietnamese dong for Lao kip. But the stars were not perfectly aligned that morning and we met no one leaving Laos.
Reaching the Lao checkpoint, we had to fill in the usual types of custom forms that are required when entering a country by air, then hand over the forms, passports and pictures and some kip in order to get our entry visas. Simple enough, we thought. We went to the first window and submitted our paperwork and kip, then were directed to another window to pay a different entry fee, and then another window for yet another fee.. and so on. There were maybe 7 windows in all, culminating in the last window where you had to again submit some kip to a smiling Lao official who then took our temperature with a digital thermometer. The entry fees were not high; it was more of a tedious nuisance than a financial burden, and I wondered how much of this money was being pocketed by these guys. At any rate, after about an hour of processing, we had Lao entry visas in our passports and were on our merry way to Muang Khua.
For a change, and perhaps for the first time in all our Asian travels, the journey ended up being much shorter than was advertised, and even though we were likely averaging only 30km/hr over the steep and twisting roads, all of us on the bus were quite surprised when we pulled into Muang Khua at 10:30am. To say Muang Khua was a quiet, laid-back town would be an understatement. Languid would be a more apt description. And the weather was sunny and warm, a welcome improvement from the north of Vietnam. We gathered our packs and headed to the Chaleun Souk, a quaint guesthouse with views over the Nam Ou River. Apart from its simple beauty and comfort, the Chaleun Souk featured a large balcony with refreshments, and, most exquisitely, same-day laundry service.
After unpacking our things and offloading our decidedly filthy clothes, we headed out to the local tourist office for some boat information for the journey to Muang Ngoi. We were also holding out hope to meet some backpackers in town that were heading in the opposite direction so we could trade Lonely Planet guidebooks. The tourist office was a small shack, where a very friendly, English-speaking woman explained the easy logistics of getting a boat to Muang Ngoi. While in the office, a young French woman came in, asking questions about the border crossing to Vietnam. My eyes instantly lit up, and I approached her, asking if she had a Vietnam Lonely Planet guidebook. Upon hearing her say no, I asked if she’d like ours, and presumptuously asked if she’d give us her Lao book. Berengere was delighted to accept our book, but sadly she, and her partner Ivan, did not have the Lao volume. We made arrangements to meet later that afternoon, and though sad that we were not getting the Lao version in return, we did actually have the book in electronic form on our phones and I knew that giving them our Vietnam book was a wise deposit in the bank of good karma.
After a simple lunch, we spent the afternoon walking around the village, then crossed over a shaky suspension bridge and explored a radius of a couple of kilometers in the neighboring countryside. Returning a few hours later to the Chaleun Souk, our clean and folded laundry awaited us in our room, and after a quick change of clothes, we went to the terrace for a beer with Berengere and Ivan. We gave them the guidebook and then had the typical traveler exchanges of where have you been and where are you going. The more we talked, the more we realized how compatible we all were and so we decided to eat dinner together that night. There were not many restaurant options, in fact really just the one place where we had lunch, the Sayfon, turned out to be our dinner spot, where the food was passable, and the non-existent ambiance was offset by our spirited conversation. Ivan and Berengere were traveling together for a year and were about halfway through their adventure. We discovered we both planned to be on the South Island of New Zealand in March and made plans to meet up for some rugged trekking.
The following morning after breakfast at our favorite Muang Khua restaurant, we headed to the small pier to catch the boat to Muang Ngoi. After paying the equivalent of about $5 each, we clambered aboard a long-tailed boat, a narrow, simple wooden vessel, almost like an elongated canoe, and sat perpendicularly across the hull with several other backpackers. The boat had an outboard motor and we set off around 9:30am, puttering smoothly down the Nam Ou. The views and the weather were superb, with verdant fields and thatched homes dotting the riverbank, jagged karst cliffs balancing the waterway on either side under a glorious blue sky with just a few puffy clouds. It certainly wasn’t too luxurious sitting on the hard wood of the boat, but the scenery was so spectacular that the discomfort became irrelevant. After about four hours and one slightly tedious boat change, we arrived in Muang Ngoi, a simple, relaxed and charming town with a number of guesthouses along the river and a tiny network of shops on a grid of dirt roads, which eventually narrowed to small footpaths that led outward into dense vegetation.
We found a lovely room at the Ning Ning Guesthouse with a terrace overlooking the river, and then had a tasty lunch on their patio, fishing boats idling by in both directions, temperatures in the mid-70’s. It was paradise and we toasted our Belgian friends from Ha Giang who had recommended we come here. The rest of the afternoon was spent wandering slowly around the town, and though I didn’t think it possible, we then added to our contentment with the unexpected discovery of a good bakery with excellent coffee. In fact, the coffee was so good, and since our supplies that we had brought from Hong Kong were so diminished, we bought a few pounds of their fresh beans, the poor barman having to spend an awfully long time grinding them to a fine espresso powder using just a small burr grinder. After a sunset beer on our balcony, we had a delicious fish dinner at a neighboring restaurant and went to bed with big smiles.
The sun streamed in early the next morning and another day of super weather was in store. The good times kept on coming as we had our first breakfast of yoghurt, fresh fruit and muesli since we left Hong Kong some two weeks ago. We then took an 8-mile round-trip hike, stopping for lunch at a tiny village, Huay Sen. Though it was a bit touristy, the walk to Huay Sen was gorgeous, through rice paddies, past rushing streams and over bamboo bridges, with familiar karst rock formations towering in the distance in every direction. Returning to town by late afternoon, we sipped beer and caught up on world news on the not-so-fast Wi-Fi, then had another languorous waterfront dinner. While we could have stayed in Muang Ngoi indefinitely, we thought it best to continue our exploration downstream, resolving to go to Nong Khiaw in the morning.
After another fabulous breakfast, we got onto a long-tailed boat, and while the boat was different, a good number of the passengers were the same people who had traveled with us from Muang Khua. The weather continued to be glorious, and within an hour we arrived at Nong Khiaw. We decided to splurge at the best place in town, a small boutique hotel called the Mandela Ou, which featured an excellent restaurant, riverside bungalows and a swimming pool. The atmosphere was so beautiful and tranquil, we didn’t even venture off the grounds on that first day, just read books and lazed by the pool, then had a delicious Thai dinner on their patio overlooking the river.
Feeling a bit guilty about our lack of activity, we awoke early the next day and rented gearless clunker bikes in town, then headed off into the countryside for a few rugged and sweaty miles of rural sightseeing. We spent the afternoon checking out the town, which was bigger than we expected and had nowhere near the same aura of simple beauty as Muang Ngoi. Returning to the Mandela Ou, Kenny, at the front desk, suggested that we take a walk up to one of the Nong Khiaw viewpoints, where the sunset promised to be memorable. He warned us to make sure to leave in plenty of time, as the walks were steep, and because they were mostly through dense bamboo rain forests, once the sun started to go down it would get dark very quickly.
There are two viewpoints in Nong Khiaw, the Sleeping Woman and the more popular Pha Daeng Peak, offering panoramic 360° views. Since the Sleeping Woman was easily accessible from the Mandela Ou and promised to have fewer visitors, we decided to venture up there and quickly threw on our backpacks and set off around 4pm. It was indeed quite steep, the paths thickly bordered by bamboo in every direction. As we were ascending, the terrain often required grabbing onto something to help pull you up; if you weren’t paying close attention, you might grab onto some old bamboo, which appeared sturdy, but was actually quite dead and if you exerted any weight on it at all, it would simply collapse, leaving you in a bit of a precarious position. Also, while there were occasional directional signs, there were often multiple path options without any guidance at all. We assumed that in the absence of any signage, all the paths would eventually lead to the viewpoint and so we just continued heading straight up.
We reached a clearing about an hour later, around 5pm, then scrambled for a few minutes over some big rocks, eventually coming to a cantilevered and precipitous platform with an extraordinary birds-eye view of the town and the Nam Ou. We had it all to ourselves as everyone else seeking a sunset view must have been at Pha Daeng. Sue ventured halfway to the edge of the platform, but being prone to vertigo, she immediately felt unsteady and retreated to the rocky outcrop. I stayed on the platform, my cameras begging me to wait for the sun to dip a bit further. Kenny’s caution was on my mind as I lingered, and I stayed there for maybe another 20 minutes, basically as long as I thought would be ok to still get back down safely, took some pictures, then rejoined Sue and we headed back down the mountain.
At first, the descent was easy, there was plenty of light and it was fairly gentle. Then the forest got denser, the ambient light diminished, and the terrain got steeper. Remember those dead trunks of bamboo? Grabbing one on your way up and having it instantly come uprooted was a bit perilous but performing the same maneuver on the descent was downright dangerous. So we were treading carefully. And that meant we were going slowly and losing the war with the disappearing daylight. No problem - Kenny had reminded us to take our head torches and I had them in my backpack. But there was a problem. We hadn’t used them in well over a year, and their batteries were not so robust, one of them dying after just a few minutes, the other providing a reasonable amount of light at first, but then progressively dimming as we continued downward. Remember also the lack of signage at various intersections? This had been less of a problem going up, as there was more light and if you strayed in the wrong direction you could easily correct, but now a false turn could lead to a dead end, and good luck retracing your steps in the dark.
While I wouldn’t say we were expressing panic, we were both getting very concerned, but chose to keep a brave face as there was no point in exposing our fear of the situation. Our one torch was now extremely dim, and it was pitch black in the forest. We continued in a slow and methodical fashion, making small cairns at junctions if we were unsure of the way. After about an hour, we began to hear noises, noises from the village, noises of an occasional car driving down the road, so we knew we were headed in the right direction. We finally reached the road, and instantly embraced, our shaking and sweaty bodies giving the lie to the confidence we had shown during the descent.
We celebrated our survival with plenty of Beer Lao and more Thai food at the Mandela Ou, and then started planning our next move. We wanted to spend some time in northern Thailand, and the most convenient way to do that was to go to Luang Nam Tha and then get a bus to the border, connecting on the other side with another bus to Chiang Rai. Ten years ago, when we trekked in Phongsaly, we had enjoyed a few days in Luang Nam Tha, and the prospect of revisiting was not unpleasant at all. Better still was that there was now a brand-new road that connected Nong Khiaw with Luang Nam Tha, turning what would have been an arduous 10-hour slog on rutted roads through various provincial towns into a speedy 5-hour direct journey on a minibus.
So with a bit of a heavy heart, we said our goodbyes the following morning to the Mandela Ou and our few days of paradise along the Nam Ou River, boarded a sleek minibus and headed west. We arrived by mid-afternoon and found our bearings straight away. Luang Nam Tha had not changed much over the last ten years; many of the same restaurants were still in operation, Akha women merchants still roamed the night market, hassling you to buy their handicrafts, and even the wild dogs that wandered the town looked vaguely familiar. We rented bikes the following day, riding through fields of rice and other crops, visiting some small villages and stupas, and returned to town in the afternoon to make arrangements for a two-day trek, visiting Khmu and Lenten villages.
We left early the next morning, initially in a small van, and after about an hour we disembarked with our guide, Paul. We walked about 20 km that day, the trek alternating through rainforests and open fields, passing eventually through a Khmu village and then, about 40 minutes later, we reached a Lenten village where we were to spend the night. I suspect the villages had been over-visited by westerners, as when we approached, we were immediately offered handicrafts by shy young children. Nevertheless, once we settled in at the Lenten village, we were able to walk around the various huts and blend in with the community, locals inviting us into their homes for brief visits.
Unlike the Khmu village, the Lenten huts were not on stilts, instead sitting flat on the dirt. This was somewhat unusual as most ethnic minority huts are built on stilts with the ground portion naturally serving as storage for produce or grains as well as a pen for their animals. Though each hut apparently had their own livestock (mostly consisting of goats, pigs and chickens), all the animals ran freely around the village. I have no idea how the creatures knew who they belonged to, nor how the villagers could distinguish their goats, pigs and chickens from their neighbors’, but somehow it all worked. I took two memorable photographs that afternoon; one was of two boys sitting on a bench, the smaller boy wearing no clothes and holding a stalk of bamboo, the other boy shyly looking at me with his hands tucked into his legs, and another image of a young mother holding her infant son in a dimly lit hut, stacks of burlap sacks serving as the backdrop.
We stayed in a community hut, Paul cooked us a delicious dinner of fried pork, greens and bananas, and, as there was no power, almost immediately thereafter we bedded down for the night on a long rattan platform. When we awoke in the morning, a sea of curious young children were outside our hut and I accompanied them to their small schoolroom, and watched a lesson in Lao, the teacher instructing a group of maybe 30 children ranging in ages from about 6-10. Older children either went to school elsewhere or more likely were already farming in the fields.
Like many winter mornings in Southeast Asia, the day started foggy and grey, but by 11am the sun was bright, and the sky was a cloudless deep blue. We walked through more rain forests, plenty of bamboo, palm and banana trees bordering our narrow path. There were many stream crossings including one memorable and very wobbly monkey suspension bridge, which we had to traverse one at a time due to both weight concerns and because of the extreme swing properties of the bridge. Some areas were quite wet, and we had to peel slimy leeches off our legs and ankles. Our walk on the second day was considerably shorter, and by mid-afternoon we were back in town for a late lunch at the town market, sharing a table at a noodle stall with some giggling schoolgirls, who were unsure what to make of us. We decided to spend more time in Luang Nam Tha, opting to stay at the cozy Boat Landing Hotel, about 10km outside of town, situated in a secluded spot on the Nam Tha River.
After two days of r&r, we boarded the morning bus to Huay Xai and the border crossing to Thailand. The journey was less than ideal; jam-packed, the bus stopped frequently to pick up and/or offload passengers and goods. We averaged maybe 30km an hour over rough and mostly unpaved winding roads and pulled into dusty Huay Xai some 5-hours later. We then transferred onto a small tuk-tuk, arriving at the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge #4 after a short journey, and within a few minutes were able to complete the necessary exit and entry paperwork. We were then efficiently transported on another tuk-tuk to the Chiang Khong bus terminal where we caught a local bus to Chiang Rai.
While we were sad to be leaving Laos (quickly becoming our favorite country in southeast Asia), we knew we were coming back, as our future plans included time in southern Laos. But for now, we had our focus squarely on Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai and the Mae Hong Son region of northwest Thailand.