Muang Ngoi Neua was the main reason I wanted to come to Laos. It was not Luang Prabang, not the 4000 islands, it was learning about Muang Ngoi Neua what convinced me to come. I had read about it in several blogs, written by people who were there about 5 years ago, in 2010-2011. They described the place as an off the beaten path small village with no electricity, no internet and no roads.
So you can imagine that my expectations were high… until I saw that the lonely planet described Muang Ngoi Neua as a ‘popular packpacker destination’, and wikitravel mentioned it as being part of the ‘banana pancake trail’ (meaning a popular backpackers destination). My heart sank. I sensed that I would not find the Muang Ngoi Neua I had read -and dreamt- about… but still, I decided to go. I had to give it a chance.
Muang Ngoi Neua in 2014
Well, Muang Ngoi Neua has definitely changed. It is still a small village, but there is electricity since 2013, and also a road. There are a lot of guesthouses and even though most of them do not have internet, some have and also a couple of restaurants offer Wifi. Some restaurants have beautiful lights in the night and one of them even offers a buffet dinner and cocktail happy hour. Even the local restaurants offer banana pancake for breakfast.
Still, it is beautiful. Charming. The village is settled between some pretty high hills and the Nam Ou river. There is now a road but no buses, so the only way to get there is by boat from Muang Khoa or Nong Khiaw. There is only one main street with small shops and restaurants. There is a lot of street life, kids playing, people cooking. Chickens and ducks walk freely in the streets. People are kind and smiling.
And two surprises awaited for me there, two things I did not know about: the caves and the nearby villages.
The caves: some history
When I hear the name Vietnam, I think about the Vietnam war. When I hear Cambodia, the word ‘genocide’ comes to my mind. When I hear Laos, I see rice fields and wooden huts. However, Laos has suffered as much as its neighbors, even if its sad history is not widely known.
Yet, this is the sad truth: Laos is the most bombed country in all history. US bombed Laos during the Vietnam war, every day, for 9 years, to stop communism spreading out in Indochina. Nowadays there are still a lot of unexploded bombs, and even though NGOs work on the cleaning, the work is not done yet and people die every year because of them.
The most attacked region was the north east, due to its proximity to Vietnam. The people in this area abandoned their houses and villages and hid in the natural caves that are in the mountains. They lived there all those years, coming out only in the evening-night when the bombing stopped, to go working on the fields.
And I still do not know what surprised me the most: learning about this secret bombing, seeing empty bombs as decoration in some guesthouses’ gardens, or hear a lao man talk about it. He did not lived it, true, he was born the year of the ceasefire, but his parents lived hidden in the caves all that time. And he talked about it as something sad that happened, that is part of the past, but there was no resentment, no anger, no hate, no deep emotion in his voice or expression. He could even joke about it. I got the feeling that Lao really forgive and look to the future, not the past.
The small villages: authentic Laos
On a more positive side, I discovered that Muang Ngoi Neua is also surrounded by some off the beaten path small villages. Even more interesting: one of them has a guesthouse/homestay whose owner speaks English and likes to spend time with tourists. I found this information in wikitravel the day before reaching Muang Ngoi Neua, and decided to go there even if it was not easy to find.
In the boat from Muang Khoa I met a girl who was also interested in learning about the culture, so I told her about this village, which is called Huay Bo, and she decided to join. We spent the first night in Muang Ngoi, left the main part of our luggage in a guesthouse, and took only a day pack to go to Huay Bo. Which, indeed, was not so easy to find.
Huay Bo is a village that has no roads, no internet, no electricity network and almost no phone signal. There are three ways to get there: calling the guesthouse to pick you up by scooter, going by bicycle, or walk one hour and a half. I tried to call but got no answer, so we went by walk… and got lost several times. However, we were already there and finding the place became our personal challenge, so even though we had to turn around a couple of times, we kept going. And finally, after 3 hours walking under the (hot) sun and crossing the (very cold) river several times, we found Huay Bo… which is a story for the next post.
GOOD TO KNOW
- Getting there: Muang Ngoi can be reached by boat from Muang Khoa (upstream) and Nong Khiaw (dowstream). Boats only leave when there is enough people. In December 2014, that meant every day to go downstream, and every 2-3 days upstream.
- Money: There are no banks nor ATM. Money exchange is possible.
- First cave and view point: 10000 kips (1 euro approx).
- Second cave and access to the villages: 10000 kips.
- Unexploded bombs: this is not a threat for most tourists since villages and roads are safe, the main danger is for Lao people who want to extend their land, if I understood well. As a precaution, though, do not go into the jungle without asking around if it is safe.
- More information about the caves and villages on wikitravel
Pin it for later!
If you liked it, please share 🙂