MUANG NGOI - The BEST PLACE to visit in LAOS
Updated: Mar 3
Back in 2007, this sleepy village surrounded by mountains could only be reached by boat from Nong Khiaw. Electricity ran for a mere 4 hours a day, and there was a single main dirt path with chickens, puppies and cats freely coexisting throughout the town. We stayed in a basic bungalow for $2 a day, run by a lovely lady we endearingly called "Mama". Lots of lazy days were spent on a hammock reading a book, enjoying the peace and tranquility of this remote village. Local kids were seen playing bare feet, carrying babies on their backs, following us with great interest and shyly waving hello. It was blissful simplicity at its finest. We yearned to come back one day, and finally, with two kids, we were on our way.
Below: Photos of Muang Ngoi from 2007
We've done many harrowing bus rides back in the day, and proudly enduring those discomforts was part of the adventure in those pre-children, backpackery days. Not so anymore. These are no longer the kinds of thrills we seek at our age!
Getting from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw was a stomach-churning 3 hour minivan ride, largely thanks to our manic driver who drove so fast we passed every car in front of us. A thick trail of dust lingered in the distance as we weaved past herds of water buffalos, stray dogs, and fearless school children. We felt every bump and turn sitting on the back of a full van, with our rattling barf bags in hand. Like being in a blender on crush mode. Surprisingly, for 3 hours, the kids barely talked or complained. No whines about being bored and the ever-so-common question "are we there yet?" was not uttered once. It's as if the carsickness subdued them to silence and stillness.
From Nong Khiaw, we waited another 2 hours before getting on a public boat to Muang Ngoi. The cramped but scenic boat ride along the Nam Ou river lasted about an hour. (25,000 kip/ less than $4 CAD per person, half price for kids)
WHAT HAS AND HASN'T CHANGED
When we docked and stepped out of the boat, we were cautiously excited. After our time in Luang Prabang, we learned not to let our past experiences influence the present.
The same main street remains as dusty as before, with visibly more chickens than people and the occasional motorbike or truck passing by. It feels a little more lively than it did back then. All in all though, not TOO much has changed over the years, except that electricity is now available 24/7 and there is free wifi everywhere, though with very limited speed. We barely used our devices during our 10 days here. Too many things to do in Muang Ngoi, with time much better spent away from screens.
There are definitely more restaurants and guesthouses nowadays, including a few fancy ones overlooking spectacular mountain views. Several full boats are seen loading and unloading tourists daily. However, it never feels too crowded or busy even in peak season, and you can still walk in and find a room without a problem. (FYI: Many accommodations are not listed online) Most people just come for the day and return to Nong Khiaw.
Below: Photo of Muang Ngoi THEN and NOW
OUR PLACE: SAYLOM GUESTHOUSE
Look for a short, old man, with a friendly smile...he will be greeting you as you walk up the steps from the boat. This guy runs one of the nicest guesthouses in town at the best prices. The bungalows are simple but very clean, only 50,000 kip/ $7.50 CAD per night with a private bathroom for two people. We opted to stay in the newer bungalow with floor to ceiling glass showcasing the most incredible river and mountain view. At 130,000 kip/ $20 CAD a night, for all four of us, this place was the best deal in town.
NEW YEARS EVE
So although we made it from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw without any vomiting, on our first night in Muang Ngoi, 3 out of 4 of us got hit with a nasty gastrointestinal bug. Thirty-six dreadful hours of fever, chills and barfing followed. We celebrated New Year's Eve with a festive combo of electrolyte cocktails and tylenol, and we didn't even make it past 10pm. After traveling for nearly 4 months, this was our first time getting sick. It was a rough start to 2020 in Muang Ngoi, but it was all upwards and onwards from there.
With a population of approx. 700, and a virtually car-free main road that stretches no more than 100 meters, the beauty of this town is in its simplicity. One can really appreciate the unhurried pace of life here. While there are rivers, smaller villages, hikes and caves to explore, the best way to enjoy this town is to have no plans. If there was any one place to practice the art of doing nothing, Muang Ngoi is it.
Having said that, the locals are always quietly keeping busy, whether they are tending to their gardens, molding boat propellers from scrap metal, chopping bark for medicine or weaving traditional blankets. Watching them at work, using skills and tools we don't get to see back home, is impressive and humbling at the same time. We even got some broken sandals repaired here by the man with the cast iron sewing machine (below).
WHY THE KIDS LOVED IT
It is not easy to find a place when you are traveling as a family, where you feel comfortable enough to allow your kids to exercise their full independence. Busan felt too big of a city, and we were just at the start of our trip at that point. Chiang Mai felt too busy, especially with the traffic and lack of sidewalks. Koh Lanta may have come close, but we didn't stay long enough in one place to really feel at ease and let the kids loose. Something about Muang Ngoi made Molly and Owen feel they could safely venture off and go exploring on their own, and we instinctively went along with it.
We were fortunate to have met another family who were staying at the same place, right next to our room. They had two boys, a few years older than our kids and the four of them bonded quickly and effortlessly. They spent a lot of time wandering all over town, playing by the river, looking for puppies and spending their pocket money on snacks and smoothies.
Any place with lots of cute, friendly animals is always a winner for the kids. This was another big reason why they loved Muang Ngoi so much!
On our last day, a massive papaya was gifted to us by our guesthouse owner, straight from his garden. We held our first-ever "papaya party" in the afternoon, and had a fruit feast with our new friends. With all the wood that the kids had collected earlier, the night ended with a bonfire by the beach, attracting a nice gathering of other tourists. Of all the places we have been to so far, Molly and Owen would still say, to this day, that their favorite place is Muang Ngoi.
THE FUTURE OF MUANG NGOI
Several hydro-electric dams, funded by the Chinese government, have been built on the Nam Ou river since we were last here. Some small villages have already been displaced and, as we've read, are struggling to adapt to these changes. The dams also disrupt the traffic flow of the boats, making it more difficult to access some villages further up river. Not sure what this will mean to all the different species of fish that live on the river, and the fishermen whose livelihood depend on the health and survival of these fish. Our guess is, it can't be good.
Ironically, these are the same dams that are generating electricity to power villages like Muang Ngoi, but from talking to the locals, they are not necessarily happy about the trade-off.
A high-speed train is also being built all the way from China through Laos and into Thailand. These are big changes for this very pristine part of the world, and it deserves close attention as to how this will impact the villages, its people, as well as the ecosystem. One thing is for sure. Places like Muang Ngoi will not stay as is for long, so if you want to visit a very unique part of South East Asia, do it now before it's too late.
Muang Ngoi may no longer be the off-the-beaten path destination it once was, yet it still feels worlds away in its remote beauty. There is a certain magic about this place, something you cannot describe in words. You simply have to experience it. Perhaps it's the people. They exude a special warmth that makes you feel like you've known them for years. Maybe it's also the surrounding nature. Lots of our time was spent outdoors, hiking to caves and viewpoints, playing and swimming in the river and visiting nearby villages. We woke up to the slow unveil of mist covered mountains, and chilled in the evenings watching the sunset paint the sky into all shades of yellow, orange and pink.
Our departure after 10 wonderful days was not easy. One of the dogs we bonded with saw us on our last morning, and followed playfully all the way to the dock as we were about to board our boat. Molly and Owen were so touched. A fitting end to our time in Muang Ngoi. We gave the dog a few final pats and she wagged her tail goodbye as we drifted off.