Day 142: Discovering backpacker haven - Muang Ngoi


Muang Ngoi, which was once only accessible by boat, is quickly opening to the tourist industry. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli

QUICKLY walking down the broken road as it sweeps into a rubble parking lot with a single room office selling boat tickets, I'm worried I'll miss the 2pm transfer to Muang Ngoi.

A white guy, late 30s, shaved head, t-shirt and floppy parachute pants, is sitting in the steps outside the blue office. He looks straight through me as a approach to buy a ticket.

I am a complete mess with three or four bags hanging haphazardly from one shoulder or the other due to my attempt to re-pack what I needed for the night, leaving must of my gear in a storage room at Sunrise Bungalows with my bike.

Ana and a few other people I've met took the 10am boat up to up river to Muang Ngoi. However, I'd promised my tour guide from yesterday, Thom, that I would come by his restaurant to work out the details for a Trip Adviser listing and a Facebook page, so I wasn't able to make the earlier boat.

“Good, now we can go,” the French-Canadian man, Jonathan, says when I walk back past him.

“Glad you guys wanted for me,” I say with a smile.

“We weren't waiting for you. They just won't leave until the boat is full,” he says with a bit of a know-it-all grimace. “Is this your first time to Mung Ngoi?”

“Yeah. Is it nice?”

“It's amazing. One of the best places, but there is no ATM, so I had to come to town today to get more money. How long will you be there?”

“Just tonight. I've got to be back in Nong Khiaw tomorrow.”

“Oh, you don't want to do that. You'll regret not staying longer.”

“Well, it's all the time I have, so I figure I'll at least see the place.”

“You'll regret it man. Rushing around like that,” he says with an arrogant backpacker tone that makes me slightly inclined toward punching him in the face.

“I've been out East for five years. I'm pretty happy with my pace,” I say, obviously stretching the boundaries of the truth, as most of the time I spent chained to an office desk of the Phuket Gazette news room in Thailand.

“You'll just regret it man. Better to stay longer.”

Not in the mood to explain my entire travel itinerary to justify why I've only got one night up there, I grunt and return to my book.

Take a peek between the peaks that lead to Muang Ngoi. Video: Isaac Stone Simonelli / Music: Glenn Simonelli

My two options are basically don't see the place at all or stay for one night, as I'm meeting Jess – a friend from Phuket – down in Luang Prabang tomorrow evening. I need to be at the airport at 5pm; this is already cutting things close. Not meeting her, isn't an option.

“The views on the way up really are beautiful,” Jonathan says. “You should check them out.”

Fuck off dude, I think, but instead of saying anything, I look up and enjoy a few minutes of the slow moving brown water of the Ou River slipping along the jungle shoreline.

I return to my book only to get interrupted by Jonathan, again. Apparently, there have been changes to Thai visa laws.

“Yeah, I read it one place online that they won't give you a visa exemption on the border anymore,” he says.

After five years of reporting the news on visa changes that might impact foreigners in Thailand and jumping through my own set of hoops, I'm not the least bit concerned. These sort of rules, sometimes even backed with an official Thai Immigration letter, are rarely enforced. When they are, it is only done sporadically. In general, things continue to run as they have in the past, with only the occasional, temporary change to the system.

“Hmmmm... I'm not worried about it,” I say.

“But I don't think you'll be able to cross over if you don't have a visa. I think you'll have to go to Vientiane to get tourist visa first.”

“I'll see when I get there.” “I was reading that it's changed recently and...”

I put my hands up gently waving them, shaking my head. This guy will not stop with these unhelpful, subtly arrogant and clearly patronizing pieces of advice.

“Just... Don't worry about it,” I say, actually patting him on the knee, since no matter how many times I return to my book he's determined to interrupt me and then explain why I suck at traveling and how I'm doing it wrong. “I appreciate it, thank you.”

“It's coming from a genuine place man,” he says.

“Okay, I appreciate it,” I say, lying between my teeth.

Later, I agree to send him an email from the border when I cross to let him know if I have any issues, and he finally gives me some welcome advice: checkout this cave where there is a swimming hole that's not too far out of town.

I hadn't originally considered going to Muang Ngoi, but everyone was raving about the place. They painted a picture of this sleepy little riverside village with no electricity or WiFi. Though I'm addicted to the internet, a break from the online world, even for a night sounded perfect. Also, located an hour up river, there wouldn't be any light pollution, so when the sun went down there would be a near perfect darkness with only celestial lights in the sky.

Those were the details everyone was clear about: no WiFi, limited electricity.

Even Travel Fish writes: “A gorgeous, sleepy town, Muang Ngoi gets our vote as one of the friendliest places in all of Laos. You won't find any banks, public internet access or landline telephones, so remember to bring cash and tell your friends and family you'll be incommunicado. However, given the pace of development around Laos, it is only a matter of time before the modern world arrives in Muang Ngoi.

Our boat navigates past some fishermen, then works its way through a number of submerged, tall-grassed islands before arriving at a blue floating dock.

Steep cement stairs up from the dock are flanked on one side by the open deck of cafe on high stilts. Ana sits with a group on the deck, taking in the stunning landscape across the river: more steep jungle mountains.

Everywhere there are hand pained wooden signs advertising bungalows, cafes and WiFi – it appears that WiFi is everywhere. So the modern world as arrived; time for Travel Fish to update their destination description.

“Room?” a plump, middle-aged woman, one of several waiting along the steps politely asks me as I approach.

“Yeah.”

“Okay, follow me.” Ms Suanphao says, after confirming a very reasonable price.

The main drag of town is a dirt, gravel track with bits of life – chicken scratches, soup water and exposed PVC pipes – cropping up here and there. We take a left and walk to the end of the road, passing countless bungalows, as well as a few restaurants, bars and cafes. There's a place with a sign in English offering books and another that specializes in mending. Where I first met Ms Suanphao, there is a local guide office, where four or five men lounged in the shade.

A wicker cage is cast on the side of the road with a flock of chicks peeping beneath it. Two older women passively watch the world as they talk to each other, sitting on a worn wooden bench nearby.

Locals live a slow-paced life in Muang Ngoi. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli

This is the backpacker haven that I thought Pai in Thailand would be. At this moment in time, it seems that Muang Ngoi is teetering on the edge of a blade, tourist trap on one side, no creature comforts on the other. Jonathan was right, it would be easy to spend your entire Laos holiday just hiking the mountains and caves in the area after a lovely English breakfast and coffee in the morning and in full knowledge that there would be a couple cocktails and a Laos dinner with fellow travelers that night.

We arrive at Suanphao Guesthouse, taking a left down a narrow path, pushing open a roughly-built corrugated fence door. There's a beautiful collection of a half dozen stand alone bungalows in the little garden area that abruptly ends in a drop off overlooking the Ou River. A papaya tree grows near a brown-tiled picnic table at the center of the cluster of rooms.

Ms Suanphao opens the wooden door of a room. I kick off my shoes and take a look, it's a sparse, but clean room, with a lovely porch and a perfect view of the river and mountains – not bad for several dollars a night

“Perfect. Thank you.”

If I need anything, I can find Suanphao at the pharmacy shopfront on the main street, she explains. She use to be a nurse, her husband a doctor, until they were forced to stop that line of work by the government. I can taste a story as she briefly explains, but I fail to get the full picture. I wander if it's connected to the war.

After a quick hike around town, walking past a bustling schoolyard, a “gas station” and the local Buddhist temple, I get the drone out.

A pile of kids burst through the gate of the guesthouse, a couple adults in tow. They are all smiles and laughs.

The kids were excited to find where the drone took off from. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli

One of the adults points to the sky, explaining that the kids had been running back and forth along the main road, following the drone. It wasn't until it landed back at the guesthouse that they knew exactly where to go.

I try to explain to the kids as they creep in closer that the drone is out of batteries, but if they come back tomorrow morning, I'll be able to fly it again. It really is a shame that it's drained, but that's one of the drawbacks of this model and only having one battery – I don't have much fly time.

I let a couple cute kids hold the drone, showing them how the propellers spin, then start to pack it up, putting the battery on the charger for the night.

Back toward the dock, I poke around the deck of a nearly empty cafe as the sun sets between two jungle peaks on the far side of the river. I'd order a drink, but there isn't a server to be found.

In the yard of the cafe, next to the owners home, is a long cluster bomb case with varies little bombies decorating the top, another cafe along the main road is also decorated with the bomb casings.

Even in this sleepy little town there are reminders of the Secret War. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli

“Hey!” I smile and shake hands with Yosua.

Two nights ago, the die sent me out to check out a bar to do some work, rather than working at home in the bungalow. Down the street, maybe 100 meters, I popped into Cue Bar, which ironically doesn't have a pool table. It was 10pm, but the crowd was thin.

“Coffee. Hot. Please,” I tell the owner behind the bar after scanning the drink menu.

A group of four or five people are sitting round a long table against one of the side walls, drinking beers and chatting. By the sounds of it there are two Australians – though I couldn't say from where exactly – and a couple from the UK.

I find a place with my back against the wall at my own long table. The next table up, there is this bossomy young woman with a strong nose, dirty blond hair and beautiful eyes. She's sitting with a fit guy wearing a grizzly beard that fits his face. His wavy dark hair is pulled back into a man-bun. So often I see backpackers with beards that look as if they were glued on; they simply don't match the person's face. However, this man's beard is a good match.

Sipping coffee and typing away, I smile at the woman, listening in on her conversation with the guy. Her eyes flash, giving me a glance. She's got the most flirtatiously beautiful eyes. I smile.

Maybe I was wrong. Maybe they aren't a couple. There is always that presumption when you see male and female traveling partners, but that's not always the case. The guy, bounces of to the bathroom. He's had a few drinks for sure, while she seems to be soberly irritated with whatever level drunk he is.

Listening to them and looking at them, my guess is that they're Italian. I'm wrong. It turns out that she's French-Moroccan and he's Spanish-Moroccan.

After chiming in about where to find the best Aussie Pie's in Phuket – Lady Pies – I wave to the group to my right, which is breaking up as everyone heads to bed with talk of checking out the morning market.

The couple is also ready to call it a night. The man Yosua, comes up and gives me a hearty handshake goodbye, though we hadn't said a word, just shared some smiles. His friend, Lina, gives a me a hug that makes my heart skip a beat and a kiss on each cheek. Then, they're off.

Now, a couple days later, here appears Yosua.

“Want to grab a beer?” I ask, though I'm not much of a beer drinker.

“Good to see you. Good to see you. Yeah, Lina is coming,” Yosua says.

We grab a corner table overlooking the Ou River, the sun is gone, but lights dangling from a potted tree on the balcony provides plenty of light.

A server brings us two mugs and a big bottle of Beer Lao to share. Yosua is one of those incredibly charismatic people that you instantly like and seems to instantly like nearly everyone he meets. He's living in Morocco and has a clothing design shop in some little surfing resort town.

Lina joins us with her lovely smile. She's starving, which Yosua confirms is pretty standard.

Unlike Yosua, who speaks great English. Lina doesn't speak any. I have a feeling that she understands a certain amount of what's being said, but in general she's preoccupied with a cat that's wandered our way.

“Lina loves animals. She has 24 dogs back at home,” Yosua says.

Lina looks at him and he explains what he said in French. He has a lovely feel for when to turn to her and translate this bit or that bit of the conversation and when to just keep chatting. Equally good in the partnership, she seems content following along when and however she can.

She smiles and nods, confirming his story.

The server still hasn't brought Lina a menu. I stand up and wander over to where the menus are, bring her one. She orders some food and a white wine, which she doesn't touch after the first sip.

“So there is this gibbon that I love,” Yosua is explaining. “It's at the waterfall in Luang Prabang. I think I will buy it. The man said it costs 100,000 Kip, then I can donate it to somewhere that can take better care of it.”

A boom echoes through the mountains. It sounds like a bomb going off. It most likely is a bomb going off.

Lina misses my explanation to Yosua, who then bends the truth, saying it was probably a gun shot when as he translates it to her.

“Don't want to scare her,” he says.

Several drinks later, after I admit that I don't like beer and Lina points out that Yosua also doesn't like beer, which begs the question: why are we drinking beer, we head up to a bar on the main drag.

There is a pile of backpackers sprawled out on pillows around one of the tables.

I settle down on edge next to a couple people I'd seen around, Yosua and Lina take up a post on the far side next to this French guy named Leo.

Within minutes, all three of them are nearly in tears with laughter. I should have paid more attention during my French classes at university.

The evening turns to night as I chat up a young Australian girl who's travel buddy ditched her a day or two ago – not everyone is made to travel together. Short cropped hair with a cute face, she's working at the restaurant for free room and board for a few days. Though at this point, she seems to be mostly just hanging out.

Muang Ngoi is a very chilled out place.

“Okay, choose one number and we'll do a Mad Dog shot. Otherwise, we just call it a night,” I tell Yosua. It's late and nearly everyone else has gone home.

A Mad Dog, which I explained to Yosua earlier, is the worst way to take a tequila shot in the world, and, without a doubt, my favorite. You put a line of salt on your hand, grab the a of tequila and a wedge of lime, which sounds standard. Then, you snort the salt, shoot the tequila and squeeze the lime into your eye. The pain from the citric acid of the lime juice in your eye is so bad that it's hard to stop laughing as you watch your mate suffer as well.

Yosua calls four. Yosua rolls a four.

I'm in tears, for various reasons, after we finish up our Mad Dogs.

“Do you have a banana?” Yosua asks the server. Lina is hungry again.

We all hug goodbye, agreeing to meet back up for the Festival of Lights in Luang Prabang.

My bill is substantially more than I anticipated. Walking down the empty street, a bit drunk, I bask in the cool light of the nearly full moon. With a bit of effort I clamor over the gate – it's locked – then return to the restaurant with enough cash to settle my bill.

I seem to be the only person awake in town, but I don't last much longer. I nearly pass out before I can get out of my clothes and into bed.

Tourists head back to Nong Khiaw after a few blissful days in Muang Ngoi. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli

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The Proposition

THE premise is simple: Allow die roles to determine the majority of decisions faced while motorbiking throughout the world with a limited budget for an entire year.      It’s 365 days of tempting fate, enticing serendipity and letting go of free will – if such things exist at all.

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