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New Year’s Eve in Muang Ngoi

LAOS | Thursday, 17 January 2008 | Views [2068]

the end of day, Dec 31, 2007

the end of day, Dec 31, 2007

On New Year’s Eve, I took the bus from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw. From there, I stuffed myself onto a boat that would take me up the Nam Ou River to Muang Ngoi. The boat is quite narrow, and the seats are two benches that run along the sides, designed for people with small frames and short legs. Since you are knee-to-knee with the person across from you, it’s pretty much impossible to stretch your legs. Luckily the gorgeous scenery was a good distraction from the cramped quarters.

The river is in a gorge, surrounded by green mountains and hills, and it was striking in the late afternoon light. The river has many rapids and I was highly impressed with the skill of the driver as he expertly navigated around the rocks, gunning the engine as we fought our way against the current through the rapids. (On the return, I had a different kind of experience of this when some of us had to get out of the boat and walk a kilometer downstream, fending off herds of goats, because the boat was too heavy to navigate the rapids.  But that's another story).

We arrived in Muang Ngoi nearly 2 hours later and the fun part began: the hunt for a room. I had left Luang Prabang because it was so full, but it hadn’t occurred to me that the same might be true of this little village. I had met a couple in Nong Khiaw who told me they had just vacated a bungalow at the place at the far end of the road. Thinking I was very clever, I headed straight for this place, only to find that they were already full. As I walked back, I stopped at a few places. All full. This was not good.

At this point, I crossed paths with two French guys who had been on my boat and who had started from the other end of the road (the village is basically laid along one short dusty road, though there are neither cars nor motorbikes) and they told me that all the places they had checked were full. This was not good. My backpack started to feel very heavy. But there were still a few places on the inland side of the road, so we walked towards them. Also full. I headed back toward the boat landing, remembering that there were a couple places in the other direction. I saw two Japanese backpackers who had also been on the boat, also still looking. I decided to dump my big backpack by the ferry landing in order to move more quickly. I checked a few more places (it may sound like there are many places, and there are relative to the size of the village, but most only have about 3 or 4 rooms), to no avail.

Then, a young woman who was sitting by the road asked me in English if I was looking for a room. I said “yes” with a quite a bit of desperation, adding that everywhere seemed to be full, hoping that she was not asking out of idle curiosity. Then she said the magic words: “my family used to have a guesthouse and it’s closed now, but we have a few rooms, if you like.” She led me to a wooden house, up a ladder to the second floor and showed me two small rooms. It was pretty basic—the beds were wooden shelves with thin mats, but I would have slept anywhere at that point (and later I was to learn that this was pretty much the norm in Muang Ngoi). I took the room with the double bed, thinking that it would be better to leave the room with twin beds for two people. She told me she would charge 20,000 kip, about $2. I said yes, yes, yes.

As I went to retrieve my backpack, I saw the father of the Thai family who had also been on the boat. They were still looking for a place, so I told him about my find. When I came back with the backpack, he had already booked the second room. He asked very politely if I would switch rooms with him, since they were three and I was one, and I agreed. Then the two French guys came along, still looking for accommodation, and Nang, our hostess, said she could find a room for them. They had a storage room with a mattress, which they cleared out for them, charging them a bit more since it was actually a proper mattress.

At this point, Putza, the 16 year old Thai girl traveling with her parents, had befriended me, and we went out to explore the village. Not soon after, we bumped into the two Japanese backpackers, still searching for a room. We told them about our “guesthouse” and took them back, even though we doubted there was any space left. Nang said that she could give them a family member’s bed, but they’d have to sleep together. The Japanese woman reacted like she'd been told she'd have to sleep out back with the pigs.  It turns out they were both traveling alone. I offered her the twin bed in my room, feeling a little bit like the room fairy, and there we were, all the travelers from the boat, happily united under one roof.

I went to sit by the river to watch the light fade. The town is surrounded by mountains, so the sun goes down quite early. There was a faint pink glow in the western horizon, and the fading light and shadows on the still water of the river were evocative. I thought about the past year, wanting to do an extensive review, but just one simple sentence came to me: 2007 was the year that I thought everything in my life was ending, but really, it was all just beginning.

Later, Putza, my new friend, invited me to dinner, and we ate by candlelight with her mother and the Japanese guy. We were finished by 7.30 pm, with many hours to go until midnight. I was fading fast after the long day of travel and little sleep the night before. I managed to drink a beer and stay awake until 10.30, but I was in bed by 10.40 pm on New Year’s Eve – a first for me in a long time. But I smiled to myself in my tiny bunk, on the thin foam pad, covered with the dusty comforter, with the thin wooden partitions between the rooms, the tiny holes in the thatched bamboo walls, and no electricity.

The beauty of traveling this way is that you never know where you’ll end up by the close of each day. I love this element of unpredictability. I never would have expected I’d spend New Year’s Eve sharing a tiny room with a Japanese girl I had just met, a Thai family on one side, two French guys on the other, in a small village in Northern Laos. Perhaps it was not the most exciting or romantic New Year’s Eve, but I will take it anyway, simply for the sheer joy of the unexpected and all the possibilities that exist therein.

Tags: celebrations, muang ngoi, new years eve, unexpected joy

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