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Muang Ngoi & the Nam Ou, Part II

LAOS | Friday, 18 January 2008 | Views [2577]

A young reader on the Nam Ou river

A young reader on the Nam Ou river

On New Year's Day, I went out to hunt for the bungalow with the perfect view. Most of the places to stay in Muang Ngoi are simple bungalows made from woven bamboo, with tiny porches complete with the all-important hammock, set along the river. The porch and hammock were important parts of my vision of my visit to Muang Ngoi, and I found it in a bungalow at the far end of town. It was literally the last bungalow in town, and the quiet and solitude appealed to me. There was a simple shared bathroom: squat toilet and a giant tank of (cold) water with a scoop that serves as sink and shower. But I didn’t care, because the view was breathtaking from the tiny porch (see the Laos photo gallery for a photo). I spread out my yoga mat and did yoga that morning, gasping with awe when I’d look through my legs upside down in a pose, and catch a glimpse of the green mountains. When I jumped backwards or forwards, I nearly punched a hole in the rickety wooden floor.

It was a cloudy day, and as the afternoon grew long, the temperature started dropping. I started putting on layers of clothes, and by night-time I was wearing 2 tank tops, 1 t-shirt, 2 long sleeve shirts, a fleece hoodie, and my raincoat, plus three pairs of socks and my hiking shoes. I slept, hiked and generally lived in my only pair of long pants, which fortunately are black, the whole time I was there. In the night it was easily in the low 40s, high 30s, Fahrenheit, which may not seem so cold, but consider that walls are made of bamboo thatch and restaurants are open-air. All the kids in the village were wearing socks with their flip flops and men and women were bundled up in scarves and hats. At night people lit logs on fire in the street, and huddled around them.

That night, my bungalow which seemed so perfect by day, seemed very cold, lonely, and precarious. It was dark and my door did not lock. It wasn’t very windy, but I still felt like I might fall into the river. It could have been because the bed slanted in this direction. I slept with my hood up, covered with the two not-at-all clean-smelling comforters (I realized that when you have to do all your washing in the river, sheets and comforters are rarely washed). It was cold, really cold. By morning I knew I could not spend another night there and decided to catch the boat back to Nong Khiaw. By spending a night there, I’d increase my chances of being able to go back to Luang Prabang by boat.

I paid my 30,000 kip ($3.30) and moved on through the morning mist. I stopped for a quick breakfast, eating a banana pancake and thick Lao coffee with a huge dollop of condensed milk at the bottom. The sun started to come out and as the mist lifted, a beautiful day was revealed. The boat was leaving in 20 minutes, but I was resisting going to catch it. On impulse I checked to see if there was a room at the closest bungalow place. Not only did they have a room, but it was one of the nicest in town – with a bathroom inside, tiled and clean with toilet paper! And it seemed a bit cleaner, though I have learned that it’s best not to look too closely. It was clear that I was meant to stay another day in Muang Ngoi.

My next task was to organize the day’s activity. I wanted to go trekking (what they call hiking), and I hoped to catch a group before they left. But no luck, I was too late. I asked around and found a guide who was available. He very apologetically told he would have to charge me the full price of $30 since I was just one person. It was a bit steep, but it included transport, a full day of his services and lunch, but even better, I’d have my own private tour.

His name was Keo and one of the first Lao words he taught me was “bad, very bad.” I learned this when the engine of our tiny boat broke down half way to our destination. He started paddling, while our boatman continued to try to start the engine and we repeated these new words. We eventually made it to our drop off spot, though I’m not sure how the boatman made out, paddling upstream with a broken engine.

We hiked a bit uphill and then came to a fairly large village, where Keo told me we would take a break (this meant he wanted a cigarette). I smiled and exchanged “sabaidees” (hellos) with some kids, and learned how to say “beautiful baby” (dek noy nam (phonetically) and watched a woman distill sticky rice whiskey, called lao lao, which is the moonshine of choice in these parts. Lao is a tonal language and I can’t quite get “beautiful” right, and people give me these puzzled expressions, so no doubt I am saying something like “smelly dragon baby” to them.

Then Keo asked me if I wanted to take a motorbike up to the Hmong village that was our destination, so we’d get there quicker. I said it was really very kind of him to offer, but I really preferred to walk, since after all, that was what we were supposed to be doing.


We walked uphill on a dirt track, passing dried out (already harvested) rice fields and a group of women and children hauling large sacks of a root they had harvested from the forest. Keo told me that they sell it to the Chinese. In the countryside, everywhere you see women and children hauling large loads. Men do, too, of course, but women are the most visible, because they carry large loads on their backs using straps that go across their foreheads. It gives me a headache to imagine how it must feel, but there must be a reason it works for them. Women carry all sorts of loads, and in Muang Ngoi, I saw women carrying two large sacks of concrete mix balanced on bamboo sticks.

It was beyond lovely to be out in the countryside, walking on a dirt road on a sunny day, breathing the cool, fresh air, butterflies and green all around, the mountains in the distance. Keo and I chatted, and I had the sense that he felt free to ask me questions that he might not ask of a larger group. He asked me if it was normal in my country and in Europe for Asians and non-Asians to marry. I said that it was very normal in the US, though maybe more so in some places than others. I asked him what he thought of all the tourists that come through Muang Ngoi, and he said that he was happy because they gave him work. I asked what Lao people thought of the dreadlocked, hippie-like backpackers. He told me that they feel sorry for these people because they look like they do not have enough money to bathe.

He asked me the usual questions: How old are you? Are you married? Do you have a boyfriend? When I answer no to the latter questions, I always feel that people feel sorry for me, so this time I explained that I had a boyfriend for many years but that we had recently split. His response surprised me, “That is so nice. You know, Justine, we cannot do that here in Lao, but maybe, sometimes, it is better. You are very lucky.” He told me he had been married for 10 years, and sometimes it was not such a good thing.

We talked about other things for a while, and then he returned to the topic of me being single and traveling alone. I tried to explain by saying that I really enjoyed my freedom and independence, completely forgetting that in many parts of the world some men hear a woman speaking the words “freedom” and “independence” and translate them to mean “I am a loose American woman.” This was made clear when he asked me, “have you had happiness with a man while you have been traveling?” I had absolutely no intention of "having happiness" with him, unless it was of the trekking variety, so I quickly changed the subject and asked him to explain wet rice agriculture to me.

We reached the Hmong village, a tidy affair constructed entirely of bamboo and palm thatch. Bamboo fences protect vegetable gardens, papaya trees, and tall poinsettia bushes. They had lived there only about 2 years, after being re-settled from higher ground. The government has re-settled Hmong villages for many stated reasons – to stem slash and burn agriculture, to better control those who were on the other side during the war, and also to bring them closer to schools and health facilities. Keo introduced me to the headman, and with Keo translating, I was able to ask questions while we ate a lunch of water spinach soup, papaya fried with onions, and steamed rice. The headman asked me about the situation of Hmong people in the US. After reading The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, I felt like I could answer with a tiny bit of knowledge. I told him, as I had read, that it was very difficult for many Hmong to adapt to the US because it was so different, but that younger people had an easier time of it. He asked me if I thought life was better for Hmong people in Laos or in the US. This was a hard one, so I said that it seemed that it depended on the situation, but it seemed that Hmong who stayed in Laos were better able to maintain their traditional way of life. He seemed satisfied with my response, and explained that his village had been on the side of the Lao government during the war (thus protected from post-war reprisals that caused many Hmong to flee under extreme duress). They were happy with their new village because the government had given them a well and a school.

After lunch, we hiked back to the river, taking a different route. On the riverbank, children were taking bundles of firewood across to their village on the other side. While we waited for our ride home, we sat in Keo’s friend’s boat. Two small boys hopped in and started paddling us around. The two men started singing, thumping out the beat on the side of the boat. It was an idyllic moment, the river calm, the late afternoon shadows growing long, the men’s voices sonorant.

I pulled out my Lao phrase book to attempt to chat with the boys, and one of them instantly came over to take a look. I handed it to him, and watched as he started to read the Lao script that accompanies the English transliteration of each word. His eyes lit up and he literally inhaled each word, slowly sounding it out with his finger. The boy had a cleft palate, and I wondered how this affected his speech. It certainly did not affect his curiosity and eagerness to learn. He looked at me and gestured for me to give the book to him. My first reaction was “No way! I need that if I’m going to get around in your country.” But then I told myself that I could easily buy another one for $10 in Luang Prabang, while this boy probably rarely, if ever, saw a book. I felt badly that it was such a small offering – a phrase book geared toward the English speaking tourist (and really regretted not bringing books to give from Big Brother Mouse, a fabulous organization that publishes books in Lao for children and encourages foreigners to get involved). But it was lovely to see how he devoured the words, his eyes shining.

The next day, I had the good fortune to catch a boat in Nong Khiaw to journey back to Luang Prabang by boat, via the Nam Ou River. It’s a gorgeous 6 hour (+ 2 hours from Muang Ngoi to Nong Khiaw) journey downstream on a green river, through the mountains and past villages. Passing by the villages, you see that the river is Life for the people who live here. The river is their highway, washing machine, irrigation system, bathtub, source of food (fish and river weed), source of recreation, and in some cases, source of power (we passed some small hydro-power generating systems made of bamboo and bicycle wheels). I watched women washing clothes, collecting river weed, and hauling water, while children fished with nets. Men were not often in view, so presumably they were doing something else, like hunting or building or working in the fields.

In the afternoon, everyone comes down to the river to bathe, carrying small plastic baskets (not unlike what I used in the dorm in college) with toothbrushes and soap. The women bathe with sarongs wrapped around their bodies for modesty, while the men strip down to briefs, and children go naked. Every time we passed children on the river bank, we would wave and they would all start waving at us like mad, jumping up and down and stopping only when we were out of sight.

About an hour north of Luang Prabang, the Nam Ou merges with the Mekong, which felt like a muddy super-highway after the green majesty of the Nam Ou.  As we joined the stream of boats heading toward Luang Prabang, the sun sank low in front of us, turning the river and the sky a brilliant orange.  We chugged along toward the setting sun, and arrived at the boat landing in Luang Prabang just as the sun slipped below the dark hills.  Bathed in the golden light, I stepped off the boat onto solid ground, feeling drunk on the intense beauty of the river, my legs unsteady from the hours afloat, and my face aflame with windburn.  A line of tuk-tuks waited for me above, but for a moment I lingered, unwilling to leave the enchantments of the river behind.  

Tags: adventures, hmong, muang ngoi, nam ou river, rivers, trekking

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