Mong Ngoi, Laos

Travel in Laos is usually a difficult affair, so the boat ride from Nong Khiaw was a much appreciated pleasure.  The hour long ride saw us pass limestone cliffs, submerged to the head water buffalo, tribal villages, small rapids, and lush hillsides.  Though tightly packed we watched the passing scenes in relative comfort, getting more excited the further we went.

We had been a bit concerned about Mong Ngoi before arriving.  We saw throngs of tourists boarding boats headed there and wondered if we’d end up stranded in Disneyland, but as we climbed up the stairs into town we were relieved to find a quiet rural town with only the occasional Westerner passing by.  We had formed a group of five.  Another couple Darrel and Krystyna (England, Canada), Ben (Canada), and Val and I sniffed out the cheapest beds in town and dropped our heavy packs.

The owner of the guest house, Penny, was an absolute firecracker.  She gave a good half and hour performance filled with jokes about Laotions and foreigners, life lessons, and a voice that climbed high peaks and dropped into deep valleys.  We’d found the right place.

“Let’s grab some beers and head to the river,” I can’t remember exactly who made the suggestion, but it was genious and we followed it to the T.   The water was clear and cold.  We all made it across the 50m wide flow at different rates, Val and I bringing up the rear.  A large pig ambled by, obviously surprised and amused to see white people in his turf.  He was followed by a few buffalo.  Slowly we found out more and more about each other and our frienships strengthened.  A delicious dinner and more stories from Penny lulled us to bed.

The next day we got a late start.  Our goal is too walk to some tribal villages and see some caves.  The walk was littered with butterflies, hundreds of them swirled about in all shapes and colors.  We were soon trudging through rice paddies and farms.  We came upon a beautiful cave and headed inside where Val sleuthed out a massive spider that scared every member of our multi-national force.  The cave bottom was filled with the crystal clear waters of a slow stream that echoed off the walls.  We decided not to follow it too deep as we wanted to keep moving to the villages.

Signage in Asia is apparently designed to confuse and Laos features some very effective signs.  Eventually we sorted ourselves out and arrived in a pristine village set under limestone cliffs.  A man asked us if we wanted some drinks in his broken English, despite not being thirsty we all indulged, a little extra money helps these people tremendously.  The village featured the usual stilt houses, chickens, naked children, and wandering livestock but was punctuated with beautiful Looms filled with colorful thread and masterful works.  The locals seemed genuinely happy to see us and we shared the universal show of well meaning and appreciation – large smiles with many teeth, or lack thereof.

After many waves goodbye we proceeded to get lost trying to find the next village.  This was good though because it lead us past some beautiful streams and some too-close-for-comfort water bufallo (which was actually really cool).  Once again we sorted ourselves out and got on the right track.  The next village was even more picturesque and remote than the first.  An old man was able to communicate with us and notify us that he owned 100 chickens, 25 ducks, and 5 dogs.  He then notified us with an infectious laugh that he also had zero kip (money).  Out here though, money is only necessary if someone has to go the hospital or buy a rare item they cannot make themselves.  The villagers seemed happy and healthy.  To gather the rainy day funds they run a small guesthouse that sees very few visitors, they also have a humble “restaurant” (an open hut with some chairs) where we found ourselves each ordering bananas.  “One, two, three, four, FIVE BANANAS!” the man exclaimed, and our gang now had a title – The Five Bananas.

It was getting late and we had to leave the vastly entertaining old man and head back.  In a world where 2 billion people survive on less than a dollar a day, it’s good to know that at least some of them live as well as these proud people.  There income might make them “impoverished” but their reality makes them rich, and beautiful.

Back in Mong Ngoi we find a drunk Penny making us promise to come to dinner down by the river where her friend is celebrating her daughter’s birthday.  We were a little concerned if our order actually made it to the kichen as the staff are “feeling no pain”, but as if by magic everything, okay most things, arrived eventually.  It was hard to be bothered about these blunders when the staff kept bringing us free beer and water.  That’s seems to be how it is in Laos, no one is ever left out of the party and happiness is to be shared.

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Scott Dusek is a writer and photography originally from Seattle, Washingon.

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