We were loath to leave Nong Khiaw (see Parts I and II) and wondered whether Muang Ngoi, just an hour upstream on the Nam Ou, could hold as much appeal. It did, and perhaps even a tad more. Like Nong Khiaw, its riverside location and mountain scenery are stunning, but Muang Ngoi is smaller and even more basic and laid back. Mike and I agree that our favourite day of our travels through Cambodia and Laos was in Muang Ngoi: relaxing, hiking, caving, kayaking, and shopping for weavings (well, that last one was more up my alley).
Virtually all travellers get to Muang Ngoi by boat. Most arrive from Nong Khiaw, an easy, if a bit crammed one hour journey. There is now a road from Nong Khiaw but it isn’t serviced by public transportation and you can see why in the photo below (and this is dry season).
Munag Ngoi’s main road is about 500 m long with a temple on one end and a river/mountain on the other. The town has a smattering of basic guesthouses (many with great views), a few restaurants, a good tour/trekking company (Lao Youth Travel) and plenty of locals who are happy to provide guiding or boating service. Currently there are no ATMs in Muang Ngoi so don’t forget to bring cash.
Muang Ngoi is a perfect place for chilling (but there’s Mike with his laptop!) If you have to be on the computer, the deck at Ning Ning Guesthouse is a primo spot with tremendous views, decent WiFi, and cold Beerlao. The guesthouse itself isn’t great value but we were sucked in by the views.
The photo collage above shows some typical Muang Ngoi scenes. It’s a simple, sleepy, peaceful, and endearing place. But, it wasn’t always so bucolic…
Muang Ngoi was directly in the path of the Ho Chi Minh Trail that served as a strategic supply route for the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. The area was heavily bombed and reminders of this time are found in the interesting though unsettling bomb shell “decor” outside guesthouses and eateries. Perhaps it’s the contrast with the serenity of the local people and landscape that made me feel sad when we came across these war artifacts.
Phanai Cave and Muang Ngoi Viewpoint
There are many caves near Muang Ngoi that played a role in the war sheltering villagers from bombing attacks. They can be visited independently or with a guide. Mike and I trudged off alone to Phanai Cave, just a 10 minute walk from the temple (there’s a 10,000Kip/$1.25 fee). Don’t be put off by the big rock partially blocking the entrance. Once you climb around it, the cave is spacious and remains so for several hundred meters until you get to a chamber with many small Buddha statues. Actually, I have no idea how far or long we walked; the darkness and spookiness made me lose track. Except for my imagination playing tricks on me, there was nothing difficult about visiting this cave. Just make sure you have adequate light (one strong headlamp and a phone flashlight worked for us).
After visiting the cave, we continued along the jungle path uphill for another 15-20 minutes to the Muang Ngoi viewpoint. It’s not quite as spectacular as the viewpoint in Nong Khiaw but definitely worth a visit.
Ban Sopjam Weaving Village and Kayaking
For our afternoon excursion, we hired a boat through Lao Youth Travel to schlepp us and a kayak about 30 minutes upriver to Ban Sopjam from where we would paddle back to Muang Ngoi. But not before we made a pit stop in this village known for its weavings.
As we climbed up the riverbank and onto the dirt road we were greeted by a tidy village where virtually every housefront displayed a dazzling selection of colourful scarves. I was in heaven! It was a bit intimidating at first: we were the only visitors there and at least a dozen local ladies were looking at me expectantly. Who should I buy from? Fortunately, the ladies were lovely and not pushy in the least. I laughed, and using hands and facial expressions I tried to convey that I was overwhelmed with all their beautiful wares. I think they understood. One of the ladies made Mike an omelette while I shopped and finally settled on six scarves (I should have bought more).
I didn’t think the day could get any better, but then, with scarves safely stowed in a dry bag, we paddled back to Muang Ngoi. It was unbelievably peaceful and beautiful. The scenery along this stretch of the Nam Ou, where the steep sided mountains seem to squeeze in the river, is even more spectacular than around Nong Khiaw, and there is less boat traffic. With a little swim stop, it took us barely two hours to get back. It may have been the best two hours of our entire trip and we were both feeling overwhelmingly happy and grateful.
Nong Khiaw or Muang Ngoi?
That’s a tough one. Both are gorgeous. Nong Khiaw has more amenities and choice of lodging and restaurants. Muang Ngoi is simpler and gets less visitors. Try to stay in both for at least a couple of nights. If you want to stay put, it’s easy to visit Muang Ngoi and Ban Sopjam as a day trip from Nong Khiaw. You can do it as part of a tour, hire a boat, or catch the regularly scheduled boats between Nong Khiaw and Muang Ngoi. The latter squish you in like sardines, but they’re cheap (Mike doesn’t look too uncomfortable and it’s only an hour).
There’s much more on Laos coming soon!