Bisected by a clear blue river and a smattering of colorful boats, flanked on either size by resplendent emerald mountains, Nong Khiaw boasts some of the most striking landscapes we've seen anywhere. It is hard to believe, but we're told the scenery will get even more intense further up the river—and that's where we're headed today!
After breakfast, we find a dirt road leading down a steep embankment to the boat ticket booth. The walls of the tiny shack is a collage of gritty, earth-toned textures, faded paint, and tattered posters of all kinds. The boat schedule is a piece of copier paper, affixed to the building above the window where a man inside waits to take our money. We'd hoped to catch the 9AM ferry, but alas, the hand written scrawl on the askew paper indicates the first run of the day is at 11.
While Pete and Natasha settle in at a nearby coffee shop for the two hour wait, Tara and I go for a walk around the town. With a pack of friendly doggies at our heels most of the way, we stroll hand-in-hand, meandering around the four dirt lanes that make up the village, appreciating a bit of quiet time to ourselves.
We explore a broom-making workshop, and then Tara picks up some dried riverweed snacks, curious to see if they will taste anything like nori. When she tries to buy a single sheet directly from a woman making them (as opposed to in the market), there is some confusion, and Tara ends up with with a huge roll. Oh well!
I'm not a fan of seaweedy flavors, but I try a piece anyway. Sure enough, it tastes like seaweed. Yuck! Tara thinks they'd be okay if they had a little salt, but we both agree that, though they are likely rich in minerals and an abundant source of free food, they make better art pieces than snacks.
I think the black paper-like substance looks really pretty drying in the sun, all covered in sesame seeds. Knowing we won't finish our massive bag of the stuff, we offer the rest to the next kid we see; she eyes us warily at first, and then snatches the package, running off with a curt thank you.
When we've explored the entire half of the village on this side of the river, we return to our friends who are happily sipping chocolate milk shakes and eavesdropping on a British cycle touring couple and their two little blond kids who are flipping through their guidebook, discussing where to head next.
"You want to go to Vang Vieng, kids? You want to go do some DRUGS!?" asks the jesting father to his pint-sized Cindy-lou-who daughter. "No daddy!" she says "Drugs are bad!" "Are you sure?" he asks, clearly pulling her leg. "Yes daddy!" "Well okay then, if you insist."
We all chuckle their antics, and the idea of any family going to the infamous tourist ghetto of Vang Vieng, where the main attractions are tubing down a river while getting totally and utterly trashed, and lying around at opium bars all day, watching non-stop reruns of Friends and Family Guy with vacant, drug-addled stares.
There have been worries that the town is in danger of losing its charm as it becomes full of tourists, "mushroom shakes and Friends" - the US sitcom is shown in many bars, while some have compared it to the touristy Thai resort Phuket. The New Zealand Herald wrote, "If teenagers ruled the world, it might resemble Vang Vieng". Safety measures for the tubing have been described as "non existent" and a mixture of this and heavy drinking has seen tourists drown.Vang Vieng, Wikipedia
When our ferry is due to leave, we make our way down to the port, over a wobbly plank, and onto the first in a colorful collection of double and triple-parked wooden boats. The ferry we're supposed to board is a few boats deep, so we're instructed to climb through the side windows between the vessels until we reach it. Fun!
Once we're on the right boat, we take our seats on the hard wooden bench in the back. The engine roars to life, and soon we're shouting and grinning to one another over the din. We chug slowly out of the dock area, and then upstream we go, churning against the blue river, slipping under that big white bridge that spans the town.
Once we get moving, we mostly give up on communication, for we're all in our own private worlds, enjoying the scenery. While we sit and marvel at the intense, almost pre-historic view, Natasha snaps several photos of us. Having a friend around who takes beautiful pictures is really a treat—Tara and I don't have very many photos of us together!
Green mountains rise up on either side of us, jaggedy limestone formations lending an otherworldly feel to the scene. Piggies run around on the steep, muddy banks, as do waterbuffalo who thunder around, hooves pounding the dirt. There are villagers in the water with face masks on, wielding some sort of hook. The dive under the murky water, and then come up with long, green river weeds on the end of their pikes. The weeds hang like vibrant green locks, as if the foragers just stole a mermaid's wig.
We're mesmerized by the scenery, and by the ride itself. The boat splashes up and down as sprays of water soak the unlucky passengers at the front of the boat. The only stop we make along the way is at a lone hut, perched on the riverbank. We pull in at its makeshift dock, and three Lao women disembark, scrambling up the steep slope to go home.
The limestone karsts tower over the river and it feels like we have stepped back in time a few million years and that a pterodactyl may swoop down, carry away our boat and feed us to its hatchlings.Natasha
After an hour on the water, pretending we're going to Jurassic Park, the small, colorful village of Muang Ngoi comes into view ahead of us on the right side of the river. Soon we're pulled up at the dock, and it's time to disembark, and explore our new home for the day.
The quaint 300-meter-long village straddles a single dirt road off the Nam Ou river in northern Laos. Whereas the other minuscule villages we've passed in Laos are thoroughly unequipped to deal with visitors and tourists, this one is a wonderful combination of remote, and easily accessible, with loads of little restaurants and bungalow guest-houses.
We feel at home immediately; once we've located a bungalow of our own, we all settle in for some quality hammock time. If it weren't for our motorcycles languishing down the river unused, we would stay here for week, at least.