We arrived in Muang Ngoi Neua after a very scenic one-hour boat trip from Nong Khiaw. We had clear blue skies and the river was smooth. The scenery was really amazing. Muang Ngoi Neua is accessible only by river, so there are no vehicles and only limited amounts of electricity. This makes the town very relaxed. The one main dirt road runs parallel to the river and is very popular with backpackers. The town has many restaurants catering to travelers, but is a very nice place to spend some time.
The scenery was great on the way up, and our boat passed by lounging water buffalo, locals fishing, farming, making boats and the general activities of life along the river. Since this area is only accessible by the river, everyone has a boat, making it common to see young kids paddling along and fishing in the river. You could also see the steep silted banks of the river which are used for farming, and are probably flooded each year and new soil is deposited. We also saw little home-made electric generators, which consisted of a small bamboo platform with a turbine in the water, and an axle coming out of the water to power a small generator. The electric power was then delivered to a home on shore via a small line strung on bamboo poles.
After arriving in town and getting settled, we signed up to do a two-day trek into the hills in order to spend the night in a Khamu village. Khamu people are a minority hill-tribe ethnic group who live in northern Lao, have a different language than the Lao and are animists (the Lao are Buddhist). The hike was really nice. We went with two Germans and our guide Ping (a 52 year-old local). We headed west through a valley of rice farms where people were harvesting the rice crop. The people here work together to help each other with the labor-intensive harvesting and threshing of the rice. Our guide Ping is a rice farmer and lived in the area as a youth while it was under heavy bombardment by the Americans during the Vietnam War (being close to the border with Vietnam and the “Ho Chi Minh trail”). They had hard years since they were unable to farm and had to hide in the caves to avoid being blown up. We visited a cave where Ping lived with many of the other villagers during the bombardments. Later, he pulled out an old bomb from under a building we had just had lunch in and tapped on it (eek!). Yup, it was still a bomb so he set it back under the bamboo porch and we headed on our way.
We continued through the rice fields, where old bomb craters were stills visible. Sticking to the worn footpaths, we hiked uphill in the sun for some views and eventually to the Khamu village where we spent the night. As we hiked, Ping pointed out local animals and insects, with most of his descriptions ended with something like: Mmm, very good for eating or Mmm, also good for barbecuing. We saw huge taro plants, galangal plants (like ginger and used in SE Asian cooking) and teak trees. Since it wasn’t the rainy season, the trails were fairly easy to hike on and the leaches were not as plentiful as in other seasons. Jason got a few small ones on the ankle, but Ping plucked them off. He explained there are many more in the rainy season.
As we approached the Khamu village, we passed by the little bamboo school where the local kids went to school. We had a dinner with a family of locals and learned some Khamu, which is very different than the basic Lao we know. Our dinner of sticky rice, chili, soup, and pickled bamboo was followed by lao-lao. Lao-lao is a rice whiskey, fermented from sticky rice and then distilled. Yes, it kicks like a mule, and after our guide made sure we had more than enough, we fell fast asleep. In the morning, we felt the lingering effects of the lao-lao, and the grandmother of the family we stayed with had a good laugh and taught us some more Khamu words useful for after a night of drinking lao-lao, including: headache.
The next day, after a slow start, we continued the hike along ridges and through the thick forest and eventually down to a stream. We hiked up through cleared areas where dry rice farming was practiced. This involves slash and burn to remove the forest cover, then planting one crop of dry-rice per year (in fertile Bali they grow three crops per year), which is dependent on the rain to survive. The dry-rice doesn’t yield much and requires clearing lots of slope area. We hiked in the creek for a while and then up a steep trail to a great view of the Nam Ou river below. After a short walk down to the river, we caught a boat back to Muang Ngoi. We ate and slept well after the long hike.
***click to enlarge photos***