In Laos, life revolves around water. The Mekong cuts through the landlocked country in mighty fashion, bringing food, transportation, and livelihoods with it. Villages cluster and flourish around smaller rivers and tributaries such as the Nam Khan and Nam Ou, as these rivers flood the surrounding rice fields and serve as local sources of sustenance and nourishment.
Today, these rivers have a different purpose — ecotourism. With its gilded temples and exquisite French colonial architecture, Laos is fast becoming one of the top travel destinations in Southeast Asia. Cities like Luang Prabang are visited by as many as 600,000 visitors a year (as of 2019), and its popularity comes in part from its scenic location at the confluence of two mega rivers — the Mekong and Nam Khan.
Despite the recent boom, you’ll be happy to know there remains rustic riverside villages that offer a glimpse of local Laotian culture, sans the crowd. In these villages, the name of the game is enjoyment and ease of life, and indeed, ‘sabai sabai’ (take it easy) is the aphorism that sums up the average Laotian’s approach to life.
Muang Ngoi (pronounced moo-ang ny-yoi) is one such village, situated in Northern Laos.
History of Muang Ngoi
Most of the local inhabitants have lived in the village for many generations, though some of the guesthouses are now operated by entrepreneurial locals from other parts of the country. The small village was pulverised during the Second Indochina War in Laos (1959-1975), and was only ‘discovered’ by travellers after it was rebuilt in the late 1990s.
Word of the idyllic riverside village spread, and today, Muang Ngoi is best known for its beauty and laissez-faire atmosphere. Surrounded by limestone cliffs and jungle-clad karst mountains, the tranquil village is a sanctuary for the weary traveller — an oasis far removed from the worries of daily life.
How to get there
Only reachable by boat, Muang Ngoi is an hour’s journey from the neighbouring villages of Nong Khiaw or Muang Khua. Of the two, travelling from Nong Khiaw is the more popular choice, as it houses epic hikes and gushing waterfalls. The public boat leaves at only two timings every day (10:30 or 14:00) from the jetty at Nong Khiaw.
Riding through some of the most dramatic sections of the Nam Ou, the journey is an adventure in itself. You’ll float by verdant wilderness and rickety villages, and if you’re lucky, see water buffaloes frolicking in the water or a fisherman out on the job. Some days, low-lying fog and misty clouds encircle the surrounding mountains, adding mystery and a distinct chill to the otherwise hot and humid environment.
Things to do
A single road runs through the tiny village; walking end-to-end would take no more than 15 minutes. Bamboo bungalows on stilts and nondescript guesthouses line riverside, perched precariously on rocks from the river bank. These bungalows offer the most basic of amenities — a bed, and since 2013, electric-heated showers. On the balcony, a colourful hammock hangs, comfortable and inviting.
And indeed, lounging in the hammock, riverside, is what most travellers choose to do when visiting Muang Ngoi. There’s nothing that beats an unobstructed, panoramic view of the Nam Ou and rolling green mountains. Hearing the gentle ‘put-put’ of the longboats and watching the clouds go by is a tangible pastime, as is falling asleep to a chorus of frogs and the lapping of the Nam Ou against the shore.
If you get hungry, take a brief stroll through the sleepy town — there’s only a couple of restaurants and one bar to pick from. Wi-Fi is still relatively weak and unstable, offering the rare opportunity to go completely off-the-grid, and recharge in absolute peace and serenity.
For the adventurous, a hike to the surrounding villages of Bana and Huay Bo is in order. As you pass vibrant green rice fields and shallow rivers, you’ll find the trail refreshingly empty, save for the odd local. No difficult hills or rocky terrain complicates the trek; even hiking, it seems the pace of life in Muang Ngoi is slow and unassuming.
Yet, you’ll notice that despite the unhurried lifestyle, everywhere there is life. Skinny chickens cluck in the yard while stray dogs run around untethered, and the local children love to swim and dive-bomb in raucous delight in the nearby river.
In Muang Ngoi, it is about living in the moment, more so than chasing after the next activity. Embracing the spontaneity of these unplanned little moments of joy is something we could all learn from the Laotians to indulge in more in our lives.