The three and a half hour boat ride upstream on the Nam Ou River, propped in van seats strapped to a wobbly boat more securely than the passengers, amped my adrenaline before I even stepped foot on land. Muang Ngoi consists of one main, very muddy, road that sprouts off many trails to different bungalows and restaurants along the river. The other two roads led out of town to smaller villages and cave.
Walking about ten minutes down the main track led to a trail that brought hikers up a mountain to a viewpoint that overlooks the town. Ladders with bamboo railings allow visitors to access the next phase of the trail. A slow pace, a break at the cave, and strong will was necessary to survive this trail. It became more dangerous than I expected and being careless had grave costs, especially when approaching the jagged rocks at the top. I thought Brendan was going to kill me as we both wondered what the hell we had gotten ourselves into.
It was nice to reach the top. The trek was adventurous and our short stay on the jagged rocks was peaceful. Our descent from the mountain was slow, which was just fine. An unexpected bonus blocked the road on our way back as we encountered an elephant at work, moving a few huge pieces of lumber down the trail. I was astounded by the elephant’s might, moving a few hundred pounds with its trunk alone. Sadly, we could see the poor animal was abused by its owner. I found it ironic that this beast could snap the little man in two as easily as the twig he used to hold dominance. Blind in one eye and scars across its body, the giant followed the commands its owner shouted and causally moved aside for us to pass with hesitant ease.
Thirty minutes of wandering the streets and paths of Muang Ngoi offers an extensive tour of town. One road became a dirt path through a farmer’s small field that led to the school yard. From there, the option was to either loop back into town or go out to three smaller villages. About two hours on foot, past another cave, eventually led to the other villages. Just as expected, not much was going on, but that is what made it so great. People were socializing, children were playing, and friends dined together. A curious glance and shy smile often accompanied the welcoming villagers.
Muang Ngoi is a gem of solitude and one of my favorite spots in Southeast Asia. I questioned writing this post after seeing a blog titled, “Please don’t go to Muang Ngoi Neua.” The author does not want to see growing tourism taint the peaceful village and I agree. I can only hope growing development does not destroy the culture here, but I could help my desire to share such beauty. As a backpacker and/or tourist, we must all respect the town, the land, and the locals in order to avoid further damage. Littering, obnoxiously partying, and funding travel agencies will only progress radical change. Vang Vieng is an example of exploitation to satisfy tourist needs, engulfing a unique landscape within Laos. The preservation of Muang Ngoi’s raw scenery, and many other villages for that matter, must be saved in order to sustain a unique identity.