15 February 2017

Village Life 26.01.17 - 04.02.17

Nong Khiaw, Moung Ngoi and Village Life 

Green mountains, wooden huts and toilets without flushes, Nong Khiaw introduced us to a whole new style of Laos life. The village is fairly large in comparison to others we have visited, it's split over two sides of the Ou River and inhabits some of the most picturesque scenery I have ever come across. We walked across the main bridge at least twice a day and I had to stop and take photographs every bloody time! Our second village stop was Moung Ngoi, a much smaller but nonetheless plentiful village running along just one 300m dirt track. The village is only accessible via boat, which we took from Nong Khiaw for 25,000 KIP each. It takes roughly an hour and runs daily at 11am from the western side of the river. As you would probably imagine there is only a limited amount of activities available in either village to entertain yourself with, (scroll to the bottom of this post for a list of what we would recommend) however, the beauty of visiting rural areas for us city residents is in learning first hand how the cogs of village life align. We spent hours just walking around and observing the everyday life of locals, which we found fascinating and completely inspiring. So, here are three things we learned and loved about Laos village life...

A house is more than just a home

As I have mentioned previously, there are vast amounts of rural space in Laos that is inhabitable or extremely dangerous to visit due to the scattering of UXO bombs (un-exploded bombs). However, Nong Khiaw and Moung Ngoi are both rural villages that are safe and able to open their doors to tourists. That's not to say that the locals are by any means well-off, just that being able to welcome a steady flow of visitors has been key in enabling the villages to develop and expand as a whole. There are now dozens of small flourishing restaurants, shops and cafes lining the streets (or street!) of both villages, however the difference from those in the city is that each and every business doubles up as a family home. We came to appreciate that our food might take little longer to arrive because the chef is also a mother of 3 and cooking for a restaurant full of people whilst putting her children to bed, or perhaps there is nobody to serve you at the local shop for half an hour because the family running it are having their lunch out the back. Even the families that haven't converted the inside of their houses will host all day BBQs out on the street, they set up stools and make-shift tables for passers by to enjoy skewers of meat or crispy grilled fish; pop-up restaurants galore. There's something warming about the way these people are living their lives, they provide an environment for strangers to enjoy themselves in every day and every night without the promise of heading home to their own space at the end of the shift. They are always at work, and somehow always happy to see you. The kids especially, be ready to play fight mid-meal! With that said, there is an extremely personal element to everything you experience in these villages. Not everything is right on time or 100% perfect, but it comes with a smile worth so much more.

The sustainable, community fueled cycle

As to be expected village life is much more sustainable than that of a town or city, and we were in no shock to find Nong Khiaw and Moung Ngoi almost entirely self-sustaining (bar the few imported goods like Coca-Cola & lays crisps). It was hugely inspiring to watch a community work so efficiently together to maintain and support a rural location that is developing at a fair pace. From the 10 days we spent in Northern Laos we gathered that the two communities ran on a pretty much daily cycle that is inclusive of all local people whatever their trade. We learned that fridges are a rarity, (and if owned are used for beer!) so food is bought fresh every day. This creates enough demand for the local market to run every morning. Here you'll find fresh home grown vegetables and herbs, butchered meats, live stock and local fishermen selling their mornings catch. Plus, every household owns a hen (or 10) so eggs are aplenty. You'll probably also recognise the customers as the people who have, or will cook you up a storm at some point during your stay. Whats-more, I could hazard a guess that the locals working the market later become the families barbecuing outside their homes, cooking up whatever they have left over from that mornings market. Finally, rice is the absolute staple ingredient to any Laos dish. Since '99 the nation has been totally self-sufficient in production of the grain, and so it seemed as we passed the hundreds of gorgeous shimmering aquatic fields on our journey to Nong Khiaw. So wherever you are in Laos, be it noodles, spring rolls, beer or wine, it's all made from the countries locally grown pride and joy; gluten free heaven! So, minimal waste, high employment and (mopeds aside) a low carbon footprint. As for housing and appliances, most are hand built and made using locally sourced materials such as wood and bamboo. There is also a big weaving culture, particularly in Moung Ngoi. You can watch the cotton being spun and the scarfs, rugs and bedding being woven outside the shop on the side of the street. They also often use natural indigo dye to colour the items. Aside from all this the heart beat of these villages is the collective spirit that embodies daily life. It's so easy to work with an 'every man for himself' attitude when resources are limited, but that is nowhere near the case here in Northern Laos. All for community, and community for all is the key to these flourishing villages.  

Rice drying in Nong Khiaw 

Villagers Before Visitors

Through reading this so far you might be feeling that perhaps these people are giving up a little too much to accommodate the increasing number of tourists arriving on their doorstep. I have to admit, we certainly felt that way for parts of our stay. However, there were a few moments in which we were promptly reminded tourists were by no means a priority - and rightly so. One of these reminders came in the form of an all night karaoke marathon that took place on a Thursday during our stay in Muong Ngoi. Yes you read that correctly, an all night karaoke marathon. It was an entire night of tossing and turning to full volume, badly executed, Asian rock ballads. As I have mentioned previously Moung Ngoi runs entirely along just one 300m dirt track, so no matter where you were, you were within earshot. We walked past the village community space at about 10pm just as they were setting up for the night, we hung around for a little while but ưhen no one explicitly invited us over we called it a night so as not to intrude. It was just as we got into bed at about 11pm that the singing started. They finally put the mic down at 7am. I would normally be absolutely fuming to have been kept up for that length of time, but to put it into perspective we were staying in a village that until 2013 only had electricity for 3 hours a day, a village that has an immensely Buddhist population and a village where most restaurants close before 10pm. In that sense, it was totally the opposite of anything we expected to happen during our time there; it was so ridiculous it became hilarious. We were pretty wired from being up all night, so we couldn't sleep even when the noise finally stopped. At about 7:30am we headed out for some breakfast. Oh my, Muong Ngoi was hungover. We sat down in our favourite cafe just as the chef slammed into the kitchen, shirtless and desperately sipping a Redbull. It was as if they had hit the stop button and all scrambled to work at once, the street was full of disorientated locals running in all directions. The tourists were in the opposite state, roaming like zombies having abandoned sleep and seeking food. Later that day we discovered they were holding a 2 day festival to celebrate something new being installed into the village temple, exactly what was installed we aren't sure! But importantly the festival was very much for local people, and far from tailored to suit tourists. Although it definitely didn't leave us feeling refreshed, it was refreshing to know that not everything evolves around tourism in these villages. At least not for now anyway!

Early morning in Moung Ngoi 


What to do? 

Nong Khiaw

- Stay in a bamboo hut -
For only 60,000 - 100,000 KIP a night you can have the novelty of sleeping in a beautiful bamboo hut. They are mostly situated on the eastern side of the river, and pretty much all have spectacular views. We spent most afternoons reading / writing on our balcony; glorious down time! 

- Rent a moped for the day -
Mopeds are slightly more expensive to hire here at 120,000 KIP, but definitely worth the price. There is only one hire shop on the eastern side of the river, (and only 4/5 bikes so get there early) we took a right out of the shop and follow the road for 1.5 hours passing through 5 or 6 beautifully authentic villages. Be ready to wave your arm off to some mega cute kids! 

- Visit the Patok Cave - 
20 - 30 minute walk east from the bridge you will find Patok cave, which is where village people hid during the bombings of the secret war. You pay a small fee for a ticket on arrival.  

- View Point - 
A must during your stay here! I would recommend trekking after sunrise but before lunch as it's a tough climb during the heat, however the view isn't as breathtaking very early on due to cloud. It takes about 1.5 hours to get to the top.

- Sabai Sabai Spa, Herbal Steam Bath and Massage -
We treated ourselves to both but you can do either. We were slightly confused by the name but the steam bath turned out to be a steam room, it opens once the sun has gone down at around 5:30pm and is lovely after a days trekking! The spa is on the eastern side of the river opposite the two Indian restaurants. 

(There are also a number of treks, waterfall visits and kayaking experiences you can book onto from the village - but we didn't get around to any of these!) 

Moung Ngoi

- Stay in a bamboo hut -
Same as above! Although prepare more reading material, we spent 80% of our time in the hammocks.

- Walk to nearby village: Ba Na -
Take plenty of water, wear comfortable shoes and plan for half a day as the walk takes a good 1.5-2 hours with stops along the way. You can get lunch in the village, we ate at a guesthouse at the far end past the school. 

- Rent a kayak -
You can either book onto a trip or rent a boat alone to row to the weaving village. Unfortunately the day we had planned to do this turned out to be during the festival, and we were unable to take the boat out because nobody was allowed to arrive in  / return to Moung Ngoi after 2pm due to the village peoples' plans for that evening. (We later found out it was because they were shooting across the river with air rifles!)

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