A friend of mine told me that if I had the time I should try to make it north to a small village called Muang Ngoi. It was 3 hours by car from Luang Prabang and from there I would have to take a small boat for another hour in order to access the village. The last thing I felt like doing was getting into another boat but this was somewhere I really wanted to check out. I met a british couple in the minivan I took and they didn’t have any plans on where they were going and in the end they decided to go to where I was headed. If they didn’t come I would’ve been the only westerner on the boat. The boat sailed north up the Nam Ou river as we passed green covered mountains and dramatic scenery of rugged cliffs interlaced with fog. Fisherman floated past with their makeshift nets, water buffalo cooled off in the river and children played in the water naked along the shores. This was truly a step back in time. Images of the “Secret War” floated through my head and I can only imagine how scary it must have been for these people to see planes zipping in and around the mountain curves dropping bombs time and time again.
7 hours after leaving Luang Prabang I arrived to the sleepy town of Muang Ngoi. The village consists of one dirt road with a few guests houses, a couple of restaurants and a stand here and there to buy water. Roosters strutted down the roadless street while children played barefoot. Speaking of children, there were TONS. As I made my way down the street they came out to greet me or peaked out of from their windows. In addition, half the women in the village where carrying newborns or expecting. “Barefoot and pregnant” took on a whole new meaning here. What I love about Southeast Asia is that there are no strollers. The children are always being carried, coddled or tied on to their mother’s or father’s backs. I’m sure it’s because they can’t afford strollers but maybe not? It is nice to see that “human touch” between mother and baby everywhere I looked. I found a bungalow guesthouse right on the water for $4 bucks a night complete with a hammock off my balcony!
I decided to have a walk around and explore where I would be spending the next 4 nights. After 6 minutes I had walked the entire length of the village and turned back again. Everyone greeted me with a friendly “Sabadaaay” the way to say hello in Laos. Kids came up to me and gave me flowers or giggled and ran away. People were still curious about foreigners here and it was a nice change coming from the big cities I’d been in. Locals were cooking noodle soup and egg omelette-type dishes in the streets and selling them for 50 cents. It was delicious albeit hotter than heck. I was sweating just eating it and I can’t even imagine how hot the women were cooking it over the small open fires.
The lifestyle was primitive here. Everyone showered and did their laundry in the river. You would see people walk down to the water front during the day with bath soap and toothbrush in one hand and a basket of clothes, laundry detergent and a scrub brush in the other. Women would wrap themselves in a sarong and bath while the men went in their underware. No one stared, this was just normal life. It made me feel bad that I was complaining about “roughing” it hostels in NZ and Australia because that now seemed luxurious. Within the first few hours I was covered head to toe in mosquito and ant bites. Thank god for tiger-balm! Tiger-balm is the “cure-all” for everything in Asia. It’s like a natural form of icy hot and is sold for a buck (it’s about 6 bucks in America at “all-natural” stores). It helps with sore muscles, upset stomachs, headaches, colds and last but certainly not least, mosquito bites! As soon as you are bitten you apply it to the bite and your skin heats up and the itch subsides. I’ve already used up half of the new jar that I just recently bought. My shower had absolutely no pressure and it would take me 10 minutes just to rinse the shampoo out of my hair, I wasn’t going to complain though because it was either that or the muddy river.
Due to the heat, everything shuts down from 12-5 during the day and people sleep or sit on their stoops in the shade. I would pass most of my afternoons in my hammock too hot to even move. When I needed to go out to get water, my legs were heavy and I walked just as slow as my elephant Bayoun, that I rode in Thailand. But there was no rush to get anywhere anyways, Muang Ngoi was one of those old lazy towns that you read about in books. In the late afternoon the city would wake up, children splashed around in the river and women started cooking. These people were so poor but so happy, always smiling faces and surrounded by a supportive community. I did not see one child playing with a toy when I was there. They would entertain themselves in the dirt or by running down the street or filling up an old water-bottle with mud. Never once did I hear any child throw a temper-tantrum or cry for no good reason. This was the same in Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia come to think of it. You would think out of the many of the children in the world, these kids actually had the right to throw a tantrum but never once. I would assume that the people here are more or less happy because as the saying goes…..”you don’t know what you don’t know” and they are pretty much cut off from the rest of the world. Yes they are poor money-wise but well-off in so many other ways. It makes me think……are they that poor compared to us or that much richer?