My guesthouse was owned by a 27 year old Loas girl and her 23 year old husband from Sweden. What in the heck was a Swedish boy doing in this town? They had a 3 year old child and the wife was due in about another month with their second. Without asking too many questions, I learned that he had come here as a backpacker 3 years ago and never left. One can only assume what happened but good on him for staying. He now speaks fluent Lao and does all the cooking at the guesthouse and fixing-up of the accommodations.
They both suggested that I should take a walk to the villages outside of town. Villages?? Wasn’t this a village? Apparently not, this was a town and the villages would make Muang Ngoi feel like a full-blown city compared to what I would see. About a week ago, I met a couple who gave me a hand-written map with directions on how to get to a small village about an hour or so by foot from Muang Ngoi. It looked like an old-school treasure map and I was determined to find it. I showed the owners of my guest house and they said that that was one of the 3 villages in walking distance but it was more like an hour and 40 minutes away. I started off around 9AM and hoped to make it there before the sun got too hot. They told me to follow the one road out of town and that I would eventually see signs on how to get there. Within 10 minutes I was completely surrounded by lush greenery, rice fields and wildlife. It didn’t look like there was anything in the distance but figured the road had to lead to somewhere. 40 minutes in I found a sign that said “Huay Bo village, one hour from here”. I took out my treasure map and this was the name of the place I wanted to go. There was an old man sitting near the sign and I said….”Huay Bo?” and pointed to the path. He motioned for me to continue on. I started off down the path and as I looked back, I noticed that he was following me. 20 minutes went by and I turned around and he was still behind me. Maybe I should’ve been nervous but he was so frail, what was he really going to do? I came to a fork in the rode and there was no sign, now what? I turned around and looked at him and he pointed to the path on the right so I took it. This went on for another 40 minutes. There were multiple paths everywhere with absolutely no signs! Each time I looked back, he pointed in the direction that I needed to go. By this time I had slowed down a bit so that we were walking side-by-side since he seemed to know where he was going. At one point, the path dead-ended into a small stream. I looked at him and give him this look like, “am I expected to cross this”? He nodded his head and motioned for me to remove my shoes. He then took my hand and lead me through the river. In Laos, it’s suggested to wear pants because the people are more conservative and as I walked, I was in water up to my knees and my pants were soaked. I didn’t care because I was so hot and the water felt icy cold on my legs. He never even took off his shoes he just walked right through. We got to the other side and he waited for me to put my shoes back on and then we continued. We came to a huge rice field and he pointed to the foot of some mountains in the distance and said, “Huay Bo”. Ok? All I saw was a mountain, there was absolutely nothing else, where was this village? He motioned for me to follow him and we proceeded to walk through the rice fields. There was no path, how would I have found this on my own? Another 20 minutes later we came back to a path with a sign that said Huay Bo and I was relieved that I was going in the right direction. This was such an experience, walking with this old man who did not speak one word of English yet we were still communicating. He told me his name and I told him mine. I tried to tell him I was American but it went right over his head, at one point, I think he actually thought my name was “America”- ha. Along the way, we stopped at another river and he signaled for me to go in and cool myself off. I was confused but he went in (shoes and all) and started splashing water on his face and arms. The next part of the walk was in the full-blown sun so I now realized that he wanted me to get wet before we continued. While moving further on, he picked some green plants off a tree and ate them and offered me some as well. They were good but a little bitter. I just had one and declined anymore, I had no business eating wild plants in the middle of nowhere in Laos. We finally reached Huay Bo an hour after we met. He turned to me when we arrived and said, “I poor”. I knew that he wanted a little money and I had already decided 40 minutes before that I was going to give him a little tip. Who knows, maybe he waits at that place for unsuspecting tourists and shows them the way in order to make some money. Maybe I did get sucked in but is it really getting cheated if you were going to tip anyways? All I know is that I NEVER would have found this village on my own.
And yes they were right this was a “true village”. There were only 40 huts made out of dry bamboo. Immediately after entering, the man had turned off a path and was gone. I took a look around and decided to make my way through. It is very intimidating to go to a village alone. It is soooo intimate. I felt like I had opened up the door to stranger’s house and proceeded to walk through their home, each room one by one. It felt wierd. Some of the villagers looked up from what they were doing, while others couldn’t be so bothered. Little kids waved at me while others ran away. There were at least 20 dogs and they did freak me out a bit when they started growling as I passed. I found the guesthouse that was in my “treasure map but it was closed! Luckily there was another one right next door (the only other one for that matter). There I decided to get something to eat and have a rest and think about what I would do next.
The owner of the guesthouse, not more than 26 years old introduced himself to me and asked what I wanted to drink. After choosing 2 things that were unavailable (of course) I finally settled for a hot coke. Had I known this before I ordered I would’ve just gotten a bottled water, a warm coke is anything but refreshing after walking for over 90 minutes in the sun, but I felt bad saying I didn’t want it. He could tell that I was roasting and he said, “if you want, I have a motorbike and I can drive you to the 2 other villages which are about an hour on foot from here and then take you to Muang Ngoi, all for $5. Where do I sign up? I ended up eating lunch there and then told him I wanted to walk around a bit before I left. As I was walking a group of kids came up to me asking if I had candy. How could I be so stupid to come to one of these places empty-handed? Then I realized that I had some bubbalicious gum in my backpack. I took it out and all these hands were up in my face trying to get a piece before it ran out, fortunately I had enough for everyone. I tried to explain to them that they couldn’t swallow it and it was only for chewing. They didn’t speak English so I was over-exaggerating how to chew the gum. All of the sudden they were all mimicking me in the over-exaggerated way just chomping away on the gum with loud chewing noises. I couldn’t stop laughing.
My new friend and driver Hyen took me to the other villages that day and we stayed at one for about an hour as he talked to some of his friends. They cut up mangos and we dipped it in this hot spicy sauce. Then I was offered hot tea. It was so hot and I really didn’t feel like drinking tea but I couldn’t say no. I took a few sips and set it aside to let it cool off. 10 minutes later Hyen said, “um excuse can you finish your tea because we are waiting to use your glass so we can have some too”. Oh gosh, I had no idea! I quickly gulped it down and prayed to god that I was the first one to use it that day!