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  • Writer's pictureJoanna

An Idyllic Escape | From Nong Khiaw to Muang Ngoy | Laos

Escaping Nong Khiaw for Muang Ngoy...


As much as I liked Nong Khiaw... due to the circumstances, it was a place that I wasn't always necessarily comfortable in. It had become awkward. It was a very transient town, so it was difficult to make friends outside of the organization... and Georgia and I were the only ones in the organization, apart from our lovely cuppa Tea.


I wasn't particularly keen on spending too much time with Tea, so I stuck to myself a lot. After Georgia started to see him for what he was, she did the same. We roamed around the town... and around... and around again. I fed the street dogs at every chance I got. We ate a lot, and both of us had our favourite restaurants in town to hit up for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert. My very favourite place was called The Trio Bar. It was right on the corner of the two main streets (the only streets, actually!) in town which made it perfect for people-watching. It also had a fabulous vista from the rooftop seating AND they made the best sandwiches in town. Self-proclaimed... of course, but in my book, totally true. 


I loved their sandwiches. The only trouble with their sandwiches... and the rest of their food... and their drinks... was that they all took forever and a day to reach your table. Sometimes it took an hour or more to get my sandwich, if they even remembered to make it in the first place. There were many reminders, subtle hints, prompts, and awkward smiles. 


Zero organization.

None. Whatsoever.


On the outside looking in, The Trio Bar appeared to have JUST opened and had all their experienced, customer service professionals quit or call in sick. It was hard to watch. So many times, I underestimated how much time I would need to spend there and ended up running late. Of course, there was never anything too particularly life-threatening, but Tea prided himself on being punctual... (a characteristic he mistook for organization)... so my sandwich meals pissed him off. When he wanted to clean plastic bottle lids at exactly 10 am, he wasn't too impressed that I was still at The Trio, waiting for my delicious sandwich. 


I didn't care.


I realized later in the program that I found myself going there more and more often, especially if I was short of time... just to irritate him.


Back on my very first evening in Nong Khiaw... Sunday, January 7th... I arrived at the bus station only to discover I had accidentally booked accommodation in another town.  Booking.com can be tricky and doesn't necessarily always do a bold job of differentiating between what is in the town and what is a fair way out of the town. The place I'd booked was an hour boat ride up the Nam Ou River... in a little town called Muang Ngoy... and that boat had left hours ago. Thankfully the owners were kind and cancelled my reservation without penalty. I was also lucky to be able to quickly secure something in the core of downtown Nong Khiaw. It's my fault for not paying attention to the finer details... (you don't say!)... and booking without much consideration. The promotional picture looked nice, it just lured me in. 


My promise to the owners was that I was going to change my reservation dates to the middle of the month. When I made the promise, I must admit, I didn't think I would be following through with it... but life has a funny way of turning things around sometimes.


It wasn't long before I was Muang Ngoy bound.


My first escape to the tranquility of Muang Ngoy was exactly when I had initially said I would go... in the middle of the month, on my second weekend with NK. I planned to only visit on Saturday and Sunday evenings, but when Tea canceled class on Friday to instead pick up garbage for half an hour, I took that as my ticket outta Dodge and left almost instantaneously. With much glee, I fled the toxicity and awkwardness of the volunteer house. Tea was planning on being around for the entire weekend and I opted to be anywhere but there... away from his condescending and judgemental watch.

Muang Ngoy was magical.


As soon as I walked off the boat onto the river landing and made my way up the enormous cement staircase leading into the village, I knew it was going to be exactly what I needed. Off the grid... like a trip back in time.


It was almost as though I'd arrived back at one of the beginning stages of Laos civilization. Or perhaps the final frontier? Maybe the beginning of the end, considering every village past Muang Ngoy was even more isolated, primitive, and relatively undiscovered by the backpacking masses.


Muang Ngoy was, literally, the beaten path.


One could argue that Muang Ngoy was an abyss of underdevelopment with its bamboo structures, wooden shacks, and unpaved roads, but the entire village seemed to exist for the sole purpose of catering to tourism, with its abundance of guest houses, hotels, restaurants, and craft shops.


I had booked a rustic bungalow with a hammock on the balcony, overlooking the Nam Ou River and the stunning scenery of this lush river valley.


Everything was going to be positively idyllic.


I knew it.


I just knew it.


Life has a way of regularly messing with me. I know I tend to come across as often grumbling, but I do think the frequent mishaps, blunders, stumbles, disasters, and oddballs provide me with both the adventure and entertainment I adore. Without them, I don't think I'd enjoy my excursions half as much as I do.


Remind me of that next time I'm complaining. It's all in the looking back...


On the boat, I'd met a young Austrian guy, Johnathan, and as soon as we disembarked and got talking, we realized we were staying at the same place.




I pinpointed the location of the bungalows on my Google Maps and we started walking towards them. We had barely turned the corner onto the main dirt road leading through the village, when we heard, "HEY! HEY! YOU HAVE RESERVATION??? YOU WITH ME!"


Excuse me?


Wtf was going on?


There was this crazy lady on the balcony of a restaurant yelling at us.


"YOU COME HERE! YOU STAY WITH ME! I OWN PLACE! COME HERE!!! COME NOW!"


This was my first meeting with Penny.


It was terrifying... to say the least...


She wouldn't stop. It was like we were being hotel-hackacked. Neither of us had a clue what was going on, as we stood in the middle of this dusty road, absolutely rattled by this thunderous, bossy woman. She kept insisting she had our reservation, although we weren't even close to the map location. Penny was crass, loud, assertive, abrupt, and overbearing. It was frightening being in her presence, unsure about what she was talking about and without knowledge of the town, the people, or the accommodation. Everything she said, she said so loudly and with such conviction, it was hard not to believe her.

I thought we were being hijacked.


Penny told us that the Riverview was fully booked and she was putting us into another room until she could move us both in the morning. Her sister then appeared out of nowhere and was assigned the job of shuffling us both off in the opposite direction to a place that looked nothing like the promotional picture in our original bookings. The room was fine but it wasn't an idyllic rustic bungalow... and there wasn't a hammock in sight. 


Would you have believed her?


As we'd been met by a gang of people offering us accommodation when we'd been traipsing up the stairs from the boat, I figured this woman had the intention of hijacking us from our actual booking to make money for herself by telling wee porky pies. Nothing seemed right and my skepticism managed to drag Jonathan right into my Nancy Drew mystery afternoon. 


Penny knew our first names... but only because we'd given them to her. After so much chatter and phone calls and disbelief and hollering through the streets and exasperation, I finally took a stand and wouldn't go any further with the changes and (my perceived) conspiracy commotion until she proved who she was and provided us with our last names.


"WHY YOU NO BELIEVE ME???"


She hung up.


OMG... this was beyond odd... what the actual fuck was going on???


Two minutes later... she called back...


"Mick-bee...??? I DON'T KNOW HOW SAY!!!"


Ok... I believed her... close enough.


I thanked her for her patience with us and we both agreed to whatever she wanted us to do, as confusing as it all was.


My room for the evening was painted bright blue and had odd decor. At first, I thought the painting on the wall was a giant green clam shell. I was wrong. It was a big oval rice field.


Johnathan and I just dumped our stuff in our rooms and headed down to a floating river raft restaurant directly below our accommodation and had some drinks to laugh the afternoon away. 


The next day, as planned and promised, Penny moved us to the rustic bungalows we had so anticipated... and paid for.


I wandered into Penny's restaurant the following morning to pay, but she seemed busy, so I sat down to enjoy a coffee. She was the only one working and from what I could tell, she served, cooked, and ran the hotel reservations. While I was there, she would take an order, disappear into the back for 20 minutes, come out, yell at someone in the streets, and then drop off menus at a new table. It was surreal.


Of course, she was a hard worker... but there was that missing element of organization. Everything she said and did seemed chaotic and rushed, and done with frustration and pure pandemonium. 


At one point, I politely asked her for sugar for my coffee. She belted out at me, "YOU HELP ME!"


Um... ok.


So, I did just that... I got up and started clearing tables. I guess she couldn't have demanded assistance from a more capable guest, but I was genuinely scared to find out what would have happened had I disobeyed her. There was no way I could remain seated.

Who WAS this woman? Seriously.


The more time I spent with Penny, the more her character softened and I began to like her. I think that's incorrect. I don't think her character softened at all... her personality just grew on me. To tolerate Penny, one had to just let her be her... and accept that no matter what you said or did, she was simply not changing.


I began to like her. For the next few days, she filled me full of horror stories of people who'd screwed her over, complained, fought with her, or given her a bad review online for no apparent reason. Believe me... there are a LOT of bad reviews. Look them up! Conversations with Penny were more like one-sided lectures. Her rants were like seeking validation for so many hospitality relationships gone sour.


It was comical and beyond comprehension. Hearing these twisted tales of arguments and screaming matches made me not want to end up on Penny's bad side. Her husband was Swedish and there were just as many bad reviews about him as there were about Penny. I witnessed a few familiar hollars from the balcony which made me both cringe and smile, thinking about how I initially thought I was being hijacked or trifled with. The reactions of tourists were priceless... yet altogether warranted.

Muang Ngoy became my sanctuary. It was kinda like my refuge.


I think there are more dogs here than people, but they don't seem nearly as abused and neglected as in other parts of the country I've seen. I spent the next couple of days wandering around, visiting the local restaurants and craft shops, trying a variety of different foods the locals would cook on the road, outside of their homes. I fell in love with the Khao jee, which are essentially salty rice cakes... but real sticky rice and way more delicious than the boring, bland rice cakes we have at home. 


More than anything, I just relaxed...


Upon my invitation and encouragement, Georgia journeyed up the river to join me for my final night in Muang Ngoy. She was eager to get away from Tea as well. Our boat left at the atrocious hour of 9am on our final day. It was a pretty crappy hour to haul us all out of town, and I did leave kicking and screaming.


I didn't want to go back...

It was the last thing I wanted to do.


I just wanted to stay in my bungalow, relaxing in my hammock and enjoying the view of the Nam Ou forever. Actually... I never once went in the hammock, as much as it intrigued me. I've had too many experiences of accidentally flipping out of them. They kinda terrify me. More than Penny.



I like Nong Khiaw. Don't get me wrong. I do.


I think I mentioned earlier that I had taken to feeding the street dogs. It all started when I was in one of the wee shops, browsing the minuscule selection... when I began to hear a puppy whimpering from the back room. The whimpering quickly escalated to yelping... and curiosity got the better of me. I automatically turned to see what was going on with the puppy. From the sounds, he was obviously in pain or distress. What I saw broke my heart into a million pieces and will stain my memory forever. This cruel and disgusting man picked up the puppy by the scruff of his neck and THREW him against the wall.


No... he did not casually toss the pup towards the wall. He used all the force in his arm to hurl the dog at the wall.


It was one of the worst things I've ever seen or experienced. Floods of tears. I left that shop immediately and never stepped foot in there again.


I couldn't handle the abuse and neglect anymore. I couldn't see these beautiful creatures continuously get kicked and hit. It wasn't even just the adults. The kids abused them too. I didn't get it???? Dogs have so much love to give. I know I'm just one person... and I was there temporarily, but I decided to use my time to help however I could. Now... that probably sounds easy enough.... but there was ONE major obstacle. There was no dog food in Nong Khiaw. None. The locals hardly have money to survive themselves, let alone provide the dogs with special food. The dogs get the scraps... and nothing else... if they're lucky. There was absolutely nothing in any of the shops that slightly resembled anything that I'd grown accustomed to feeding a dog. No mashed pumpkin. No ground beef. No chili. No soup.


Nothing.


Nothing except canned sardines in tomato sauce.


That was it... and so that was what it had to be. Lucky for me, they packaged in bulk and the cans had a tear-off lid, so I didn't need to find a can opener.


I think the dogs were happy to have me back from Muang Ngoy. I had to be very careful to not feed the same dogs every time, as I didn't want them to grow too dependent on me.


After Tea-Blow-Out-Gate, and at the end of my volunteer stint, I decided to return to Muang Ngoy for a few days. I was in desperate need of peace. I was in desperate need of relaxation and some sort of sanity. I was desperate for a warm shower and a sit-down toilet. The latter being precedent.


Leaving Nong Khiaw was bitter and sweet... sweeter more than bitter, which is why I didn't use the oxymoron there. I think I'll miss the kids at the school, though I never really got to know them very well.


The dogs will miss me and I will miss them.


This time, on the boat trip up the Nam Ou, I met a young girl named Kristen, from the Netherlands. I asked her if she was staying at the Riverview, but her accommodation was at another location.


I could NOT help but laugh as we were walking together down the main dirt road and I heard the familiar, "HEY!" Penny did the same thing to her as she'd done to us when we first arrived. Turns out that the other hotel was her property as well. Although I'd warned Kristen about Penny's character, she was completely thrown off as Penny fully hijacked her reservation, not letting her get a word in sideways. How she keeps all these properties making sense in her head is a mystery, because it's no form of organization I've ever seen. It worked out in Kristen's favour though, as she was essentially upgraded to the rustic bungalow with the hammock and the view... right beside where I was.


Penny was the same. As soon as we'd both settled into our rooms, she cozied into one of the chairs on our balcony and proceeded to tell us all about how some customers had made distorted and inaccurate complaints against her. Her stories were unbelievable.


It was good to be back.



The next day, Kristen and I trekked into the remote village of Ban Na. It was about a 45-minute walk, but not as easy as it sounded. We were shanghaied on the road by a scoundrel who insisted we pay 20,000kip to continue down the public road. The 20,000 was payment for the nearby caves and although we confirmed we weren't interested in seeing the cave, he insisted that we had to pay if we wanted to pass the toll booth.


He was like the troll in the Three Billy Goats Gruff story.


We paid. We shouldn't have, but we did.

Turns out... he was a crook... and we did not have to pay.


The cave was a bit of a let down too.



BUT... Did you know that Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world?


I did not know this.


Laos almost got completely wiped out of existence. It came demonstrably close. The people of this peaceful village sought refuge in the nearby mountain caves while over one million cluster bombs were dropped on them. The number of bombs dropped was an estimated eight bombs per minute over nine years during the Vietnam War. Bombs are still being discovered, often at the detrimental expense of others.


It's truly heartbreaking.


We trekked down dusty roads and trails, over mud and muck, through rice paddy fields and pig farms, wadded through streams, paid to cross feeble bamboo bridges... and we made it to the two little villages of Ban Na and Huay Bo.


The scenery was lush, but not as vibrant as I've heard it is during the harvest season. Still though, the purple flowers covered the land, turning the brown into a field of vibrancy. I don't think either of us had ever maneuvered our way through a rice paddy plantation before. Let alone to find a village. Each town tempted us with an exquisite variety of their own handcrafted, colourful scarves. I am hardly in the position to be buying scarves. I don't have the money, I don't have the room... AND, most importantly, I don't wear scarves.


I bought three...



Unfortunately, there was a lot of garbage around. It was sad to see. A LOT of plastic. On one part of the trail, we passed what can only be described as a dumping ground. The bags of garbage were piled so high and there was an assortment of farm animals in there, triffling through the waste, searching for food.


The excessive use of plastic is a real problem here in Laos. Even if you're dining in, they will put your drinks into a plastic cup, with a plastic lid and a plastic straw, and then put the entire ensemble into a plastic carry bag. Everything is covered in plastic. Everything.


I've only been in Southeast Asia for 3 months, and I've probably refused at least 100 plastic bags.


Although I'd seen garbage dumped in both the farmlands and on the river banks, I couldn't help but wonder what they did with the rest of it. I did a bit of research;


Very sad.


Earlier in the day, Penny had worked her magic and convinced us to come in for her famous pizza. She claimed it was not only the best pizza in Muang Ngoy (not exactly a difficult feat!), but perhaps the best pizza in the world. With such confidence, we had no other choice than to test her theory.

We put her pizza to the test... and she was right!


Not too shabby at all.

Move over, Italy... Muang Ngoy is putting pizza on the map now!


I think I might hesitate before proclaiming it the best in the world... but she did a pretty good job.



After Kristen left, I had myself to myself again and I loved every minute of it. I slept in, wandered around at my leisure, took naps, ate someone new every day, watched movies, watched the sunsets, had loads of warm showers, and spent a lot of time relaxing and trying to write.


As incredible and magical as Muang Ngoy was, after a few days, I started to feel like I was just bidding my time, watching the hours tick by.  My time in Laos was coming to an end and I was anxious to move into the next chapter...


Very anxious.

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