After leaving Luang Prabang, we took a 9-hour boat trip up the Nam Ou River to the tiny northern Lao town of Nong Kiaw. Up until this point in Laos, we had only spent time in towns that basically formed the backbone of the Laos tourist trail, and we were hoping see some real Lao village culture away from the tourist/guesthouse scene. In that sense, Nong Kiaw pulled through in some ways and was also not what we were hoping for in other ways. But first for that boat trip….
Getting tickets for the boat trip to Nong Kiaw was so representative of the way that we travel that I just have to share it. Usually, we decide what city we will travel to next while we are actively walking to the bus/boat/train station to buy tickets. It happened in Thailand getting tickets for Krabi, in Cambodia getting tickets to Battambang, in Laos getting tickets to Four Thousand Islands. Why should this be any different? Well, I was determined to do a little research before actually checking out of our room this time around and be a bit more prepared. The night before our boat trip to Nong Kiaw, I walked all the way down to the main boat pier to inquire about tickets. They were already closed (figures!), but the men lingering around the boat dock smoking their cigarettes assured me in broken English that I could return there the next morning, the day of the boat trip, to buy them.
Next morning, we loaded up our packs and sauntered down to the ferry port again to buy the tickets. The woman behind the counter, who spoke little English, said “Buy tickets over there!” and started pointing wildly somewhere behind me. I crouched down to her eye level, trying to look for something, anything, resembling a building or street that she was referring to. “There?” I said, pointing up a random perpendicular street. She nodded in a way that would have been more reassuring if she had just said “no.”
Thinking I had a semblance of an idea where to go to buy the tickets, I walked back up to the main street to wait for Scott, who had been out grabbing a to-go breakfast for us. While I waited, I chatted with the friendly tuk tuk drivers who told me that the ticket office was actually about 1/2 mile away up the same street that we were on (definitely not the perpendicular street that I had pointed out to the woman – as I had suspected). They offered to give me a ride for a hefty price, which I politely refused. With the minutes until the boat would be departing ticking by, I ran to tell Scott what was happening and that I would stay with the bags while he ran to buy tickets. Scott ran off in the direction that the tuk tuk drivers said to go and returned about 10 minutes later with the tickets in hand! So proud that we had found and bought the tickets ourselves, we smiled and waved off the same tuk tuk drivers at the main ferry landing who were now asking, “Did you get the tickets? Tickets to Nong Kiaw?” Assuring them I DID now have the tickets and giving them a “I know what I’m doing” smile, they replied, “Boat to Nong Kiaw doesn’t leave from HERE! Leaves from where your boyfriend bought the tickets!!”
Sweating, with not much time to spare, and shrouded in disbelief at our bad luck and/or planning, we turned around once again and set off at a trot, with bags this time, for the boat landing that Scott had just bought the tickets from. When we finally made it, we heard our ticket numbers already being called to board the boat; we rushed the line that had already formed and thrust our tickets into the ticket woman’s hand. With a fly swat to the hand, she batted us away and hissed “This is 8:30 boat. Not your boat.” Not only had we finally figured out where to board the boat, but we were even 30 minutes early!! We had made it after all. Our hare-brained method of traveling around the world had yet to fail us. But I’ll come back to that point again later…
We boarded the tiny wooden boat, prepared for the lengthy journey upriver to Nong Kiaw. Luckily, a 9-hour boat ride is a piece of cake when you’re sitting in a retired CAR seat, with internet access (via our USB modem):
Scott at the office:
A boat identical to ours:
At one point we rode by a sacred cave that apparently holds hundreds of Buddha statues and can only be reached by boat:
From there, it was nothing but wide open river, farmland (all just sustainable living in that part of Lao), and families bathing or doing laundry:
We finally reached Nong Kiaw around 6pm, and the setting certainly was beautiful. The town was split into two halves, divided by a river and connected by a large bridge. Cradling the whole town like an upside down bowl were beautiful soaring limestone mountains that made me feel tiny in their presence.
But despite our best efforts to get away from the tourism scene, Nong Kiaw was full of guesthouses and other travelers – not so off the beaten path anymore, it seemed. Despite that, the town was extremely tiny with just once main road and had some charm. It was the kind of small town where everyone in the village gathered in the main square when someone in the village had passed away:
(Below, video of us attending yet another funeral….)
The next day, the rented some bikes and rode off in search of the nearby Pak Ou Cave, used by the Lao people during the VIetnam War to hide from the U.S. bombing campaign that was taking place across their land during the 1970’s. The cave was naturally very beautiful, and it went on for hundreds of feet, with various “rooms” throughout (some for holding meetings, cooking, for doing art, even!). There was even a large sand bank inside that was used by the villagers to hide from bullets directed straight into the caves by helicopters.
Kid tour guides working outside the cave:
Kids waiting for more customers:
After the cave, we took a leisurely ride farther out of town along some beautiful mountain roads.
Just when we thought we had discovered the most quiet, peaceful place on earth, we heard loud music thumping up ahead and came upon maybe 50 people dancing under a staked tarp on the side of the road! Thinking it might be a wedding, we smiled and rolled on past, politely declining the waves of arms beckoning us onto the dance floor.
We rode by without stopping but soon decided to turn back, since the midday heat was easily approaching 90 degrees and we had no water. We reached the dancing people again, where they were dancing right next to the only store that sold water for miles around. As Scott walked up to the little storefront to buy a bottle of water for us, the dancing locals on the packed-dirt dance floor curiously peered over one another’s shoulders and stared at the strange foreigner, clearly lost in such wonderment that their bouncing became completely off-rythm. One girl beckoned Scott over, then the others joined in more forcefully. Eventually, their small group of 10 had the two of us roped into the middle of the dance floor, handing us shots of vile Lao Lao (whisky) and taking turns dancing next to the silly foreigners. As I tried to get into the swing of dancing on the side of a dirt road, sober, at 11:30 in the morning, I was growing ever more conscience of the crowd of spectators that had steadily been growing since we had arrived. What had once been a few spectators on the sidelines had now become a mass of older women in traditional sarongs watching, laughing, and clapping along as we kept them entertained.
Me dancing; notice evil girl to the left serving up large shots of homemade Lao Lao!
Friendly DJ pumping out serious Lao dance tunes:
Not wanting to overstay our welcome, we danced for a few more songs, then took off toward town on our bikes. We rounded a few curves, then both looked at each other, dying laughing, and said, “What the hell was that?” We still weren’t even sure what that was (a wedding? funeral? we certainly have a knack for crashing funerals….), when Scott remembered he had read about so-called “Lao discos” in some guidebook. I had always thought that these referred to discos inside clubs or bars, but apparently it consists of nothing more than a DJ with a sound system and handful of people on the side of a highway looking for some fun on a random Saturday afternoon. I like it!
On our way back to our guesthouse, we passed this couple, coming back from a hard day in the fields. Perhaps the husband could have offered to take half the load, at least??
The next morning we were feeling the urge to move on from Nong Kiaw, so we once again threw our bags on our back and began walking toward the bus station. We wanted to take a bus farther north to a town called Luang Namtha, known for being a jumping off point to some of the very remote hill tribe villages of Lao, but we didn’t know what time the bus would be leaving. When we arrived at the bus station, we found that the bus for Luang Namtha had already left 2 hours ago. So we scanned the bus schedule right then and there and saw that there was a different bus heading south (the opposite direction from Luang Namtha) in about an hour. Thus, the decision was made for us to go south instead! And that’s how we make most of our traveling decisions! At this point, I think I mumbled some corny quote about how travel is really just about moving forward on a straight line through time, and there is no such thing as backtracking according to any silly geographical map (it was much more elegant the first time).
While we waited for the bus, we had a lovely breakfast of noodle soup and cold red tea under the front awning of a woman’s home. As the whole family crowded around to watch the foreigners eat, the father took a break from his work of rebuilding a portion of the road in front of his house to teach us some words in Lao. We all stumbled to communicate as best as we could in a hodgepodge of both languages, and they were excited to figure out that we were married! As we got up to leave, the grandfather figure gave us some oranges as a gift, and we learned the word for those too – sii som. Just when we had been feeling a little irked by all the tourism and guesthouses present in the town, an interaction as simple as that was enough to to remind us that the real Lao was all around us and it made us wish for a second that maybe we were staying just a little bit longer.
As we trudged on to the bus station, we asked ourselves whether we were making the right decision in leaving Nong Kiaw after only two days. As we walked, we tried to figure out the source of our frustration and realized that the multitude of guesthouses weren’t really the problem; it was our own lack of knowledge of the local language that was the real hindrance to us learning more about Lao beyond the tourism scene or our having more meaningful interactions with the people that we encountered. In the end, we did end up boarding that bus – one that would take us one step closer to the border crossing out of Lao. But Nong Kiaw had done its best to show us the real Laos – a Lao disco on the side of the road for heaven’s sake!– maybe next time we’ll simply be better prepared to take it all in.