Off the beaten track: Northern Laos

One of the many night buses from hell

I can think of better things to do than hop straight onto a night bus after a two day mountainous trek without a shower or a toilet, but I only had a day left of my visa so I needed to get out of Vietnam. It was just my luck that the night bus we had booked through a random lady on the street, saving us a whopping $2 (woo!) just so happened to be a local night bus. It’s near impossible to describe the horrors of a local night bus but I’ll give it a whirl.

Our 5am bus to Laos

Imagine a run-down coach with bug-infested blankets and twice the number of rude Vietnamese passengers than beds. Don’t get me wrong, there are many lovely Vietnamese people (not as many as Cambodia or Laos though!) but this bunch just so happened to be the worse. People were piled in with Pheobe having to join the ones sleeping on the floor in the aisle as there was a leak above her bed. There were people smoking and talking loudly all night, feet shoved in faces, bags picked up and moved, pillows stolen and the most horrendous coughing and spluttering. I was wondering whether I’d get out alive.

The village of Muang Khuna

We finally arrived at Dien Bien Phu at 5am and jumped straight onto a mini bus for the 7 hour trip across the border to the village of Muang Khua. We arrived at the small but charming village which is relatively unexplored by tourists and is mainly used as a transport hub to other destinations in Northern Laos. We spent the day exploring Muang Khua on foot and sampling some tasty local Laos food like Laos Salad, Laap (meat salad) and street-side omelettes.

Lots of anti drug signs in Laos

The next day we woke at 9am having not heard our 7:30am alarm which was set in order to catch the only boat of the day to Muang Ngoi Neua which left at 9am. In a mad panic we packed up our backpacks, left the bill on the bed and ran as fast as we could with our bags to the pier. Reflecting on it we really should have found out where the pier was the previous day as it took a while with me running into shops shouting “boat” making weird wave motions with my hands and subsequently being given strange looks and a couple of helpful points.

Picking up this cute little lady

This was the one day we wanted things to be in “Asian time” and to our luck it was! Running ahead of the others who were picking up vital supplies (sticky rice and banana for breakfast) I arrived at the pier at 9:40 and begged them to wait for us. Luckily the other passengers on board weren’t too annoyed and we enjoyed the six hour boat journey chatting away.

Beautiful Muang Ngoi Neua

After a long but scenic boat ride with just a few toilet stops on the bank of the river we arrived at the even smaller village of Muang Ngoi Neua. With just a handful of guest-houses along the river we settled in for the night and enjoyed a lovely pumpkin curry with sticky rice.

Pumpkin Curry with a view!

Like all food and drink in Laos, it took ages to arrive but when it did it was incredible. One thing I’ve learnt from people in Laos is that everything is made fresh to order using ingredients purchased from the market that morning. So much care is taken in preparation it’s no wonder it tastes so good.

So true. Everything made fresh to order in Laos

We had one full day in Muang Ngoi Neua which happened to be the day everyone in the village headed down to the river to watch the annual boat race. With the village to ourselves for a couple of hours we took the opportunity to jump into our bikinis for a quick dip.

Buffaloes joining us for a dip

As Laos is a predominantly Buddhist county, people are required to dress respectfully, specially in remote regions like which are yet to form part of the tourist trail. The chances of someone seeing us were minimal but guess who happened to turn up? A boat transporting an 80 year old monk to the villages temple! We couldn’t believe it and tried to cover ourselves the best we could saying “sorry sorry”. Luckily everyone was in good spirits and the driver of the boat laughed and gave us a thumbs up!

Chilling out in Riverside Restaurant

We spent the evening in Riverview Restaurant watching the sunset over the mountains, playing cards and drinking Beer Lao.

Picturesque Nong Khiaw

The next morning after an ‘all you can eat’ buffet breakfast we headed an hour downstream to the village of Nong Khiaw, still off the main tourist trail but popular with those looking for a bit of adventure with opportunities for rock climbing, trekking, mountain biking and caving.

It’s important to stick to the path in Laos

We only had an afternoon before having to move on to Luang Prabang for the start of New Year so Pheobe took the idiotic decision to climb the steepest of all mountains in the midday heat. I’ve never sweat so much in my life (apart from now as I am writing this in a hot mini van in 37c heat) but the view from the top was phenomenal.

The view was well worth the trek!

We rewarded ourselves with a smoothie and spring rolls from Vongmany before returning an hour later for dinner where I tried Mok Pa, Lao style fish steamed in banana leaf, one of my favourite traditional Laos dishes.

The view from the infinity pool at Mandala Ou Resort

The next morning we visited luxury Mandala Ou for a coffee after meeting an English/Australian man at the restaurant the night before who had moved some months ago to help set it up. If only I could afford to stay in the €60 a night room, it was gorgeous. I picked up some sticky rice for breakfast not realising that it was in fact fish wrapped in banana leaf, not the best start to the day.

A warm welcome to Laos

Neither was the fact we were crammed onto a packed mini van for the 5 hour drive to Luang Prabang. However, it was time to start the New Year celebrations!

Living life, loving cake

H x


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