The Baguette of Love
Trip Start Sep 09, 2004
394Trip End Ongoing
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Somewhere, back in Australia I mentioned that crows make the most ridiculous noise I've ever heard. Well they don't. Cocks do. Cocks crowing at 4am do, especially when they try and compete with all the other cocks and practically strangle themselves stupid trying to squeeze that little bit extra out. And for what?
If you're craving a bit of peace and quiet and need to get away from the masses, or even dabble in a bit of real Lao life, you really should grab a few days in Muang Ngoi.
This is probably the best so far. Seriously. Very raw, very real, and for the sake of taking a hour's slowboat upstream from Nong Khiaw the rewards are more than plentiful. No roads lead here, and no roads are here, giving Muang Ngoi's already undisturbed remoteness an added natural charm. The fact that it's sparsely inhabited by a small and cheery community adds even more to its laid-back appeal, and what really makes this place what it is (getting excited now) is how the local people make such a primitive simple life look so positively joyous.
Most of the action is on the main strip (a dusty thoroughfare of sticks and stones) though there's plenty of life in the pathways that shoot off from either side. Pottering about for even an hour or so is more than enough to tickle the senses and it's amazing how quickly you feel completely at peace here, especially as most of the time is spent stepping around dogs, cats, chickens, cows, buffaloes, ducks, goats, lizards, snakes and kids in home-made nappies(!) ..not to mention stumbling across old bomb-casings (courtesy of the US of A) or the random fires that smoulder away discreetly underfoot - the ones that you don't actually realise are there until you feel a sudden searing pain burn through your flip flops. Brilliant.
Then there's the electricity. At 7pm some kindly devotee fires up the generator and for three luxurious hours you're afforded one feint power-saving light bulb. At 10pm you're on your own. In an instant the whole region is plunged into darkness - restaurants, river, mountains and all. It's fantastic, and to quietly re-live those humble nights huddled in remote back-country huts on mountain trails has been nothing short of perfect. Definitely one of the highlights so far.
After a day or two of getting our bearings we were joined by three banter-heads who made our already colourful picture a complete one: Miguel from Portugal and the two lairy Greeks. Miguel was a man with a story and bit of a legend from the off. He tossed aside a high-end and very well-paid engineering job in Lisbon to study Chinese medicine for five years before retiring to a monastery in the forbidden mountains to expand his mind into Taoism. Top bloke. Some amazing conversations.
The Greeks were just nutters. Absolutely hilarious. If they weren't pissing about and giggling they'd be fighting. Without any kind of warning too. Just instant spontaneous debate. The arguments would usually be over politics (or women) and would be so so passionate, so highly dramatic in their delivery that it would be difficult to know quite where to put yourself.
None of this was new for Miguel though. He'd clearly seen it a million times and would sit and watch with enthusiasm as the two passion-fired rottweilers barked abuse into each others faces. 'They do this all the time, it's fun..' he'd say and then slump back in his chair smiling and smoking as the liveliness began to peak. One such argument was so severe that Eriko quietly left the table to find somewhere to hide. What she didn't see was the two of them afterwards, kissing and cuddling and nursing each others wounds like amorous teenagers. SUPERB entertainment.
The 'Big' Bonus
The big bonus came when we realised just how good we'd timed our arrival in Maung Ngoi. Each year at full moon marks the moment where the living pay their respects to the dead - a very important festival day in Lao culture, and a day where this particular village blooms with life. The privilege of being 'seen and not heard' was all ours.
By 6am things were already in full swing. People from every corner and every cave lined up in their best dress, ready to distribute their carefully prepared basket of offerings to the brightly adorned monks who passed through the village in slow procession. Once the village was blessed - through an extended moment of silence, wais and soft chanting - everybody upped and assembled at the temple, to gift their proudly put together platters of food. So much of it was gifted that it didn't take long to fill the temple floor, yet it kept coming by the tray load, pride beaming from every face. By the time the monks came we were almost up to knee level.
With the formalities out of the way the whole village went mental on lào láo. We sat and watched circles of excitable women, each knocking back glass after glass for all it's worth, and belting out traditional Lao songs with a little jig to accompany the commotion. How they were still standing after hours of all this chaos will remain a mystery.
The Mare that Became a Dream
'It's always the ones you least expect..'
The absolute highlight came on our last day, though it took an unfortunate shaky start to create the opening. Whether it was down to Chinese whispers, a simple lack of communication or a genuine scam attempt, a misunderstanding took place which caused a bit of a confrontation with the young guy at the guest house. It's massively long-winded so I'll spare the details, but two of our group in particular (not the ones you'd have expected in the slightest) got a bit upset and became loud and large, resulting in loss of face for our young Lao friend. Not a very nice moment at all, and while I was surprised at the behaviour displayed by the others I was just as surprised at my own. It took a lot of bridging and in time a compromise was reached. More importantly things were put to peace, which is good cos' it's how the opening for 'the absolute highlight' came about.
The absolute highlight meant getting stuck in to the thick of local family festivities - 'Lao style', after sacrificing a small black goat and cutting him open down by the river (see video). It was one the craziest afternoons I've had in a long time. Goat chunks, goats innards, goats blood and a heap of fragrant spice accompanied the sticky spoonfuls of greasy fried silkworms/caterpillars and endless shots of eye-wincing lào láo. The resulting giggle-rich banter, along with the shrieks, squeals and all-round unpretentious brotherhood became what will always remain a highly memorable day - a day you'd never attain without earning.
Naturally, all this was more than enough to call it a wrap, but coupled with how we've all come together this far from that first bus encounter in Udomxai to this past week of riverside life and all its magical moments has been, for me, one of the best weeks so far: a perfect blend of characters, some of the best random conversations to date and an absolute blinder of a time from breakfast to bed. Every. Single. Day.
I've never been this chilled out and never been so thrilled to be in the skin I'm in. And as always it's the people that have played the biggest part in all this - not only the diamonds I've been living and laughing with but the Lao people themselves. They are without doubt the most laid-back people I've ever come into contact with. They're beautiful, peaceful, humble and so happily self-sufficient. They're more than glad to share their space, their time, their food and their belongings, and yet not once do they expect anything in return. In fact they seem totally unaffected by us, in a subtle way that proudly advertises their lack of need or dependence on tourism or outside alien influences.
But then, this is all just a silly romantic view that comes from looking through the pink and rosy lens of someone passing through their world so so briefly. What the hell would I know? All I do know is that spending time soaking up this culture in the very short time that I have, has done wonders for me, and (or so it seems) very little for them. My god, that says everything..
Where I stayed