We were excited to experience staying in a real Lao village during our visit to Muang Ngoi Neua. Images of little river side bungalows, more hammock swinging while enjoying yet another Laos sunset over the surrounding karst mountains. Remote enough to have no incoming roads, ATMs, Wi-Fi or any internet connection, only having functioning electrically from 6-9:30pm, and only accessed by boat.
After an amazing boat ride from Nong Khiaw, we arrived at Muang Ngoi Neua’s small port. As soon as we docked we were instantly accosted by hotel owners, desperately trying to drag us off to their accommodation. All the boats occupants obviously wanting a riverside bungalow, a frantic feeling trying to secure any accommodation ensued. We eventually settled for a (relatively expensive) 80,000 Kip bungalow well away from the river views we travelled there for. It was lovely, and we had the added surprise luxury of 24 hour gas heated shower! Not very ‘back to basics’, but very nice nevertheless!
Muang Ngoi Neua village is essentially a strip about 500m long, flanked by stalls, restaurants and shops. As soon as we walked up the main strip, I felt the piercing look of those with money in their eyes staring at us – Not a trait I’ve experienced while visiting other places in Laos.
More annoyingly, one of the most popular restaurants at the junction from the boat landing had western workers touting outside, tempting us to partake in their ‘all you can eat’ breakfast – and then sneering in contempt when we turned it down as the food was stone-cold and as ancient looking as the mountainous terrain surrounding this beautiful village.
Again, not a the typical Lao experience I’ve come to Muang Ngoi Neua for.
Having previously read about Jess’s account (from the Globetrotter Girls) of their stay back in April 2012 and Erin’s experience (from Never Ending Voyage) in 2008, things seemed to have changed quite rapidly in Muang Ngoi Neua.
Instantly, we felt cheated that our images of a picture perfect, quiet and serene Muang Ngoi Neua had been dashed.
Muang Ngoi Neua is still a sleepy Laos village. The locals still get on with their daily lives, even as the bikini clad falang wander by. The feeling of rural life is ever present. As chickens, dogs, children, tractors and bikes mill around the strip, while the tourists take it all in and enjoy the typical Lao pace of life.
Fisherman prepare their nets, sand their boats, or craft new paddles from high quality teak collected from surrounding forest – It’s a humbling experience. The rural life, their relative poverty, and their ever happy and up-beat attitude towards their lives. Which I suppose is why Muang Ngoi Neua is so popular.
Things to do in Muang Ngoi Neua
We ate solely in Nicksa’s Place. It was always empty when we ate or drank there, a true family run operation! In true Lao style, the service is veerrry sloooowww, but everything is fresh and tasty, and the running of things is helped on by the owner’s adorable children. Just don’t order a full-spread when your boat back to Nong Khiaw is in 30 minutes! Don’t forget to check out Our Guide to Maxing Your Relaxing in Nong Khiaw!
Some of the street stall food is absolutely amazing as you can imagine. Little coconut/sticky rice balls with spring onion were a favourite, as well as fried banana crisps and gooey sticky rice cakes. A great stodgy energy fuelled breakfast!
Muang Ngoi Neua’s surroundings are incredible. The river is an obvious draw. We hired a 4 person long boat and foolishly tried to row upstream. We managed a few hundred metres, spotted a ‘beach’ on the island in the river and were forced to crash land there to catch our breath, while getting stuck in the mud!
Worryingly, ‘Tubing’ is advertised near the boat landing, and while the act of floating down the river in an inner tube is innocent enough, the last thing Laos needs is another Vang Vieng…
There are some amazing treks and walks around Muang Ngoi Neua, and in our eyes the best thing to do there! We headed east from Muang Ngoi Neua, past more little villages on the way Tham Kang caves, passing a toll-booth where you have to pay for a 10,000 Kip ticket.
The cave was massive! We bought our flash lights with us, and ventured a few hundred metres in before fear of bats and other scary things forced us out! There’s a nice bamboo restaurant called Cave View over a rickety bridge. A perfect place for a rejuvenating Café Lao before carrying on another hour to Huey Sen.
Huey Sen is another roadless village, it’s like stepping back in time when you arrive. Stilted houses, and 2 little restaurants await your arrival, as their owners will undoubtedly try to usher you into one of them! We had an amazing meal in the quieter of the two, with a few rounds of Lao Lao whiskey shots enjoyed with the family for dessert!
The village is almost medieval, but we felt that it was a bit wrong walking around observing the lives of the locals like we were in a zoo. Even though we were probably more of a novelty! Huey Sen had 2 guesthouses when we were there (Jan 2013), if you’re tired after the walk from Muang Ngoi Neua.
The last thing we want to do is put people off going to Muang Ngoi Neua. It is beautiful, and it is a glimpse into Lao village life – We can’t help feeling that Muang Ngoi Neua is destined for more tourism than it can handle as the years go by and it inevitably becomes more popular.
It’s the old formula – Tourists bring money, money brings greed, greed brings unhappiness. But who am I to say that money pouring into Muang Ngoi Neua is a bad thing? It can’t be all bad for the residents. I’m sure surrounding villages would kill to have all this new money Muang Ngoi Neua is bringing in…
The fragile riverside life is hard enough already, and I’m not sure if a continued influx of tourists and money will be beneficial long term for Muang Ngoi Neua. It probably won’t turn into a new Vang Vieng, but the local way of life may be inevitably ruined.
By all means visit this beautiful village and enjoy everything it has to offer, but remember your lasting impact long after you’ve left.