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Beyond the Beer in Upcountry Laos

Muang Ngoi is one of the beautiful, hidden niches of northern Laos. It is a little-known riverside village that retains its sleepy lifestyle and its residents their wide smiles. The existence of this veritable Bonnidoon of Laos is a secret rapidly passing along the travel grapevine and we were in search of paradise.

The journey from the former capital of Luang Prabang to Muang Ngoi winds through sumptuously green countryside: perfect rice fields, jungle undergrowth, and the towering fronds of coconut palms.  The varying shades of green are stunning. A moment’s pause in any village along the road brings smiling Lao women bustling to the windows of the bus, offering up tasty fare that includes chicken-on-a-stick, a favourite of this little travelling group.

The riverside village of Nong Khiaw is the end point by road. From here a narrow longboat travels upstream along the mighty Mekong River to Muang Ngoi. The longboats sit low in the brown water as the boatmen wait patiently until they have enough passengers to make the trip worthwhile before setting forth.

Muang Ngoi is as far north as my friends and I will journey. The idea of a quiet riverside village in the cool, mountainous north has coloured our collective imagination. The four of us – Jeff, Terry and Lucile, and me – wait in the midday heat as a boatman counts passengers and decides to wait a little longer. Terry, unwell and exhausted, wishes out loud that we get moving sometime soon. I’m wishing for chicken-on-a-stick and a cold Beer Lao. The boatman soon makes his decision and the cargo is packed: backpacks and rice sacks belonging to a grinning Lao couple. The boat sits even lower in the water.

It isn’t until we are moving steadily upstream that we disclose to Terry the lack of electricity in Muang Ngoi. Given his fragile state Terry is, understandably, unimpressed.  Jeff, our affable Tennessee traveller attempts to cheer him.

“Don’t worry man, it’ll be great. There’s cold beer and air-conditioning.  Sure there is! I’ve read about it!”

Heartened by the thought of a refreshingly cold Beer Lao, Terry refrains from throwing himself overboard.

While Jeff cheers Terry with his vivid imagination, I wonder what to expect. Other travellers have described a quiet village on the Mekong yet to expose itself to the trappings of established tourism. We are travelling in anticipation of a simple paradise and our surroundings already have us entranced.

Mountains shaped like dragon’s teeth tower above our narrow boat; wooden shacks cling to the green slopes at impossible angles, their slide into the brown Mekong seeming imminent. Below these tiny homes our little boat negotiates the river and the boatman stops at a riverside village to deposit the still-smiling couple and their rice sacks. Farther along the Mekong we catch our first glimpse of Muang Ngoi.

Muang Ngoi, like many places in Laos, has been quick to enterprise with traveller’s guesthouses. Rickety wooden guesthouses adorn the Mekong’s bank on their stilts because the locals know this is what we travellers like: a simple room and hammock with an unobscured river view.

And we do.

A smiling, laughing man with a Buddha-like stomache meets us from the boat and introduces himself as Sai Lom. We check into ‘Sai Lom’s Guesthouse’, a few metres along shore. Life in paradise begins with good food and cold beer produced immediately by the ever-smiling Sai Lom; all consumed in view of mountains and river.

We toast our good fortune to have found such a tranquil place. We embrace paradise with bottles of ‘Beer Lao’ and Terry concedes that his earlier fears were allayed, if not his stomach.

However, the true nature of the Beer Lao supply is soon revealed. ‘Lukewarm’ would be a euphemistic description. We knew electricity would be available only at certain hours of the day; the generator hums to life at 5:30pm and ceases at 10:30pm sharp. We just hadn’t thought how this would affect our beverages.

The other essential survival tools in Laos are the delectable fruit shakes. However, ordering one of these at the guesthouse involves someone wandering along the dusty road to switch on the generator in order to operate the blender – and an overwhelming feeling of guilt on the part of the customer. The four of us are happy to forgo fruit shakes until evenings and spend the days lazing in our hammocks as we contemplate the river and sup warm beer. We occasionally make the foray ‘into town’.

Downtown Muang Ngoi is up the path, over the step, and there we find ourselves amidst all the action. Children on bikes; chickens wandering stick-less in the street; grandmas hawking up big globules of blood-red betel nut juice to be spat with relish into the dust; bananas cooking on a small, smoking barbeque at the side of the road.

There is more to Muang Ngoi than hammocks by the riverside.

A freshwater cave is only a short walk from Muang Ngoi. Upon our hot and sweaty arrival we realise with dismay that we are under-prepared for this expedition. The water flowing from the underground source is crystal clear and brilliantly cold. We should have brought a few Beer Lao’s to chill. We vowed to be more prepared next time and when talking about Muang Ngoi to other travellers, remind them to bring their beverages to the cave. It’s a secret for staying comfortably in Muang Ngoi.

The freshwater cave is a welcome respite from the heat. The air has become stifling; the rainy season clouds have gathered but teasingly refuse to shed their load. We are all starting to become a little loopy in the pre-rain heat. Though not nearly as loopy as the English bloke who visits Sai Lom every afternoon to request that Sai Lom cuts him down a coconut. We love our Beer Lao and Dan ‘The Coconut Man’ loves his coconut shakes.

We try to alleviate our discomfort by swimming in the murky Mekong, but unlike the locals who bathe near the shore we swim too far into the current. With a piercing shriek, Lucile announces the presence of something slippery with two fangs in the water. Our quick exit from the water is immensely amusing to Sai Lom who is watching from shore. His belly-shaking laughter turns to dismay when he sees the teeth-marks in Lucile’s calf. He is quick to administer first aid but continues to grin as we ask if it perhaps was a snake, eel or fish. We don’t get a clear answer.

We head out on the village, up the path and over the step, to enjoy our last night together before Lucile’s imminent demise. And try yet another time for some chilled beer. In a tiny bar we find beer that is slightly cooler than body temperature, so we indulge with relish.

During the night, Lucile and Terry wake groggily to the sound of drums thumping ominously in the distance. The night is pitch-black, thanks to more clouds rolling in. Lucile is convinced her time has come and that if it isn’t the mystery bite that will finish her off then the rebels coming down from the mountains to attack Muang Ngoi certainly will.

Jeff and I sleep soundly through the commotion and our friend’s panic. We sleep heavily in anticipation of the early wake up call that will greet us: fellow guests clearing their lungs at 5 a.m. on our balcony. I should note, though, that the sound of phlegm being expelled is nicely countered by the sight of white fog lacing across the dark mountain slopes.

We hear the story after sunrise and Sai Lom gleefully informs us that there are no rebels. The monks can be heard beating their drums from their temple. Lucile informs us that she was very close to hiding under the guesthouse. Terry informs us he’s still unwell and can’t cope with these drumming monks in the night.

We are slowly, but surely, starting to lose the plot.

When we reduce the symptoms of our burgeoning madness, it all comes down to one factor: Our spirits are slowly being crushed by the lack of cold Beer Lao. We need to return from our beautiful northern retreat to a town of twenty-four hour refrigeration.

Intrepid exploration is one thing. Warm beer is another thing entirely.

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