Other travelers are a great source of accurate and up-to-date information, but be careful taking any advice you get at face value. I’ve gone out of my way to visit places lauded by backpacker after backpacker only to end up disappointed; I’ve also visited places despite steady advice to avoid them and ended up having a great time. This disconnect between reputation and reality was larger than ever in Muang Ngoi, Laos.
From the day I entered the country, I heard nothing but praise for this tiny village on the Ou River in the mountains of northern Laos. Virtually everyone who ventured outside the standard tourist loop through Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng called it their favorite destination in the country. Inaccessible by road, you need to catch a boat up the Ou River from Nong Khiaw to get there. I was told this isolation combined with a lack of electricity or other modern amenities keeps the masses away and rewards anyone who makes the journey with a glimpse into the real Laos.
The illusion of remoteness and authenticity was shattered before I stepped off the boat. Several guest house touts lined the stairs leading up into town, hoping to entice a few embarking visitors into staying at their establishments. Wooden patios jutted out over the water on either side of the stairs. On the patios, umbrellas with bright drink advertisements shaded several groups of backpackers as they lounged on cushioned sofas and sipped their Beer Lao.
I climbed the stairs and turned onto the main street. English language signs identified almost every single building on either side of the street as either a guest house, a tourist-oriented restaurant or a convenience store. Thumping music blasted from large speakers at several of the guest houses; pale, dread-locked figures filled colorful Mayan hammocks on every patio, porch and balcony.
Clearly Muang Ngoi was not quite the ‘authentic, rural Laos’ I was expecting; instead, it was a standard southeast Asian backpacker mecca and I spent the first evening in town frustrated and annoyed. And freezing.
My first few weeks in Laos were characterized by near constant rain and unseasonably cold temperatures and those temperatures only got lower, the further north I went. Since my clothing options ranged from t-shirts to differently colored t-shirts, I did some shivering on that first evening in Muang Ngoi Neua. Luckily my guesthouse had thick blankets.
The bed was warm, but the second I left it the next morning, I was freezing again. I did feel better about Muang Ngoi after a night’s sleep, though. Once I put aside my expectations and accepted the village for the popular backpacker destination it was, I was able to appreciate what it had to offer: it was tiny, sandwiched between a rushing, brown river and towering karst peaks, and filled with fresh air and no cars.
And while the town itself was no longer authentic Laos, the surrounding countryside was. Several real Lao villages were only a few hours away on foot. Some of them even offered homestays for anyone looking to get far away from the backpacker scene.
More importantly, I met a few people at my guesthouse and one of them gave me her extra jacket. Yes, I wrote ‘her’—I spent the next few days wearing a girl’s jacket and it was apparent at first glance. The jacket was also much too small, but I was cold enough to not care.
No longer freezing, I was able to venture outside a bit more and we climbed one of the nearby peaks for a bird’s eye view of the town and the countryside. We also walked around that countryside for a few hours, discovering several caves along the way, including one with a swimmable lake inside. Unfortunately, it was already occupied by a flabby, hairy Danish couple and their kids, none of whom had brought swimsuits, so we quickly passed on that swimming opportunity.
We ate most of our meals in Muang Ngoi at a buffet, where you could eat as much as you wanted for under two dollars. It was the same food every day, but it was delicious and there were enough different dishes to keep us from getting bored. The food did make the girl whose jacket I was wearing violently ill for a few days, but I felt fine, so I feel like I can still recommend the place. The woman who cooks all the food is friendly and she also prepares a daily breakfast buffet, which may have been even better than the dinner one.
One evening we even got a chance to attend a local wedding. It was pretty cool at first. We tried a bit of food and took a couple of shots of homemade lao lao, the ever-present Laotian liquor, with some of the town’s young men, but we didn’t stay long. The shots kept coming and we could see that things would soon turn ugly. People were beginning to dance and the threat of a karaoke outbreak was all too real. We took off well before it hit.
All in all, I did enjoy Muang Ngoi, despite my early disappointment. It serves me right for setting expectations based on other people’s recommendations. I should know better. If you plan on heading to Muang Ngoi yourself, know that it is not an authentic little Lao village, but a laid back backpacker destination. And as such, it’s a good one.
For more on Muang Ngoi, try my travel guide.