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.
Chubby Chatterbox says
Very interesting. I’ve been close to Laos but have yet to visit that country.
Daniel McBane says
You need a lot of time to really visit Laos. Getting anywhere is slow going. Are you staying in Thailand on your current trip or will you take a few days to visit Angkor or elsewhere outside the country?
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Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) says
An interesting read, Daniel, as we will be heading to Laos in a few days and I had flagged Muang Ngoi as a potential place to check out provided we have the time. It does look quite pretty and I would wager that we’ll not be complaining about a place that’s a little cooler than down on the plains at this time of year, but I can definitely see how it would be jarring to arrive expecting it to be totally local and off the beaten path only for it to be backpacker HQ.
Out of curiosity, where were your favorite places to visit in Laos? We’re going to start in Savannakhet and plan to head north from there and will have a month to explore (provided we enjoy our time there, otherwise we’ll hightail it to Thailand!).
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Daniel McBane says
I definitely recommend Muang Ngoi. It just wasn’t what I was expecting, but once I got past that, I really liked it. With better weather, I would have loved it and probably would have stayed a few more days. Try the buffet, if it’s still there, especially for breakfast. Personally, I actually preferred Nong Khiaw, but you have to go through there to get to Muang Ngoi anyway, so you’ll get to see both.
My favorite part of Laos was the motorbike loop starting and ending in Tha Khaek (the next city heading north from Savannakhet). They were doing a lot of road construction when we were there, so I’m not sure how much it has changed (this was in 2011), though. Some of the roads were pretty bad, so the construction may have actually improved the loop. I know you guys have a lot of experience with motorcycles and you’d probably enjoy this trip a lot, rough roads or not.
The 4000 islands in the far south and the Bolaven Plateau a few hours to the north were great, too, but both of these areas are south of Savannakhet.
Vang Vieng gets a bad rep because of the tubing and all the 19 year old alcoholics it attracts (or used to), but the surrounding landscape is stunning.
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Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) says
Thanks for the thoughts, Daniel! We are in Savannakhet now—not a lot going on here, but it’s a nice enough little town and I suspect there’s probably not a much more laid back intro to the country than this.
We had looked into the 4000 islands & Bolaven plateau, but given how notoriously bad the roads in Laos are and how long travel days can be, we figure it didn’t make sense to plan to head so far south and then go all the way north, especially since we really can’t spend much more than a month here. We’d rather see fewer places but really get to enjoy them. However, we are planning to head to Tha Khaek next and were planning on doing The Loop, so I’m glad to hear you enjoyed that so much. The countryside that we saw coming in to Savannakhet wasn’t all that impressive truth be told, but we have seen pics from around Tha Khaek and it really does look pretty.
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Daniel McBane says
The scenery along the loop is much nicer than what you’ll see around Savannakhet. If you’re not in a hurry, take your time and make a lot of stops and side trips. That’s where we had the most fun. Kong Lo cave is incredible, although you might get a bit annoyed with the ticket guys. We did, but were still very happy we made the side trip.
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Shalu Sharma says
I haven’t been to Laos before but seems like a great country to go to. The remoteness sounds peaceful and seems like an ideal getaway from the madness. That bamboo bridge looks a little dangerous, did you really cross it?
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Daniel McBane says
For the most part, Laos is quiet and remote, but there are a few exceptions (Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang). The bridge was surprisingly sturdy, although it did sway a lot when we crossed.
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