Travelling back in time to Muang Ngoi

Mist rising in Muang Ngoi

I fell in love with the village of Muang Ngoi in Laos when I visited it five years ago and when I reluctantly left I kept some local money as a promise to myself that I would return. Finally I’ve made it and Paul is keen to visit the area as well.

Muang Ngoi lies on the Ou River (Nam Ou) between Muang Khua in the far north west of Laos and Luang Prabang, the major city in the north of Laos. The river is almost the only means of reaching the village and at that time only a handful of tourists visited it. It felt as though the village existed in a time warp with no cars or motor cycles and with chooks roaming freely in the main street.

I was worried that increasing tourism may have changed the nature of the village since my last visit. Tourism had certainly increased but I’m very happy to say that, in my opinion, the village has retained its essential character and the changes which have occurred have hopefully brought about many positive opportunities for the local people and few detrimental side effects. A new dam being built up river may have more alarming consequences, I guess only time will tell.

To reach Muang Ngoi we caught a public boat from Muang Khua along with about 15 other tourists and a few local people travelling to villages down stream. The boat had a few reasonably comfortable seats at the front which were quickly filled and the rest of us sat on low planks lining the sides of the boat. To bypass the new dam we were off-loaded above the construction, crammed into a tuk tuk along with all our packs, and then dropped off below the dam to wait for another boat to collect us. This time Paul and I managed to snaffle the comfortable seats for the final ride to Nam Ou.

The trip lasted about four hours but any discomfort  was more than made up by the beautiful scenery along the way.

After our delightful trip we reached Muang Ngoi and climbed the stairs from the river along with a few of the other travellers. We called into some of the guest houses lining the river and found a rustic bungalow overlooking the river where we could relax for a lazy five days. The bungalow was mainly constructed from bamboo and the view from the hammock on the small verandah more than compensated for the very basic bathroom and the rough and ready construction.

We sampled different restaurants for our meals but often ended up at one of two adjacent places which had the best views of the river and all the activity on the river and reliably tasty food.

Apart from eating, our main activity was taking short strolls around the tiny village. Longer treks into the surrounding forests and up mountains or boat or canoe trips were available but although we considered them the time passed very easily.

Paul was out before sunrise several times and captured some nice shots of the monks from the temple at the edge of the village and of the early morning light.

Finally it was time to leave Muang Ngoi and travel further down river to Ngong Kiaow where we caught a mini bus to Luang Prabang, our final destination in Asia for this trip.

Leaving Muang Ngoi, passing our two favourite restaurants

Onward to Luang Nam Tha

Luang Nam Tha Morning Market,
Timeless elegance

After our delightful stay at the Bamboo Nest outside of Chiang Rai we are dropped at the bus station in town and just have time to buy a couple of mango smoothies before we catch a local bus to Chiang Khong. It’s situated on the Mekong River which is the border with Laos. We have an overnight stay and it’s enjoyable with a guest house by the river, a stroll along the waterfront and through the small town in the late afternoon followed by a pleasant dinner.

Mural in Chiang Khong

In the morning, after coffee, we take a songthaew to the border where we pass through immigration on the south of the river, take a shuttle across the bridge then enter Laos. We need US$ for our visa and Lao Kip for our onward travel and with an exchange rate of 1 Aussie dollar to around 6,500 Kip we become instant millionaires with one visit to the ATM.

Instant Millionaires

Another songthaew takes us to the local bus station where we planned to catch the 12.30 bus to Luang Nam Tha but the time table has changed and we have to wait until 3.30 for the bus. Once again it’s a local bus and we are the only westerners on board. The scenery in the first part of the trip is great, especially when we enter the Nam Ha National Protected Area (NPA). By now we are deep into mountains and it is very steep with few patches of flat land. Villages use those patches and they are filled with a line of huts built close together right beside the road and, if space allows, a second row behind them. We catch glimpses of village life as we drove past, it sure wouldn’t be an easy life out here but they seem to be close communities.

Because the bus left later than we hoped it gets dark all too soon and we miss some of the views we would have liked to see. The distance to Luang Nam Tha isn’t great but the trip is slow with narrow and winding roads through the hills, lots of heavy trucks and lots of potholes and broken tarmac. It’s late when we arrive at the bus station and we’ve booked accommodation at the Tai Dam guest house which is a short distance outside the town centre so we grab some cold snacks and take a songthaew the 10 km to town.

In the morning we wake to delightful views and we’re glad we picked this place to stay. We are only a ten minute walk to the centre of town but we look out onto a rural view. The bungalows are constructed of timber and bamboo and have decks overlooking the low lying land below. Mud walls have been used to form fish ponds and rice fields with plenty of crops around the edges. Paul catches the early morning mist in his photos.

Boiling water is available on the verandah so we have a leisurely cup of tea and then coffee then walk to the local morning market just a few minutes away. There are several places to eat and no signs in English but it seems the main dish available is a noodle soup so we order two. It’s probably the best noodle soup we’ve had, at least since Chiang Mai. It’s fascinating to watch the preparations.

We wander around the colourful market after breakfast taking photos and wondering what some of the unfamiliar foods are.

The main part of town has most of the tourists and restaurants and we stroll around calling into several of the trekking and adventure companies along the main street. We’re keen to get into the NPA and we book a two day trekking and rafting trip to commence the next morning. Our other meals in town aren’t as inspiring as our breakfast. The restaurants seem to have modified the dishes to western tastes but we do find some tasty barbecued duck and pork in the night market, some excellent coffee in a small restaurant and French style baguettes with tasty fillings which make an excellent breakfast before the trek the next day.

Our excursion into the NPA begins next morning with a visit to the local market for supplies for the day and a drive through the country past rice fields.

After the trekking we’re weary and aching and just back in town for the night so we stay in a guest house in the centre of town and book our tickets for a songthaew to the bus station and a local bus for our onward journey.

Bamboo Nest de Chiang Rai

Another Bamboo Nest Chalet

While we were passing through the hills north of Chiang Rai on our boat ride south from Tha Ton we enjoyed the scenery so much that we started looking for a quiet place to stay for a while before we cross the border into Laos. We found a small place in the hills that looked just the job. We couldn’t find out much about it on the Internet but the few reviews we found were all very positive. I phoned and left a message and it wasn’t long before Nok phoned me back and we were booked in. Nok told us where and when to meet her at the ‘old bus station’.

So here we are, mango smoothy in hand, waiting for Nok at 4pm at Bay No. 1 at the bus station. She arrives just after four but we have to wait a while for everyone else to arrive. There are seven of us plus Nok to fit into and onto a dual cab Ute. Three of us try and fit into the back with all the luggage but it is quickly apparent that this won’t work, especially as we expect some of the roads we will be travelling on to be fairly rough. After we voice our concerns Nok trots off and organises a songthaew for us and we get underway. After a while we are driving alongside the Kok River and we start recognising places that we passed in the boat a few days ago.

Travelling with us in the songthaew is Michael from Toronto, Canada. After a few stops for Nok to buy some supplies we cross the Kok River and drive past the national park headquarters and the hot springs which we visited on our way down the river. Then we start heading up into the hills which get steeper and steeper. The songthaew struggles to reach a small village where the driver announces that he can’t go any further and we have to walk the last 500 metres. We climb out and quickly see why. The last section up to the Bamboo Nest requires low range in a four wheel drive and it sure has us puffing! The country is fantastic and we stop to enjoy the view and catch our breath at the same time. Our bags travel in style in the back of the Ute.

We are quickly checked in and briefed on the honour system for drinks and snacks and the serving hours for breakfast and dinner. We take a short stroll down to our bamboo chalet and check it out. Wonderful! A verandah with a bench and a hammock and we can lie on the bed and catch part of the view across to the mountain rice paddies and the green hills beyond. Almost all of the chalet is constructed out of bamboo including the hammock. The floor of the bathroom is concrete and the roof is thatched with palm tree leaves, but that’s about it. A mosquito net hangs over the huge bed and there is a low bench where we place our backpacks. Two bamboo-shuttered windows frame views of the hills and the banana plants. Otherwise the room is free of clutter.

At dinner we meet Michael’s wife Tracey as well as Margrit from Holland, Sue from England, and Luc from Belgium. We are all of a similar age and it is fun catching up on everyones travel stories. Luc has been traveling extensively for several decades and has visited many countries in every continent. Sue and Margrit both lived in Kenya for a while and that’s where they first met. We enjoy chatting about the places we all know there. We also enjoy the small fireworks display from the village below where they are celebrating Chinese New Year.

The next day we decide to relax and catch up on our reading plus some writing for the blog. We have brought our coffee plunger and a supply of ground coffee and there is plenty of hot water available so we are set. Luc visits the village and the rest of the mob walk up to the waterfall. It is so peaceful sitting on the verandah and we manage to get quite a bit done. After a while Luc gets back from the village where he has been plied with Beer Lao and offered two women as prospective wives. He soon trots off to his chalet to sleep it off. We enjoy a light lunch and the others get back a little later. During the afternoon we have a brief nap down in our chalet. We leave the doors and windows open to let the breeze waft through.

In the early evening we stroll back up to the dining area. After the hustle and bustle of Chiang Rai the contrast of this sleepy hill village with its far flung vistas is a wonderful change of pace. We stand on the patio which looks out over the chalets to the rice paddies in the valley and the hills beyond and breath deeply. The gardens are rich with tropical flowers, banana plants and there is a fireplace on a bamboo platform off to one side.

That evening another couple, Bill and Paula, arrive after traveling cross country from Chiang Mai. They are from England and Paula is another amateur photographer so we have a couple of sessions chatting about photography.

The days begin to blur into each other. We spend time reading and writing with afternoon naps when we feel like it.  I am up early in the morning taking photos of the mist-filled valleys. We get some exercise walking back down to the village in the morning and in the evening to take photographs. We are greeted as we pass through the village and the kids often stop to look at my beard. The odd firecracker goes off but otherwise it is pretty quiet.

We are having such a relaxed time we decide to stay a fourth night and our decision comes with an added bonus. In the evening we are treated to a demonstration of how to cook sticky rice in bamboo. Lengths of green bamboo are cut just below one joint and then a couple of feet above to create a long thin receptacle into which water and rice are placed. The open end is sealed with green leaves and then several such bamboo sticks are stood in the burning fire. The bamboo doesn’t burn because it is so green but the rice inside cooks pretty quickly.

Once the rice is cooked the tough outer layer of the bamboo sticks is removed with a sharp knife so that the remaining bamboo can be easily split and peeled back to reveal the sticky rice. It tastes great and there is plenty of other food to go with it.

We could so easily stay a little longer but we both know that we have some other great places to visit in Laos which is where we are headed next.

Chiang Rai International Balloon Fiesta

From the White Temple south of Chiang Rai we travelled with Suzannah and James across country to Singha Park to visit the International Balloon Fiesta. We hadn’t been able to get much information about the Fiesta other than there was an evening event so we had not much idea of when to arrive. We were dropped at the entrance to the park mid afternoon and it’s a huge area so we had quite a long walk but it was delightful with the first section passing through colorful gardens.

By then streams of cars were entering the park and when we finally arrived at the venue for the balloons we found a huge area set up for a concert surrounded by food and other stalls. After wandering around there we headed to the top of a small rise overlooking a lake. A couple of balloons and baskets were on the grass so we settled down on the hillside to wait for the action.

To our absolute delight we found ourselves in the middle of the action. About thirty balloons were brought into the area and as soon they had sufficient space they were spread out onto the grass and inflated, initially with a large fan and then with the gas burner. Ground crew would help keep them in place until they were fully inflated and then, with the pilot on board and keeping gas topped up as necessary they would be dragged and floated to the end of the lake up wind of a series of rafts on the lake. More balloons would then have room to be inflated and follow in due course.

It was all seemed pretty chaotic and we sure wouldn’t be allowed to be that close to all the action in western countries. The pilots were in competition to drop balls or rings into targets on the rafts as they floated over so most of them stayed low and then were dragged back to the starting point for another attempt. Some escaped and floated high above the others, we couldn’t see where they ended up. Others didn’t even make it to the starting point as the balloons were so crowded they couldn’t move.

It was a wonderful spectacle and we took hundreds of photos as we watched with delight. An hour after it started the competition ended and the balloons were deflated. They would be back morning and evening for the next three days so hopefully those that hasn’t been able to get to the starting point would have more luck later. We skipped the concert and headed back to town with Suzannah and James to share an Indian meal, a change from the Thai food we’ve been eating since we arrived in Thailand.

Chiang Rai; The White, The Blue and The Black

On our second day in Chiang Rai Suzannah and James suggested we share a songthaew to visit Wat Rong Kung, better known as the White Temple and then to travel to Singha Park, the site for the annual International Balloon Fiesta.

The White Temple was built by the artist Ajarm Chalermchai who wanted to build the most beautiful temple in the world. It is an amazing spectacle, completely over the top and packed with tourists but still a must see place. Macabre sculptures of demons and other creatures, skulls and outstretched hands represent evil which is left behind when you enter the temple. The temple is white and includes many small mirrors and these represent purity and wisdom. The inside of the temple (no photography allowed unfortunately) is also amazing with beautiful paintings and an enormous Buddha.

Leaving the temple there are more amazing buildings and structures to wander around including a hall which looks as though it belongs on the top tier of a wedding cake and a gold building which is the most amazing toilet block I’ve ever seen.

Adjacent to the temple grounds there is a collection of original art work by Ajarm Chalermchai and it was fascinating, and also far less crowded. He is certainly an extremely talented artist and he was also responsible for the ornate clock tower in town we had dined beside the previous night. Photos of the Balloon Fiesta, and there are lots, are in a separate post.

On our final day in town Paul and I took a tuk tuk for a visit to two other major attractions near the city. The first was Wat Rong Seua Ten, better known as the Blue Temple. It was built by Phuttha Kabkae, a protege of Ajarm Chalermchai. While it’s not as large and glitzy as the White Temple we preferred this one, the blue’s were beautiful, the art-work fascinating, we were allowed to take photos inside the temple, and, much to our relief it was nowhere near as crowded.

From there we went further out of town to Baandam Museum. In Thai ‘baan’ means home our house and ‘dam’ means Black so of course it is simply called the ‘Black House’. It is a collection of buildings scattered around a garden and was created by Thawan Duchanee, an internationally acclaimed Thai artist. It’s another crowded tourist attraction and we filed through the first building and around several others. The buildings and carved wooden decorations are magnificent and interesting and the few art works we saw were also excellent but the collection of animal bones, skins and horns and quite a few of the abstract sculptures were less intriguing.

Perhaps we’d just had too many wonderful experiences in the past couple of days but we cut our visit short and returned to town to continue with our journey.

Chiang Rai City

After our wonderful trip down the river from Tha Ton we spent a busy three days and nights in the city of Chiang Rai. There was plenty to see in town and we took a couple of trips out of town to see some amazing sites. We took so many photos we’ve spread them over three blog posts.

After spending our first night in town in a guest house near Suzannah and James we decided we preferred a more central location and shifted the next morning. On our way to our new guest house we passed the local market. The flower displays were great with lots of flowers, possibly more than usual because it is almost Valentine’s day.

Most of the market stalls are inside a building and there we find fresh produce plus spices, freshly shredded coconut and meat. The meat looks very fresh but not sure how I’d cook the pig’s head.

Chiang Rai is not as attractive as Chiang Mai, it lacks the concentration of old buildings and the laneways we explored in the Chiang Mai ‘old town’. We found a few interesting buildings but also some dank places and the partly finished concrete bus station looks as though work has stalled permanently.

Paul’s iPad needed repair so we went to a huge shopping centre and waited while the repairs were completed. The ground floor had a large supermarket plus a huge food court with a wonderful array of food so it was easy to fill in the time. The oysters, soft shelled crabs and the bugs looked inviting but we chose some of the delicious Thai sausage flavored with coriander, garlic and chili. Sorry, no pictures, we ate it all too quickly.

The night market was much smaller than in Chiang Mai, easier to get around but without the same buzz and atmosphere. Instead of eating there we wandered through the streets to the clock tower and found a small place on the side of the road so we could watch the light show which happens three times each evening.

We joined up with Suzannah and James the next day to share a songthaew 15km south of town to visit Wat Rong Kung, more often simply called the White Temple and later we went to the International Balloon Fiesta. We took so many photos at each of these places they need a blog post each and our visits the next day to the Blue Temple and Black House will be included.

When all our sight seeing in Chiang Rai was complete our friendly tuk tuk driver dropped us off at the bus station, we picked up our luggage and cooled down with a delicious mango smoothie and some coconut and choc chip ice cream and waited for our pick-up for our visit into the country to the ‘Bamboo Nest’.

Tha Ton

Early morning mist in Tha Ton

From Chiang Mai we headed for the hills on a big orange bus. There were a few tourists on board but it was mainly used by locals travelling to the large town of Fang while a few up-country locals and one other westerner were travelling like us to its final destination of Tha Ton. Seats which we thought the right size for two were actually meant for three but we were lucky, or looked too big, and had one to ourselves. Those trying to fit three to a seat often ended up sitting on the edge of a seat or standing in the narrow walkway. Apart from that it was fine with open windows and fans to keep us cool and rural scenery to watch which kept us occupied through the four hour trip.

Tha Ton is a small country town near the border of Thailand and Burma (Myanmar) and is a huge change of pace from Chiang Mai. It has one main road and straddles the Kok River.  We stayed in a comfortable guest house beside the river for a couple nights and soon had our favourite places to visit for our meals and for coffee, revisiting a few of them several times. We loved the atmosphere of the town and the friendliness of the local people. It was a peaceful stay except for the evening Karaoke across the river from our guest house. Paul enjoyed the early morning mist for some atmospheric photography.

Worth a visit is Wat Tha Ton, a temple which stretches up the hill beside the town. It is set over ten levels and we huffed and puffed our way right up to the top. We had plenty of reasons to stop along the way to look at amazing buildings and the statues at various levels as well as the fabulous views to the valleys and river below. We could even see the Thai army emplacement on distant hill tops which looked out over the border with Myanmar. The many coloured temple at the top contained an eclectic collection of statues.

From Tha Ton we headed further into the hills and into the area previously known as the infamous Golden Triangle, the area near the borders of Thailand, Burma and Laos which used to be the major opium trafficking route but is now a great area for tea and coffee.

 

Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai Flower Festival

Chiang Mai, the capital of northern Thailand, is a fascinating city with lots to see and experience. With only three days in the city we barely scratched the surface but we arrived in time to catch the annual flower festival, visited some of the seemingly unending temples in the city, explored up and down busy streets and quiet laneways in the old town, wandered through a bustling night market and also much quieter local fresh food markets, took an excellent cooking class and ate lots and lots of delicious food. Hopefully the many kilometres we walked balanced out the calories we ate.

We missed the grand parade of flowers but the displays in the gardens were fantastic and although the flowers on the floats lined up nearby were starting to wilt they were still very impressive.

The main streets in the old town are busy and have lots of cars to dodge but the lane ways are delightful to walk along and the motor bike riders are not too numerous to become a problem. The red songthaews ferry people around the city for 30 baht ($1.20) provided you are heading in the same direction they are. There are new hotels going up in any available space and quite a lot of the temples are being renovated using the typical asian style of scaffolding.

We did a cooking class with the delightful Yui, a fount of information and practical advice and the dishes we prepared were delicious. After a visit to the market with Yui we left with a cook book so hopefully we can reproduce the tastes.

Chiang Mai is particularly noted for its dish of Khao Soi and one of the places which had the best review for the dish was a tiny open area on the northern edge of the old town. The reviews were right, it was excellent and it is no wonder all the tables were filled and people were lining up.

We couldn’t possibly count the temples in the old city and didn’t get to see any of the interesting sounding temples in the surrounding areas. The old temples which are often at the side of the new bright and fancy temples were fascinating. To properly see most of the temples and to avoid overload we would need to stay weeks and visit just one or two a day.

There are night markets every night but Saturday and Sunday have their own special night markets and we arrived in time for the Sunday session. The market covered at least two kilometres in the old town and all of it was packed with visitors, both local and international. Lots of craft work was offered and some delicious food. Some of the stalls and eating areas were even in temple grounds, a good way to see the temples lit up at night.

The fresh food markets were more our speed, we always try to visit them even if we can’t buy the produce. We even caught a performance in one morning market, an elderly lady singing with her husband accompanying her to the delight of the stall holders nearby.

Chiang Mai was a great introduction to northern Thailand but now we are headed for smaller places so we can get away from the crowds, see more of the country and visit some of the hill tribes.