Thursday, 15 January 2015

Nong Khiaw

The trip so far in Laos. See the river from Muong Khua to Nong Khiaw that we didn't take?

On Tuesday morning 13th January we were on the road again, but going slightly back on ourselves to see one of the places we would have gone directly to by river from Muong Khua, our first stop in Laos. We didn’t do the boat trip as it was cold and very rainy and we didn’t fancy 7 hours on a small boat in those conditions. 
We got there this time by bus from Luang Prabang, a mere 3.5 hours, or it would have been if the mini bus had gone straight there rather than picking people up from various hotels and then waiting at the bus station while the driver asked again and again for tickets, seemingly unable to comprehend that some people didn’t have tickets as their guesthouse didn’t issue them. After much disorganisation we finally got on our way just after 10:00am and, after negotiating a tarmac road, but with lots of pot holes, we arrived at Nong Khiaw a little after 13:00 in warm, sunshine and stunning scenery.

Loading the mini busses in Luang Prabang bus station
The Nam Ou river in Nong Khiaw
A quick tuk-tuk ride with another German couple and we arrived near our booked guesthouse, the Meexai, which was a short walk down a stony road and we were shown to a nice, but fairly basic room with a partial river and mountain view, obscured to a large extent by a new building just going up right opposite, but nevertheless we were quite happy, particularly with the laid back attitude of this small town set in huge limestone forested mountains with the Nam Ou river lazily cutting through.

Main street Nong Khiaw
The cold boat ride out on our trip
There’s plenty of restaurants here, including two Indian restaurants right next door to each other (tried them both) a few with good mountain and river views and the very laid back Delilah’s run by a Kiwi guy seemingly permanently on drugs or alcohol. Everything’s very cheap, even the Meexai guesthouse is only $15 per room per night, although we have since found out that it only costs $8 if you walk in without a booking, serves us right for booking online with! However we do get coffee supplied in the mornings which the ‘walk ins’ don’t, much to their envy until we tell them how much it cost!

The laundry in the hill tribe village
The hill tribe village
Everything was going well, we had booked a trip for the following day with a tour operator right by our hotel, a bit pricey at 220,000Kip each ($27.50 or £18), but it included a boat ride for an hour up the Nam Ou, a visit to a hill tribe village, another boat ride, another village followed by a walk through the jungle to a waterfall and, on returning to the river we were to kayak back to Nong Khiaw. Sounded fabulous, so off we went to a beer and dinner. And then the sun set - and the warmth of the day gave way to unbelievable cold! We put on all the warm clothes we have in layers, but it still isn’t enough. All the restaurants are outdoors and there is no heating in the guesthouse so, after shivering in a restaurant, even eating piping hot food and clasping a hot drink, we return to an unheated guesthouse with the only solution to get into bed where it is, mercifully, warm. Even holding a book with arms outside the covers is cold!

Life in the hill tribe village
The butcher on his moped selling buffalo meat to the locals
The next day was still very cold in the morning and very foggy, so we set off for breakfast, shivered over it, clasping a hot drink again and got to the tour at 09:30am all ready, but still cold. Wrapped up warm we got on the boat and sped off up the river in great but moody scenery with the mist hugging the higher tops, the wind from the speed of the boat adding to the chill. Gradually the mist lifted, bits of blue sky appeared, mountains appeared from behind the veil and, on standing in the first rays of sun we arrived at the hill tribe village, feeling almost warm, well, at least not as cold as we were. It was a fairly primitive settlement, but they all had electricity, satellite dishes and TV’s, so things weren’t all bad. Overall they looked poor but very happy and you can’t help thinking that maybe it’s us that have got it wrong, they seemed to have a nice laid back lifestyle and Mun, our guide explained that they own a lot of land around, grow all their own crops and livestock and are pretty self sufficient. There are over 200 of them living here, 43 families and, although some of the youngsters move away to the cities to earn money, many of them return when they marry. Overall it didn’t seem a bad lifestyle.

One of the schoolrooms in the village
The mist clears!
By the time we were back on the boat we’d got full sun and blue skies and it was quite warm, so our second stop, which was a walk uphill through a jungle to a waterfall was pleasant and we were down to t-shits, enjoying the spectacular mountain views. The waterfalls were nothing particularly special, but we enjoyed the walk and Mun made it interesting with his commentary on uses of the forest plants for medicinal uses. 
Walking through rice paddies towards the waterfalls
In the jungle
There was a swimming hole at the main waterfall and the other four on our party went in for a dip, but not Jackie and me, it was warm, but not that warm (and besides, I had left the rucksack with our swimming things on the boat!). Despite wearing long trousers Jackie found a leech behind her knee, so the idea of exposing any more flesh was really not appealing. After lunch we headed down, ready for our kayak ride back to Nong Khiaw. It’s now hot, so we changed into shorts (we were going to get wet Mun told us), barefoot, got in our canoes and headed off behind Mun.

See this big leaved plant. Apparently you can crush a leaf and taste it, if it tastes bitter you are OK, but if it tastes sweet you have dengue fever!
Arriving at the waterfall
It was spectacular and a mixture of lazy or still water to grade 3 rapids, which was exciting to say the least! Our canoe filled with water as we negotiated the quite large waves and seemed quite unstable, swinging from side to side, but none of us capsized, much to the pleasure of Mun and we took a break on a nearby bank to turn them over and empty them out. It turned out to be a long way back and for the final half hour we were just wishing the Nong Khiaw bridge to come into view. We were by now a long way ahead of the others, being trailed by the motor boat that took us up river, Jackie said we could always hitch a lift on the boat, but we couldn’t lose face so just carried on paddling, getting back 10 minutes or so in front of the others.

Distilling rice whisky. 45% proof apparently - we didn't try it
We got out, went back for a shower and agreed to meet up at 5:00pm in a bar overlooking the river to see sunset. Mun turned up and we bought him a beer and one of the other girls from Holland and on a gap year that Jackie got on well with. Sunset was quite nice, but we got chatting to Mun who moved up here from the south of Laos 12 years ago, has two girls and he and his wife are trying to make a living up here, him guiding, she selling sticky rice outside the school. His father died some years ago, his mum remarried to a bit of a spendthrift and took them and Mun’s brother off to live in Bangkok. 
Mun instructing us in safe kayaking
His brother is now hooked on amphetamines, he only rarely speaks to his mum and we think he had a bit of a tear in his eye as he told us. Turns out he sings and plays a guitar and does a session at Delilahs, the place round the corner run by the Kiwi, so we finished our beers and headed off round there for another beer and to listen to him play. Fabulously laid back place, cushions on the floor, low tables, a pool table nearby and a girl sitting on top of some scaffolding in the corner painting elephants on the wall! Mun was pretty good at guitar and we stayed a while in front of the wood burning fire while Jackie stroked a little kitten, before heading off for dinner.

We're off!
Today we stayed in bed until 11:00am! I decided I wasn’t getting out into the cold and wanted to wait until the mist had cleared and the sun was out. I read the Daily Telegraph on the tablet, using the app that Pauline gave to me, from cover to cover, so I’m right up-to-date with the news, then we got up and walked up the second highest mountain in the area to a viewpoint. 1.5 hours they told us, met one of the couples from yesterdays trip on their way down, they had got to the top in 50 minutes, it took us 55, and the view was superb. 
A stop to empty the boats of water after the rapids
Clear blue skies and fabulous jagged peaks and lush jungle as far as the eye could see. 15 minutes on top and we were on our way down with Jackie complaining we never chill out on summits! I told her we could wait a bit longer if she wanted but she said ‘no, lets go’ in a resigned fashion! Great views on the way down despite being in trees, but it is pretty steep and we passed people on the way up looking pretty tired. ‘Keep going’ we said, ‘the views are worth it’. ‘Is it much further?’, ‘er, yes’!

Water buffalos at the waters edge
Sunset at the riverside bar
After a little walk round town, a shower before it got cold outside and off to the river bar to write the blog, watch the sun set and gradually get cold! I’m just finishing this off now in bed to keep warm, having chatted to a Canadian couple next door but one to our room and then an English couple in the restaurant. Overhearing they were going back to Nepal for more trekking, having done the Anapurna circuit last year we got talking to find they are climbers. They have their climbing gear with them (25kg backpacks – eek!) and have climbed in China, fabulous they said and in Laos. They are going onto Chiang Mai in Thailand and we could tell them about Crazy Horse crag there as we’ve climbed on it. They are also going on to New Zealand so we could tell them quite a bit about the climbing there too. They are however in a different class to us, climbing about 7a grade. Us? About 6a or b! However, it was a good chat.

Mun strumming his guitar
The little kitten gets the last crumbs of the chocolate cake!
Tomorrow morning we’re on the bus again, going back to Luang Prabang for another three nights before going south into some warmth. Last night of feeling this cold, although I have to say, it doesn’t feel quite as cold tonight, perhaps this unusual cold spell is coming to an end.

The laid back Delilah bar

The start of todays hike
A pause on the way up. It was steep and pretty relentless

View from the top, we think it was worth it! We kayaked down that river yesterday, from as far as you can see - and probably further!

Nong Khiaw and the Nam Ou river

Another view from the summit looking the other way

Tonights restaurant

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