Off the Beaten (Buffalo) Trail

Trip Start Nov 05, 2008
Trip End Jun 23, 2009

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Where I stayed
A Bungalow

Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Monday, January 26, 2009

Where are you from? Where have you been so far? How long is your trip? Etc.

These are some of the typical questions involved in the inevitable, but still enjoyable small talk with fellow travelers on my trip. Sometimes the conversations lead to more than that, such as grabbing a beer or dinner and if we happen to be heading in the same direction, then traveling together is considered as well. It took all of about 5 minutes of this kind of small talk for a Dutch guy in Louang Prabang to convince me to check out Nong Kiaw and Moung Ngoi to end my travels in Laos. With only a few days left with my Laos visa, I suddenly realized that I could not longer be so relaxed about time and should probably organize my route to Vietnam. Described as a peaceful, mountainous region in the general direction of the northern most border crossing, it sounded like an ideal place to spend the next few days.

The trip from Louang Prabang to Nong Kiaw also marked the last stretch of my hitchhiking journey through the country and my luck continued. The 8-year-old boy who walked with me heading out of LP refused to give me a lift on his bicycle, so I was forced to look for other options. I had built up so much confidence from previous success, I was sure that I would find a, several rides to end up 3 hours north in Nong Kiaw. The first ride was from a Thai family on a road trip that actually went out of their way to help me for a significant portion of the journey. The minivan filled with 8 members of the family was stocked with plenty of supplies and enough space to fit me in the back with the two kids who gave me some dried seaweed to snack on. They were visiting some caves north of LP, but drove another 20km north to bring me closer to my destination. The next two rides were relatively uneventful, one with a stone-face, ex-military looking guy who didn't speak one word for the entire hour, and the final stretch of road in the back of a pickup truck, listening to ipod tunes and watching the sun go down behind the nearby mountains.

The town of Nong Kiaw has nothing in it besides a few restaurants, riverside guest houses, a "cinema," and a boat pier for trips going north to Moung Ngoi or back south to LP. I met two nice Slovenian guys when I got to town and enjoyed a nice dinner with them. One of them is named Luca, who was a Geography major and interested in starting his career in GIS. Sound familiar? I guess you can call him my Slovenian doppleganger...The next day, the 3 of us ventured out on a self-guided hike around the trails that began right from town. The town is surrounded by towering peaks with the Nam Ou River passing through, so we simply chose one trail of moderate difficulty. During the hike, we found many side paths to explore, attempting to make our way to the summit. One of these paths we named ourselves: "Buffalo Trail" because we had a semi-standoff with a herd of water buffalo descending down the mountain, so we were blocking each others' way. Neither group of mammals knew how to handle this situation, so the 2-legged ones turned around and returned to the main trail. The herd just stared at us for a while, probably thinking "Hey buddy, who invited you to my mountain?" So, we continued on and found a small village along the Nam Ou, which really made us feel like we were in the middle of Laos. The locals were very friendly and let us take some pictures. (The video I put up on a previous blog has Luca in it with the village kids). The Slovenians continued with a guide to some waterfalls, while I went back to town to catch a 3pm boat going further north to the even more remote Moung Ngoi.

This town was very quiet, no cars or motorbikes and a perfect place to read a book on a hammock and go for more hikes. I spent one day walking around town, talking to locals, ended up playing badminton with a local for about an hour, then taught her some English for another hour. I also met some Israelis, who are professional cooks in Tel Aviv, so a whole group of us decided to cook a meal for ourselves by making a fire and buying some food from a local farmer. They couldn't stop talking about how much they miss falafel and hummus back home. We made pita bread from scratch and filled it with eggs, veggies and chili sauce, which hit the spot.

After a few days relaxing in Moung Ngoi, I was prepared to take a very long, roundabout way to Vietnam. Many travelers decide to fly to Vietnam and I can now see why, but my route was definitely more of an adventure...

Next Stop: Vietnam Border, Dien Bien Phu, and Sapa
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