We have to catch a ferry boat from non kieu which is jammed with tourists from all around the world, a load of pretty young loas girls and a couple of giggling old women busy gobbing over the side and smiling black betel nut gummy grins. A gorgeous little baby girl next to Dan can’t stop smiling at him, entranced by his big head and hairy knees (as am I, of course). Dan pulls faces to make the baby smile even more, then pulls different faces at me when mum looks away that indicate a dearth of nappy changes. The cackling old croans have spotted a beautifully cut old gold bangle on an older French tourist on her arm that hey touch and make hungry eyes at, jabbering at her in Loas. The French women is remaining polite but waiting for the rub, which comes in ironically literal way when the old women pulls out a stone, grabs the bangle and rubs a bit of gold off it. The French women flinches a little then we all watch in wonder when a chemical from a dropper bottle is dropped on it and shows everyone how good the gold is. The tourist is now making fluttery movements from her heart to the sky and pointing to the bangle, which is obviously indicating a family heirloom that’s she’s not parting with. The old women don’t really notice as they’re now swamped with the tiny necklaces and rings from the young girls that have been thrust at them to test. I silently watch, anxious and aware that at least four relationships and a couple of marriages depend on the outcome. None of them are real. We all go ’arrrghhh’, in a disappointed yet humorous fashion like they’ve just got unlucky on a scratch card. They all looks slightly miffed but hold it together for the crowd, just. By now the women have pulled fat wads of cash from their grimy bags and are rolling out 50,000kip notes to the French women. They’ve reluctantly gone to, ooh, about $20 when they realise she’s still not budging. Dan does the decent thing and opens his mouth widely in front of them detracting from the French lady, showing them his gold fillings. Dan gestures to say he’s ready to start the bidding. They cackle, but sort of get their notes out and if we weren’t surrounded by people they would have had that gold out in a jiffy.
We pull up to Muang Ngoi as the sun is getting lower and we’re amused to find that’s this a strictly one road town,
and the tourist services that the blue bible mention are loads of home-grown bungalows and cover the river edge and front room restaurants. Hardly the neon strip that I’d anticipated, but loving it all the more for it. We pick a lovely bunglow in our usually money vs. quality assessment (own bathroom, two hammocks, £3, nice)
and watch the sun set over the river with a cold beer. We chat to a nice american guy called Bryan next door, and all is good. We’ve come up here to look at a homestay or a trek where we can go all native. I’m yearning to go a stay with a tribe or something (Loas has about 30 small different ethnic tribes that still live in relative seclusion from the outside world) as I think it’s the last chance we’ll have on our adventure to. We look at some of the treks and consider a two day kayak back to Luang Prabang, or just a homestay in a couple of the villages further into the jungle. We decide to book the kayak the next day, the village has electricity by generators between 6-10pm only so we use the light to have a nice meal and beer in a front room café whilst the family all lie on mattresses transfixed by the telly in the corner pumping out shit. If ever you’ve seen the addictive nature of telly, come to Muang Ngoi. Ever shack, house, hut has a crappy telly (with vhf if you’re posh) that everyone sits in front off like zombies whilst the generators spew forth their nightly dose of atrociously acted Laos and Thais soaps.
All lights are out by 10pm though, and Dan and I sleep early. Handy really, considering the wall of noise that rips through out riverside slumber at 4.00am.
In villages, life starts early. The MILLIONS of cockerels in the village all start their territorial crowing first, ranging from deep lusty guttural crows to squawky, disjointed do-excuse-me-I-have-a-sore-throat types. And they’re all doing it under our bungalow. Along with the dogs whining, the muscovy ducks quacking, the cats wailing and the pigs shagging. By 5.00am the babies start joining in, piercing wailings as mums start shouting at their families to get out of bed. And there’s a lot of babies. In a village with no roads and no electricity what else is there to do? Bar watching television, of course. By the time someone starts ringing an insanely loud bell for no apparent reason we’re up.
Dan and I go to book the kayaking but they’ve cocked the dates up and its not for a couple of days. Too long for us and now too late to walk up to the other villages for a home stay, so we settle for an exploration of the local caves.
The caves are deep and long and we can hear the tempting promise of a waterfall inside. But amidst the small pools of light our torches gives us we bicker and I’m mean, but really we are both just cacking it and we retreat gratefully, but not before I encourage Dan to walk into the cave via the river inside it. When it gets too deep for wading Dan refuses and further, but stays there whilst I go swimming deeper into the heart, the head torch lighting up the shallow cave above my head in twisted patterns. As I silently breaststroke into the eerily blue
and silky waters, with shadows of fish politely escorting me, the water hit’s the curves and corners of the cave walls and makes big echo-ey noises, like the sound of big ben at midnight heard through a thousand slamming doors. There’s more caves beyond but I’m grateful for just this small moment, and we go back to the village as the clouds bruise above us. We stay in another hut this time, run by a teenager who’s proud of the big dragon tattoo on his thigh done by a dreadlocked English tattoo artist that has made camp in a café, earning his keep whilst on the move by bringing his gun and inks with him.
The bamboo huts have seen better days and its quite scruffy. His friend is building bathrooms for the huts and the boy explains he wants to restore them and then rent the business off his mum. He sleeps on a mattress on the floor and is really proud of his ipod, although we politely try to respond when he asks us what we think of James Blunt….. Two cute and cheeky young girls proudly show me their precious gains,
they’re two well grimed, possibly licked pharmaceutical tablets of some sort. Health and safety wise, its not pretty. I struggle with how to make my concerns known, then realise I can’t and hope they don’t swallow them. I can’t even begin to imagine a four year old girl on Viagra.
We decide to catch a mini-bus up to Muang Ngoi further north for a few days. The ‘blue bible’ explains the surrealism of getting a boat up an unspoilt river to a little village surrounded by jungle and accessible only by boat to find it wall to wall with tourist services. Sounds a bit strange, but we want to see a bit of the north before we head back down Loas to Cambodia. The mini-bus takes us through small villages and paddy fields and mountains and rivers whilst the sun shines and it feels very Loas.