Muang Ngoy is a remote village in Northern Laos without any modern conveniences to detract from the natural beauty of the Nam Ou river and mountainous landscape. Muang Ngoy is overrated, if you are into Lonely Planet guides. It is a unique combination of a very poor and rural village that is overcome by tourists. The main tourists that flock here are commonly known as the Water Bottle People, which are alternative-type youths in their 20s and 30s who like to carry water bottles around with them and may not shave their armpits. Many of them are also French. For these people, Muang Ngoy is a popular stop on the Banana Pancake Trail.
The Banana Pancake trail is the name given to popular routes in southeast Asia. The name references restaurants, cafes and guesthouses that serve this sweet breakfast dish, which really appeals to Western palettes. During my travels in Laos, I did order a Banana Pancake once in Luang Prabang and I must admit that it was delicious. I secretly feared the reason I enjoyed it so much was because I am also a Water Bottle Person deep down inside.
Muang Ngoy is only accessible by boat and it took me several hours to travel there from Luang Prabang. I took a 3.5 hour bus ride from the South Bus Terminal in Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw, where I stayed overnight. I then took a 1 hour boat trip from the Nong Khiaw ferry terminal.
Ferries to Muang Ngoy depart at 10.30am daily. By the time 10.30am arrived, the dock at Nong Khiaw was packed full of Water Bottle People and it took over 20 minutes to cram everyone onto several narrow riverboats and collect the ferry tickets. The boats are made from wood and do not have padded seating so it was an uncomfortable journey to Muang Ngoy.
Once we docked at Muang Ngoy we were welcomed by crowds of people advertising lodgings. You cannot book accommodation in advance so you should look for accommodation in Muang Ngoy on arrival. I was particularly surprised to observe a young white guy at the dock who seemed to work for one of the local guesthouses as he was advertising available rooms. He was doing a pretty half-assed job at it, as he was smoking whilst shouting prices at people as they walked by. Well… you can read my views on foreigners working in Laos here.
I decide to get out of the throng and check out the different accommodation options along the main strip. As you walk down the main road, the more expensive guesthouses are on the lefthand side because they have river views and hammocks. However I chose to stay at a guesthouse on the righthand side, a few blocks back from the main street, which had a small farm with chickens and offered a large single room with balcony for USD$6 per night. The room had an electric generator that enabled dim lighting and lukewarm showers, however the toilet did not flush. To flush the toilet, you need to pour a bucket of water in the basin after doing your business.
In Muang Ngoy I enjoyed a peaceful walk along the riverside at the end of the main road, up to Nam Ou village. It was a great opportunity to collect my thoughts without any distractions and enjoy the unspoilt natural beauty. The area is very mountainous and full of lush, green wildlife. On route to Nam Ou I explored the local caves, crossed rickety bridges and met with a family of ducklings.
After my walk I enjoyed a contemplative afternoon at the Riverside Bar by the ferry dock, drinking margarita after margarita. They were dead cheap but very diluted, so you need to drink quite a few to become light headed. They were also the same muddy brown colour as the Nam Ou river, due to a strange concoction of brown sugar mixed with cheap tequila. However after downing a couple they really start to grow on you! Riverside Bar is the only establishment I would rate in Muang Ngoy. The owner was friendly, the place was not too busy, and it has stunning views perfect for watching the sunset over the river and mountains.
Evenings in Muang Ngoy are less exciting. The village does not have electricity so it is almost pitch black after sunset and hard to navigate your way around. As the village can only be reached by boat, locals rely on foodstuffs and other items arriving periodically by ferry. This means the restaurant scene is basic. Most restaurants serve local and Indian-influenced curry’s, stews and rice dishes that are not flavoursome and made with minimal herbs and spices. I had a fish curry at one of the few places powered by an electric generator on the main road. It is the one with the Turkish-looking lanterns. I was served by young children, probably about 10 years old, who didn’t speak any English and seemed more interested in playing games than looking after guests. However my meal was edible.
The swarms of tourists typically all gather at one bar or another each night to drink. Try to avoid that bar unless you find Water Bottle People conversation stimulating. Otherwise, it is very much frowned upon to stay out late past 9.30pm as the locals go to bed early. The locals are light sleepers and the walls of the simple village houses are paper thin! Villagers encourage drinking alcohol during the day, like they do, so as not to disturb those who need to start work early in the morning.
There are quite a few rural establishments and places to see whilst in Muang Ngoy. Stroll by the local school to see how the children are educated. I was impressed by how many students there are there for such a small village! There are also shops offering cooking classes, cheap haircuts, laundry services and trinkets.
Do not leave Muang Ngoy without visiting the Buddhist Temple by the ferry dock. The temple is cared for by local monks and the locals pray there early in the morning. Whilst it is a humble establishment, the embellishments and statues are beautiful. If you leave a donation for the monks, they will tie a special hand-knotted bracelet around your wrist for good wishes.
In conclusion, Muang Ngoy is overrated. Yes, it is a place where you can enjoy unspoilt nature and find peace and quiet. But if you would prefer to do this and enjoy a few more creature comforts and less despicable looks from the locals, than I would suggest staying in the nearby Nong Khiaw village.