One Way Ticket: The Road Less Traveled
I journeyed from the familiarity of Thailand into the unknown of Muang Ngoi, an off-the-beaten path in the rustic country of Laos, only known through backpackers’ word of mouth. The tiny Northern village is a place you want to tell all of your friends about – but don’t – as to preserve its charm as a secret wonder of the world forever. Just your little secret.
I arrived to the road less traveled by way of slow-boat down the Nam Ou River, a waterway tucked between a series of mountain ranges. Tourists and locals alike boarded, backpacks and imported goods followed. We advanced for an hour admiring the sights of rice farmers and water buffalos. The current was slow as we cruised to desolation.
A single dirt path with riverfront accommodations and minimal, local shops is all that awaited. The jungle surroundings were quiet and enchanting, typical characteristics of underdeveloped countrysides. I grazed by old men and women selling soda out of plastic bags and small children in school uniforms, all of whom were significantly less interested in admiring me as I was them.
A Lao woman woke me up from my people watching and led me to her guesthouse, located within a group of wooden bungalows. Dressed with complimentary hammocks dangling across the porch of each, for $3USD per night, I was given an entire hut to myself. The inaccessible wifi and limited electricity were pleasant reminders of my disconnect from the modern world. Bad for work, good for the soul. That night I fell asleep, my mattress encompassed in a mosquito net, by 9pm.
Roosters on the property served as authentic alarm to start the day’s activities. I filled a pack with the barest of Southeast Asian travel necessities – malaria pills, toothbrush, camera – energized to jet set on a jungle adventure. With my friend Jake by my side, a local tour guide seemed unnecessary.
Unnecessary also reads more dangerous and more fun.
We hiked along rice patty fields until our first encounter with a Laotian man on guard duty – none shall pass (until you’ve paid $200). We dug out 10,000 kip from our pockets and after signing our names, nationalities, and the date in a book in case we were to never return, over the bamboo bridge we went.
We climbed under-strenuous roads as the fog rolled behind the mountain and Laotians fulfilled their daily work routines. We strolled passed women and children who had the necessary task of carrying full sacks of rice on the weight of their back. Two hours in, the wooden sign we set out to find was perched along the trees:
Bana Village —> 15m
We braved our way past glances that warranted a strong sense of unwelcome, until meeting Kim. Kim was different from the others; she spoke a slow English and stood with a warm smile.
“Sleep here?” she asked politely after introductions.
Not only was it our only option, it was only $1.50. She cleaned our new home with a bamboo broom and was cordial to invite us for dinner after our evening walk. Five minutes into our walk, Jake and I had reached the end of the 342-person village. It was easy to make a quick return to Kim’s safe haven, enveloped by the simplicity of the local lifestyle and amused by the landscape. Card games by candlelight was the entertainment of choice as our hostess prepared noodle soup. Two hours passed until she emerged from the kitchen. Such prep time is accredited to the fact that her husband, the village’s only teacher, made a quick run back into town after taking each guest’s specific meal order. This happens to be the town that we had just spent all afternoon hiking from to reach their humble estate. The upmost of customer service, all for under one dollar. It puts things into a weird perspective.
I ate hardily and graciously thanked her for the delicately prepared meal. “Kap Jai…Lai Lai”
“Nighttime?” She replied.
I glanced down at my watch and out into the pitch dark. It was only 7:30 pm, which meant merely one remaining hour of electricity. The town curfew is to ensure that fishermen have quiet to rest for early morning work and when the electricity powers down at 9pm, so do its inhabitants. An addition to the community as of just seven years. Kim gave Jake and I headlamps to help with darkened roads. We exchanged friendly goodnights as she retreated back to her family.
As we walked, the final hour of music and television blared from the inside of crowded family homes and adult men gathered around porch fires drinking "Lao Lao", the country’s traditional whiskey. They went about their daily evenings un-phased by our presence, while I was eager with interest. We were informed not to mistake their indifference as disregard – the communication gap is far too significant to give each tourist the attention one might hope to receive.
In the morning, a heavy rain on the wooden rooftops meant that school was canceled, as well as our presumed four-hour hike. Instead we waited out the monsoon downpour with Kim while she read a children’s book in the lobby’s hammock, asking basic questions about word pronunciations and sentence structure.
The Lao live rather peacefully, happy and “love the quiet of the village” in which they’ve grown up. The children aren’t a generation infatuated with technology – they are humble and grateful for small gifts of colored pens and bubble wands. They attend school, go fishing, and are instilled with a sense of belonging to their community. Everyone’s contribution to daily life is vital, a work to live cyclical process. It’s a different – simple and beautiful – way of life.
While I was on this two-day trek through the jungle, time seemed to stand still in Muang Ngol. I sit here now, typing at the town’s most popular restaurant, about my experience in impoverished territory, where I was waiting for the generator and lights of the rural village to shut off so I can continue working by candlelight. But as I sit here now, typing away furiously on my Macbook with my camera on my lap and iPhone notepad by my side, I feel painfully ignorant to the culture. I feel the guilt of worrying how one more published article might infect its charm. But alas, tomorrow morning I will take the hour long slow-boat ride to a road more traveled, where wifi exists to ensure this article is emailed by deadline.