While mountains clad in green forest is not an unusual sight in northern Laos, in Muang Ngoi, specifically at Nong Khiaw and Muang Ngoi Neua it moves into the extraordinary. Towering karst peaks and cliffs rise out of the Ou River in spectacular fashion, making for some truly astounding views. Due to the areas vicinity to Luang Prabang, it makes for an excellent gateway to the mountainous rural terrain of northern Laos, or a convenient halfway point between Luang Prabang and Sam Neua or Phonsovan.
See and Do
For many, the first stop in Muang Ngoi is Nong Khiaw. In this travellers' haven, you can find good food and comfortable accommodation, as well as peaceful mountain hikes to various caves and viewpoints.
The town straddles the Ou River, connected by a long bridge spanning the water. After the wholesale destruction of much of the former district headquarters, Muang Ngoi Neua, Nong Khiaw was made the new headquarters, and is confusingly sometimes referred to as simply Muang Ngoi.
While the village life is an excellent experience, the true appeal of Nong Khiaw lies in its nature. Tham Pha Thok Caves offers a view into how the local people survived the Indochina Wars, having taken refuge in the cave system. As you enter, you’re greeted by a large 30m high cave, followed by a much smaller and narrower cave best avoided by those of a claustrophobic nature.
If caves are not your cup of tea, you can also hike up to the Pha Daeng Peak Viewpoint or the Sleeping Woman Viewpoint.
Pha Daeng Peak is reached by a 1.5 hour walk on a decently maintained path that takes you up Pha Daeng Mountain, directly overlooking the town. The best times to arrive is at sunset to take in the fading light as the sun descends below the steep cliffs, or early in the morning to see the valley blanketed in mist and the mountains shining gold with sunlight.
The Sleeping Woman Viewpoint however, offers a view that nearly rivals Pha Daeng Peak, but with easier access, being only a kilometre and a roughly 1 hour walk from town.
Further north, Muang Ngoi Neua is reachable via a short 75 minute boat ride upriver from Nong Khiaw. This relaxed and idyllic village is the perfect place for a weary traveller to rest and relax before continuing on their journey. As you wander along the villages 500 meter long unpaved road, domesticated animals can be seen anywhere, from herds of cows to roosters.
Numerous activities are offered in the chilled village, including fishing, mountain biking, kayaking and tubing. Kayaking especially is a wonderful way to experience the serene atmosphere as you glide along the river. An evening at the riverbank to enjoy the sunset as it glitters on the gentle waters is also highly recommended.
Culture & Arts
While the once-famous monasteries of Muang Ngoi Neua were all destroyed in the turbulent past of the town, having been heavily bombed during the Indochina wars, one of them, Wat Okadsayaram has been rebuilt. If you get up early enough, here you can witness the locals delivering alms in the early morning hours.
For a more relaxing cultural experience, you can enjoy a traditional Lao herbal steam bath in Nong Khiaw.
However, by far the most authentic way to experience the culture of the region is to walk to the various villages surrounding Muang Ngoi Neua. The three closest villages are Huay Sen, Ban Na and Guay Bo.
Huay Sen offers the most authentic and rustic vibe with almost all the buildings featuring traditional stilt architecture. Further away, Ban Na feels less rustic but offers a stunning view of what seems like an unending ocean of rice fields. Finally, reaching Guay Bo requires fording a medium-sized river, but you’ll be rewarded with a village that while less serene than Huay Sen, sports plenty of bamboo and stilt houses.
Food and Drink
While great Western and Indian food is available, especially in Nong Khiaw, there are plenty of local offerings to enjoy as well. Lao staples like Larb or Laotian barbeque is of course everywhere, but more exotic meals like Buffalo steak or regional specialties like Mok Phaa (steamed fish in banana leaves) can also be found.
The region also produces its own local sausages (Muang Ngoi sausage) and a lovely stew called Lao Suzy (with potatoes, carrots, eggplants and onions) is popular with locals and travellers alike.
Festivals and Events
While there are no festivals in Muang Ngoi that are wholly unique to the area, it’s a good place to celebrate the second most important Buddhist festival, Magha Puja. Held on the full moon day of the third lunar month, the festival is meant to celebrate the ideal Buddhist community, and as such, revellers are meant to commit good acts and avoid sin during the festivities, in order to purify one’s mind.