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Arriving in Muang Ngoi Neua

We had been advancing up the Nam Ou River for nearly an hour, cruising slowly between the white limestone rocks of the mountains that border the river right and left. Navigating the shallow wide river, we passed nothing but lush green subtropical forests, water buffaloes and pigs lazing and grazing on the sandy riverbanks here in northern Laos, and rice farmers waving at us as we went by.
nam ou river farmersAlthough our longtail boat had a motor, it resembled the shoddy wooden boats filled with families, fishermen or supplies that float up and down the river between Nong Khiaw, where we were coming from, and a modest, off-the-grid village of Muang Ngoi Neua, where we were headed.

boat landing nong khiewThe river here is wide, but either side appears almost entirely uninhabited. That was until several houses nestled into the side of a hill came into view, along with a long set of steps leading down to the water. With no roads leading to this remote village, we arrived at Muang Ngoi Neua’s only access point – this simple cement river landing. From here, travelers can head three hours north to Muang Khua, a population with town status or the hour back to Nong Khiaw, a place which, had it not been for Muang Ngoi Neua, we would have considered remote and sleepy. But the first thing we notice now is that it is even quieter here. From the river we heard the breeze rustling in the leaves, despite the ten or so of us offloading and the pair of locals who came to greet us with news of their guest houses.

muang ngoi neua from riverWe chose a guesthouse, just overlooking the pier. The building is sturdy, walls of thick cement, and the room has a double bed, a bathroom and, like the rest of the village, only has electricity from 6-9pm. We paid the $5.00 it costs to stay here and headed out to explore.

muang ngoi neua village roadFiguring out the set up is simple: one main dirt road too narrow for a car to comfortably pass runs parallel to the river, and a few paths head off perpendicular from there. The main road has several guesthouses, restaurants and shops (one even filled with hundreds of carefully curated English books), the number of which are far out of proportion for the size of the village. This village is just starting to become part of the tourist trail, but only just. At the north end of the street is a beautiful, if unkempt, Buddhist temple.

mountain temple muang ngoi neuaA smattering of lanky white tourists stand out here amongst the dozens of villagers who, as in most of rural Laos, live their lives almost entirely out in front of their homes and shops. Kids play, adults chat, eat or cook sticky rice, workers cut wood or effortlessly carry inexplicably heavy items to and fro, with bicycles – the only form of wheeled transport on this carless island – weave in and out of them all. We stopped to play with dozens of cuddly puppies..there are more of them, it seems, than people here.

playing with puppies in muang ngoi neuaWe gasped as a woman walked by with six squirrels hanging upside down on a stick, dead and ready for the barbeque. Another woman laughed at us, but in a loving way, and we felt instantly at home here. Then we decided to head up one of the paths to a set of caves which essentially define the town.

Aside from the overwhelmingly idyllic feeling, the mystic river sunsets and the absolute peace and quiet, the truly remarkable thing about Muang Ngoi Neua is that it came close to being wiped entirely out of existence. This peaceful village was almost entirely destroyed by bomb attacks by the United States during what is known as The Secret War, a war in which over one million cluster bombs were dropped over Laos. In an incredible tale of survival, the villagers here hid out in several caves high in the surrounding mountains for months at a time.

cave near muang ngoi neuaWe ungracefully huffed and puffed our way up to these caves, which are now open for visits either independently or on treks with local guides. Inside the caves, light shines through high, semi-open ceilings, but it still feels like a damp, black hole, and we could still see utensils used by villagers at that time. I stood teetering on the rocky mountainside as Dani photographed inside the caves and we remarked on how intense our respect was for these people who not only survived in here, but also undertook the strenuous climb on a regular basis, under the cover of night, to replenish supplies.

muang ngoi neua entrance to the caveWitnessing remnants of war does not require scaling the mountains, however. Just peek around the front yards in village. We saw the most ingenuous uses of bomb casings – some used as flower pots, some as fence poles, we even saw a fairly large canoe created out of a bomb casing on our way up the Nam Ou River. There is a layer of sadness here, but the hope and friendly smiles outshine the dark past.

muang ngoi neua bomb casingAfter the caves, we wandered through rice fields and forests until we noticed the sun nudging the tops of the mountains and realized it would soon be dark. Here in Muang Ngoi Neua, a place with three hours of electricity per day via a generator, that darkness lays like a blanket over the entire area. In fact, except for the fact that locals all have mobile phones, there are few signs that we are indeed in the 21st century, not a hundred years in the past.

village house muang ngoi neuaImmediately smitten, we  both harbored an instant maternal, protective feeling over our adopted village. This explains why we stopped dead in our tracks when we saw a sign offering inner tubes for rent.

You see, there is a town six hours down that same river, one that is equally beautiful but much larger, that began attracting tourists several years before. Once a serene village, Vang Vieng, is now unfortunately synonymous with ‘tubing’. Backpackers all around South East Asia can now be seen sporting ‘in the tubing’ tank-tops, proof of their drunken adventures tubing down the river, stopping at bar after bar, smoking joint after joint all the way. Rather than respect the modesty of the local culture, girls unabashedly saunter through town in their bikinis, guys shirtless in their trunks, treating the place like an international frat party. Despite having heard just how spectacular this area is in terms of natural beauty, we were too sensitive to the cultural insensitivity on display here to make the trip to Vang Vieng ourselves, especially since we keep reading disturbing articles on the state of the village.

river view muang ngoi neuaThat is why it took everything we had not to tear down these tubing signs and poke holes in all the inner tubes here in Muang Ngoi Neua. The village is not large enough to adequately handle such a huge influx of visitors – not even of the most culturally aware, eco-friendly variety – let alone becoming another ‘in the tubing’ destination.

That is why we ask you, we implore you, please don’t go to Muang Ngoi Neua. The people and the puppies might have won over our hearts here…but you know, this an uneventful little place with nothing to do but take in rural village life. Oh and the sunsets are absolutely amazing. The food is pretty good, too. If that is the kind of thing that appeals to you (and who could blame you) you might visit this remote little village in Northern Laos, but promise not to tell anyone else about it…okay?

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    1. Thanks Claudia – glad to hear that you also loved Muang Ngoi.. I am so happy that we went & got to see this idyllic little village. Let’s hope the tubing people stay down in Vang Vieng! 😀

  1. I really loved Muang Ngoi and all I did was eat sleep and read in a hammock all day. It was lovely and I’ll be writing a post about it on my blog in the future. When I was there a year ago I saw construction of a small hotel beginning, which is worrisome. I like the simple little guesthouses with the hammocks strung up outside.

    1. That’s a great way to spend a day in Muang Ngoi, Megan 🙂 We might have stayed in the small hotel that was being built when you visited, but it wasn’t even half full and there were only 12 rooms I think. There were barely any tourists around when we visited – they all stayed in Nong Khiew, I think 😉

  2. That’s kind of how I feel about some of my favorite places. They’re so beautiful I want to share them, but the idea of hundreds of tourists traipsing through makes me grind my teeth.

    ‘Tubing’, incidentally, seems to generate beer and frat boys wherever it goes…
    Megan recently posted..Textless Tuesday: East Mill Creek

    1. Megan, you are right: sometimes we are not sure if we should write a place that we really love, but Muang Ngoi Neua is so far from the beaten tourist paths that I don’t think our article will lead to an explosion in visitor numbers 😉

  3. Hi girls…it’s like describing how delicious a chocolate cake you have bought is and then saying that no one should try it because it’s bad for you….I do love your blog, but if you really don’t want people to go there then you should simply not have written this blog about how beautiful it is.
    Denise recently posted..Picture Perfect: Misty, moody Halong Bay

    1. Denise, that’s an interesting way to put it 😉 Of course we’re saying ‘Please don’t go…’ winking, but what we really mean is: Please don’t transform the village into a second Vang Vieng with loads of drunk backpackers who are only interested in boozing and getting high.

    1. Thanks, Scott. It was a fantastic experience. I guess that during the few hours when the electricity is on, all the plugs in the village are in use 😀

    1. Thanks Reg – Sadly, many people just don’t care. There are backpackers who just want to have a good time and don’t give much thought to their surrounding or how the locals feel about their behavior.

  4. Interesting piece. Vang Vieng sounds awful – I haven’t been – but this is an interesting debate you’ve touched on. Is it wrong to write about places if you think you might be contributing to future tourist development there?

    You clearly feel it’s ok (!) and I suspect that if you’d asked the villagers they would be very keen to see more tourists arrive, so they can reap the economic benefits. Your ideal of a place being spoilt (more development, higher accommodation prices, more people setting up local businesses catering to tourists) might be their idea of life getting better.
    Mark recently posted..Let the games begin: Best of the week’s travel blogs

    1. Mark – I think that the people who read our site are not the ones who would go out and turn the place they visit into an absolute mess 😉 I think the villagers definitely benefit from the tourists who visit Muang Ngoi Neua, and all the restaurants & guesthouses send people over to the pier when a boat arrives to get them to visit their place. But I think they are happy with the kind of tourist that comes to Muang Ngoi – people who love the countryside, love to hike, are interested in local culture and treat their surroundings respectfully.

  5. Okay, so I feel a bit guilty but I’ve just made plans to visit Vang Vieng myself for the first time! In my defense I think I need a little mindless fun right now and so when a friend heading that way invited me to join I quickly accepted.

    I have read much as well on the negative effects of tourism there and I will feel a tad guilty contributing. I can promise you one thing though… You won’t find me strutting around town in a bikini! Out of the water, clothes stay on!
    Alex recently posted..The Bangkok Seashell Museum

    1. Alex – you have to tell us how you liked it!! I am curious to hear what you think. We heard mixed reviews – some people loathed the place, others actually enjoyed it. Anyway, it’s definitely a good place for you to get your mind off things, so enjoy it 🙂

  6. Great post. My boyfriend and I are starting our backpacking trip in September and hope to spend a month in Laos. We are more interested in trekking/nature rather than partying and tubing so we are considering skipping Vang Vieng entirely – especially after reading numerous articles about the mass tourists heading there and essentially disrespecting the environment/locals as you mention here. I had done some reading up trekking in Phongsali and to get there you go through Muang Ngoi Neue. Did you make it up there? From your description it looks like exactly what we’re looking for.
    Vicky recently posted..Cool Programs For Making Travel Maps

    1. A month in Laos is a good amount of time – and if you’re into trekking/hiking, Muang Ngoi is a fantastic place. We didn’t make it up to Phongsali which we regretted, because we kept hearing good things. After hearing horrible stories about Vang Vieng, we just couldn’t go there – we didn’t want to see it and the scenery is supposed to be not very different from Muang Ngoi and Nong Khiaw, so I don’t think we missed out on much 🙂 Laos is great for trekking & nature – I am sure you will love it!

      1. Thanks for replying! I’m getting even more excited for Laos now! I think if we’re short on time we’ll skip Vang Vieng – especially if you say the scenery is similar to that on Muang Ngoi – where we would much rather spend more time in!
        Vicky recently posted..Nika – Photo of the Week

        1. Hi Vicky – yay, get excited for Laos! It’s very rural, very basic, but we really ended up loving it. It’s a tough call with Vang Vieng. We haven’t actually been, so we can’t say officially and also so many people really enjoy it. Muang Ngoi Neua is so off the grid relaxing – can’t wait to see what you think!

          1. Hey hey so after all that planning we have finally made it to Laos! And unfortunately Muang Ngoi is no longer the village you talk about here. There are TONS of guesthouse/bungalows all over town and the locals no longer seem as friendly as they were when you were there. We found them downright impolite and unhelpful – when we would ask for something they would just wave in a certain direction with their arms – without even making an attempt to utter a single word. We were really disappointed as we had heard so many people mention how friendly and kind the Lao people were, so hopefully this is just the beginning and that this will not be our impression of the rest of Laos.
            Vicky recently posted..Trekking From Kalaw To Lake Inle

  7. I was there 10 years ago and I’m thrilled to see that it looks like nothing has changed. Everyone who visits falls in love, and yet it remains special.

    1. Sarah – we really hope that Muang Ngoi will never change, and I’m glad to hear that it hasn’t changed much in the last 10 years!

  8. Hey dudes 🙂

    I searched about this place on the Internet. The magical thing on PC computers, and stumbled upon this blog thingy. Seem cool so ill be there soon. The funny thing is that you guys talk about this place like its a hidden secret in Laos. The reason i knew about this place is because the Lonely Planet (2007) says its a backpacker place. Its on the so called Banana pancake trail. Why else would there be an English bookshop and a lot of guesthouses ? In Lonely Planet it also says that in the low season its actually possible to see less tourists than locals. I agree that people should show respect where they go and don`t turn things into ….bad stuff…. I went to Vang Vieng about 5-6 years ago. I did not like it too much, but i don`t hate the place or the people….OK, just a little bit, but im quite an asshole. Just ask my better half. I try not too, but it seems I just am…… Anyway if people want to go where no people go . Just go somewhere and look. There might be nothing to do and language can be a bit of hassle, but im sure youll figure it out 🙂 I hope i was too much of an asshole. Just wanted to point out the obvious… Thank you and good night.

    1. Hey weird’O dude, thanks for stopping by 🙂 We actually don’t say that Muang Ngoi Neua is a hidden secret and of course we are aware that it is in the guidebooks, but there were just far, far less tourists there than in the other places along the river, like Vang Vient, or even Nong Khiew an hour south of Muang Ngoi Neua. None of those places still felt as undiscovered as Muang Ngoi, and they both had way more guesthouses than the five or six you find in Muang Ngoi. And being in the Lonely Planet, it is not even ‘off the beaten track’, but it still was the place with the least amount of tourists we found in Laos, and we are hoping that it will remain that way.

  9. Hello globetrotter girls. I think you will be interested to know that the Vang Vieng tubing is being shut down as of the end of September this year. With the government having them tear down the infamous death slide and any bar or platform within 15m of the river. Reference the article in SEA Backpacker Magazine this month. I am headed to this small village you discussed in search of peace and quiet away from the TOURIST routes. Thanks for a wonderful article that only makes me long for more serenity. Ciao ladies.

    1. Hi Cax, thanks for your comment! We actually read the article in SEA Backpacker Magazine and were both happy to hear that the bars in Vang Vieng have shut down… although we keep hearing rumours that they’ll reappear as quickly as they disappeared – so we’ll see. Hope you’ll enjoy Muang Ngoi Neua!

      1. Just stumbled across your article. While on our journey through Laos last November we made it to Nong Khiaw but not all the way to Muang Ngoi Neua. But we liked the area a lot nonetheless!

        We’ve also been to Vang Vieng later on the trip and found it to be a nice town in a beautiful area. When we saw pictures and heard from people how it used to be there we were very lucky to have been there after everything was shut down. We hope it’ll stay like this – I think there is a chance that Vang Vieng can build up a reputation of being a activity/adventure town with all it’s ecofriendly (or at least ecofriendlier) activities like kayaking, hiking, climbing etc.

        1. Michael – you are so lucky that you visited Vang Vieng after all the bars shut down! Wish they’d already closed them when we were in the area, but to be honest, I wouldn’t mind returning to Laos. We really enjoyed our time there.

  10. Oops, too late! I was there in early February 2012, not too long before you it seems. I spent many hours just admiring the river view from one of the restaurants. My pics couldn’t do it justice!

  11. There are only four bars open per day now for the tubing in Vang Vieng. I was there last week, it’s fine now. Also, just a bit of pedantry on my part, the river that runs through Muang Ngoi and the one that goes through Vang Vieng are not the same. The Nam Ou goes through Muang Ngoi, while the river that the tubing in Vang Vieng is done on is the Nam Song.

  12. Do you think that they are becoming increasingly impolite and unwelcoming because they, like yourself, don’t want their town polluted by disrespectful thrillseekers. Perhaps they want their village to remain sleepy as well.

    Travel writers complain about communities changing be cause of tourism but lack the self reflection to understand their blogs contributed to increased tourism. I also find it incredibly ironic and paternalistic when travellers seeking off the beaten path experiences romantisize abject poverty despite coming from privileged countries. Just enjoy the highs and lows people.

  13. I went to Muang Ngoi in 1996 with a German girl. We just stuck a pin in a map and went. Slept in a villagers house for a week, played table tennis with the kids and lived on rice and eggs. One of the villagers ran to the next village to fetch a school teacher who could speak French with us. I’ll always remember the kids pulling at the hairs on my arms – they had never seen a westerner before. Great times. Vang Vieng had one guesthouse then and no bus service. You had to hitch to get to Luang Prabang!

    1. Chris – that sounds amazing. Trust me, Muang Ngoi is nothing like that anymore!! You’d be utterly disappointed if you saw it now, I think…

  14. Not disappointed Dany, just resigned to the fact that wonderful places become popular with tourists / travellers. I’m just glad I had the chance to go to Laos for a month when it was relatively off the beaten path. No guidebook or Internet, just a map and a sense of adventure. It is upsetting to hear of places like Vang Vieng becoming ‘party’ places though.

    1. I see what you mean 🙂 I so wish I would’ve traveled in the pre-internet time! Now everything is so accessible and easy. No adventure anymore!

  15. Of course there is adventure, you just need to apply perspective. I’ve just returned from Muang Ngoi, my second trip in six years, and each was just as lovely. We even stayed in the same guest house and were recognised because when we stay somewhere we stay for a while. Not the 24 hours the Trustafarians seem to think is adequate for Muang Ngoi. I’ve also been to Vang Vieng and the scenery is too beautiful for the slagging it’s getting on this blog. Yes, hooray for the closing of the tubing bars. But Vang Vieng has done a lot to try and lose the frat tag it so deservedly received to start with.

    Laos remains my favourite country in the world. Everywhere changes. We all have to adapt.

  16. Having lost my first contribution, try again. Just got back from Muang Ngoi for the third time. It’s my favourite place in the world. I understand the sentiment of this blog but you can’t have everything in life. Sure, nobody wants to make it into a Vang Vieng pre-2011 but at the same time you cannot stop what is laughingly sometimes called progress. I am damn sure their new found money economy will create as much unhappiness as it does goodness but who are we to judge?

    On Vang Vieng. Also just got back from there for the second time. I think it’s made a hell of an effort to clear up the frat boy shit. Unfortuantely frat boys and lonely planet etc will always be with us. The closing of all but four bars on the tubing river is itself a major attempt at improvement. Maybe now they could try publicising more Big Brother Mouse who provide cheap books to schools. When we visited the Blue Lagoon, judging by the guest book, I reckoned more than 2000 people had passed by that school on the way to the Blue Lagoon without dropping in with any books. That is what people need to get worked up about. The unfair distribution of wealth in Laos’s new found wealth economy. They intend becoming a middle income country by 2020. But middle income for whom? Capitalism is being embraced at an alarming rate. Social equality needs to match that.

  17. This reminds me of the movie “the Beach”. Don’t tell anyone else, but you just left the whole world a map to a secret paradise.
    In 2001, when I first got there, it was a paradise. The second time in 2005, it got busier, but still nice. End of 2014, my 3rd and last time, it’s not paradise anymore, thanks to people like Jess.
    Despite all, it’s still a nice “touristy”place to visit.

  18. Just loved your post. I’m in Luang Prabang and was wondering of it was worth going there. It’s quite clear now.

    1. Great to hear that, Nico 🙂 Please feel free to report back how you liked it. I’ve heard it’s changed quite a bit since I was there.

  19. I have good news! Muang Ngoi is still relatively unchanged. My gf and I randomly decided to go and fell in love. We went in May at the very low season and it was quiet as quiet could be. During 3 nights, 4 days we ran into 15 different travelers, almost all just doing a day trip and leaving. Judging from the pics of the one main road, it looks just about the same. Cute and charming as h*!! :). Might be more crowded during high season. Awesome bungalow was only 35,000 kip.

    1. Scott – I am so happy to hear this!! It made my day to hear that you fell in love with Muang Ngoi, too, and that the village seems to be as sleepy and charming as it has been when I visited a few years ago. Enjoy your time in Laos 🙂

  20. Muang Ngoi Neua sure is great like Vang Vieng was a couple of years ago before westen tourists invaded! Too much tourism would not be doing any good to this place indeed. Great pictures btw.

    1. Thanks, Joost! I decided to skip Vang Vieng in favor of Muang Ngoi but I wish I’d seen both, just to have an idea what it’s like 🙂 I’ve heard that Vang Vieng is much more enjoyable again now that they cut down on the river tubing craziness and reduced the number of bars along the river.

  21. I was in Vang Vieng a few days ago. Yes there’s a lot of tourism, yes, people still do tubing and walk around town in their swimming suit, but you should definitely not pass on it! It’s too beautiful to be ignored. They’re clearly going for outdoor activities rather than party now. When kayaking past the river bar area, I only saw one family with kids and a couple doing tubing!
    Sarah recently posted..Cambodia: FOOD!

    1. I still regret that we skipped Vang Vieng, Sarah! Didn’t feel like going when we were there but I keep seeing photos and it looks gorgeous!

  22. I’m in Muang Ngoy now and miusy say it is a spoilt little village and many of the people are tired of tourists which I got confirmed by a women at the age of 38 selling breakfast Dayton she proffered the village before the arrival of the tourists starting 16 years ago.

    I can confirm it’s still sleepy (I’m here during low season) for that it’s nice but hence people don’t like tourists and to give service and some were quite rude it’s not a place I would recommend or ever go back to.

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