Tim and I took a mini van from Luang Prabang up into the hills to Nong Khiaw to enjoy a flavour of more rural Laos, and to attempt to gain more of an insight into traditional Laos life rather than what is laid on for tourists. We ventured high up into the mountains on a scorching day. The journey was absolutely stunning, as we wove our way up. The scenery was some of the best I had seen since Malaysia, as the mountains were so lush and dramatic. The Mekong River meandered along in its reassuring brown way, and we passed remote villages made out of bamboo and reeds. They were so basic, with children running around naked in the gardens, and residents sitting on the floor in their doorways watching the world go by. Dogs, chickens, ducks, cows, goats and the odd pig wandered freely around, and people washed themselves under taps or in buckets outside. Most of the houses were on stilts, and many had looms underneath. Weaving is a traditional craft in this area, whether it is for tribal clothes or wall hangings.
The bus dropped us off in what appeared to be a dusty farmyard (Nong Khiaw's bus station!!). We picked our way across the unsurfaced station and found the bridge over the Mekong. The view was simply spectacular, as the mountains rose steeply up from the river bed. Some of the mountain tops were obscured by cloud, despite the scorching weather. Later that day, a familiar warm wind surrounded us, and the reeds on the roofs of the buildings rustled alarmingly. Then a storm broke out, complete with torrential rain and thunder that echoed around the mountains, and we watched children rowing boats on the increasingly fast-flowing Mekong desperately paddling to the banks (it's OK, they made it!)
We found a very quaint place to stay at the Sunrise Guesthouse. It was of the basic wooden hut variety, with a balcony looking right over the river towards the mountains and to the main part of the (tiny) town on the other side. Another great view that would cost a fortune in the UK!
Nong Khiaw was a great place to stop and relax for a few days. We discovered an excellent place to eat near our guesthouse, where the owner prepared some delicious meals for us, including the best spare ribs Tim and I had ever had, and sticky rice with a gorgeous spicy chilli chicken dip that had a flavour we could not put our fingers on, but which was yummy!!She also did excellent banana pancakes with sweet milk and turbo charged Lao coffee. For those of you who have not yet tried it, Laos coffee is a very tasty, strong coffee that is almost syrupy. It looks like black treacle, and is particularly good with a dollop of sweet milk..... I also tried water buffalo - rather chewy but very tasty!
We hired a moped, and spent a happy few hours driving past villages and into the mountains. Small Laos children would often come running along the road waving at us and grinning. The children here are so sweet. Once they reach about 8 or 9 or so, they seem to be expected to help with physical labour, and you see them scampering along with woven baskets on their backs. Some of the little girls also have their siblings strapped to them, and run along as if they were not carrying such a burden. Excellent training for the hard labour many will be expected to do in the fields later in life.
We stopped to explore a cave we had heard about, with the company of a local boy who appointed himself as our guide. We ventured up some very precarious and slippery wooden steps into the cave. It had some impressive stalagmites, and the local lad enjoyed showing us how he could cling on to the sides. The cave was actually on the side of the mountain, and afforded excellent views across the rice plantations in the valley. Local villagers had lived in the cave during the 2nd Indochina War. The boy offered to take us down to the deepest recesses,, but Tim and I peered dubiously down a sheer rock face into a dark pit below, reached by very dodgy 'ladder' with rungs missing, and politely declined.
Tim and I returned to the moped and decided to keep going until we got to the top of the mountain. I can honestly say the view was one of the best I have seen in my entire life. Mile upon mile of rolling farmland gave way to craggy mountains that stretched as far as the eye could see. There was a cacophony of insect song, and we could see a very clear edge of a weather front where rain was torrential over one field and the next field was basking in the sunshine. We met some adorable village girls who had just been doing their washing, each carrying a basket of their tiny clothes and a jug. To begin with they were quite shy of us, but they thought it was great fun when we showed them the photos we took of them!
We spent 3 nights in Nong Khiaw, before it was time to leave the peace and tranquillity and move on to Vang Vieng.....