Saturday, March 22, 2014

Nong Khiaw: Where the gold flows!

Nong Khiaw, a small village situated near the banks of Nam Ou river has always been a sleepy and non-significant village as far as the tourism is concerned. However, recent mentions about it in various travel blogs and lonely planet; it is finding its way on the famous Banana Pancake Trail that is so famous among the backpackers.  Though situated in Luang Prabang province, the town is more similar to the topmost province of Phongsaly, which is bordered by China and Vietnam.
We met a Belgian couple on the minivan from Luang Prabang and immediately became good friends. As our minivan reached the station and we started to walk to village centre, we were engulfed by the sleepy feel that is so prevalent here. We attracted a few gazes from the shop keepers, repairmen, or locals walking on the street. There was hardly any activity at all. About 15 minutes walk brought us to a bridge which takes you to the other side of the river. The view from the bridge was simply stunning. Never have I seen mountains so vast and so near that they almost look threatening, dominating. These limestone mountains have thick cushion of green vegetation and the river running between these mountains reflect the green tint. There are numerous guesthouses along the river bank offering river side bungalows starting at 50,000 kip a night, supported by handful of restaurants. All accessible by one single street which from one end to another may not be more than 3 kms long. We checked into our rooms and after taking a rest for a while, I set on foot to explore the village. Probably the most beautiful scenery can be seen from the bridge and that’s where I spent most of my first evening, taking pictures, watching the sunset and feeling relaxed!
Nam Ou river

Our guesthouse

River among mountains

The village

Next day, me, Josette and the Belgian couple set off on foot in search of the famous Pha Thok caves. The caves are about 2.5 kms from the bridge. Take the paved road and continue till you see the sign on the ride side of the road. Near a small running stream, there is a shack and a lady sits there with her children from whom you can buy your entrance ticket for 5,000 kip. The cave was used by locals and Lao army as a shelter and also as a meeting/strategy place. A steep staircase takes you to entrance of the cave. Inside, you can see boards indicating what the place was used for e.g. Commander’s officer, meeting room, kitchen etc.
First cave
Even though the cave itself is not that impressive, if you know the history it can be a bit interesting. Also, there is one more cave which is for far more interesting, just about 400 meters from the main cave. This second cave is not very famous and is not marked. Facing the entrance of the main cave, follow a small trail to the left. Continuing on through trees, along the rice fields, there is a small hike to the entrance of this second cave. This too, was used during the war as shelter, but this one is very narrow. The tunnel created has a high ceiling enough for anyone to stand straight, but it’s not wide enough for more than 1 person. At times, you have to crouch and mind your head. It gets really dark inside and without a torch you are likely to get hurt. Also, it is not recommended for people having Claustrophobia.
A very narrow tunnel in the second cave

We went inside quite a long way, before it looked impossible to go further and came out feeling victorious. Before going to the main street, we saw a couple of kids naked in the river with thick goggles covering their eyes and what looked like a small crossbow in their hand, hunting for something. We stood there, watching them for a long time and they acted as if they did not notice us at all. Finally, we reached the conclusion that they were just fishing and continued our walk.

As we walked further and further, the limestone mountains always looming over us, there were fewer houses to see. But wherever there were houses, there were children and these children were always happy to say “Sabaaaideeee” while smiling all the time. We reached a small hut and were asked by a few kids to come in. They did not speak much English and a few of them were wearing a school uniform. We managed to chat a little bit with them and take a few pictures, before turning back towards the town.
Small hut

With local children

After lunch, me, Josette and the Belgian guy decided to trek to a view point, which is the top of a small hill, which gives panoramic view of the surroundings. The entrance is 20,000 kip and trail is easy to follow. The trail is maintained by the village people and it looks like a natural trail, without too much human interference. The best time to go there is sunrise or sunset.
At around 3.30 we started our trek and by that time, the weather had taken a significant twist! It was not sunny anymore and huge grey clouds were hovering in the sky, ready for the shower. As we bought our tickets, the locals warned us about the rain and gave us a stick each in case the trail becomes slippery. With the gloom in the air, excitement levels started to recede. We started the trek in the shade of the clouds, which was fun in the beginning as there was no sun to sweat through. But as we heard lightening and as a first few raindrops reached our faces, Josette decided it was no good going on and decided to turn back. By this time the rain was getting stronger, but I was willing to get wet and continue the trek. As it got really strong, Belgian guy and I reached conclusion that it’s safer to go back before the trail gets slippery. And as we started to turn back, a breeze moved a huge cloud on and bright sun shone upon us, creating a magical moment. The whole world was bright for that moment and beautiful and it was almost as if, sun came out just to tell us to keep going and so we kept going!
To our relief, within next 10 minutes the rain had stopped and the sun was out again, this time for longer, smiling on the landscape. The mountain is not too big and it takes about 2 hours to reach the top, but it’s not really an easy trek. There are patches where it gets a little tough and little tricky. Especially due to brief rains, the dried leaves had fallen in huge amounts, hiding the track. At one point, we reached a flat ground covered in thick jungle and thought that this was the top and worse was, the trail started to go down from here. But continuing on it started to climb up again, before opening on to a small, flat, bare hilltop. As we reached this hilltop, we were already feeling triumphant and when we looked down in the valley, we were simply speechless! For 10 minutes we just stared into the valley, without uttering a word (well, except for a “wow”). Tall mountains loomed everywhere we looked. But there, straight ahead was the Sun, bright orange, tearing the clouds apart and its orange light reflecting off in the snake that was the river. As the sun went a little further down, the river became all aglow! It wasn’t just a river anymore; it was a river of gold! It was as if the molten gold was flowing in huge quantities through a tiny village. The sight was a miracle! Never have I seen such a sight and never will I see such a sight again! After gaining our senses back, we started clicking snaps like mad! As if those few moments were precious ones and we had to somehow capture them in the camera. Difficult part was though feeling satisfied. We kept on clicking photos after photos, always wondering “Can this get any better?”
During the trek

View from top

River of Gold!

As is always the case, sun sinks really fast towards the end and we had rush down the mountain to avoid the darkness. By the time we headed back, the sun had dried up most of the mountain except for a few patches which had become slippery. But we made a good speed and were at the base of the mountain even before the sun set fully. Coming out, tired, sweaty, muddy and dirty, we did not rush to the shower. We instead went to a bar, to enjoy our victory beer!

Next day at lunch, we say a flyer stating that there was going to be a cultural show at a local school at 6 in the evening. We did not do much that day and just relaxed and ate and relaxed! At around 6 however, we rushed to the school and were greeted by little kids wearing make up for their performances. The school is a small and has an open space at the back. A small stage was set here, with handful of chairs, all in the backdrop of an enormous mountain! It was a perfect place for a cultural show. However, the crowd turned out to be more than the expectations of the organizers and the chairs were not enough and soon the whole stage was surrounded by travellers and locals keen to watch the show. The show was a short one and had three performances. Two dances and one singing along with dancing. All the dances, music, instruments, costumes and make up were related to one of the many ethnic minority groups in Laos. The kids performing were 8-10 year olds and were confident. In spite of such a huge crowd of foreigners (“Falangs”), they were hardly nervous. They performed extremely well and to everyone’s surprise, one travellers performed as well. She was wearing a clown’s outfit and make up and made everyone laugh. It turned out to be quite an evening!
Cultural show at the school

No comments:

Post a Comment