Hidden playground

Michelle Fincke discovers village life and small children are a winning combination.

Ning Ning is not impressed. Take it or leave it. She purses her lips and walks away, preferring to leave her bungalows empty than drop the price. When we eventually do a deal, she is similarly unmoved - even by the four cute children who have been having their cheeks pinched heartily everywhere else.

We have high hopes for Muang Ngoi, the tiny village perched on the banks of the Nam Ou river in northern Laos. From the laconic World Heritage-listed city of Luang Prabang it has taken nearly four hours by mini-bus to the river port of Nong Khiaw and a further 2 1/2 hours in an overcrowded wooden boat, through rapids. A quick escape will be difficult.

The physical environment certainly doesn't let us down. Dramatic hills rise all around, their jungle-matted sides collapsing into the slow-moving river filled with rickety boats, dozing water buffalo and enterprising fishermen with masks and spears.

Remote and tranquil, with generator power for just a couple of hours a day at dusk, it is clear that the guidebooks' tales of a riverside shangri-la have brought a proliferation of bamboo bungalows slouching on stilts and the visitors to use them. But it seems to have brought an edge.

Visitors arrive, spend a day or two swinging in a hammock sipping Beer Laos or swimming in the wide brown Nam Ou, wander up and down the 100-metre long strip of compacted dirt and rudimentary stalls that make up the main street and move on.

Our early contact with the locals is cursory and cool, as if perhaps Muang Ngoi and its exploding tourism business are leading parallel lives, an uneasy supply and demand stand-off.

But two days in a hammock is never going to work for us. Four children in one are photogenic for 30 seconds but anything longer is unattractive.

So we set our jaw, determined to stay so the children can get a sense of village life, Laos-style. Ning Ning's sullen disregard doesn't help, so we clear out of the top end of town (the first solar hot water system) into a modest, damp, poorly plumbed bungalow complete with bedbugs, hoping to unearth Muang Ngoi's charm.


And it doesn't take long. Village life and small children are a perfect mix: chicks and dogs and monkeys in cages, ducks waddling into shops, talking birds, buffalo in backyards. Kids. Mud. Sand. Food. The staff of life for three-year-olds.

And, to amuse the older ones, bombs. The garden ornament of choice is ordnance, dropped famously in record quantities on this tiny nation by US forces during the Vietnam War.

Early in our stay we walk to a nearby village, through paddy fields, to a heartfelt welcome from families incredulous at this gaggle of falang nyung (little white people) wandering through town. And it is astonishing - my own children have walked without a whinge for four hours in drizzle.

The miracles continue, because as we stagger soggily back to Muang Ngoi, it is as if we have arrived anew. People are smiling at this unlikely posse, welcoming us back. Suddenly, cheeks are again pinched. The mysterious sweets for sale on the street are explained. Kids on their way to school shove along to give us seats at the open-air breakfast soup stalls, casting amused glances at our clumsy slurping. We have, very quickly and somewhat unexpectedly, become familiar.

One night, the local mothers gather their chairs in a ring around us at a dimly lit restaurant and watch us eat our sticky rice and pumpkin curry, keeping up a running commentary and laughing at the behaviour of children playing to the gallery.

Life takes on a gentle rhythm. With first light and the Buddhist monks' drumbeat announcing their alms collection, children are up, dressed and gone, a pile of kip - the local currency - in hand. In a place without cars, motorbikes or tuk-tuks, they flaunt their independence, swaggering back with bags of wok-fried banana fritters.

Back to the street for more breakfast - soup noodles, banana pancakes or the favourite, sweet sticky rice.

Next, down to the river, upstream from the matriarchs wrapped in sarongs washing their hair, for a day's beach play.

The afternoon brings liberated school kids in splashing, giggling droves. Not surprisingly, they are innovative swimmers and the river quickly fills with slippery bodies and wrestling boys floating by on old tyre tubes.

Later, there are fruit shakes and soft, spring-onion pancakes cooked street-side, more promenading or watching the theatrical thunderstorms while playing cards or colouring pictures.

One day, we organise a trip with a couple of local boys with big smiles, no English and a great fishing technique. They cast their delicate net in a big circle and "wop" the water with a bamboo pole. None of this boring, silent waiting for a bite. Finally, fishing that makes sense to a six-year-old.

We help untangle the catch and the boys make a fire on the beach, cut banana leaves as an impromptu picnic rug and present our lunch complete with a plastic bag of sticky rice and omelette. The local boys even pick the small skeletons clean and, laughing, offer the flesh to our children like birds feeding chicks.

And that is about it - the equivalent of a few days reading in a hammock but with children. Sometimes we see groups gathered at one house, glimpsing the flicker of television between tightly packed bodies, while a generator throbs in the background. Our kids watch games involving thong-throwing or bamboo ball kicking. Children eat, go to school and play outside with their friends. Many of the older ones are with relatives in Vientiane, getting a precious education.

And there is the river, this sloshy brown highway that means everything to Muang Ngoi. All day, boats piled high with produce and people chug past. The Nam Ou is bathtub, front-loader, market and Nintendo combined. But it's about to get a less romantic rival.

One of the locals shrugs and says "road" when we ask about the explosions ringing out amid those startling hills. The cars are coming and, with her solar hot water and fancy bungalows, Ning Ning is ready and waiting.


Getting there

Luang Prabang has an international airport and Vietnam Airlines flies there, with a change of aircraft in Ho Chi Minh or Hanoi, for $1000. Thai Airways has a fare for $1180 with a change of aircraft in Bangkok. It is also possible to fly into Vientiane and catch a bus to Luang Prabang. All fares are return from Melbourne and Sydney and do not include tax. Australian passport holders require a tourist visa for a stay of up to 30 days. Visas can also be obtained at Vientiane airport and at the Friendship Bridge on the Laos-Thai border.

Mini-buses to Nong Khiaw are easy to pick up from the bus station in Luang Prabang or, even better, some will pick you up from your hotel. Boats travel regularly to and from Muang Ngoi from Nong Khiaw and take about an hour. Costs about $US2 ($2.77).

Staying there

Touts meet the boats and offer many choices. Rooms on bamboo stilts cost no more than $2 a night, are basic and bathrooms are shared with the landlord's family. Lattanavongsa, near the boat landing, is more solid, has private bathrooms without hot water and a good restaurant. Ning Ning is about $US15 a night and also has a restaurant.