My experience in Muang Long was probably my favourite in all of Laos. This statement is more accurate than Muang Long being 'my favourite place' as it was not necessarily just the town itself that made it so memorable. Let me begin...
We rolled into a small, fairly dusty town around an hour and half, maybe two, hours from Muang Sing. I had come to Muang Long because i knew they offered treks into the surrounding area and that few tourists came here. Our logic was that fewer tourists would mean a less well beaten trail, especially compared to Muang Sing or Nam Tha. As my purpose was to trek around Muang Long i didn't care too much what the town was like. I didn't expect to spend much time dossing around. As soon as we found a decent guesthouse (HomePhan G.H) and had put our bags down we headed to the tourism office located along the main road on the west side of town.
Muang Long (the sign on the left you can just about see if the hospital, where the main road takes a right leads to bus station/market. Where i am stood is toward the top of the hill next to Home Phan)
The Tourism office was closed. Luckily for us there was a jolly decent chap in the Planning office opposite, he spoke excellent English and was very friendly. He rang someone (the head of the office, it turned out) and told us to return at 2pm. Apparently they are planning to be internet enabled in Muang Long within the next two years. The head of Muang Long tourism office turns out to speak pretty poor English which fustrated my friend no end. I take a more laid back approach, i had no real questions to ask but if i had i knew there was little point in pushing this man to give us answers when he couldn't understand our questions. In the end we asked if Tui was around [head guide, famous in some circles - small ones] but he had gone to Luang Nam Tha for the boat race. We were told to return at 6pm when Tui would have returned. At 6 we were met by the manager again and told to return at 11am the next day, we balked at this and agreed 8am would be a more appropriate time. I think he was quite suprised that i knew of Tui but no more so than Tui himself, when he eventually turned out the next day at Breakfast. His boss had left him 8 voice messages telling him of two falang interested in doing a trek. I felt bad when i found out he had to leave Nam Tha at 8pm with his wife and motorbike all the way back to Muang Long.
We had arrived late afternoon the first day. The second day we dithered over a 2 or 3 day trek, So long, in fact, that we wasted another day. Annoyingly if we had just chosen a 2 day trek in the first place we could have done it that day Hesitation meant it got too late in the day to begin, too late to organise things. The trek cost 50 dollars each for two days. A small fee when you consider what you get in return.
Tui (translated as 'fat') turned out to be a great person and guide, we could not have wished for a better companion throughout the two days trek. The first day was fairly leisurely and involved a good amount of banter, some swimming/napping along the way and great scenery. We bumped into a villager heading into Muang Long who told us to hurry to the village as there was a party and lots of lao-lao being drunk. It turned out it was teachers day; celebrate your teacher by getting him, and yourself, ruinously drunk. We attempted to avoid the party at first, Tui was worried we would be drawn into the celebrations abit too much and it might ruin the next days trek. The village home brew Lao-Lao can be a variety of strengths; the one we sampled was probably around 60%. We were spotted by a few children and eventually followed by about 30, ranging from 3 to 13 years old, as we headed to our home for the night.
The Nambo Waterfall [day 2 of the trek]
The local policeman and afew other guys came to greet us and eventually convinced us to join the party; they had slaughtered a medium-sized pig that morning which explained the huge amount of pork being passed round. It was a very merry affair and i'm glad i attended, even if it did mean having to drink more lao-lao than i would have wanted [one for each leg and them some]. Everyone was very welcoming, as i've come to expect in Laos. They are very friendly drunks. We stayed in the ex-chief's house with his wife and son. We slept in their living area and were supplied with blankets and mosqueto nets. Unfortunately his house was the party house so we didn't end up sleeping untill quite late. The ex-chief, Ali, was also to be our guide the next day. I was impressed by his ability to finish off two whole lao-lao bottles himself and was suitably amazed when he necked two more shots the next day after breakfast. One for the road i guess. From what i can gather, Ali is the oldest man in the village and still carries alot of weight, he speaks 6 languages and knows the surrounding forest area very well.
The village near the Nambo waterfall ('Ban Nambo' - 'Nambo Village') is actually two villages twinned by the Lao government. As a result there are two ethnicities present; the Lahu and the Hmong. Ali is Lahu. Tui explained that the Lahu are the poorest of all the tribes in that region but that this situation has been brought about by there own attitude to work rather than any external circumstance. The most obvious indicator was firewood; in a Hmong house there is firewood piled high, to the ceiling but in a Lahu house there is just enough. When opium was widely cultivated the Hmong grew huge quantities for sale but the Lahu grew just enough to serve there own needs...
Day two of the trek began well enough, even with the promise of leeches ahead, but soon descended into maddness. At least it seemed that way at the time, in retrospect of course you can laugh and DO laugh about such things. We had arrived at the a stretch of river where we were required wade across to the other side. The river was the highest Tui had seen it; not level with our waists but with our noses. Plan A seemed to have failed as we could not wade across. The current was too strong and the water too high. This hadn't happened before. Bring on Plan B. Build a bamboo raft. Ali and Tui quickly set about building a raft out of bamboo and other materials provided by the forest; it was fairly awe inspiring and a truely impressive feat when, half an hour later, we had our raft.
Even Ali agreed; the raft idea was too dangerous. He barely made it back from the other side, it was only thanks to some rocks that he wasn't swept down river when he temporarily lost control. Plan C. My friend asked if Ali knew another way, he said yes. He promptly set off through the bush, there was no trail, just Ali. The route we took meant we had to walk on a 70degree gradiant for most of the way, up and down, up and down, up and down as we avoided the thickest areas of bush. All the while the ground, loose dirt, slipped below us and the threat of falling 50 metres down a hill became very real. As we weaved up and down the heavens opened. The rain made the mud even more unstable, i resorted to crabbing my way across the face of the hill/cliff in an effort not to slip. As this went on we began to question the wisdom of Ali. Did he know where he was going? These fears were real at the time, it was going to get dark sooner than we would have liked and it felt like we were endlessly being lead up and down. Looking back i think the language barrier didn't help. Ali obviously knew this forest well and definately knew the rough direction of where there was a bridge/trail but we mistook this for knowing 'the way'. When he had to stop and think, scout a head, come back, scout in another direction...this didn't fill us with confidence. After two hours we we reached the bridge. We were wet through. Tui was very apologetic and Ali was a lot richer, having been paid for the extra services rendered. The relief was short lived, it was still raining and we still had two hours of forest to walk through before we would emerge high above the road into Muang Long. It was a further couple of hours to make it down to the road. On the way we managed to see the funny side of what happened, tasted giant cucumber and dried off.
So, eating in Muang Long? There is one English menu restaurant in town (translated by Tui). If you are walking toward the bus station, its on your left, keep walking. There is a small unnamed restaurant next to a phone shop on the same side as the bus station but further along (past the market). You'll know you have the right one if you see a large menu on a whiteboard complete with english translation. Another good choice is about 500m out of town on the road to Muang Sing. The restaurant had no name when we went but served good food and had cracking views overlooking the rice terraces. The market is a great place to see some ethnic colours and to pick up some tasty lao snacks.
Tasty Lao food (does anyone know the Lao name of the meat? it was beef i think)