MUAN NGOI NEUA, Laos-The 800 people who live in this stunningly attractive riverside village in northeastern Laos are doing tourism right. They've built 14 sturdy guesthouses, many with water views, and are delivering an idyllic experience to travellers from around the world. For the moment, at least, both the locals and the tourists are happy. "Tourists are friends - money-friends," said Oun Heuane, owner of the Say Lom Guesthouse, practically the first one visitors see when they step off a long, low wooden boat from either Muang Khua to the north or Nong Khiaw to the south.
Muang Ngoi is a boat-access-only place with one 500-metre-long unpaved street. The absence of cars and motorcycles makes it quiet, while views of the Ou River and craggy limestone karsts clothed in jade-green vegetation make it picturesque. As Lonely Planet's Laos guidebook puts it, "uniquely for such a tiny place, budget accommodation abounds and English is widely spoken, so you get the experience of a remote village without the inconvenience."
"It's just so amazingly beautiful, it's surreal," is the way Joanne Crovets feels about Muang Ngoi. The New York City massage therapist didn't mind having electric light in her room for only three-and-a-half hours in the evening. Instead, she enjoyed watching a crescent moon and stars appear in the sky, "like diamonds on velvet," as she ate an inexpensive, tasty dinner by the river. Another pleasure was trekking into the fertile valley behind Muang Ngoi and visiting three even smaller villages where life is lived in the traditional Laotian way.
However, Crovets has seen the languid city of Luang Prabang, 170 kilometres to the southwest, become overrun by tourists in recent years and doesn't believe Muang Ngoi can stay idyllic forever. "I'd hate to see it happen here," she said, "but it's almost inevitable if they have tour groups coming in."
Innkeeper Heuane says 50 foreign visitors a day arrive from December to April, the dry season. Tour groups of 18 or so people have also begun to come. "This one full every day," he said of his guesthouse, which provides work not only for him and his wife but also for their four grown children. "Good business."
Boun Thom, a doctor who formerly worked in public health in Vientiane, the Laotian capital, is the mayor of Muang Ngoi. He and his wife, a nurse, own the Suan Phao Guesthouse. He's convinced tourism is good for the village. "Before the tourists came, people made small gardens for their families and looked for fish-to eat, not to sell. Now if they get many fish, they can sell them. People who have boats can take tourists out. People who know English can be guides for trekking."
About the only thing that might irritate a visitor is the roosters' pre-dawn crowing. But the people of Muang Ngoi are doing their best to supply what tourists like: all-you-can-eat buffets, cheese, peanut butter-and roasted rooster on a stick.
For more information on travel in Laos, visit the Lao National Tourism Administration website at
Rebecca Wigod is a membre of the Meridian Writers' Group.