14.12.2012 - 17.12.2012
The early morning bus to Nong Khiaw bumped and swerved along a mountaintop route above the clouds. Pure deep blue sky above us and spangles of sunlight bouncing up from the valleys as we wound up and down and around endless peaks in a dizzyingly serpentine fashion. At the highest points we were looking out across miles of cloud. By afternoon jagged heights and sheer drops had turned to gentler hills and wide rivers. We passed though neat tiny villages, with pigs, cows, dogs and chickens in the dusty road, and children, occasionally wearing clothes, jumping up and down waving at the bus. The afternoon sun turned to gold then dusk, and cooking fires began to light up the roadside, with houses, trees and hillsides silhouetted in smoke. Two towns no distance apart on the map but still an all-day journey, and one of the most captivating bus journeys we've ever had, anywhere, in fact.
Nong Khiaw is not at first sight a name to inspire ecstatic rhapsodising of any kind - until you've been there. And then it's Ahhh, Nong Khiaw... The town lies on a river low in a valley and is freezing at night, misty in the morning and scorching by midday. We cycled a lot, along the river and around the hills and the nearby villages. We were Sabaideed a lot, and high-fived by a big group of boys on bikes as they whizzed past on the way to school. We saw more wartime cave shelters, this time with no meeting rooms, offices or emergency rooms - just caves, with signs marked 'Ammunition area', 'Governors area' and surprisingly 'Art area'. But now just caves again.
We also did a lot of just sitting. This was particularly wonderful. We sat on the balcony of the guesthouse and sighed at the ethereal morning mists wafting through the trees on the hillside opposite. We sat on the balcony and giggled at the mischievous goats who came in each day to nibble the guesthouse lady's vegetable garden. We sat on the balcony and just watched the river and the boats go by, and the changing light on the trees and the water. Hence, Ahh... Nong Khiaw... It is impossible to hurry here. Everyone, locals and visitors alike, moves at the slowest pace possible, which we referred to as the Nong Khiaw Shuffle. You are enveloped by a benign sense that everything will be fine, and nothing is really worth getting stressed about. Even the guesthouse lady laughed about the goats eating her veggies.
And on the subject of food - the town may be tiny but is full of good places to eat. Favourites were a lovely restaurant where we went at least twice a day run by a sweet young Indian couple that did real home-style Indian food, zingy masala chai and the best melt-in-your-mouth naan I've ever had - a six foot long cluster bomb shell adorning the wall just in case it was all feeling too idyllic. A cute backpacker place with a memorable breakfast of a big flat cake of sticky rice dipped in egg and fried, to be eaten with liberal quantities of chilli sauce - sets you up perfectly for the day. Again, bomb shells everywhere, painted with peace signs and flowers. We tore ourselves away from Nong Khiaw after four happy days, because if we didn't leave then, we never would.