Muang Sing: Laos’ Wild West

Tierman Bikes Muang Sing, LaosTucked in the northwestern corner of Laos at the border of Myanmar and China, Muang Sing is one of the most diverse, strange, and fascinating places in Laos. This region has a Wild West feeling where the 95 villages and 12 ethnicities live side by side but seem to operate in their own world with different languages, dress and traditions. We spent our time here biking from Akha to Tai Lue to Hmong to Mien to Lolo villages, trying to pick up on the nuances and in the process, we were invited to a stay for a few days in Hmong village. Going from observer to a participant in this community—gathering water, feeding the pigs, teaching English, playing ball, sharing dinner and just hanging out–was so special. It reminded us that this what world travel is all about.
Powering up at bus stationGetting to Muang Sing from Luang Prabang was a bit of battle. The first leg of our journey dropped us off at this desolate bus station at 4am and the next bus wasn’t arriving until 8am. This wasn’t a place we wanted to get our shuteye so we did a little blogging by jury-rigging our laptop power plug into their boob-tube entertainment center.

 

Muang Sing Market Hours, LaosWe managed to catch an earlier ride in the back of a pickup. We caught a nap on the floor and woke up here: The Muang Sing Market. It was an explosion of vegetables, meats, textiles, unidentifiable foods and beautifully weathered characters from the numerous local tribes behind each stall. We sat and ate some classic Lao noodle soup, loaded with spice and veggies, and took it all in. See the slideshow for more scenes from this market, including a gerbil being walked on a leash to his dinner demise.

 

Tom Dooley Museum, Muang Sing LaosThe center of town is made of a few hotels, noodle stalls, a bike shop, and this town museum. Here we learned more about the town’s roller-coaster past. In the past 150 years, Thailand, France, Britain, America, and China (who are still leading the charge) have all tried to control this diverse area in some way shape or form from land to the opium trade.

 

China harvesting Laos sugar cane deforestation The area is weaning themselves off opium production with China’s “rubber tree economic replacement program.” Money is flowing into the area but sadly huge swaths of forest are being clear cut for rubber trees and the locals are losing control of their land.

 

True Manhood WhiskeyOur hotel was backed up to rice paddies that ran as far as the eye could see. As the sun headed west we sat on our balcony enjoying the scenery with a bottle of True Manhood, Laotian “Scotch” Whiskey. We naturally gravitated towards this Lone Ranger logo and its $1 price tag (yes, that is $1 for 750ml, not a typo) but when we read the tagline, “100% Special,” we knew it would be a winner (or make us blind).

 

Biking the sugarcane fields of LaosThe next day we rented bikes from a local guy named Tiger Man. He gave us a map and suggested we loop the area west of town to check out the Akah, Yao, and Tai villages. It was a wild and beautiful ride through huge stalks of sugar cane, banana tree farms, and rice paddies.

 

House in Muang SingThe villages and people were all so different. The Yao communities were particularly striking with stilted houses and women wearing red tube-like scarves and kids with caps topped with big pom-poms.

 

Host family in Muang Sing LaosWhen we returned to Tiger Man’s bike shop and told him how much we loved the local villages, his response was, “Well, then you should come stay in my village and we will teach you the Hmong way of life!” We accepted the invitation without hesitation and stayed with his sister’s family that night. Despite our massive language barriers, they taught us a bit of Hmong, we taught some English, and shared time filled with smiles.

 

Sepak takraw in LaosA cousin who spoke a bit of English was nice enough to show us around, introduce us around, and give us the inside scoop. We popped into a few houses for hellos, hung out with some local guys building a well, learned about the village farms, and caught this epic game of takraw (look at that foot block!). Though one of the coolest things was a ancestral worship ceremony. We heard chanting coming from one of the houses and asked our new buddy what was going on then he just walked us right in. This woman was blindfolded, standing on a bench, shaking a rice-filled gourd in front of a candlelit alter and singing. It was such a private, spiritual moment and one we could’ve never had without our local in.

 

Teaching english in Muang Sing LaosTiger Man, when not renting bicycles, was also the town English teacher in this little school house (which he built with money from his bicycle shop). He was thrilled to have native speakers in town so he asked us to guest teach that day. Before our Ta Phin Village teaching experience we would have never felt remotely qualified, but this time we taught with new confidence.

 

Being a part of this village for a couple days was such an amazing feeling. Watch this video for a perfect moment in time– Mike kicking the takraw around with some teens, me in a game of tag with the cutest kids ever, and the good life pared down to the simpler things.

 

laos tribal villages
SEE MORE PHOTOS IN OUR
MUANG SING LAOS SLIDESHOW

8 thoughts on “Muang Sing: Laos’ Wild West

  • May 26, 2014 at 6:51 pm
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    Utterly brilliant post! Kudos for really getting out there into the unexplored parts of the country. The photos are stunning. What exactly is going on with the volleyball picture that looks like kick-boxing?????

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    • May 29, 2014 at 1:25 pm
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      Thanks so much! Off the grid is where the best stuff happens!That volleyball kickboxing soccer sport is called Tekraw and is possibly one of the coolest games to watch. The flow is similar to volleyball except to hit it they basically do a bicycle kick, it’s amazing. We caught a game on video when we were in Thailand, have a look: https://www.honeytrek.com/railay-beach-thailand/

      Reply
    • May 29, 2014 at 1:20 pm
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      Oh good, thanks! Where you off to next Em? Love that you can combo work and travel like you do!

      Reply
  • May 28, 2014 at 6:13 am
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    What a great trip. I love that early morning market photo, and good for you stepping in and teaching English for the day!

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    • May 29, 2014 at 1:19 pm
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      That market was wild! Did you see the gerbil photo? It was a feast for the senses that place. We also bought a beautiful hand-embroidered table runner there. And teaching English was great fun, we even did a bunch of one-on-one sessions while we were there too! Thanks, Corinne!

      Reply
  • June 3, 2014 at 8:39 pm
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    Not a
    great start! But you ended up having a lot of fun. I would love to go there
    soon.

    Reply

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