BootsnAll Travel Network

Voyage up the Nam Ou River

I went to the boat ticket office early in the morning to buy a boat ticket to Nong Khiaw. While standing in line to get a ticket, I noticed a helpful signboard that listed the prices for all the destinations. I also quickly noticed that I had to pay about 30% more (110,000 kip) than Lao people according to the sign. While this, as always, is annoying as I don’t get anything more for my money at least it’s not like India where I pay 20-40 times more for things just based on race. After buying the ticket, I waited around for about 2 hours before we set off 30 minutes late. They needed to use an extra boat as there were 16 tourists making the trip (so much for my “original” idea of going by boat). Audrey, the Malaysia lady, who you met in my earlier posting was also making the trip. The boat I was in was equipped with small hard butt numbing wooden chairs.The ceiling over the chairs was too low and I had to hang out to really see well. We first headed north up the Mekong River before turning onto the Nam Ou passing by the Pak Ou caves. Once on the Nam Ou we spent about eight hours making it to Nong Khiaw. The scenery in the beginning consisted of small mountains lost in a haze.  The mountains were greatly deforested. (This would be the most depressing part of the whole journey. For such a small population, Laos is tremendously deforested. There is almost no replanting going on and the hillsides are almost bare or covered in grass. In some areas a few clumps of teak trees have been replanted.) The river paralled route 13 for most of the trip. As we got closer to Nong Khiaw the scenery became more dramatic. The mountains turned to karst and great limestone cliffs riddled with caves leapt out of the water. Here the slopes were too steep for logging and old growth forest with full jungle canopy remained. The villages consisted of traditional thatch hut architecture. The river itself was full of rapids, clear, and quite shallow. The boat struggled to get up a few steep parts. We had to stop at one point to change propeller blades as the old one had gotten bent in an extra shallow portion. One of the other boats struck bottom and had to be pushed to deeper water. In a clever blend of old and new technology, the villages produced electricity from the river. Where needed, they constructed bamboo rafts and tied electric turbines to them. The river current turned the turbines. Where extra ooomph was needed, bamboo shoots were used to channel the water over the turbine propellers. Wires supported on bamboo poles ran from the turbines up into the villages.

We arrived in Nong Khiaw around 5:30 pm. I headed up the steps from the boat landing and looked at several places before finally settling on a riverside bungalow. My balcony looked out onto the a great cliff on the otherside of ther river. I ate supper that evening with several people from the boat and went to bed.  The next morning I set out to see some caves that were about 2.5 km from Nong Khiaw. I walked along the caves enjoying the stillness of the morning. They were used as a bomb shelter by the Lao Communist Party. At the caves, I paid and then walked across a rice field to the cave entrance. I was the only tourist at the cave of which I was glad. It’s nice sometimes to be alone in a beautiful spot as one can just listen to nature. As I neared the stairs, my “alone time” with nature was broken by a young guy sitting at the base of the stairs. We spoke for a little while. He lived in the nearby village. As I started climbing the stairs to go inside the cave, he followed me. I was hoping to go alone, but it wasn’t to be. Inside the cave he produced a flashlight that wasn’t really needed as the cave wasn’t dark or deep. After viewing this cave, he said there were more caves nearby that he could show me. At this point I was sure he wanted money but I followed him anyway interested. We walked along a path that did lead to more caves. One was used as a bank during the bombing campaign. After seeing the caves, he asked for money. He wanted 20000 which was ridiculous as I paid 5000 to get into the caves. I held out 5000. He looked at it and shook his head no. As I shrugged and started to walk off, he decided to take the money. He mumbled the whole time we walked back though. I gave him 3500 more later and he still complained and then wanted my baguette which I gave him. I managed to leave him before I really got angry. I found a small stream with  a small water wheel spinning inside. I sat here for a while listening to the sound of the water spinning the wheel. I walked back to Nong Khiaw, ate lunch, and then set out to see the town. I stopped at the town wat and was surprised by the old monks around. In Asia, I was starting to wonder about what happens to all the old Buddhist monks as you hardly ever see them. It appears they come to Nong Khiaw. One of them was kind enough to show me around. Leaving the wat, I found a park where it looked like a place for a concert was being set up. There were also a group of guys playing a version of volleyball unique in Laos. You can’t use your hands. The ball was spiked with kicks that would make a martial artist proud. I then ended my walk with a stroll through some of the replanted teak trees on the edge of town.

 That evening, I once again ate with some people from my boat at a cheap restaurant that I had found in my wanderings. While we were eating, we heard music coming from the park where I had been earlier. We walked over and a concert was in progress. We paid 6000 kip for an entrance ticket. On stage was a man singing, now familiar, Lao pop songs. He was accompanied by a lot of dancers. After he finished, a comic troupe came on stage. I recognized them from the videos on the buses I had seen in Cambodia and Laos. I, of course, had no idea what was being said but it looked very slapstick in nature involving drum rolls, screaming, exaggerated facial expressions, and midgets. Despite the communication barrier, it was very funny to watch.

In the morning, I decided to head up river to Muang Ngoi Ngeua which was my next stop upriver. I bought a ticket for 20000 kip and once again got into a boat filled with white people and a few more Lao this time. It took about an hour this time to go the 24 km. The river was once again shallow and surrounded by limestone karsts. In a Nong Khiaw repeat, once the boat got to Muang Ngoi, I set off to find a place to stay and decided on  a riverside bungalow with a karst view. After setting down my bags, I walked to the boat office to ask about boats further up river. I learned that from here on boats go only when they have enough people and I would have to check in the morning. I then set off to look at the town. The whole village is almost all geared to tourist now with guesthouses, restaurants, and massage parlors. It all sits on an arrow straight wide dirt lane draped with palm trees. After looking around the town, I returned to my hammock to watch the river. Not long after I laid down, I heard someone climbing the steps to my bungalow and soon saw a Dutch guy leaning over me. He had stopped by to say hi as he and a Belgian guy were sharing the bungalow next to mine. He said that they were going to walk down to a cave near the village and wanted to know if I wanted to come. I had planned to do this the next day, but decided to go along with them. They were nice enough, but it soon felt as if I were walking with Cheech and Chong. (For those not in the know, Cheech and Chong are two Hispanic men that made movies involving lots of drug references.) Their accents sounded oddly Hispanic (maybe because I had decided they sounded like Cheech and Chong and my mind did the rest for me) and every other sentence ended with “Man”. Their conversation, like the movies, were full of drug references. When we reached the cave, we found  a ticket booth. I learned that I had to pay just to walk the path even if I wasn’t going into the cave. I thought about just walking to some of the inland villages. I don’t mind paying to see a cave, but just to walk a path is stupid and greedy especially since it wasn’t built for tourist anyway and was mostly used by local people for river access. This cave was quite deep and we needed headlights to go in. There was a stream flowing through it as well. We walked for a while and then squeezed through a really narrow passageway before emerging into a large chamber. It was at this point that my cheap light decided to break and the battery cover decided to go flying off into the darkness. My light was still usuable but I had to hold the batteries in. I turned around as I no longer trusted my light and if my light failed it would be very difficult with three people and only one small light. I waited outside for the other two guys who returned not long after. They didn’t reach the cave end but felt that the floor was getting too steep to walk on without  rope. Leaving the cave, we walked for about an hour more to one of the inland villages. The village sat in a valley full of cultivated rice fields surrounded by more karsts. Once in the village they asked us if we had wanted to spend the night, but we declined and headed back to Muang Ngoi as it was getting dark and we had paid for accomodations there. That night, I spent a long time laying on my hammock listening to the frogs and crickets as they loudly serenaded each other up and down the river.

Even though I had planned to spend two nights in Muang Ngoi, I learned in the morning that a boat was going upriver to Muang Khua (100000 kip). This time it was only tourist in the boat. The ride took about 5 hours. We left the karst scenery behind and returned to the large rolling hills that I had seen at the start of the Nam Ou river. We again passed many villages generating power from the water. The forest again were in large part all cut down with very little of the cleared area actually being used for anything. Whenever we went past a village, the children playing on the beach gave excited waves and shouts. As before the boat had to struggle up sometimes long stretches of small rapids. In Muang Khua, I went with three French people (Robert, Nicole, and Marie Joe) and a Spanish lady (Rose) from the boat to find a place to stay. We found a guesthouse with rooms for 30000 kip. We then found a place to eat lunch. The three French people spoke only some English and the Spanish lady spoke French and English. I figured this would be as good of time as any to practice my French and plunged in. Our conversation was probably about 50/50 French and English with the Spanish lady serving as interpreter for the French/English parts that one or the other couldn’t understand. I understood more than I thought but was often lost when several people spoke at the same time or the speed was too fast. During the meal an English man and his German girlfriend made an appearance. During the conversation with them, I learned that they were planning on doing some trekking with a guide from Muang Khua. I agreed to meet them the next morning at the restaurant to meet their guide to see if I wanted to go along. I was at this point contemplating abandoning my river adventure as it was really expensive, the best scenery was behind me, and the boats weren’t that comfortable. After eating, Rose, Marie Joe and I went for a walk. In Muang Khua, a small tributary runs into the Nam Ou. There is a bridge made of wooden planks and steel cable that crosses high above the river. We first had to cross this and I couldn’t help but notice all the chunks missing out of the boards. Despite this motorcycles still whizzed across the shaky bridge. Once across the bridge we climbed above the town on a dirt road. We got good view of all the tin roofs of the town buildings. We returned to town via another route. In the evening we went out again to eat and I once again got to flex my mental French muscles which is stimulating and exhausting at the same time.

I had breakfast in the restaurant where I was to meet the trekking guide. The alotted time for them to appear came and went. After waiting for a half an hour I left. I decided to check and see if any boats were again heading upriver. At the river I learned that again enough people had showed up and it was leaving for Hat Sa in 20 minutes. I ran back to the guesthouse, packed up, and returned to the river. I bought  a ticket (120000 kip) and got in the boat. This time I was the only foreigner inside. I finally felt that I was leaving the beaten path. The weather had taken a turn for the worse and it was raining when we left. I had to put on my rain jacket as water kept blowing in near where I was sitting. The rain finally abated but this didn’t end the water problems. The rapids on this stretch of the river were bigger than ever and water kept splashing up over the sides. As this appeared to be real Lao transport this time, we stopped often and for inexplicably long times (just like the buses). The trip should have only been about 5 hours so I didn’t bring food. It was longer due to all the stops. We even had a lunch stop. I started the stop by wandering around on the beach while everyone else ate their food. When they saw I didn’t have any food,  a group of men invited me to eat with them. They had four bags. One contained sticky rice, the second water buffalo jerky, the third vegetables, and the fourth something spicy. They spoke a little english. I learned that they were a survey team heading to villages up the river. The team consisted of one older guy (the boss) and three guys my age or younger. After eating we set off for the final leg to Hat Sa.

We arrived in Hat Sa around 3:30. I had plans to go to Phongsali that day with dreams of hot water and my own bathroom in my head. (Something I hadn’t had in quite a while.). Unfortunately as these things go, there were no more buses to Phongsali. I had to sleep in Hat Sa. Hat Sa is a small riverside village with a mix of thatch buildings and some more modern. The town stretched up the hill from the river along a dirt road. I was the only one in town, I think, that spoke English with more than a modest level. With the help of the survey team boss, I was able to find the only guesthouse in town. It had three stalls made of bamboo. The stalls sat above a family home. The walls seperating the “rooms” didn’t extend to the ceiling. The room contained a floor mat and blankets for sleeping under a misquito net. When I asked the old lady who ran the place (in my very limited Lao) where the bathroom was. She cackled and pointed to the river. Well this would pose a problem if my bowels chose door number 2 instead of door number 1 as the river bank was full of people, but thankfully the need never arose. The survey team took the other two rooms. I walked around the village getting a multitude of stairs before heading back to a riverside eating place. There was no menu so I tried to order some rice that I saw steaming and chicken since I had seen them running around everywhere. It really didn’t work out. I guess I didn’t get the tones right and I don’t think the cooking ladies could read.  I noticed several people in the place oinking at me and it took me a moment to realize that they were telling me they had pig, not chicken, so I went with pork. While I was being oinked at, the survey team came in and invited me to join them for supper. They were having rice and boiled fish soup complete with the heads. Normally I am quite sensitive about fish tastes and usually avoid it but I decided to try it. It was quite good if a little bland. (I avoided the heads.) A plate of fried meat appeared which I guess was my pig. I split it with everyone else.  In the end I paid for the pork while they paid for the soup. I finished the evening on the balcony of the guesthouse giving one of the young guys English lessons while he taught me Lao. He was reading out of a conversational English textbook, so I got some rather odd questions.

I, once again, in the morning tried to tackle the task of getting breakfast. The typical breakfast food in Lao is noodle soup with some sort of meat called foe. You would think this would be simple to pronounce, but no. I had to go back to the survey team and ask them how to pronounce this word. It of course sounded nothing like the Lonely Planet alliteration. I returned to the the restaurant with my new knowledge and lo and behold it worked and soup appeared before me. After eating, I waited for the bus to leave and said goodbye to the survey team who was heading up river again. Hat Sa was as far as I could go and still be on the normal public transportation network. The bus left about nine and took an hour to reach Phongsali. After leaving the village, the bus climbed continuously through mist and fog. We finally climbed above and came out into bright blue skies.

 In Phongsali, I finally got my own bathroom and moderatley warm water.  Phongsali sits at 1400 meters (5000 + feet) on a hillside. It is full of steep roads and not much appears to go on here despite it being a provincil capital. (To be fair it was the weekend.). There are many different tribal people living in the area and the women still wear traditionl dress consisting of colorful headdress made from scarves on which different coins are sewed. During my walking around, I met an Austrian man and a German man. They were the only other foreigners I saw in the town. I walked around with them for a while and ate supper with them. They had come to Phongsali by bus. Despite having seen the town in one day, I decided to spend one more day in town and I was tired of constantly moving. I spent most of it with the Dutch man (Mike) as the German man went on to Hat Sa. We looked around the markets where we bought food for our upcoming trip. (me by bus and him downriver doing the reverse of what I had just done). In the evening we sat in the dining area of his guesthouse which was run by Chinsese people. Being this close to China means that there are lot of Chinese people here. We ordered a supper of fried chicken and rice. When it came time to pay, Mike got into an arguement with the lady whether we had really had chicken or pork. (Chicken was more expensive. ) I couldn’t tell. It really didn’t look like chicken. We ended up paying for the chicken anyway. I learned that he had just finished “The Kite Runner” .  I gladly swapped him “The Beach” which I had finished for it. We spent the evening watching CCTV. This brought back memories of my lay over in Leshan, China when I had the sinus infection. The tv in my room at that time only had Chinese Central television on it.

The next day, I took a 10 hour bus ride to Udomxai. I managed to grab a seat in the front of the bus with lot of of leg room. My enjoyment of this was a bit spoiled when a man wearing a surgical mask sat behind me and coughed for the 10 hours. He looked vigourous enough  and removed his mask often to talk on his phone, so I hope it was just a cold. Besides it’s so dusty here many people wear masks. The trip was mostly downhill along a dirt road through remote villages and mountain scenery. At one point when the bus made one of its numerous stops to refill its radiator with water from a pump. I went off to pee. I had to walk through lines of gawking villagers until I found  a place with some privacy. (I figured the dog and the pig watching me wouldn’t mind.) We stopped for lunch once we reached  the main road. There were ladies selling grilled meats and bags of rice to eat. As the meat was cold, I just bought a bag of sticky rice and some chips from  a store. After eating, I saw some ladies wearing the coin bedecked headdresses. I gave one of them a Thai baht coin that was in my wallet for use on her headpiece. The other two ladies with her also wanted coins so I gave them each one. Before leaving the bus station in Udomxai to find a place to stay, I noticed a sign advertising $3 massages at the local red cross. The money went to support their programs. I figured I should do something for the local people and decided to donate an hour of my time and go through the ordeal of having the massage. After finding a guesthouse ($4 with HBO and hotwater!!!!), I went for the massage. After that, I returned to my room and spent half the night happily watching movies in English. (my first in over a month). In the morning, I woke up late and caught an afternoon bus to Luang Nam Tha where I am now. I will probably stay here for a day or so, and then head back to Thailand.

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3 Responses to “Voyage up the Nam Ou River”

  1. Joe Says:

    You are taking pictures, right? And hoping to upload them later?

  2. Barry Says:

    I will post pictures on my return to Bangkok.

  3. Posted from Australia Australia
  4. gary geboy Says:

    The Nam OU is a beautiful river. Check out my web site under Laos, there’s a handful of photos of the Nam Ou.

  5. Posted from United States United States

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