Most tourists who cross the border into Laos from Thailand at Chiang Khong end up taking the slow boat to Luang Prabang which takes 2 days. We decided against this taking our route via Luang Nam Tha instead.
By the time we had reached Nong Khiaw I was already a little sick of the roads in Laos, both literally as they are stomach churning with their twists and turns, and mentally as it takes forever to get anywhere. I had read you could get a boat from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang which sounded like a much more attractive option.
Whilst in Nong Khiaw we discovered that the boat no longer runs as they are building 7 dams along the Nam Ou river, the first of which is nearly completed. We got talking to a local about the dam projects, and once he started talking that was it. We were glued to the spot for the next half hour as he let rip about how Laos was “being ruined by the Chinese” and the dams were part of this. Bizarrely I ended up having to stroke his head during this episode to feel a scar a Chinese person had caused to his head in a traffic accident… from this conversation we learnt that he felt people weren’t being compensated fairly when they were forced to move from their old village which was due to be flooded to a new village. He also wasn’t keen on the new villages as “they all look the same…” It was interesting talking to him, but we left feeling a little shell-shocked by his strong opinions.
Later on that day we saw advertised a 3 day kayaking trip to a Luang Prabang. Intrigued how this was still running whereas the public boat wasn’t we stepped inside to find out more. It turns out the dam although nearly completed is still passable until early 2015. I didn’t fancy the bus and Alan was intrigued to see the dam. And that was that, we ended up signing up to a 3 day kayaking trip down the Nam Ou river and then onto the Mekong to Luang Prabang. We signed up despite the fact we are RUBBISH at kayaking, after all you will recall from Alan’s last post our previous kayaking trip ended up with him dangling from a fallen tree in a rapid after being swept from the boat. Quite why we thought a 3 day trip was a good idea I’m not exactly sure.
The start of the first day started off fairly sedately. Our guide Put had taken all our luggage safely stored in dry bags onto his kayak so all we had to do was concentrate on paddling down the river. As the Nam Ou curved away from Nong Khiaw we were struck by how beautiful and untouched this lush green countryside was. The forest came all the way down the limestone hillside to meet the river edge. This would be how this area would have looked for centuries, unspoilt by mankind.
We paddled for about three and a half hours. Just as I thought my arms might fall off (they are after all unaccustomed to that much exercise!) it was time for lunch. We pulled into a sandy island in the middle of the river. Put set about gathering a table for us to rest our lunch on, he found some branches and leaves he gathered on the island which our sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves could be rested on. I don’t think I will ever get over the novelty of a packed lunch wrapped in a banana leaf! We all silently munched away until the food was gone, ravenous from our morning of exercise.
We scrambled back into the kayaks feeling refreshed and set off for our afternoon session. Now, you recall how I said earlier that we aren’t the best kayakers in the world…? Our inexperience came to the fore in the afternoon. Having got through one rapid intact I was feeling smug at how well we were doing, we had already improved greatly since we started out. Our steering and control was improved and we were handling rapids. Go us! Then a swirl of current in the river after the rapid created a funny splashing wave which caught the front of the kayak swinging us sideways. It happened in slow motion. I could see the kayak tilting to the left, feel the pull of gravity that I was powerless to resist against and then we were both deposited into the river with our kayak overturned. I managed to grab the overturned hull and float down the river with the kayak, grateful for a decent life jacket helping me to stay afloat. Alan was at the back of the kayak and was soon left behind caught in a current as I floated away with the boat unable to do anything. Put shouted at Alan to go to shore which he managed to do easily enough fortunately. A bit of wringing out of our clothes later and we were back in the kayaks, both unhurt and ready to continue.
Soon after the “tipping” incident the landscape started to change. The bottom strip of forest had been cleared away from the river edge and there was smoke in the air. Put explained to us that all the valuable trees, such as teak, were being cleared before the land becomes flooded by the dam once it was finished. The fires were burning other vegetation such as bamboo which was also being cleared. Periodically he would point out to us bare patches of earth where a village had once stood before being cleared away out of the dams path. It was quite sobering to see the changes taking place in what would have once been beautiful countryside like that we had admired earlier that day. Even the island where we had eaten lunch was due to be lost once the water levels rise.
By late afternoon we reached the dam that is nearing completion. From our position low down in the river it towered over us. The signs all around the hillside in Chinese made me feel like we had accidentally headed north into China by mistake rather than still being in Laos.
We turned the kayaks to face the gap in the dam where we could still pass through. The water looked furiously rough where the channel was already narrowed. Angry waves lapped the concrete pillars. We did not want to fall out here. Put gave us a stern command of “follow me,” a command which we were not going to disobey. We followed closely behind him copying every move he made through the rapids. Thankfully we made it through incident free and I could unclench pretty much every muscle in my body that had tensed up in terror!
Soon after we had reached our stop for the night, a new village. This village was two old villages that had been moved together to the new village out of the way of the water which is due to flood their old villages once the dam was finished. The family we stayed with seemed very pleased with their new home. Undoubtedly it was an improvement. I couldn’t however help but feel that they had been short-changed. For example, the property had running water from a tap at the front next to the kitchen. How difficult would it have been for the developers to have extended this for the extra 10 metres to give the bathroom running water too? Instead they still have to use a water tank which needs to be manually filled. It wouldn’t have been costly to do but would make their lives easier.
That night a chicken was slaughtered for our dinner, being the squeamish person I am I tried to avoid seeing any of this but caught glimpses out the corner of my eye of blood etc. Then we all sat down for dinner with the family on the floor eating with our hands as is traditional. Exhausted from our day of kayaking we fell asleep that night incredibly early in the downstairs of the house sharing our space with the family motorbike and dog.
The second day was similar to the first, except this time we managed to have an impromptu swim twice. Once in the morning after striking a submerged rock and the second time in the afternoon when water swept in over the edge from a wave. Lunch was once more on an island in the river, wrapped in a banana leaf. To my horror remnants of the poor chicken from the night before had been packed up for us, well-intentioned of course, but I couldn’t help but remember seeing its demise. I wouldn’t cut it as a local, I am far too sensitive when it comes to animals.
We then passed the beginnings of the next dam under construction but with 5 years still to go until completion the landscape was not scarred and damaged like it had been at the end of the first day. We were also spared terrifying rapids as the channel was still nice and wide.
At at the end of the second day we stayed in an “old” village. This had much more character where every house was individual unlike the identikit houses from the night before. The bathroom was also far nicer than the new house, even if it still lacked running water and was shared by three families. It made me think again that the bare minimum has been done for those who have been moved.
That evening we were a source of fascination for all that passed by as we sat round the fire lit at the front of the property. People did double takes as they drove past and we kept hearing squeals of “falang” when people clocked us. The local kids gathered round to stare at us. One slightly cheeky one decided to show off his English skills by counting to ten repeatedly. I decided to harness his energy and got him to teach me to count in Laos. He, and the other kids, found this hilarious as I fumbled my way through the numbers.
Put disappeared off for a while and returned with a takeaway, Laos style. This included bat stew. I stuck to the sticky rice… It does seem that anything that moves in Laos is considered to be dinner, something my squeamish westernised ways don’t quite cope with! Dinner was then washed down by the infamous Laos Laos, homemade whiskey/moonshine.
I woke on day 3 with stiff dead arms and blistered hands. As much as I was enjoying myself I was kidding myself thinking I was physically up to this challenge! Fortunately it was a short day. The Nam Ou gave way to the Mekong after about an hour which led to our first stop of the morning, the Pak Ou Caves. The caves are where hundreds of Buddha images were stored during the war and there they still remain as well as a temple within the caves. The caves were ok, we are by this point in our trip suffering from “Buddha Fatigue” so don’t get that excited anymore with temples etc, so we were glad we did this when passing rather than making a special effort to get there.
Back in the kayak we had one more lot of rapids to pass. On our way we saw a tourist boat wrecked against the rocks from where it had crashed 2 months earlier. A timely reminder that the Mekong was not as friendly a river to fall into as the Nam Ou!
Last stop was the whiskey village. We said goodbye to the kayak, which was a relief by this point, all our hands including Put’s were very sore! The whiskey village was a tourist trap selling all sorts of stuff you don’t need as well as Laos Laos with various forms of wildlife preserved in it. We saw bottles with snakes, scorpions and even a dissected bear. Again, any form of wildlife seems like fair game for consumption in Laos! Having seen enough we hopped onto the tuk tuk for the remainder of the journey to Luang Prabang. My hands were sore, my nose sunburnt, my arms were achy. However, I had just had the most memorable and interesting trip of our time in Laos so far and was incredibly glad we had done it.