May 1, 2012
Laos is a land of rivers. There are over a thousand rivers in the country with more than 2,850 miles (4,600 kilometers) that are navigable. Our travels in Laos took us on a three-day river journey down two major rivers in the country: the Nam Ou and Mekong. In addition to being an interesting and nostalgic way to travel, the river was actually the most direct route to reach our destination of Luang Prabang from the northern Phongsali province, as there are no direct roads.
We started our trip in the small village of Hat Sa, population 500. After spending the night there in very basic accommodations we were ready to begin our trip early in the morning. We loaded our luggage into our longboat and left at 8:00am for the first leg of the journey, 74 miles (120 kilometers) to the town of Muang Khua. Mountains rose along both sides of us as we moved downstream. As it is the end of the dry season we had the extra bonus of encountering rapids every so often, created by diminishing water flowing over the rocks. Our driver, assisted by his son, did a great job piloting us through these obstacles. However, we had to pull over several times to fix the propeller, which kept getting nicked as a result of contact with the rocks.
Along the river we traveled at about 15 miles per hour. We did not pass much traffic but went by a couple of villages every hour. There we observed children swimming in the river, girls washing their hair, or people out in their boats fishing. In addition, we saw many water buffalo by the banks, looking to cool off during the hot day. Another interesting sight were small turbines in the water with wires leading to village homes. The rushing water produced electricity for a few houses in this way.
After about five hours the first day we arrived in the town of Muang Khua. Here we disembarked to spend the night at a hotel while the father and son team turned around for the trip back to Hat Sa. We had a new boat and driver the next morning when we started the 56 mile (90 kilometer) trip to Nong Khaiw. The terrain became less mountainous and featured more hills. The rapids continued and added some contrast to the peacefulness of the trip.
We continued to pass villages and people along the river. Children were almost always excited to see us and would wave to our passing boat. We also saw people literally panning for gold in one part of the river. The last hour of the day brought forth some amazing karst scenery. Then we rounded a bend and were in the city of Nong Khaiw, which is situated among some of the most picturesque karsts. We enjoyed the rest of the afternoon at our hotel watching river traffic from our window.
The last morning we left early to continue passing through the karsts south of Nong Khaiw. The morning light illuminated the karsts during the first hour of our journey, making it spectacular. After the karsts ended the terrain flattened out as we moved closer to Luang Prabang. About four hours into our 71 mile (114 kilometer) journey, the Nam Ou emptied into the Mekong River and we reached the Pak Ou Caves. These caves were used historically by villagers for religious purposes and contain thousands of Buddha statues. We visited both the upper and lower caves. In the lower cave alone are over 2,500 statues to see.
A final hour back on the longboat brought us to Luang Prabang. We spent the next three days there relaxing in this peaceful town. We took the opportunity to watch the morning alms giving ceremony in which the monks walk around the city collecting food from the faithful. Visits to several of the Buddhist temples and the former Royal Palace also provided a great overview of this UNESCO World Heritage city.
Our river journey was an amazing complement to our trekking in the north in terms of providing us with more local flavor. In all we covered about 200 miles on the water over the three days. However, the route we traveled may not be an option in the future. Roads are being built all over the area. We saw several being built with heavy machinery as we went down the river. With every road completed there is less demand on river travel. We were also told by several people that more than one dam is being planned on the Nam Ou River, which would make through journeys impossible. So we felt fortunate to have had the opportunity to enjoy the romance of river travel and observations of Lao daily life while it is still possible to do so.