Disappearing world

Not so long ago, riverways were the main routes for transportation in mountainous Laos. There still are villages that can only use boats to connect with the rest of the world. River travel, especially on the legendary Mekong, appears to be a mandatory item on the to-do list of travelers who want to experience “real life” of Laos. The Mekong was present in our journey already in Cambodia and Vietnam, but now we’ve found ourselves on the banks of the Nam Ou river.

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Nam Ou begins its course near the Chinese border and joins the Mekong near Luang Prabang. We began our river adventure at Nong Khiaw, some 150 km from LPB. The first acquaintance with the river was made from the bridge that joins villages located on opposite banks. The next day, after an arduous hike to a view-point, we enjoyed panoramic views of the area and wondered what adventures await us upriver.

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We traveled on the river four times over the span of five days, slowly making our way north. Our destination was the area north of Phongsali, the base for trekking to remote villages of the Akha tribe. At first, we began in a large group that dwindled with each day and each jetty. At the same time our excitement kept on rising. During the final leg that brought us to the starting point of a trek, there were only the two of us and a guide.

We love traveling on trains and yachting on lakes. To these favorites we must add slow boating on rivers. The narrow longboat with its tiny benches is not exactly comfortable but no luxury can substitute freedom. In air conditioned buses or on planes I suffocate, feeling locked like in a cage. I long for the feel of real air, can’t find a comfortable position, my body is unable to fit the solid form of the seat. On the boat though, I feel happy with the wind in my hair, my hand gliding over the surface of water and my eyes can focus on the surroundings without anything between me and the nature. Tired bodies of fellow passengers can comfortably roll up at the back of the boat or make make-shift lairs among backpacks and parcels. We could read, smoke, play dice, eat, listen to music or just do nothing – depending on the moment.

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The landscape here probably hasn’t changed for years. We passed by pristine forests and bamboo-hut villages, the noise of our engine heralding out arrival to bathing villagers. Such moments unavoidably make me think of the times of colonizers. We are on the boat, they on the banks. When taking a break at a village landing, we watch the kids and they, in turn, unashamedly watch us. We slowly come closer, the weight of their serious, inquiring stares palpable, but the atmosphere is easily diffused with frolics, sand drawings and smiles. They give us edible flowers and pose for photos. At the end, everybody’s waving as we cruise away. Sometimes we would witness the great social event that is evening ablutions – washing and cleaning, careful soaping and rinsing, jumps into water, conversations, practical jokes, horse-play.

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The time we’ve spent on the river is unforgettable, maybe the best we had on our trip. It’s hard to believe that this world will soon disapear. The process of cutting up the river with dams has already begun and the number of dams is bound to grow in the coming years. They are put up to produce electricity, raising the waters levels and displacing whole villages. The river transportation will be much more difficult, so roads between village will have to be built. We watched two of the gigantic dams that were already up, forcing us to get off the boat and take a bus and connect with another jetty. The scale of the construction is incredible and the damage to the environment shocking. Supposedly, in a few years, a super-fast railway will connect China and the Lao capital, Vientiane, cutting trough the northern wilderness. It’s hard to imagine all the changes that will take place here, in an area that until now was almost forgotten. It is said that progress cannot be stopped, so we’re glad that we could see this world before it’s gone.

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4 Comments

  1. mariana May 7, 2014 at 9:28 pm

    Hi guys! How much time would you recommend for the muang khua muang ngoi nong khiaw route? Will be going from dien bien phu to Luang prabang and I wish to do that route.

    I knew Quang La island thanks to you guys. It looks really interesting, I was not thinking about going to halong bay but now I’m considering going there for an night stay. Do you think I could do hanoi-quang la-hanoi-ninh binh in two days? starting the first one early and getting on a bus in hanoi late in the last day?

    Thank you so much and congratulations on this blog. You should advertise it in travel foruns, it’s really, really great with lots of good info and pictures.

    Reply
    1. Two hungry people May 8, 2014 at 9:13 am

      Hi Mariana! Thank you so much for the words of encouragement!

      Travelling in Laos is very slow (and that’s the beauty of it :)) so give yourself some time. Boats (and buses too) go in the morning so it’s often impossible to make a connection later in the day. From Muang Khua the boat probably starts in the morning so you may not be able to make it from Dien Bien Phu on time. We traveled in opposite direction so I don’t know the schedules but the boats usually go around 9-10. There may not be enough passengers sometimes (8-10 people) for the boat to leave or you will need to pay more (although it didn’t happen to us). From Muang Ngoi to Nong Khiaw this is not a problem as it is a more popular route. You need to overnight in Muang Ngoi. one day is enough to see the town but if you want to see the surrounding area you need at least one more day. For Nonh Khiaw it is nice to have at least one full day to go to the viewpoint (tough!) and relax later. So I would count five days for this area. If you have more time, as we did, you can easily spend it relaxing by the river and it’s great 🙂

      As far as the Quan La island is concerned I think it’s close to impossible to do in two days. The travel from Hanoi takes a lot of time and the last slow boat to the island is at 1 pm. There you need to stay for the night again to catch the 6am boat to Ha Long. We took a taxi from the pier to Ha Long bus station (it was really far away) and we made it to Ninh Binh in one day (there was a direct bus so no need to go back to Hanoi). So you need three days. If you only got two, better spend them in Laos 😉

      Good luck!

      Reply
  2. mariana May 11, 2014 at 8:05 pm

    Thank you a lot for taking the time to answer my questions!
    Last night i saw the movie “The Rocket”. Don’t know if you guys have already seen it, but if you didn’t I’m sure you’ll enjoy. Great movie.

    Reply
    1. Two hungry people May 12, 2014 at 9:35 am

      We haven’t seen it, maybe it’s time to watch it 🙂 Thanks!

      Reply

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