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.
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.
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.
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.
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.