Sailing the waters of Nam Ou river

After a very bumpy drive north we arrived to a tiny town of Nong Khiew. It was tranquil, pretty and friendly. Tucked at the feet of tall limestone mountains, it was divided in two by Nam Ou river. It was just a perfect spot for spending a few active days after the laziness of Luang Prabang. We arrived to Nong Khiew at lunch time and spent the afternoon marveling at the views from the bridge and strolling around the village.

The day after we went to explore the area further on an organised tour. We wanted badly to kayak on Nam Ou river and the only way to do it was with a tour. On the trip we first went to visit two villages and watched the villagers go about their daily duties. Some were preparing rice for lao lao, some were busy treating grass used for brooms and others still were involved into construction of communal space. All without hurry, with precision and patience. Living in an isolated village on the river bank they had learned very well how to be self-sufficient. The villagers were all farmers and hunters. They planted rice once or twice a year and breeded animals. Hunters caught wild pig, deer, bears and squirrels. Kids caught fish, rats and small birds. What they couldn’t grow or hunt, they bought on Saturday market in Nong Khiew. Kids and women also collected fire wood. We saw a group of kids coming back from a forest with heavy bags of wood strapped to their heads and backs. They weighed about 15kg. Carrying them barefoot in scorching heat was no fun at all.

After visiting the villages we had lunch at a beautiful many-leveled waterfall that only locals knew about. We had delicious Lao sausage, fried veggies and tomato dip called ‘jail’. There were seven of us in the group and we all ate with our fingers rolling sticky rice and dipping it in food. That’s how you eat in Lao. I guess our mums would be frustrated to see us eat with our fingers after all these years of teaching us how to eat properly with knife and fork.

Yet the biggest attraction of the day was kayaking back to Nong Khiew. We got upstream by boat and now we had to paddle for 2 hours to get back. The funniest thing was that we thought our guide would kayak with us and give us some advice on how to tackle the rapids. There were grade 1 and 2 rapids on the river and one of them was no joke. But the guide put us all in kayaks and shouted “See you in Nong Khiew!” from the river bank. We thought he was kidding! But no! We never kayaked on a river before and felt a little bit lost when we saw him going back to the boat. There was a guy in group who has done rivers before and before the river carried us away he managed to tell us two rules – avoid the rocks and follow the flow of the river. Well, we knew that much. Thank you.

The river was moody like a pregnant woman. One minute peaceful and comforting, another angry and ferocious. I don’t know how we managed to get through the rapids without flipping over. On the biggest one I was shouting to God to save us, maybe that helped. We were screaming on the rapids and laughing on peaceful waters. We were glad we were still on top of the kayak, not under it. It was heaps of fun. And the scenery was mesmerizing. There were mountains all around us, buffaloes bathing in the river and blue boats passing with passengers and supplies. It was a great day. We got back soaking wet, but with Cheshire cat smiles on our faces.

In the days to come we explored a nearby Patok Cave and climbed the hill above Nong Khiew. Both the cave and the view were great. The cave had an interesting history, as it was a hiding place of nearby villagers during American Secret War in the ’70s. While American planes carpet-bombed north of Laos, its people, their government, health institutions and schools found refuge in caves like that one. The forests were still thick with unexploded bombs and anyone walking away from a well-beaten track risked life. That was one of the reasons why the view point above Nong Khiew hadn’t been open until just three months ago. There were still unexploded American bombs lying on the hill and before climbing it we were warned to keep to the track. We did and, although totally wet with sweat, we got safely to the top. The views from there were unlike anything I had seen before. We were standing above the see of white clouds with mountain peaks growing out of it like volcanic islands. We could see nothing below. We only heard the noise of a busy town – motorbikes on dirt roads, boats roaring on the river, pigs being slaughtered and music played loudly to celebrate somebody’s birthday. At 10.30am the clouds started opening up slowly, revealing bit by bit more and more of the scenery. First the vilage, then the river, mountains and then the horizon. It was magical. Walking back down was like waking up from a dream. All the more that we only had 10 minutes left to pack our bags and check out. We had to catch a boat upstream to Muong Ngoi further north.

We thought Nong Khiew was the prettiest place we’ve seen in Laos, but Muong Ngoi beat it. It was one of those little villages where Lao people lived following their traditional ways, but were also able to skillfully accommodate visitors from all corners of the globe. The village was right on the bank of Nam Ou river, closely surrounded by palm trees and rocky walls of limestone mountains. Going inland from there, beautiful countryside welcomed anyone willing to walk in the tropical heat. After two days of chilling out in our bungalow with mountain views, we walked to a nearby village 8km away. The landscape on the way was far from disappointing. We walked among rice paddies, wooden roofs and towering karsts, passed rivers and streams and greeted villagers surprised to see us there and then.

3 days passed in a sweet slow rythm of the village and it was time to move up the river again. Our next stop was Muong Khua. Boat ride there took 6 hours and we were lucky we didn’t have to paddle the last few kilometers. Our boat broke down. It coincided with another boat that set off together with us breaking up and there we were, two boats full of passengers floating down the river. Fortunately after 20 mins of fiddling with the engine our boatman managed to start it again and we towed the other boat to Muong Khua. We hoped the village would be at least half as nice as the other two, but it was not. It felt cold and spiritless. We didn’t like it much and it didn’t like us much either, because I got yet another stomach problem after dinner in one of the restaurants. We didn’t linger long and took a morning bus leaving for Luang Namtha.

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