The river that time forgot
Until a few years ago, before the Chinese-backed hydroelectric dam projects started affecting its water levels, floating down the Nam Ou on a slow boat and disembarking in Luang Prabang was one of Laos’ most enchanting travel experiences.
Story and photographs by Marco Ferrarese.
All it took to shatter my daydreaming was one simple wave. It twirled over itself, breaking against the side of our boat, and splashing one cold reality-check all over my face and chest.
“Aaargh…” I screamed, turning around to face the group of girls seated silently at the back of the boat, and wishing to receive any form of sympathy for my drenched self. Only one of the girls glanced back at me; she kept a composed expression until she couldn’t help it anymore, and started laughing at my dripping face. There’s no sympathy from those who are still dry and clean. But I had gotten what I was dreaming of: after so much glancing at the river’s play, I had been blessed by the Nam Ou’s cold kiss.
The Nam Ou River is Laos’ second water artery after the Mekong. It starts close to the Chinese border to the north, drains all of Phongsali province, and flows down through the west part of Luang Prabang province. It finally joins the Mekong right above its UNESCO World Heritage-listed main city. Until a few years ago, before the Chinese-backed hydroelectric dam projects started affecting its water levels, floating down the Nam Ou on a slow boat and disembarking in Luang Prabang was one of Laos’ most enchanting travel experiences.
But today, the final stretch of Nam Ou connecting the village of Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang is too low to be navigable. To enjoy a slow cruise down the river, soaking Laos’ quaint river life, floating past karst rock pinnacles and small fishing villages, travelers have to stick to the less visited section between the villages of Muang Khua and Nong Khiaw.
I arrived in Muang Khua hopping across the nearby Northwestern Vietnamese border near Dien Bien Phu. This dusty one horse town doesn’t give more than an average first impression. The main street, filled with sellers peddling their Chinese-imported plastic and aluminum goods, has an atmosphere that’s like a seesaw between Laos’ renowned blissful quiet, and North Vietnam’s noisy hustle. There had to be something more, and I had an idea where to find it.
“Continue down this path and you’ll find the river,” an old man told me as I took a downward fork in the road, and soon enough found myself on a rocky stretch of beach where the boats that have made the trip to Nong Khiaw on that day had just returned. They shook gently over the water as local children played along the quaint shore, giggling excitedly. A man was standing next to his motorbike, knee-deep in the river, carefully dousing it with scoops of fresh water. This was the river bend where, the next day, I should start my boat ride south to Nong Khiaw.
At 9 a.m. the next morning, a group of other tourists and I were ready before the floating boats. The man who I had seen washing his bike the day before came towards us: he was our boatman. We piled in, one after the other, and he revved up the engine, leaving Muang Khua behind. On that morning, the Nam Ou was as placid as a coffee-colored ribbon lain between two rows of green hills. We kept silent, not much because of the sputtering sounds of the engine, but rather because the scenery at the sides was a mesmerizing alternation of soaring limestone peaks shrouded in viridian jungle, with bushes hung from their sheer faces in ways that defied all laws of physics. And the more we got away from Muang Khua, the more the river flowed faster, and our boatman struggled to negotiate the waters. When the engine sputtered and switched off not one, but twice, we all realized that it was time to have a break.
Boats on this route usually make a pit-stop at Muang Ngoi: this idyllic riverside community had limited electricity and no road access until 2013, but in recent years, thanks to travelers’ word of mouth, has quickened its pulse. For in as much as Muang Goi had a fantastic backdrop of green hills and stunning river views, I wanted to stay well put on the water. The boatman revved the engine once again, and I continued with a few others along the final stretch to Nong Khiaw – another slightly bigger village that sits gracefully below soaring hilltops and next to the river bend. That’s where, these days, all journeys on the Nam Ou come to an end, and travelers must continue by road to Luang Prabang.
During my last hour on the river, the sun created shimmering snakes of light whenever our boat cut through the mounting waves. When we finally came to a halt against the boats moored along Nong Khiaw’s jetty, and were asked to get off, I thought the sun had shone brighter on the waters. Maybe that was its way of saying that the highlight of my trip had just come to an end.