River Travel in Laos

After the very well-worn tourist trail of Vientiane, Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, we decided to move out into some areas where tourism doesn't make so much of a dent on the lifestyles of the Lao people. We took a series of long boats up the Nam Ou river from Nong Khiaw to Hat Sa, stopping in Muang Ngoi and Muang Khua along the way.

The boat rides were a very pleasant way to travel, peaceful except for the sound of the engine and the occasional excitement of splashing through rapids. Sometimes careful navigation was required from the driver as we passed through narrow passages and shallows.

The first town we stayed in, Muang Ngoi, was extremely pretty and unusual in that it has no road access. Hence, there were no wheeled vehicles in the streets. All contact with the outside world is done via the river, so the town is centered on the dock. All of the buildings are made from wood, with thatched roofs and walls. Electricity is supplied by generators that run from 6 to 10 (or occasionally people are unexpectedly left in the dark a little earlier).

The people here live a very simple life, relatively unchanged by Western visitors (except for those who run the guesthouses). Men fish in the river or grow crops whilst the women take care of business in the home. The children play in the street and are irresistible to Georgia.

We spent much of our time here relaxed in hammocks watching the river slowly fall away towards the Mekong. The area is very quiet, with the exception of hundreds of roosters that seem to be confused by the long winter nights and start crowing incessantly at three in the morning! Maybe the fact that the town was otherwise so quiet made the creatures seem louder than they really were, but the hideous racket waking us up far too early each morning was a real annoyance.

After a couple of days relaxing, we moved upstream and stayed a night in Muang Khua, which is a little larger than Muang Ngoi and is situated on both the river and an arterial road. Here we encountered men playing petang (a game very similar to bocci / boules). People here are very generous, and as we watched the game we were offered lao lao (which was accepted) and cigarettes (which were declined). The locals, especially children, are extremely interested in foreigners and love to say "sabaidii", the Laos word for "hello".

The end of our river trip was a small town called Hat Sa, which has a road connection to the capital of the Northernmost province, Phonsali. In Hat Sa we had just missed the bus we wanted so we had to arrange alternate transport. We ended up sitting on the top of a truckload of sand with five other foreigners, four locals, lots of luggage and something that smelt very fishy! The bumps in the unsealed road sent us flailing in mid air a few times as we clutched onto whatever we could to keep us in the truck, but we managed to get into Phongsali safely, if a little sandier than we're used to.

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