You can fly to Phongsaly. But that misses the point, the real thing is getting there by river. The Nam Ou – the Ou river, the same one that ends up in the Mekong near the caves we visited earlier – is one of the nicest rivers I have traveled on, although perhaps not the most comfortable. The trip to Phongsali, or rather to Hat Sa, the village close to Phongsaly, and the end of river traffic upstream, is a three day exercise, if you are lucky. It starts with an anything between 6 and 9 hours boat trip from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw, but only if there are enough people, which means tourists. In the past this was the way the local people traveled, as well, but since the completion of the road a bus ride, 3 hours only and half the price, is, understandably, preferred over what is known in Lao language as a slow boat. We were lucky, there were enough people, and we easily filled a long, narrow, flat-bottomed boat, complete with sun roof and life jackets (really!). The boat was equipped with low, wooden seats, very small, which allowed us to face forward; most of the boats only have wooden benches along the sides. And it only got better when we found out you could move the seats, and so create more leg space in between, an immediate upgrade from economy to business class. No reclining seats yet, no in-flight entertainment, no snacks, no toilets, no nothing really, but hey, we were prepared, with a rucksack full of water, bananas, biscuits, cheese and even a pot of French pate (A bottle wine would have been pushing it, I think). And the life jackets helped somewhat as pillows and back support – but not much, certainly not anymore after seven hours, which is what it took us to reach Nong Kiauw.
(1) this is the type of boat I am talking about.
Along the way, absolutely brilliant! We first went back up the Mekong, to where the caves are, and then turned into the Nam Ou, a much smaller river, very peaceful, with beautiful verdant green banks, fairly steep, but above all, idyllic, pristine, what other adjectives are there to describe this? And also much shallower, something we noticed almost immediately, when the boat started to negotiate the rapids. And that set the scene for the whole three days. Every so often the placid stream turned into a fast running, choppy river, with menacing rocks showing just below the surface. Once the river got so shallow that we had to walk around the rapids, to be picked up again upstream, whilst the boat went through empty - well, with boat driver and luggage. The further upstream, the narrower the river, the stronger the current , and the more difficulty the boat had to get through. I have to admit that I was not always equally confident that we would make it. Especially when our kamikaze boat driver started to slow down, that was the time to get worried, but not as much as when he gave over the wheel to his apprentice, who was visibly nervous trying to follow the broad arm-waving instructions (Have you ever played billiard with us, and noticed my suggetions for your next carambole? Something like that).
(2) the end of the Nam Ou, or the beginning,
whichever way you look at it - for us the start of a trip, and
(3) rapids, and these are still pretty humble.
But I was going to tell you about how nice this trip was. There’s lots of activity on the river, first and foremost fishing, off course. Nets everywhere, and small canoes moving in between them, checking, re-setting. Then there is the weed business. Weed? Laos? But it is not what you think, I am talking about river weed: a large part of the population seems to be involved in collecting this, people standing up to their waists in the water and scraping the rocky bottom, especially around the rapids, for long, green, slimy weeds, which are happily put over a shoulder, or in baskets and canoes. The weed is later dried and fried, and makes a good snack (we tried it earlier, in Luang Prabang). Other types of business involve gold panning, and some form of gravel winning, perhaps, the structures look too big for catching nuggets.
(4) fish traps ready to use, (5) a fisherman in his canoe, and (6) nets drying.
(7 and 8) the weed business
(9) gold panning
Apart from the human population there are the animals. Cows come to drink at the river, pigs roam around freely, but most obvious, and most numerous, are the water buffalos, genuinely ugly animals, however, fun to watch when they get into the river, or look at you with just their nose and eyes and horns above the water. What nobody tells you about is the incredible smell that is generated from having a bunch of water buffalos together, but anyhow, that blows away again quickly.
(10) the water buffalos
Nong Kiauw itself is a small village along the river, mostly deriving its importance from the bridge across it – the first one we have seen so far -, and increasingly catering for tourism, but mostly the lower end of it, financially speaking. There are a few guesthouses, and enterprising travel agencies offer trekking to minority villages, a big attraction in this area. About 60% of the populationin Laos is ethnically Lao, known as Lowland Lao in the official jargon. Another significant part is the “Approaching the top of the mountain Lao”, living halfway up the hills, and some 5-10% or so are High Lao, officially those who live above 1000m. In reality, they consist of many different ethnic groups, the best known probably the Hmong (who were armed and financed by the Americans to fight the communist Pathet Lao in the 70s), but many others are equally unique, authentic and colourful, collectively known as minorities.
(11) Nong Kiauw bridge and boat landing
The second leg of this trip goes from Nong Kiauw to Muang Khua, another 5 hours upstream. Once again, we need sufficient tourists for the trip, and it is tight, this time, only five of us going. The case is sealed when we offer to pay a little extra, only for it to almost fall through again at the last moment, when the ticket man wants to squeeze us in with about 20-25 others in an already overfull boat. That is not what we paid extra for! We probably paid part of the extra money directly into his pocket, because when we threatened to cancel and ask our money back, he laid on another boat – economy class, ie hard benches, only. All of this had created quite some delay, and in the end we only left at noon, having been at the pier from 9 am onwards. In Muang Noi, the next large village an hour further and another tourist hang-out, we swap boats again, now with benches and, admittedly hard, pillows. I may seem obsessed with the seating provisions on the boats, but after you have been on them for a while, you would be, too!
This stretch of river is narrower than before, and the banks become steeper, occasionally formed by sheer vertical limestone cliffs. This karst landscape, still mostly overgrown by dense jungle, continues to dominate the scenery the following days to, becoming ever more impressive the further upstream we get. This goes hand in hand with the river itself also getting more and more rocky, with increasingly challenging rapids – and increasing levels of anxiety.
(12) did anybody mention karst landscape?
There is a Chinese plan, far advanced and well financed, to build no less than seven dams in the river, and we pass one of the potential spots, an obvious choice where the limestone cliffs come close together. There is a lot of speak about balancing the seemingly conflicting interest of power generation with that of tourism, ensuring a natural flow of water and so forth, and it must be pretty complex to design a flow plan that does not affect the river environment. So the overall opinion amongst the tourist community, mostly back-packing, is very negative, but I am not so sure. After all, some of the power will be used locally, perhaps replacing those intricate contraptions with tiny wires off the submerged boat engine screws that are now providing the hydropower to the villages, and the rest can be sold back to China; the project will generate lots of work, and with a bit of luck the navigability of the river could even be improved, benefitting tourism in making it a year round option (now boats stop operating in the dry season, when water levels get too low). But doing the trip as we are doing it, undisturbed upriver, that will be a thing of the past, for sure.
Muang Khua looks even more insignificant than Nong Kiauw, with fewer facilities – although apparently the village is actually bigger. It is located on the way to Vietnam, and it shows: shops are full of electronics, mobile phones, anything that is worthwhile smuggling, I suppose. The river crossing here is by ferry, an old iron pontoon, connected to the mountain side with steel cables and further aided by a small support boat, to avoid the pontoon floating downstream should the cable break. I think the village’s tourist credentials are mostly as transfer point to and from Vietnam, and down the river. There is not much in terms of accommodation, and the guesthouses become increasingly more basic.
(13) Muang Khua ferry: this is the highway to Vietnam.
The last etappe, from Muang Khua to Hat Se, turns out the most enjoyable, in part because Sofia had purchased two soft pillows. Where on the previous streches we had still been served with a plank to get on and off the boat, this wasn’t available anymore, so turn to flipflops and to wading knee deep through the water to get in. The boat is now a regular ferry – still the same type of boat, of course, with the same benches -, mostly serving local people along the river, as there is no other means of transport. We are the only foreigners, for the rest the boat fills up with local people, 8-12 at any one time, including several small children. Instead of going directly to Hat Sa, we stop many times, dropping off people and picking up others, including the odd chicken. Many a stop is a major exercise, because the people have been bringing supplies, varying from the contents of a grocery store to cement bags to a wooden display cabinet, and the offloading requires everybody to help. But it also gives us the chance, occasionally, to scramble, on flipflops!, up the steep slope – the villages are invariably located well above the water level – and peek around. Gradually the boat empties, and for the last hour or so we have the boat to ourselves. The river is now alternating between sereen water pools, ripple-less, mirroring the mountains, rocks and trees, and long streches of rapids, leaving only very narrow channels to navigate the boat through. After 6 hours we reach Hat Sa, a small and insignificant village, but for the road, and a truck, to Phongsaly, an hour further up the mountain. We could have flown, of course, but we would have missed all the fun. And fun it was, mostly!
(14) a village high up the bank, and
(15) a woman working the weeds (for eating, not for smoking).
(16) the boat full, from village to village, and
(17) at the end of the trip we have the boat for ourselves, note the colourful pillow!!
(18) they don't come more peaceful, pristine, idyllic, them rivers...