Drifting downstream: the rivers of Northern Laos

Landlocked Laos may not lie adjacent to any ocean but it more than compensates with a twisting network of rivers that crisscross the country like veins. In the rainy season, the rivers rage with wild rapids. However, visit in the drier season (I was there in March) and you’ll be rewarded with one of the jewels in the crown of Northern Laos: a slow boat trip down the Nam Ou.

From travellers I had met in Vietnam, reports of Laos did not tend to be glowing. ‘Just go for a couple of weeks,’ we were advised, with warnings that it was a bit boring. After 24 hours, we utterly disagreed. I cannot deny that Laos is hands down the most laid back place I have ever visited. Everything happens in slow motion; its languid rivers flow lazily through shallow valleys; even the dogs are more chilled out as they lounge in the shade. But I think that this is a huge part of its charm. Relax into its dreamy vibes and you’ll find yourself spending longer there than you planned.

After an exhausting journey from Vietnam, we spent the night in a guesthouse in Muang Khua which clung precariously to the sides of the riverbank, accessible only over a rickety bridge which was only sketchily nailed together. Our landlady didn’t speak a word of English but shyly smiled and showed us to our rooms. The walls were made from woven bamboo and for the first time felt homely; mosquito nets foamed down from the ceiling onto piles of blankets and from the window we could see the gentle flow of the Nam Ou. For less than £2 for a night, it was not a sore deal. Dinner was slow in coming – we would learn that everything in Laos happens in Laos time – but delicious. It was our first experience of Laos sticky rice, which generally is cooked at breakfast time and eaten with every meal.

Sticky rice is made from a specific opaque rice grain called glutinous rice and has been cultivated throughout South East Asia for over a thousand years. About 85% of all rice in Laos is of this type. It is steamed and comes in little wicker baskets with a top attached with string. Eat it with your hands, rolling it into walnut-sized balls, and dip it into whatever you choose to eat it with. Eat it all the time for every meal. It. Is. Incredible. Stay tuned on the blog for my Ode to Sticky Rice. There is an age-old debate as to whether sticky rice is traditionally Thai or Lao. Having travelled round both, I would argue that it is hands-down Lao. Sticky rice for life.

After a comfortable nights sleep, we were up bright and early for the slow boat at 8 which came at 9.30. Papaya and mango  with Lao coffee for breakfast before heading down to the stone ramp that went down to the river. We handed our backpacks down onto the boat, a long wooden riverboat painted blue with a wooden covering held down by bricks. We climbed aboard. Bags went down one end; people on the other. I folded my waterproof over to make a cushion to sit on and folded up my knees slightly to fit into the width of the boat. When everybody was on, ropes were untied and the woman driving the boat pushed off from the river bank with an oar so that we were slowly free-floating down the river.

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The scenery was beautiful as we drifted downstream. Striking karst hills carpeted in a cloak of emerald greenery flanked the Nam Ou as it wound through flat-bottomed valleys. The sky was a pale forget-me-not blue edged with wispy clouds that clung to the limestone peaks climbing upwards into jagged triangulations. The sun shone serenely through a lazy haze, warm and balmy, while a gentle breeze cooled the skin. There was an occasional spray of water as our vessel surged through rougher parts of the river.

We occasionally stopped the boat to pick people up who were waiting by the sides of the river to get a lift downstream. Sometimes they drew up alongside the boat in smaller thinner canoes, jumping nimbly across to us. After a couple of hours, a few of us desperately needed the toilet so we pulled up alongside a sand bank and disappeared into the trees, the sand burning our feet in the sun. I squatted in a bush next to some pigs who looked faintly appalled and wandered away to snuffle elsewhere. We stopped off at a riverside village called Muang Ngoi Neua, a charming place where I would recommend staying if you have the time. Although we didn’t stay here, we heard really good things about it. We grabbed lunch here and said goodbye to the people we’d met on the crossing from ‘Nam and who we’d chilled with for the last few hours on our gentle journey downstream.

It wasn’t long until we arrived in Nong Kiaw, a slightly larger town than Muang Ngoi Neua, but still a village really as it takes less than 10 minutes to walk through the whole thing. It is surrounded by the same limestone scenery that we saw from the river which we planned to explore some more the next day. Meanwhile the sun was starting to set on the river, its pinkish hue contrasting with the deep greens of the forest reflected in the slowly moving water. We ate dinner alongside the river to the last shafts of rosy sunlight which faded to a darkness punctuated by the flickering flames of the lamps on our table. We tried ‘laap’, a Lao speciality of minced meat fried with chilli, herbs, lime juice and toasted rice, accompanied by sticky rice.

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The next day was spent exploring and getting lost in the surrounding countryside, amongst the karst mountains and caves, not straying far from the road due to unexploded ordinance left in the area from the America/Vietnam War. On the way back to Nong Kiaw, we paid a visit to the Tham Pha Tok caves, which is where villagers hid out during the Second Indochina War as American bombs rained on Laos. For a time, the Luang Prabang government was also based in this cave system. Originally accessible by a rickety bamboo ladder, a new wooden staircase now rises to the cave’s entrance. Take a flashlight as you navigate the chambers of the cavern – there are a few signs about but not an awful lot of information on display. However, it is still interesting being in the caves and imagining what happened here not so long ago.

We walked back a couple of kilometres to town where we had a late lunch of Indian dosa with a Dutch girl we’d made the crossing to Vietnam with, who happened to be walking past. Stomachs full, we decided to walk up Phadeng Peak to the town’s viewpoint. In hindsight, doing it on a full stomach wasn’t the best idea. Although no Fansipan, the trek went steeply uphill in the afternoon heat. I had brought a camera rather than a bottle of water – priorities – so was dehydrated in the almost oppressive heat. We were all dripping with sweat by the time we reached the top but the 360° vista which awaited us at the summit was worth the walk. A pinkish sun wreathed in pale clouds was sinking slowly into the embrace of the jagged limestone hills, the light sparkling and enchanting the long loops of the river. We sat by a rice sack ‘flag’ blowing in the wind as the sun set, deciding to make our way down as the light became cloaked in cloud. It got darker as we made our way down and needed a flashlight to navigate the winding path before we reached the bottom.

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After showering off all our sweat, we went out to go eat more Lao food. I ordered Lao sausage, spiced win lemongrass and chill, which came with sticky rice (of course), greens, fried river weed with sesame seeds and a spicy aubergine dip (‘jeow’). It was washed down with a Beerlao, the national rice beer which comes in huge bottles and is actually really good. We went back to the hostel and cuddled with their kittens before heading to bed. We were reluctantly leaving the riverlands, travelling West to Nam Tha National Park,  the next day. We had actually looked to see whether we could travel there by river for it is possibly the most relaxed form of transport in the world. However, being the dry season, there was no chance and so it was that we changed from boat back to bus for the next leg.

 

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To Laos by Land

I had barely any money to exchange to buy food. But that was ok because when we made a pit stop, the only food on offer was some sort of giant rodent which someone was burning the hair off to prepare it for being barbecued. Which I could live without.

To get to Laos from Vietnam over land, you have to cross mountains. Physically, you traverse the Annamite mountain range which runs over 1000km down through Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. Mentally, you have to confront the journey it takes to get there.

I think, in some ways, travelling has an over-glorified image. From social media people are given the impression that every day presents sunsets, incredible food, beaches, mountains, basic Instagrams of people gazing faux-pensively into the distance. I freely admit I have contributed to perpetrate that image. And I have to admit, many moments are like that; some cannot be truly captured by a photograph. But many are not – the trials and tribulations of travelling aren’t always as ‘Instagram-able’. The border crossing from Vietnam to Laos was one such journey. Hey – the lows make the highs higher.

We had booked a night bus with our hotel in Sapa. The light faded from the sky and the bus didn’t come. When we went to check everything was ok, we were assured by the nice lady at reception that it was. A while later, she came and told us that a car was going to come and take us to the bus stop. She looked a bit harassed. We went with it – after a while of travelling, you learn that they don’t always tell you everything when you book a journey. So we got in the car – the lady did too – and we went to the bus stop. There was no bus there and it was cold. She stood with us for a while, shouted at a few people in Vietnamese and then left. There was still no bus, we didn’t know when it was coming and it was cold. Like children, we wished the lady would come back. We ate some oreos. Buses came and went; we didn’t know whether any of them were ours. There was a small crowd gathering on the tarmac and we established that a group of us were getting the same bus so we could at least stick together.

I don’t know how many hours later, a bus arrived that we thought might be ours. Despite having been there the longest, we ended up being one of the last on. As a result Roza and I had to share a space, not just with one another but with a Vietnamese family who had paid about a dollar for their fare (we had paid over thirty). Our relief at getting on the bus was short lived. We desperately tried to sleep but – with one lady asleep on my feet, one guy in the aisle with his feet sticking into me, another who kept jabbing me in the ribs with his elbows (I think on purpose) and two kids behind us who kept hitting us on the head – this was little short of impossible. Some solace came when the woman in front put her chair back onto my legs which at least meant that the lady could no longer sleep on my feet (which was painful). But then there was literally nowhere for her to go and I felt very sorry for her as she hunched with her knees tucked up in front of her in the tiny space that there was in the aisle. It’s not like it was comfortable for anybody (apart from the kids who had managed to fall asleep on the shelf behind us). As bus journeys went, it was definitely in my bottom five of all time.

When we pulled into Dien Bien Phu, it was still dark and we were knackered but we were able to get off that bus which could only be a good thing. There were a couple of other buses there and we guessed that one of them had to be ours but there were no signs of life. A few of us went off in search of coffee but the vendor at the bus shelter wasn’t serving. Someone must have come to open up the second bus because through a sleepy haze I remember giving my bag to a couple of guys and them hauling it up onto the roof of the bus and securing all the bags together with rope, an arrangement that I wasn’t overly comfortable with. I would later learn that this would be the case with all buses in Laos. The second bus set off as it was starting to get light. We stopped for breakfast for one last banh mi – our last meal in Vietnam. It was very cheap and very good. We also got some sticky rice with what we described as ‘fishy sawdust’ which, strange as it sounds, was thoroughly enjoyable.

As we drove up into the mountains, we kept stopping to load cardboard boxes onto the bus. Presumably this was their way of making a bit of money on the side – to take things across the border. However, it meant the bus was getting heavier and heavier as we approached the Vietnam-Laos border. On an area of road which could better be described as ‘scree’, the engine of our bus sputtered out. The driver revved it again and again but alas: we were stuck. We all piled out and the men gallantly attempted to push the bus back onto the main road to no avail.We looked at the time. The border we were attempting to cross was a quiet one and only open for a few hours each day. It was too far to walk, we were miles from anywhere and our Vietnamese visas would run out if we did not cross it today. Fortunately for us, there was some road construction work which had been going on around the bend and there were some workers, with a digger, on site.  The men, keen to show their chivalry once again got behind the bus, some sort of cord was attached from the bus to the digger and the bus was pulled out onto solid road. I’m pretty sure something significant broke in the process but the bus was free and we were back on the road. Crisis averted.

Not too long after we were pulled out, we arrived at the border which brought on the next round of drama and introduced us to the wonderful world of border scams. We had our Vietnam visas stamped as invalid and then had to walk in no man’s land for a while to get to the Tay Trang border crossing station where we hoped to get the Laos visa on arrival. The process is confusing and frustrating. You collect a form at the first window, fill in the form, attach your photo. You hand this in, along with your passport at which point you are more or less at their mercy as they make you pay a ‘processing fee’, a ‘stamp fee’ and a ‘tourism tax’ on top of the cost of the visa itself. You can argue the toss, as an Italian lady on our bus who’d already shown herself to be quite a character attempted to, threatening to call the police. But what can you do? They have your passport and even when you get it back, it’s likely you’ve already paid them by that point. They either laugh or get aggressive. However, me and Roza fortunately escaped the $5 ‘medical check’ by just walking past straight to the bus. Oscar wasn’t so lucky. But we had all made it to Laos, visas stamped in our passports.

It was at this point that I realised over $100 and some Thai Baht had gone missing from my document wallet. I had barely any money to exchange to buy food. But that was ok because when we made a pit stop, the only food on offer was some sort of giant rodent which someone was burning the hair off to prepare it for being barbecued. Which I could live without.

We eventually arrived in Muang Khua late afternoon. Some people on our bus were staying on it to Luang Prabang, almost three hundred kilometres away. But we had decided we wanted to experience Northern Laos and we had been recommended by a couple in Vietnam to take the slow boat down the Nam Ou. We wandered down through the town to the river to find we had missed the last boat (being the dry season, boats were infrequent). Despite some intense bartering largely involving the Italian woman, it wasn’t worth the cost to charter a boat downriver. She was not impressed. But we had made it over the mountains, both physical and mental, to laid-back languid Laos. And at least we were off that bus.