In a country where speed is measured by how fast your buffalo roams it is not surprising that visitors to Laos suddenly find themselves in a different world, where distances are defined by days rather than hours and fourth gear is just wishful thinking.
To be honest that is exactly how I like it, for a while at least.
We love to fly, take bullet trains and jet boats; that is half the fun of travelling for some. The problem with this modality is that we see only snapshots of the lands we pass through or over and never appreciate the slow change in the environment as the bus climbs higher and higher across a pass or as a boat floats gently from village to village….welcome to Laos.
I had arrived in this exotic landscape of flowing brown rivers and jungle clad limestone mountains from the relatively developed Vietnam via the border pass at Tay Trang roughly forty kilometres from Dien Bien Phu. This hellish journey had ample reward at the village of Muang Khua situated on the banks of the Nam Ou River (Rice Bowl River), one of the most important in Laos.
Rivers in Laos flood dramatically in the rainy season, I mean really high! A small easy flowing river with fisherman wading across casting their nets, boats pulled up carelessly on the banks can turn into a torrent ten times or more as deep flooding buildings and sometimes washing away small hamlets. The residents are not unaware of this; habitation is built on the high sides and tops of the steep banks, many on stilts. Muang Khua is no exception as the main road slopes steeply up towards to the heart of the village from the river below.
I stayed overnight at a small guesthouse overlooking the river ready for an early start on a slow boat downriver the next day. Not all boats in Laos go every day; those catering to tourists will wait for a minimum number of passengers sometimes requiring an extra day in town. Fortunately I was in the company of a few fellow backpackers so our boat was ready to go.
The only preparations you really need are water, sunscreen, something to cushion your rear for really long trips and some type of waterproof bag for things like cameras, IPods and passports. Longer trips like those from the Thailand border to Pakbeng and Luang Prabang often have shade and a bar onboard.
We set off around 9am for our five hour journey down the river; on board a motley collection of backpackers and a couple of locals heading back to their village farther downstream. The boat was solid and had a roof that spanned almost the whole length save a back deck that could be used for sunbathing. The engine was surprisingly quiet, I had expected something like a longtail boat with a screaming Yamaha attached, so our impact on the environment was minimal.
We left the outskirts of the village, skirting the floats in the water where fisherman awaited their evening catch and negotiating small rocks in our path. Aside from the low purr of the engine it was quiet and serene; livestock lazed languorously on the riverside cooling themselves from the already hot sun while huge dragonflies matched the speed of the boat, skimming the water and darting around us.
We came upon small clutches of wooden huts, deep within the trees on the banks of the river, hamlets not even big enough to see on the map, with rough wooden boats tied to rocks and cows clinging like goats to the steep banks. Children played happily in the water, cheerful waves greeted us before they returned their attention to splashing each other. This scene was played out several times on the journey as we made short stops ferrying the occasional villagers and their belongings a few kilometres downstream.
After several hours of admiring the scenery and gliding swiftly through rapids we came upon a larger settlement, that of Muang Ngoi. This is fast becoming a destination of choice for backpackers and trekkers in the region for its relaxed atmosphere and easy access to the hill trails surrounding the village. A bit of goods exchange took place on our boat and a family of seven hopped on board for the next part of the journey. Bearing in mind that this is not the most touristed of areas they were surprisingly nonchalant about our presence, they smiled and of course the children stared open mouthed but aside from that we were just other passengers; although probably, to them, just a little bit mad. Another hour or so saw us arrive at Nong Khiaw, a larger town and a fairly major crossroad by Laos’s standards; unfortunately for us the boat to Luang Prabang, my final destination, was not until the next day.
This part of the world is very limited for communications and ATM’s are nonexistent, this had proven a problem for several in our little group and cash was running low. I had pooled my money with other travellers who were short on funds and we just about had enough to get us on the next bus to Luang Prabang so our river adventure was over for the day. I must say the softer seats on the bus and the marginal increase in speed was welcome as was the breeze that offered some respite from the intense heat.
There were a few sighs of relief as we pulled into Luang Prabang, plenty of cash machines on view and what looked, to my eye, like very cold bottles of Beer Laos…