Thursday, November 12, 2009

Boating the Nam Ou, Northern Laos

Not many travellers boat all the way down from Hat Xa, near Phongsali to Laos’ former Royal capital, Luang Prabang, as it’s a three day journey, but I decided to opt for the river over the road for a glimpse into riverine life.

In the early morning, cloud was glued to the hilltops; the sun didn’t burn through for several hours. Almost immediately after leaving Hat Xa, mini rapids in the sludge-green river buffeted our long boat. Out of the rapids, the river was a glassy stillness and when the motor cut, birds could be heard in the bamboo thatch. Lining the route were other long boats tethered on sandbanks sheltered by clutches of bamboo trunks leaning over the water.

Small, ragged sandy islands carpeted in clumps of scrappy bush moulded by the flow of the river blocked the boat’s path frequently. The boat driver would sway this way and that as islands normally indicated rapids and he searched for the best route through. The boat’s nose would tip down as we gravitated towards the eddies and the engine would grind and gnaw as we upped the speed to navigate the torrents. Slapping against the swirls, we would occasionally be sprayed and the boat would fill with giggles.

We passed lapwings, buffalo gingerly making their way along thin wedges of sandbanks, dozens of fishing net poles and rice huts perched on impossibly steep slopes.

At Houm village, of Tai Lue, Lao and Phu Noi ethnic minority, where we stopped for a visit, a local woman smoked a fat stub of cigarette as we watched cotton yarn being collected.

Muang Khua, the first major stop on the river, is a collection of higgledy piggledy shacks and bamboo landings piled up on one side overlooking the pull-ferry facing the road to Vietnam.

Time for a Beer Lao watching the river traffic which was what everyone else in town was doing!

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