Luang Prabang can be reached in around 4 hours by minivan from Nong Khiaw. Instead we decided to take a much slower, but more scenic route, 3 days by kayak. We were joined by another English couple, Hannah and Ross who were great fun. Having only kayaked for 1 day before we knew this would be tough, but we were ready for the challenge. Until the rain started that is!
Just as we set off on the first morning the heavens opened and we endured 3 hours of torrential rain. The visibility was very poor and we were soaked, we had no choice but to keep on rowing and hope the weather would improve. Luckily the sun came out around lunch time and dried us out for a much more enjoyable afternoon. Now we could fully appreciate the beautiful scenery that surrounded us. We stopped by at a fisherman’s house to get our dinner, a fish, which was tied to the kayak and pulled along for the rest of the journey.
The new dam, built by China, has ground this section of the Nam Ou river to a halt. It was more like kayaking on a lake than a river, but it certainly made for a good upper body workout. After 6 hours kayaking our arms were starting to ache and we were very glad to arrive at our homestay in a traditional Khmu village. Thong, our guide, prepared our dinner of sticky rice, fish marinated in its own blood, rat and crickets. He also told us about his life in Laos, how the healthcare is almost non existent unless you have the money. His family tried to sell their home and belongings to get emergency medical treatment for his father, but they still couldn’t afford it. It certainly makes us appreciate the healthcare service we have back in England.
Rat for dinner
The village was holding a funeral ceremony that day which seemed more of a celebration than a sad occasion. The funerals are always held at the end of the year, regardless of when the person died. We were invited to join them for the occasion, the music was blasting out of the speakers while we drank and danced the night away with the villagers. The villagers were very welcoming and hospitable, continually offering us free Lao-Lao (Laos whisky) shots and sunflower seeds for nibbles. They even put on some western music for us. It was a great way of celebrating Sam’s birthday and he spent most of the night dancing with little old ladies, who were enjoying the ‘party’ just as much as we were. This is one of the best nights we’ve had on our trip, who knew funerals could be so fun.
After a very restless nights sleep (the music from the funeral party was blaring until dawn) we were driven for an hour down river past the Chinese dam. The dam was a monstrosity and has had a devastating impact. Villages and their farmlands have been flooded, forcing hundreds of families to move into more modern ‘flat pack Ikea’ looking villages. The dam also affects fish migration and is depleting the fish which are heavily relied on by the villagers for both food and income. Despite the devastation, Laos gets a mere 10% of the energy generated from the dam.
The second day of kayaking was much easier on the arms as the river was flowing faster. There were also some large rapids to contend with which made it more exciting and thankfully we managed to keep our kayak upright this time! We arrived in our second village homestay ready for a good nights sleep and were very grateful for a peaceful evening without the pumping party music.
Kayaking on the Mekong
The final day we kayaked down the last stretch of the Nam Ou river with huge limestone karsts towering over us. We then joined the Mekong and had a quick stop at Pak Ou caves which are filled with hundreds of tiny Buddha statues. We kayaked for another hour before reaching our destination, after a fantastic 3 days we were quite sad it was all over. Our arms were certainly ready for a good rest though.
Next stop: Luang Prabang, Laos