Literally Going With the Flow
Olle, Marika and I had been traveling in Laos together for about two weeks. By now were used to hiking though remote mountain regions, sleeping in hammocks strung up inside unused day shelter huts and living off sticky rice and whatever unfortunate animal strayed too near the village that day.
We had completed a two day hike from Nong Kiaw to Muang Ngoi, a small village on the Ou River when we decided it was time to go boating. “Going with the flow” had become the only way to travel in this amazing country, the experience coinciding with, in some aspects, the way of Tao Te Ching. It was time to take going with the flow more literally.
Our boat cost $40 US after some relaxed Lao style bargaining, not a local price but amazingly cheap against our travel budgets. We named her the “Painam,” literally “go water,” this was the closest we could get to “go with the flow” with our limited grasp of Lao.
Marika and Olle celebrate the purchase of the Painam
Olle added a shade cloth and some seating, preparing us for the long hours on the river. We estimated around eight hours a day for five days. Our gear was water-proofed as best we could with local village hardware. With Olle the most experienced boatman as captain, we set off. It didn’t take long for us to be awestruck by the beauty of the river countryside. Only half an hour out of Muang Ngoi and some travelers passing on public transport were photographing us. Any locals that caught a glimpse simply burst out laughing!
After a couple of hours of pleasant boating we were swept into some frightening rapids. “Paddle right,” “there is a rock dead ahead 15 meters” were some of the phrases mixed in with a jumble of swearing and muttered prayers as foaming white water swallowed the vessel, pulling her through at super speed along the narrow stretches of the river.
After a long day of awesome scenery and exhausting exercise we arrived at Nong Kiaw in time to re-cover, re-supply and re-pack. All from the comforts of a rented bungalow on the river bank.
We were busy getting ready as soon as the sun rose, not daring to lose a single moment of cool mountain air before the heat of the day smashed down upon us, rendering our physical efforts to move the boat useless and leaving us drifting in a haze of intense sunlight and cool water.
The second day passed without incident and we docked wearily to string our hammocks up in an empty hut on the riverbank. We discovered from a local fisherman that we were about where we expected to be, and so we enjoyed our rest knowing that if we kept our pace we would be drinking iced coffee on a guesthouse porch in Luang Prabang in only a few days. For now we were content with a communal bucket of instant noodles and sticky rice with sweetened condensed milk for dessert.
The third day saw us pass out of the mountains and into long, wide stretches of river with very few rapids in-between. It was slow and tiring. Sometimes head winds would threaten to push the boat back upstream despite our best efforts. The constant drawn out periods of hard physical work made us ill prepared for a set of rapids with rocks hidden beneath the foamy water.
Marika entertains the entire village with some sketching
Twice we heard the stomach wrenching crunch of wood against rock, twice the boat tipped onto its side and started to fill with water. Thankfully it was dry season and the river was shallow in the rocky rapids, allowing us to jump out and put our vessel back into the flow. We pulled into a village at sunset and had just started to dock the boat when a local (who spoke great English) offered us a place to stay for the night.
Bathing in the river that evening was not made easy by the fixed stares given to us by the locals. I was used to it by now and it was understandable, we were not exactly a common sight around the village. It was a challenge to go though the ritual of getting clean with twenty sets of eyes fixed on the cake of soap. In the end I could manage the stares, but dinner that night was different. I encountered the first dish served in my entire travels that I was simply unable to eat. Bamboo soup, unidentified green vegetable and sticky rice are great but I draw the line at boiled whole singing bird. That’s baby bird plucked from the nest and boiled in a soup. Olle and Marika are the most polite guests I have ever seen, overcoming their gastronomic defense mechanisms to taste the bird and avoid offending our host (who didn’t seem to care much anyway).
At the start of the fourth day we figured we were about half way down the Ou River – at this rate it could be another full week before we got close to Luang Prabang. Disappointed with our progress but not discouraged we set off at maximum pace determined to get some distance. The first four hours were almost all rapids. By the twentieth sighting of white water we were calm and relaxed moving through the rapids, avoiding the submerged rocks with confidence. We had discovered the flow.
Impressive cliff face
Just as we had finally begun to understand the Spirit of the Ou River, its body widened and a huge cliff appeared on the right. The sight was awesome, so we drifted in admiration of its beauty for a while. It made no sense at the time but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was familiar about the cliff.
Within minutes the junction to the Mekong river appeared before us, the Pak Ou caves glowing in the midday sun like a mirage based on the memory I had of this same place, that I passed through about a month ago. The rapids had carried us down the final half of the Ou river at six times our usual traveling speed. Luang Prabung was only three hours away!
Lost in our elation at reaching the Mekong we decided to have a relaxed lunch and a self-guided tour of the caves. We set out again about an hour before sunset, the fast-flowing river carried us at a full running pace without the need for paddles. As the Pak Ou caves faded behind a storm gathered instead, and then in front, eventually closing and blanketing us in darkness and pouring rain. The river became too choppy for our humble vessel so we retreated to the bank, ponchos on, clutching to some shrubs protruding from the river bank.
By this stage of our travels we had come to accept so called “good” and “bad” events with a degree of equanimity. We knew there was no use in panic and within twenty minutes we discovered there was no cause for it either. All is not as it first seems and as we paddled downsteam in the fading light the rain thinned and a roof appeared on an island to our left.
Surely we would have passed the feature by if we were not desperate for shelter. The roof was buried in jungle and revealed itself to the river for a stretch not more than fifty meters. We docked the boat on a sandy beach of the deserted island. Pushing past dense vegetation an abandoned temple appeared before us. There were no walls and the roof was intact only on one side. Large beams supported the ornate roof and our hammocks as we prepared to camp for the night in this magical place.
The abandoned temple
Out of the darkness of storm and setting sun appeared the most amazing place we had ever stayed in. That night we watched fire-flies circle the temple as we ate from our usual communal bucket of noodles. The next day we finished our journey in sunshine, arriving in Luang Prabang just in time for lunch.
So ended the most perfect adventure any of us could have asked for. I am certain we had no idea what was in store for us as we purchased our boat. I am almost certain that I will probably never have an experience as amazing as this ever again, and I am glad. The adventure was so good I couldn’t possibly wish for more.