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The Nam Ou river journey between Muang Khua and Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang, Laos

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16 May 2016

The slow boat along the Nam Ou River between Muang Khua and Nong Khiaw - is one of Asia’s most spectacular. But things are changing quickly here with new dams threatening fragile eco-systems and communities.

We weren’t expecting much. I’ve put away my fair share of river trips in Indochina - along the Mekong and other rivers. I love being on the water - and a boat is usually preferable to congested, dusty roads. So I readied myself for 5 hours along the Nam Ou between Muang Khua and Nong Khiaw, expecting scenes pleasant, but unremarkable.

As it turned out, this journey was exceptionally beautiful. And the appreciation was heightened knowing that Chinese dams are being built as I write, that will change forever the flow of both the Mekong and the Nam Ou rivers.

You can check out our journey in this video -

The Nam Ou passes through ancient forests and karst mountainscapes untouched by human hands. That's a rare experience anywhere in Asia.

And the villages that do exist along the river and small and charming.

Like local buses in this part of the world, local boats are in the business of moving freight. And as with local buses, you get the sense the freight business is more important and more lucrative than the passenger business. So expect plenty of stops along the way. They’re not good if you’re in a hurry. Otherwise they can intriguing.

Our first river delivery was to a Vietnamese gold dredging operation in the middle of nowhere. It had done some hard yards - looked like something out of Mad Max movie. We loved this little stop.

The highlight of the journey though, was the second half. We travelled through pristine forest - it was stunning. And I don’t recall ever seeing so much unblemished terrain anywhere in my South East Asian river travels.
 

Nam Ou River, Laos
Photo: Mark Bowyer Nam Ou River, Laos

 

Nam Ou River, Laos
Photo: Mark Bowyer Nam Ou River, Laos

 

Dense forest, Nam Ou River, Laos
Photo: Mark Bowyer Dense forest, Nam Ou River, Laos

 

Nam Ou River, Laos
Photo: Mark Bowyer Nam Ou River, Laos

 

Muang Ngoi, Laos
Photo: Mark Bowyer Muang Ngoi, Laos

 

Muang Ngoi, Laos
Photo: Mark Bowyer Muang Ngoi, Laos

 

Our longest delivery was to a place called Muang Ngoi - a backpacker haven along the Nam Ou. We dropped a big load of scrap metal at Muang Ngoi. God knows what is was for.

Until recently, Muang Ngoi was only accessible by boat. It’s a great spot if you’d like to lazily gaze at beautiful river scenes, trek through villages and caves, and have a backpacker party on hand by night.

There were no ATMs at Muang Ngoi when we passed through.

Muang Ngoi was heavily bombed by the US during the Vietnam War and old bombs decorate the town. It’s said that unexploded ordnance still poses a threat here and in Nong Khiaw, so keep to the marked paths.

We didn’t stay in Muang Ngoi. Instead we travelled another hour along the Nam Ou to Nong Khiaw - another glorious riverside town with some pleasant hotels and resorts. We stayed in Nong Khiaw Riverside resort. It was a gem - at less than $50USD per night, bungalows were comfortable, staff were friendly, food was fine and the views across the river were sublime.

Unfortunately, we only had an afternoon and a night in Nong Khiaw. I’d recommend two or three nights.

During our only afternoon, we climbed the viewpoint - which was magnificent. Actually we started late and began to lose light so we only made it about three quarters of the way to the top. As you can see in the photos, the views are amazing.

 

Nong Khiaw, Laos
Photo: Mark Bowyer Nong Khiaw, Laos

 

Nong Khiaw, Laos
Photo: Mark Bowyer Nong Khiaw, Laos

 

Riverside Resort, Nong Khiaw, Laos
Photo: Mark Bowyer Riverside Resort, Nong Khiaw, Laos

 

Nong Khiaw, Laos
Photo: Mark Bowyer Nong Khiaw, Laos

 

US bombs - Nong Khiaw, Laos
Photo: Mark Bowyer US bombs - Nong Khiaw, Laos

 

Nong Khiaw, Laos
Photo: Mark Bowyer Nong Khiaw, Laos

 

Nong Khiaw, Laos
Photo: Mark Bowyer Nong Khiaw, Laos

 

We only wished we could have stayed longer.

I’d crushed an insect in my ear a few days before arriving in Nong Khiaw back in Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam. By the time we reached Nong Khiaw, it was developing into a nasty weeping infection.

Puss coming from your ear in places with zero medical care is not a good thing. So next morning, we headed out by road to Luang Prabang.

It’s no longer possible to travel along the Nam Ou River to Luang Prabang. Passage is blocked by a dam under construction. More dams are planned - mostly Chinese owned.

The dams along the Mekong and the Nam Ou are very controversial. There are conflicting arguments about the likely impact on the fragile eco-systems of the rivers - their ability to continue to be a major supply of fish and essential protein as well as fertile soils downstream. Cambodia and Vietnam, both located downstream, are also concerned about the impact on agriculture and irrigation. These fears have been heightened by a terrible drought in 2016.

The Nam Ou River may feel like one of the most remote and pristine places in South East Asia, but dams will soon thrust the area into the twenty first century - and possible regional turmoil as water becomes an increasingly prized resource. It’s a bit hard to balance an awareness of the geo-political and environmental stuff engulfing this place as you enjoy the serenity of the slow boat.

Our ride to Luang Prabang from Nong Khiaw was easy on good roads and took around 3 hours.

Luang Prabang is one of the most delightful places in South East Asia - and we’ll have more on the former Lao royal capital soon.

Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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