If there’s one place everyone will tell you to visit in Laos it’s Louang Prabang, getting there on a slow boat along the Mekong. But our guidebook had a less commonly touted suggestion for river journeys: rather than take the Mekong across the country, to travel down it on the Nam Ou River. Mark Elliot gave it a rare two stars and we had come to like this guy so we decided to do what he told us. This meant taking a bus across the country, returning first to Luang Namtha then heading east to Oudomxai where we’d stop for a night before continuing on to Muang Kwa, our first stop on the Nam Ou.
The bus journey, particularly on the way to Oudomxai, was breathtaking. The route headed straight for the tops of the hills where it stayed, winding its way along the ridges, sharing the views equally between those sat on the right of the bus and those on the left. Small villages lined themselves precariously along the edge of the road, the front of the houses perched on the roadside and the backs supported by stilts between ten and thirty feet long. The karst scenery became increasingly dramatic until it resembled the peaks made by whipping cream when it’s reached the consistency at which you should whip no more. When the road finally began to descend to the valley, I sat back in my seat, exhausted from switching sides on the bus with my camera, hoping the scenery would calm down a bit so that I could too. Once we’d arrived in Oudomxai, Laos proved again that there’s nothing wrong at all with staying at the very first guesthouse you see, in this case directly opposite the bus station. $2 dollars for a double room included wood panelling, air conditioning, a private bathroom and a satellite TV with a schedule that meant the wrestling started the minute we got back from dinner.
It took five or six hours to reach Muang Kwa from Oudomxai and this time we knew where we wanted to stay because Mark Elliot had told us. That was seven years ago, mind you, so there was no telling if it was still there. But it was. We took a tuk-tuk from the bus station to the town centre, organised very prettily between the main road and the riverbank, of which, apparently, our guesthouse had a charming view, if only we could find it. The town is laced with a network of stone paths and steps and people we asked told us to keep following the path to the river, past the stadium. Once we’d figured out that by ‘stadium’ they meant an old and unkempt badminton court, it was easy to find. It was a dishevelled looking building offering small rooms with a bathroom shoehorned into the corner and a grand view of the river from the restaurant, the staff of which, it turned out, weren’t remotely interested in serving anyone and only did so after repeated coaxing. Even then, they missed out some orders in silent protest. But somehow, looking down at the river and the butterflies fluttering over it in pairs, it didn’t seem worth getting annoyed about.
The next day, we headed down to the port to find out about getting a boat, looking forward to cruising gently along the river between the karsts. But only tourists like to mooch along, everyone else has stuff to do and prefers to take a speedboat so it was either wait for some fellow moochers, charter the entire boat for ourselves or don a crash helmet. When the speedboat captain promised to go slow, we decided to go with him. He didn’t of course and Mark Elliot’s rare two stars zipped by in a little over an hour and a half, with my helmet’s visor crashing over my vision with an alarming bang every time there was a bump, of which there were many, and all of a sudden we were in Muang Ngoi where we walked straight into the first bungalow establishment we saw.
It was about lunchtime by this point so we went to the closest restaurant to our bungalows where we got chatting to a farang couple.
“How are you liking Muang Kwa?” we asked.
“Yeah, it’s nice. Very pretty,” the girl half said. “But not much to do. Another cave, another waterfall,” she continued with a languid wave of her arm. “Always another cave, another waterfall,” she sighed, as if that were a bad thing. “In two weeks, you’ve done Laos.”
“Is there much walking around here?” asked Alex.
“No,” they both replied flatly, spreading Laughing Cow cheese onto their baguettes. Fortunately, our orders arrived before the conversation sapped completely my enthusiasm for Laos and life in general.
It turned out that, far from there being no walking to do, there was masses and masses of walking to do. A trail at the opposite side of the town to the river and parallel to it goes past the school at the end and to a wooded path that leads to the cave with glimpses of rice fields on either side. At the cave, there was the usual 37p charge to play in it, from which a spring of almost icy cold water bubbles up from the ground before making it’s way down to the Nam Ou River. The fee also covers the walk beyond the cave to a hill tribe village which takes you through terraced rice fields surrounded on all sides by karsts towering high above. We’d been told, or perhaps we’d just assumed, that the village was an hour and a half away. But it wasn’t. We came across some walkers coming the other way, dressed to the nines in walking gear. “Have you found the village?” asked Alex as I flicked a leach off his foot, but they hadn’t and had given up. We decided to give it another half hour and came across a sign pointing towards the village. We followed it and, before long, there it was. As if by magic, the very first building we saw displayed a big sign giving prices for food and beer. We had just finished our first when the walkers we’d passed arrived having refused, apparently, to be out-walked by a couple in flip-flops. We all decided to leave the 3-hour trek for the next village along for another day.
It was easy for a few days to drift by in Muang Ngoi watching the boats, as well as the occasional herd of buffalo, chug their way down the river and enjoying all the walking that wasn’t to be done. Then we headed on down the river. This time we managed to get a slow boat, packed to the rafters with tourists so busy in conversation I wanted to stand up and shout, “Oh my God, look! There’s Laos!” feeling like we were the only ones to notice. The next stop was Nang Kio, arranged on either side of an enormous bridge crossing the river. After crossing the bridge, the first bungalows we saw were called Sunset Bungalows, just along from Sunrise Bungalows, which oddly shared the same view. It’s another charming little town, in a similar setting to the previous stops, with the obligatory cave and waterfall (the cave being conveniently on the way to the waterfall). Another few days passed blissfully by and we found we were running out of time and had to forgo the rest of the river route and take a bus on to Louang Parabang.
Although the Nam Ou is an undoubtedly touristy route, it’s a very low-key kind of tourism and the fact that there really are only caves and waterfalls to see is a large part of the charm. The best way to do it is to be in no rush at all so you can wait for the slow boats to fill up. And remember to take plenty of cash – there are no ATMs whatsoever along the route.
Louang Prabang was everything it was cracked up to be and is another example of tourism at its finest. It is also where I finally got sick of reading the phrase ‘saffron robed monks’ and I’d like to point out that some of them are probably ochre. I did try to get up at dawn to photograph the monks taking alms but found that the guesthouse was oblivious to this suggestion in every tourist's guidebook and had the place locked up. The morning of our departure, we bumped into a German couple we’d met along the Nam Ou with whom we’d exchanged information about volunteering opportunities.
“Where are you off to next?” they asked.
“Vang Vieng!” we replied.
“Really?" They arched an eyebrow. "Oh... Well, good luck!” We could tell they were distinctly disappointed in us.