Floating and crashing down the River Ou

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February 24th 2006
Published: March 21st 2006
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We bought two boats in Muang Ngoi and silenced our many critics by getting to Luang Phrabang alive and with the surviving boat in enough of one piece to still float with one person bailing full time.

Friday, 24th February, 2006

I had a bit of a seedy start this morning, having been pressured into drinking vast quantities of Lao Lao, a highly toxic condensate made from rice wine that is best used for lighting fires or as an industrial cleaner.

Jonas, the German, was in for buying a boat and got Barry, the Irishman in by asking him, "What are you going to tell your grandkids?" Three English lads, Fox, Steve, and Stuart, and two English girls, Hannah and Kerrie, also came aboard, so we went shopping for a couple of boats.

The first boat we looked at seemed ok, but the local fishermen laughed at us when we asked if it would last until Luang Phrabang. We looked at a few more floating wrecks before settling on two that seemed in pretty good shape. The first was a smallish one that seemed sturdy enough to make the distance and could comfortably seat three, while the second was a rather large unweildy one that would be able to seat all of us in the not unlikely event of the other one sinking. We settled on the rip-off tourist price of $228 for the two with eight oars.

We all went our separate ways buying stuff for the trip, mainly large plastic bags to keep our backpacks dry and rope to tie our bags together if everything went pear shaped.

There was good cheer and high spirits at the Buffalo beach bar that night, with the other falang thinking we were legends and the locals thinking we were mad.

Saturday 25th February, 2006

Our 8am departure got rather delayed due to trying to organize eight people who aren't used to being organized, as well as last minute shopping and settling with the owners.

Finally, at about 10 am we set off for what half the village seemed to consider would be a short-lived adventure towards the first rapids. My boat, the small one, managed the first rapids well, but filled up with water in the waves. The second one crashed at the first opportunity and completely wrecked the bow, fortunately only above the waterline. Not a very auspicious start!

After bailing out and assessing the damage we zig-zagged our way down the calm river. Going straight would probably have been advisable, but neither Stuart nor Steve, the two English brothers that took turns piloting the large boat, seemed to have much idea of how to go straight.

At about 2:30 pm we finally pulled into Nong Kiew for lunch. It had taken us over four hours paddling downstream to do what the motorized versions did in one hour upstream. And we were buggered. Sitting on an uncomfortable bit of wood for four hours wasn't really our idea of fun.
The scenery was pretty amazing though and the villages were fun to pass through. Naked and half-naked kids would run down to the beach and just about jump out of their skins waving to us and calling, "Sabaidee".

We went for lunch to Nazim, an Indian restaurant chain that has about four restaurants in Laos, ordered drinks, and stared at menus for about 20 minutes while the owner look on. When we finally asked to order, the owner, who had been listening to us discuss what to eat for 20 minutes, said, "We don't serve food now."

Agape, we went next door shaking our heads and enjoyed a well deserved lunch.
After a bit more shopping, we headed down to the boats to realize that it was already 3:30pm and that there wasn't much point in heading out this late, so we took our packs and oars up to a guesthouse and returned to the restaurant for more beer. We vowed to start early the next day.

Sunday, 26th February, 2006

Somehow we all got up early and managed a 7:30am start even with last minute shopping. One of the villagers seeing us off, a fisherman, asked us how far we were planning to go. When we told him, he looked at the boats, looked at us, and slowly shook his head. He was probably still shaking his head while watching us zig-zag our way downstream; the guys still hadn't figured out how to steer.

We made good speed in the morning though enchanting mist and the sun created enchanting scenes as the mist lifted. Alas, it was not to last. Mid-morning, the English boat managed to hit some rocks pretty much side-on and almost lost Hannah, who had to be carried against the current by one of the lads. Somehow they got the boat off the rock, took it upstream a bit to get a better angle to shoot the rapids, and came sailing down to us with Hannah and Kerrie bailing like mad. We plugged a few holes with sticks and limped another few hundred metres to a beach next to a village.

The locals came down to inspect it and one offered to repair it for $4. Then his mate came along to help, so the price went up to $5. Yet another guy joined in and they started asking $7. If we hadn't put our collective feet down, I'm sure the whole village would have joined in for a dollar each. I can understand tuk-tuks asking a price per person, even though I disagree with it, but I've never experienced this sort of pricing before.

After an hour of rest and playing soccer with the kids on the sandbar, we headed off in a more or less straight line. The reason? We changed boats and drivers. The girls were relieved to be out of earshot of any arguements; the two brothers should probably have been on separate boats, or separate countries. Instead, the girls were treated to a bit of German music as Jonas sang his way down the river in the middle of paradise.

The going got pretty hard in the afternoon when a headwind picked up and the river slowed down. Spirits were still pretty high, but we were buggered. We finally pulled into a village at about 5pm.

Most of us rested our aching arses and backs while Jonas headed into the village to find the headman. We got accommodation for 50c per person. Not too bad.

Loi, our host, and his wive then turned on a huge feast for us: steamed rice, sticky rice, fish soup, omelette, river weed, spicy paste, and more. It was much better than it sounds and we were hugely impressed. They turned it on for breakfast as well, all for $2 per person per meal. Reasonably small money for us, huge for them.

I wondered around the village in the evening, and again in the morning, always with a retinue of curious smiling kids waiting to jump into any picture I looked like taking. I think I got two or three photos without kids by lining them up in a photo and then turning around quickly and snapping what I actually wanted to shoot.

Hannah, who has more energy than anyone else I've met, was a huge hit with the kids and we seemed to have half the village juvenile population on our balcony. She wasn't in quite so high spirits the next morning - nor were Kerrie and Jonas - having shared a room with me snoring at full throttle. I should have felt guilty, but it's happened so often to me that I just make the right noises and let it roll off my back.

Monday 27th February, 2006

We got off to a latish start due to the huge breakfast, but were keen to get onto the river to avoid the afternoon headwind and, more urgently, because the village didn't have a toilet. I'm not particularly worried about landmines, but there was no way I was going to go off the beaten track in that village!

About half an hour down stream we had a toilet break and Jonas told us of a great tree he found which was like a toilet seat where you simply drop a darkie. We all avoided that tree.

The weather was great again with amazing scenery being revealed as the mist lifted, and the usual scraggle of kids at each village yelling “Sabaidee”, along with experienced fishermen watching us with a mixture of curiosity and pity.

Fortunately, at the biggest rapids, we met a fisherman who told us which way to go and managed to get down without incident. At this stage, getting turned around 180 degrees in an eddy current and going backward 10 feet up a rock was hardly an incident; we didn’t sink and only put another smallish crack in the by now well battered boat.

By this time we had run out of water. Most of the guys hadn’t brought more than six litres for the three days and I had drunk most of my 24 litres already, so we pulled into a village and bought all the water they had there: six litres.

We stopped briefly for a lunch of sticky rice and smoked fish - a gift from the village - and made hard work of the rest of the afternoon rowing against the wind.

Not knowing how far we were from Luang Phrabang, and being short on time, the three English lads decided to pull out and we were all delighted to trade their boat for food, accommodation, and $10.

The village was next to the road so that the lads would be able to get a ride to Luang Phrabang and we would be able to get everything we needed, namely beer. Actually, the village met only my needs: the girls woud have loved a village with coffee and a toilet.

I ordered seven beers for 8000 kip each and the guy came back and asked if I wanted cold beer for an extra 1000 kip (10c) per bottle. Of course I did! The cold beers were room temperature, which meant pretty bloody warm because none of the rooms here had airconditioning. Lucky I didn’t order the warm beers!

We had an earlyish night, nearly - but not quite - avoiding the traditional offering of Lao Lao gut-rot/gullet-cleaner that ensures no Falangs leave Laos as intelligent as they arrived.

Tuesday 28th February, 2006

Fox and I were up at dawn thanks to the usual rooster ruckus and commenting on how clear it was and what a beautiful sunrise we would have as we paddled down the river towards some of the biggest rapids. An hour later the mist closed in and we could hardly see the opposite bank.

Once the rest of the crew could be roused we accepted sticky rice as a takeaway breakfast to get away for an early start. Fox headed downstream with the camera to try to get a decent shot of us through the mist as we blundered through the misty rapids.

As it happened, we fluked it through the rapids with no damage to the boat except a two-foot crack below the waterline.

After a short breakfast four of us enjoyed the paddle down the river while Kerrie bailed almost full-time; the crack wasn’t all that minor after all.

As the mist lifted the view of foggy trees and water transformed into the usual spectacular scenery and Jonas at the bow started seeing rocks and rapids before we hit them, which helped less than we would have liked to think.

After one set of rapids, where we did a U-turn to follow the path of the commercial ferries, we came to a sandbar where the river passed a huge cliff and by tacit agreement piled out of the boat to rest. I think were all pretty sick of paddling by this time (except for Kerrie, who was sick of bailing) and were all looking forward to nice soft seats. Poor Kerrie and Hannah were going cold turkey at this point, having been deprived of coffee for three days.

Only half an hour after the sandbar, to our surprise and relief, we beheld the mightly Mekong. Cheering and whooping we paddled out of the friendly green waters of the Nam Ou into the menacing dark brown water of the Mekong. We had made it. Or so we thought. We still had four hours to go.

The main relief at arriving at the Mekong was that there was a steady current and, as long as we kept the boat on course, we would always be moving at a steady pace.

Barry was on the helm by now, for his first time in the big boat, and discovering how hard it was to steer this unweildy wreck. After an hour on the Mekong we got the zig-zags again: four days of rowing and being wrapped up like a terrorist agaisnt the heat had taken its toll. The girls, too, were suffering and decided to share it with us by verbalising their fantasies of chockolate, orange, and carrot cake. And coffee.

It didn’t help that during their fantasy a huge ferry motored past, with the passengers moving to the dining area for what was undoubtably a delicious dinner consisting of more than sticky rice.

As for me, I decided to take a break and stop paddling for a while. If Hannah and Kerrie hadn’t been so tired they would probably have thrown me overboard then and there.

When we did finally arrive at Luang Phrabang, almost too exhausted to cheer, there was no way Barry was going to head past the commercial boat parking. He found us a nice no parking spot near the backpacker guesthouses and turned right in.

We had only just stumbled out of the boat with our waterlogged bags (the plastic bags hadn’t helped so much after the leaks got out of control) when we were greeted by Steve, Stuart and Fox. They had only beaten us by a couple of hours.

Before meeting the others that night I walked through the night market topless looking for a shirt, mine being saturated and stinking of Mekong. I discovered that shopping for shirts when not wearing one puts you in a rather poor negotiating position.

The following morning I negotiated the sale of the wreck, which would have sunk overnight if the locals hadn’t pulled it onto the shore, for $22, an 82% discount from what we paid for it. The others were thrilled at the price - we had all been willing to walk away from it, so $4.50 each was a huge bonus.

We drank it that night.

An interesting epilogue: Both Hannah and Kerrie had nightmares that night about crashing into rocks on a flimsy boat with a clueless crew, and Hannah actually fell out of bed during her dream.

I think we must be the first falangs to get down the Nam Ou. At least three other groups have tried and failed:


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