River Ou journey begins

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February 3rd 2009
Published: February 12th 2009
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Tuesday February 3rd
We rewarded ourselves for trudging twenty minutes with our rucksacks by breakfasting at the Luang Prabang branch of the Scandinavian Bakery. The food was as delicious usual. In the background BBC World TV News as on and showed Britain carpeted in snow - how we smiled. We bought freshly filled tuna and cheese baguettes. (In Laos cheese inevitably means a triangle of Laughing Cow spread as there are not many dairy cows to be seen - milk is usually soya by default). We just had another five minute trudge left to the boat station. We bought tickets for 100,000 kip each (£9) from the wooden shed that is the ticket office and headed down the dusty slope to locate our boat which the back of the ticket said was number 016. There were about twenty boats of various sizes but none with that number. A helpful local told me to wait at the top of the slope and that our boat was not there yet but to look out for a small one. At the top of the slope we met a young German man also heading to Nong Khiew. It is always reassuring to have a fellow traveller heading your way.
Two small boats appeared and one was ours. The boat was narrow - about five feet wide and about 30 feet long. Our rucksacks were stowed aft and we sat in the seats provided which were very small wooden ones and appeared more suited for the infants of a very junior school. However each thankfully had a small cushion. We discovered that we were a very multinational crew. Two Dutch, Two Austrians, us two Brits and one each of Japanese, Chinese, Slovenian and German. Strangely we were the only couple. In addition there was the Lao driver and his mate. There were even two spare seats. The driver eventually managed to get the engine to start at about the fifth attempt. We edged forward about 10 metres and then stopped. We'd only moved to let the ferry in behind us (one of the strange ferries made joining two boats together with planks to make a makeshift catamaran capable (just) of carrying a small truck). We eventually set off 25 minutes late. After 10 minutes we pulled up alongside what appeared to be an old wreck. It turned out to be an old boat with the side cut away to reveal cylindrical diesel tanks and surprisingly modern garage style pumps for dispensing the fuel. We set off again and stopped after another ten minutes pulling up beside the steep riverbank that was being used as an allotment. The driver clambered up and disappeared for five minutes. Perhaps it was his house on the bank - no explanation was forthcoming. We set off again heading up the Mekong. It is a tricky river as there are numerous sand banks and rocks - some submerged but many visible now in the dry season. Some of the sandy islands have sheer sides about 3 metres high that remind me of ice flows. This stretch of river is reasonably busy as many day excursion boats head up to the 'whisky village' famous for its home brewed whisky and the caves at Pak Ou. At the caves we left the Mekong and the other boats for the quieter Nam Ou tributary which at this time of year is only navigable in shallow draught boats. Immediately there were towering vertical cliffs on the left side - hundreds of metres high. The Nam Ou is still a big river about 80-200m wide and with a quite strong current. The driver had to constantly change course to find the channel of suitable depth. Unexpectedly there were some mildly challenging rapids (nothing of course for us veterans of white water rafting on the Zambesi and Nile ! - but quite exciting as the engine strained against the current and the unforgiving rocks passed very close to the fragile wooden boat). Remembering how the engine had been trouble starting I dreaded to think what would happen if it cut out in a rapid and we floated back downstream under no power and little direction control. The scenery softened to more gentle forested hills. We managed to resist scoffing our baguettes until midday - especially difficult as most of the others seemed to be eating biscuits etc. from the outset. Every few kilometres there was a village of rudimentary shacks with the people engaged in various activities at the waters edge. Some trawled for the riverweed that is eaten here. Others seems to be shovelling gravel, others searching for shellfish. Some even appeared to be panning for gold. Numerous naked little children splashed and played in the water - some excitedly waving - others nervously watching as we passed. There were sizeable herds of up to about twenty water buffalo wallowing near or in the river. Quite a few of them appeared to look almost like albinos (the colour of pale pigs). An interesting sight was the low technology electrical generators at just a few of the villages. These were comprised of a bicycle wheel with fins placed in the current on a floating raft which was attached by a spindle to a plastic wrapped generator. The cable then followed on wooden poles to the village on the riverbank. Presumably the current is sufficient to provide some minimal lighting. At a secluded spot we pulled up on a sandy bank and our captain announced 'toilet' so the ladies headed into the bushes and we peed on the sand. It was glorious to be able to give our bums a rest after sitting on hard wooden seats for four hours - the small cushions having little affect. The scenery became more spectacular as we headed north - the mountains coming closer to the river and more abruptly jutting skyward. All but the most vertical cliffs are clad in luxuriant forest. Strangely there were almost no birds - I saw just a few swift-like ones and a couple of waders all trip. About 20km from our destination a local hailed the boat and we stopped to pick him up complete with a wicker bag containing three live chickens. About 10 minutes from our destination a novel thing happened - it started to rain - the first drops we've seen since New Years Eve back in Kampot, Cambodia. Luckily it eased off slightly as we rounded the final bend and the road bridge came into sight that signalled that we had reached our destination of Nong Khiew. We disembarked and clambered up the dust track and crossed the bridge having read that the accommodation with best views was on the east bank. So it proved as we found a splendid simple bungalow (wooden shack, squat loo, cold shower) high on the riverbank with a balcony (with obligatory hammock) with superb views over the bridge and river - and all for 50,000kip about £4.50 a night. Highly pleased (especially when we discovered we'd secured the last one in this position - our next two neighbours, the German and the Chinese man secured theirs just before us). I felt a bit guilty as the rain began again and I bumped into the Japanese and Slovenian ladies who were just being turned away. (I saw them later and they'd found accomodation). We settled into our balcony life with the usual BeerLao - unfortunately no sunset visible through the rain. The rain eased off and we went for a quick explore back across the bridge - the main street could be straight out of a western - a dusty track with wooden buildings along its length. We bought some essentials - including an anti mosquito coil. An unusual feature of our little bungalow is a wickerwork mousetrap hanging in the corner - so far no occupants. Also the floorboards have huge gaps where the reed matting does not reach, through which we have a birds eye view of the Laos family living below. Outside on the balcony is an even bigger gap about 2 foot long x 3 foot wide which is directly above their kitchen. The busiest member is a small boy who hares around on a tricycle. They seem to be very happy - with lots of laughter and singing. Our balcony must have the best view in town so we sat out in the late afternoon sun and just enjoyed the magnificent view of lovely landscape with laid back Laotian life happening before us. We ventured out again only to cross the road to the nearest restaurant which was very quiet as we consumed some simple Laos fare. I ordered sticky rice and got a portion big enough for three. The restaurants are very basic - almost an extension of the family's living room and all the more charming because of this. They carry very little stock and so send a family member scurrying out to buy things once you've ordered. ( I imagine that if you order chicken you might hear the squawking in the back yard soon afterwards). We always read the menu and gauge the prices by looking at the cost of a big bottle of BeerLaos. If it is 10,000 kip (90p) it is standard, if it is 12,000 kip it's okay, but if it's 15,000 kip they are likely to charge gourmet prices for the food as well, and it's not for us backpackers. At some restaurants in Laos (and Cambodia) the youngest member of the family is sometimes the most fluent in English so you often find yourself ordering the meal via a seven year old intermediary. There is only electricity, provided by a generator, from about 6pm-10pm and this means only a flickering 20 Watt bulb - no sockets so it was early to bed as usual - the only sound being what seemed to be hundreds of croaking frogs by the riverbank just outside.

Wednesday February 4th.

Up soon after daybreak and what a glorious one. From the balcony I watched a layer of morning mist softly drifting down the valley. Above the mist the karst peaks that dominate the Nam Ou valley at this point were bathed in early morning sun. In the next valley a layer of perfect cloud nestled. Added to this natural scene were those of the awakening riverside town. The road bridge was busy with mopeds and children cycling or walking to school in little groups. We ourselves crossed the bridge soon after and ambled up the dirt track of the main street. Chickens scratch around everywhere and the usual lazy dogs move only reluctantly when a moped passes. There are stalls selling food (mostly meaty such as chicken feet or small sausages) cooked on barbecues and several shops selling general supplies. (noticeably every one seems to sell a form of rat trap). As we walked we met about 200 schoolchildren who were parading, holding banners, and heading back across the bridge. We'd noticed several men in uniform earlier and others in smart civilian clothes but wearing medals. Apparently it is some special military anniversary. We walked down to the hut that forms the boat office. It seems to be a focal point where the local men collect to chat. We bumped into Olivier, the Frenchman we met in Luang Prabang. He is heading up river to Muang Ngoi Neua which is our next destination. Near to the boat landing we sat at the only table outside a simple cafe and I had baguette and egg with strong dark Lao coffee. Jen had an enormous pancake. An unsettling sight near our table was a live chicken sealed in a rice bag which kept moving around and occasionally poked his beak through a small hole. Jen would have liked to set it free. We returned over the bridge. I noticed that in the grounds of our guest house there is a now disused concrete machine gun bunker guarding the bridge which is a reminder of unhappier times.
We pached our day rucksack and headed out on a walk to caves at Tham Pha Tok where the local people hid during the war of 1964. The sun had returned with full force after yesterdays rain and the route was mainly shadeless and so was quite tough. We walked through a paddy field towered over by near vertical cliffs. It is a very dramatic landscape. We paid a small admission fee. The original bamboo ladders are still in place but thankfully they've been superseeded by wooden ones leading up about 30m to the cave entrance. The cave is huge inside and signs indicate the former use of each part such as hospital and surprisingly something labelled the telex room. It is a brilliant natural hiding place as there are several alternative exits. At one point it is necessary to use a bamboo ladder to descend to one section. The rungs were very thin and not designed for a westerner (Jen declined using this optional extra). Thankfully the rungs held. On the way back to town we stopped off at a lovely little café for a fruit juice. Outside a large goup of Lao men were playing noisy and lively games of boules on two courts. There was a fstive atmosphere and quite a few bottles of BeerLao were being consumed. Next door was a marquee which seemed to be for some special event associated with the military day celebrations. A big banner outside celebrated the military in soviet style art. Judging by the 4x4's in the car park, there were some bigwigs present. We headed to a small noodle stall for lunch. It was just two shaded tables outside a little hut/kiosk. Two friendly young locals who could speak reasonable English asked us to join them at their table. One called for extra glasses and shared his big bottle of BeerLao with us (as usual ice cubes are added to the beer). We had excellent pad thai. Sharing the table were also a German couple and a Spanish/Italian couple (what an fiery combination the latter must make - I'd like to witness their arguments). We tried some deep fried riverweed which we've seen the locals foraging for and preparing. It's a bit like eating potato crisps. We took a beer back to our balcony and had a lovely relaxing afternoon watching the idyllic scene of towering cliffs and children playing in the river whilst small boats plied up and down river with people and cargo. On the far riverbank was a group of almost feral looking naked children who looked like a pack of wild animals from that distance as they careered playfully up and down covered in muddy sand. It reminded me of watching wildlife in Africa. I envied how young, innocent and carefree they were. Just before the sun set there were the usual groups of women bathing in their sarongs in a almost ritualistic way. They each take a little plastic basket down with them containing their soaps and shampoo and give their children a good scrub at the same time.


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