River with small boats and rocky cliff
Landscape,  Laos,  Lens-Artists

A day on the Nam Ou

I like nothing more than a boat trip. Whether we are by the sea, a lake or a river; if there is an opportunity to get out on the water I will take it. And the smaller the boat, the better. I have little interest in large cruise ships, the so-called ‘floating hotels’. I want to feel the movement, maybe reach out and dip my hand in the water, or feel the spray on my face as we cut through the waves.

Setting out from Nong Khiaw

When we visited northern Laos last year we travelled part of the way by small wooden motor boat, spending a day on the Nam Ou, a tributary of the mighty Mekong. We boarded our boat in Nong Khiaw, descending the steep bank via some surprisingly stable earth and wood steps. Once on board and moving I was glad I had wrapped up a bit; I was wearing a fleece I had packed and had started to think I might never need!

River with mist and reflected pink clouds
Sunrise from our hotel in Nong Khiaw

Low misty clouds were still lingering around the mountains, making for a very atmospheric landscape. In places the river was quite shallow; our boatman, Mr La, had to take things slowly so as not to scrape the bottom of the boat. Our guide Lee explained that this was due to a dam being built by the Chinese a little way upstream. This was causing a lot of problems for local people, with falling river levels here and rising ones above the dam.

River with small boats and mist
River with wooded hills and mist
River with rocky banks
Early morning on the Nam Ou

The boat went at quite a good steady pace. From time to time we passed small villages or individual subsistence farms, and occasionally saw people down at the water’s edge; washing clothes, maintaining their small boats or setting out in one of them.

Simple buildings and crops on a river bank
A farm by the river
Woman washing clothes in a river
Life by the river

But much of the time we were simply watching the wooded hills drift by, enjoying the movement of the boat and soaking up the atmosphere. Some snippets of video footage might give you an idea of what it was like on board.

Sop Chem

The plan had been to stop off to visit a village, Sop Chem, and then continue in the boat to just below the dam from where a truck would take us the short distance around it to a point where we could board a second boat. But with the water levels this low it was decided that we would be better off taking the truck from Sop Chem for the remaining part of the journey below the dam.

But before that we had the chance to stroll through the village and take some photos. The women here are all weavers, and several were at their looms in front of their houses, while displays of finished fabrics lined the street. The women were happy to be photographed at their work, although no doubt they hoped I might buy something in return – I’m afraid to say they hoped in vain, as there is only so much that I want to buy while travelling and I had already bought souvenirs in Luang Prabang.

When we reached the top of the village our truck hadn’t yet arrived, so Lee suggested we pay a brief visit to the village primary school nearby. It was break time so we didn’t see any lessons, but a teacher sitting at the edge of the play area welcomed us to take photos and explained (via Lee’s translation) that the school had 40 pupils split across six classes, and three teachers – presumably each teacher supervises two classes.

Children playing
Schoolchildren in Sop Chem
Simple classroom
Empty classroom

By now our truck had arrived; so we climbed in and set off on possibly the bumpiest ride I have ever experienced! The combination of very rough road, un-sprung lorry bed and narrow plastic bench made staying seated very challenging indeed!

Large dam with small boats moored in front
The controversial dam – our second boat is the blue one on the far left

Back on the water

Once past the dam however we could board our second boat. It was warmer by now but I was still glad of my fleece. As we rode up the now much deeper river Lee pointed out some planks of wood scattered on the bank and a small temple. This was all that remained of a village that had been evacuated; once the dam is finished in three years’ time this land will be underwater, and the temple submerged.

We pulled over at a sandy spot where we could sit in the shade to eat our packed lunch. After our meal we continued, passing through several rocky stretches where locals were panning for gold. Lee said that they did quite often find some, and on the Mekong too.

Soon after this we disembarked for the final time, in Muang Khua. Mr Ha, our driver, met us here with the car (and our luggage); and we drove the remaining distance to our hotel along winding roads through a string of small villages. I had as always thoroughly enjoyed my day on the water, which I’m sharing in response to guest host John’s Lens Artists challenge theme.

I visited Laos in early 2020, just before the Covid pandemic hit us all


  • lisaonthebeach

    Wow Sarah, how fun to read about, and see photos of this interesting adventure. I am curious, what was the hotel like? I have never traveled to someplace like this and I am very fascinated!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Lisa 🙂 The hotel in Nong Khiaw, where we stayed the night before this boat ride, was fairly simple but comfortable – bungalows perched above the river with a great view of the sunset, and a separate restaurant/reception area with the same views and reasonable food. We spent two nights after the boat trip at a fabulous hotel in the small village of Muang La, run on eco and ethical principles. That was one of our splurge hotels on this trip (we tend to mix mid-range and somewhat fancy!) and was wonderful – a huge room, incredible food, natural hot springs in the river, a lovely pool on a small island linked by a rope bridge 🙂 It was from there that we made visits to the hill tribe villages (https://www.toonsarah-travels.blog/a-village-blacksmith-in-the-lao-highlands/). The lodge works closely with the villagers to ensure visits are non-invasive and support the inhabitants e.g. by helping to finance the school. We love places like that when we travel!!

      • lisaonthebeach

        I bet I could enjoy visiting with you for hours about your amazing travels! Instead I will enjoy your blog posts 😊 The hotels sound wonderful. And the pool on the small island sounds amazing!

          • lisaonthebeach

            Have you not traveled at all since Covid? We’ve still done road trips which have been awesome. In fact I have a new respect for road trips and any outdoor activities along the way. It seems like forever since we’ve flown.

          • Sarah Wilkie

            We’ve had some holidays within England but only short trips and not what I’d call properly ‘travelling’ 😉 I’m desperate to get away for a proper adventure like this! Remember, our country is only small and we’ve already seen a lot of it, so a holiday here, while it can be a fun break and make a change, doesn’t offer the total difference from home that a trip abroad can give you. We’re hoping to get to Paris for a weekend in September, now that rules seem to be loosening up for fully vaccinated travellers here, but we go there so often it still won’t be an adventure – although it would be wonderful to go if we can!

  • Tina Schell

    Your post reminded me very much of a trip we took on the river in Vietnam – it was a fond reminder of the simplicity and hard work of those who live there. Beautifully captured.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Tina 😊 I would have liked to have done a river trip in Vietnam too but we were already packing too much into this trip. We did do an overnight cruise in Halong Bay and I considered writing about that for John’s challenge but I thought this would be a little more out of the ordinary!

  • Rose

    Another intriguing and educational post Sarah. You photograph and write about such a wide variety of places around the world. You’ve seen so many countries, is it in your plans to visit all of them? I had a wonderful time looking over your Destinations section and thinking about the places I may like to visit. You blog is so interesting and so well organized; you could write many beautiful books that would be as delightful to read, as well as to look at.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Rose, you’re very kind in your comments 😊 As I said to John below, it doesn’t seem so strange to me to travel as much as I do. I have many friends from my involvement with Virtual Tourist who travel extensively, and a number of them have been to many more places than I have! I’m not one of those people who are trying to tick off every country in the world obsessively but we do tend to go to new ones each time, at least for our major trips like this. However I would never rule out a return trip 😆 At the moment I’d just be grateful to go anywhere!!

  • maristravels

    Great post, or as the comment above says, a photo-essay really. Your photographs really take one into the scene and with the excellent prose accompaniment it was a truly brilliant journey into the heart of Laos.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much John 😀 No, nowhere near everywhere!! I guess it doesn’t seem so strange to me to have been here as I have many friends who travel extensively, some to many more places than I have and/or to more unusual ones!

  • Anonymous

    An enjoyable read, for sure. Your photo story really fits the theme of the challenge. Thanks for sharing.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you John (not sure why you’re showing as anonymous?) It’s a great idea for a theme and I was torn between several ideas that I came up with, so I may use some of the others in due course 🙂

  • pattimoed

    This is a wonderful photo essay, Sarah. It gives us a window on a part of the world that is largely untouched by commercialization and industrialization. I love that you take trips to out of the way places. It gives you a wonderful sense of “the real world.”

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Patti 🙂 I only wish I could be travelling somewhere like this right now!! You’re right, this region (and from what I saw, the whole of Laos) is relatively uncommercialised and definitely very rural.

Do share your thoughts, I'd love to hear from you! And please include your name in case WP marks you 'anonymous' - thank you