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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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