Up the River in a Skinny Boat
Trip Start Jan 13, 2009
70Trip End May 17, 2009
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Where I stayed
The boat had only six tiny wooden, kindergarten sized seats and two tiny benches in the back. With all of our gear, it was pretty full and I was lucky to get a seat. One of the Finns was too big and chose to lie on the floor for the entire duration of the trip, sleeping nearly the whole way. His friend told me it was quite a remarkable skill his friend had, he had witnessed him sleeping in every position, on every mode of transport, basically missing the most of trip thus far.
What he missed was truly stunning landscapes and watching the amazing skill of our boat captain. It is the dry season here in South East Asia and the rivers are at their lowest making boat travel very difficult in some places and impossible or too dangerous in others
We started on the Mekong and about 30 minutes in found the confluence of the Nam Ou and headed north. The river color changed from the murky brown of the Mekong to crystal clear of the Nam Ou and the path through the mountains was spectacular. I find myself using spectacular in every description, but truly, it is. The mountains: limestone Karsts, just straight out of the land and some are raw rock faces and others covered in jungle. About an hour up the river our boat captain took his pants off while steering the boat, then continued on. We were all a little perplexed as he sat there, cross-legged, steering the boat in his underpants........It wasn't long before we figured it out. The boat slowed in the very shallow water and he jumped out to push and steer it through the rocks. Another empty boat came along and was doing the same thing. The water was about ankle deep so Richard, Wilfred and the big Finn, jumped in to assist the two boats through the very shallow parts. Very functional - teamwork.
Then back into the boat and through some serious rapids. Big fun. After a few hours, we all started to wonder if the boat would stop to allow us to pee. Sure enough, Captain Underpants pulls over to an open riverside beach and tells us ten minutes and drops his drawers and has himself a well deserve red long pee
Back to the river - the scenery was stunning as was the river activity all the way up. People live on, in and around all the rivers. This particular one is a haven for gold mining and whole villages are constructed on the river - on bamboo platforms and men, women and children mine for flecks of gold. It is really very primitive and looked dangerous for the children. They have snorkeling masks, a breathing tube that stretches to the river side and baskets strapped to their backs. They dive down, or stand and scoop, the river bottom silt and put it in their baskets and bring it to the side, dump it and the women pan for gold like in the Klondike: washing the silt in trays, looking for gold flecks. We were discussing how little you would have to find with Gold at over $900 ounce now. As with everything here, very human labor intensive. The river energy is harnessed with Bamboo waterwheels to provide power for some part of the operation. Pretty cool to see.
The other neat thing about this river area is the predominance of Albino Water Buffalos. There is a recessive gene in the pool here and about a third of the Water Buffalos, and there are lots of them, are baby pink and fuzzy - like newborn mice. As they age, they get sunburned and turn a little toasty but still stand out as they lay in the river, only their heads above the water
Arrived in Nom Khiew to find a village out of National Geographic. Quirky, dusty dirt roads, bamboo huts and no one meeting the boat to offer accommodation. Hmmm, we collectively said and hauled our own stuff into town. Didn't take long to understand why no one met the boat - there seemed to be no room at the inn. This town has just been put on the travelers map - most people who headed upstream went one hour further so tourism started in this town only last year. We schlepped around to find most guesthouses full and eventually the German and I grabbed two bamboo huts overlooking the river and the Americans, frugal travelers they are but worrying about creepy crawlers, decided it was just too basic and found an expensive place up the path. My hut was on stilts, had a mattress on the floor, a mosquito net, a window overlooking the river, a squat toilet, cold water and many gaping holes in the walls. On the boat up I had read, in the Finns guidebook, about some place that was nice but had a rat problem. They suggested that rats don't like netting so to tighten the mosquito net quite tightly
Survived the night, got up early, cruised the town and was already bored by noon. One very interesting thing about the town is it has a high school with 1000 students and 38 teachers. As I was wandering very early, trying to catch the morning market but didn't as it had folded before 7:30, I did get to see the hoards of kids arriving every which way - walking for miles, bicycles, boats, tuk tuks. So many kids in such a small town. They also had a huge primary school and a middle school so the population exploded through the day.
In the back of my mind was the fact that my return ticket home was for March 24 and I had not attempted to extend it. I worried, with communication issues being what they are in Laos that it might take me some time and energy to get it changed. I decided not to continue up the river to near the China border but to take the two o'clock bus back to Luang Prabang and get my plans sorted out for the next forward journey.
While I was eating on the roadway ( see picture) waiting for the bus, a couple from Australia joined me. Steve, a Fireman and his wife from Queensland
Money in Laos is difficult to access as there are not the bank machines and infrastructure we have come to expect. While waiting for the bus I saw a young Irish guy trying to negotiate a ride with the bus ticket seller as he had run out of cash and could not access any money up here in the north. He was short a few dollars and couldn't get out of town. I made merit and gave him 50,000 kip - just under 10 bucks which opened up his possibilities greatly. I have been rescued and helped every time I have been in trouble and it was nice to be able to repay some of that and this guy was so relieved I know he will pay it forward. We had a great visit while I waited for the bus.
Minibus back to LP seemed great, we all had our own seats until the driver started stopping at stores, schools, houses, looking for more passengers. It seemed like he was actually talking people into coming to LP. It didn't take long for him to find some takers leaving us all squished for the ride back to the big town. Only 3.5 hours so no big deal.
Funny how 3.5 hours, like a trip up to Edmonton, takes on a whole thought process whether it is worth it, seems so far, yada yada and here 3.5 hours in a squished minivan seems like a really short journey......