I’ve given myself a bit more time to play with in Laos, as in other countries I’ve felt like I was on some sort of traveller conveyor belt, always moving on to the next town.
Good job, too. Getting from place to place in Laos can take days, and a lot of patience, as you often have to wait for more people to fill up the transport, before you can leave at all. So I’m quite glad I decided to concentrate on Northern Laos and try to see more of this rugged, mountainous region alternating between dense forest and wide open rice fields.
My trip around Laos started in capital Vientian,e but it was north of Nong Khiaw, a little river town about 3 hours from the city of Luang Prabang, that it felt like my adventures really began.
North of Nong Khiaw
After a day or two cycling, trekking and kayaking around the vivid green landscape, it was time to start my trip up the Nam Ou river. I’d initially looked at travelling the Mekong from the Thai border at Houayxay to Luang Prabang itself. But reading about the wilder, quieter Nam Ou, with its limestone karsts and lost-world feel, this was the river journey I wanted.
Estimating that it might take 2 or 3 days to get to the provincial capital of Phongsaly from Nong Khiaw, with several overnights along the way, I prepared myself for some stop-start manoeuvring for a while.
Up the Nam Ou
The first leg of the boat journey as blissful – all hair blowing in the breeze and none of the nauseating twists and turns of a breakneck bus journey up here. There was an hour or so when our boat broke down and we had to wait for another, but when the sun is sinking slowly behind leafy hills on either side, there’s not much complaining you can do.
Muang Khua, my stopover for the night, was nowhere near as pretty as NK, but I wouldn’t be here for long. This was why I found it hard to stay patient the next morning, when the answer to the question ‘is the boat going today?’ was answered by ‘come back at 11.30’, or (later) ‘come back tomorrow’.
I did eventually set off that day, as a few more bodies turned up to go to Muang Sampan – not my next destination, but I was assured I would get another boat to Hat Sa (the nearest river port to Phongsaly) from there.
Foiled by the town of Dam
On arriving at Muang Sampan, I was greeted by the sight of…well, no one. My boat driver (the same one who’d assured me this was a solid plan) disappeared in search of my next transport to Hat Sa, which turned out to be a motorbike. I would have to go overland to a place called Dam, before getting another boat.
Apart from the fact that ‘Dam’ was in fact, a dam. A dam that was being built (presumably after the latest guidebooks had been written) across the section of river I needed to be on. So after a rocky bike ride, and an even rockier scramble down what I can only describe as a scree, I eventually made it onto a boat to Hat Sa. There are no photos of this bit. It was too traumatic. The words: ‘Never tell Dad you did this’ definitely sprang to mind.
Hat Sa and local Laos life
By the time I reached Hat Sa, it was getting dark, so I would have to spend the night. Hat Sa is not kitted out for tourists, but as I roamed the streets (well, street) for eateries, I ended up being invited to join a BBQ with a family party. A few sausages and beers later and we were all friends.
The next morning I waited in the sunshine for the shared truck that was going to take me – finally – to Phongsaly. And with a little encouragement, the people of Hat Sa started responding to my ‘Sabaidee’s (‘hello’) with a smile and a few were even happy for me to take their portrait.
The ride from Hat Sa to Phongsaly was a little bum-pummelling to say the least, but I saw some fantastic snapshots of mountains and life therein, including a mysterious sack in a box that this local man brought on board the truck. No idea what was in there (a crab, maybe?) but it was definitely moving.
Life in Phongsaly
Phongsaly itself was just as unused to visitors. Again, with a little politeness on my side, people were more forthcoming – and I got enthusiastically ambushed by the party of children carrying unseasonable snow in a can (see top image).
The highlight of my trip here was a visit to an Akha village, where I got to help one of the local ladies collect veg for lunch. Said lunch was washed down with locally-made lao-lao (rice whisky – in this case, roughly the same colour as the bright green rice fields it came from).
I said goodbye to this remote region with mixed emotions. It was not always a comfortable experience, especially when it felt like I was the only Westerner in town and people would often greet me with cries of ‘Falang, falang’ (which used to mean French, then American, but now seems to be just generic ‘foreign person’).
But I would recommend Phongsaly for anyone who wants to see life as it is in Laos, rather than what they want you to see in the tourist zones. Just make sure you have enough days spare to get there!