Up to Phongsali and Down the Nam Ou
Posted Date: 7/12/20139:58 AM


December 25, 2004
Early one morning in Oudomxai I wedged myself into an overly packed bus and wondered how I was going to survive the nine hour journey to Phongsali as several more people packed and crammed themselves onboard. I shared my seat with someone who thought it was more comfortable than sitting on the bags of oranges (he was using me as a backrest), and I let a little girl who had no seat take the last few square centimeters of my bench. We started out of town but not before picking up a few more people and cargo along the way. It got to the point where closing the door became a problem, but you can always fit more. In the first village we picked up still more people until finally, when the driver had to use his window to enter and exit the bus, and my bottom and my back were aching, we really took off on the dirt road.

Phongsali is perched like an eagle’s nest on a ridge among the mountains of the far North of Laos. The town itself is not of great interest, but the setting is like nothing I had ever seen before. In the morning the fog blankets the valleys below, leaving residents with the feeling of being high above the clouds onboard an airplane.
Not many tourists bother to come this far North, which allowed me to see an authentic Laos, but I realized that I was far out of my comfort zone while walking around the town. Not being able to communicate with anybody made me fell lonely and vulnerable, but I still managed to enjoy myself taking in the scenery.

It took me all day to figure out how to get to Hat Sa where I would get on a southbound boat on the NamOu. The hour-long journey down the mountain to the riverside village involved more cramming and jamming, but in the back of a truck this time. The guy coughing down my neck made me wish I had been one of the late-comers who had to stand on the tailgate breathing the chilly (but germ-free) morning air.
Although I was the only foreigner in the truck, I met a couple of French travelers at the boat landing. It was nice to chit-chat but we were directed to separate boats for the ride South. In fact I ended up with a boat all to myself, or so I thought, for I had been put on the “local” service. For five hours I sat on a plank of wood in a hull barely wide enough to fit two side by side, but 10 meters long. We motored from village to village, picking up locals who were on their way to the market, or to their hunting grounds. In this section of the Nam Ou, the river provides transport, food, and a shower to the villagers. If this wasn’t interesting enough, our fragile little boat had to pass through a number of mild rapids on its way downstream. I got soaked.

The magic of the trip stopped at Muang Khoua, where there is a road. I spent one night there before parking my rear on another plank of wood for another few hours’ journey downstream. Locals prefer to use the roads when they are available so the boats South of Muang Khoua are mainly there for tourists. I teamed up with the other three westerners who were heading South that day. After a game of patience and bargaining with the boat drivers and ticket salesmen we were slicing through rapids onboard a giant motorized toothpick.
A few villagers were picked up along our way, including a pair of terrorized pigs. Towards the end of the journey the scenery of jungle-covered hills became more dramatic. We were amazed by the sight of huge limestone cliffs reaching for the skies along the river. The boat stopped at a beach between two such giants and we were told to get off. We had reached Muang Ngoi.

I hadn’t even set my backpack down in my bungalow-bedroom-by-the-river-with-a-hammock that I had decided to stay for a few days. Muang Ngoi started off as a normal village, but its pristine location and lack of roads (and lack of motorcycles, tuk tuks, trucks and all other noisy things) make it a perfect backpacker destination. In the last 5 years the village has transformed itself into a tourist destination, which means that a visitor is not experiencing an authentic Lao village, but is experiencing a delightful and inexpensive place to spend a few days. Muang Ngoi is a backpacker resort, which felt great after the hardships of the last few days.
During the three days that I spent there I teamed with an athletic Canadian/Italian to hit the trails and visit other villages. Our ambitions of climbing one of the peaks went unfulfilled.
In the evenings it seemed that everytime I sat down to dinner somebody would put a glass of Lao Lao under my nose. As it is impolite to refuse, I drank the fermented sticky rice, and wished the bottle would empty before the next round. That was rarely the case.

Finally on the fourth morning we had decided it was time to keep moving. It was very easy to find a boat to Luang Prabang since many tourists just come up from there for one night then return South.
I spent Christmas eve with two Canadian women I had met in Muang Khoua. We were all quite happy to be done with sitting on planks for a little while and looked forward to wandering around this city, and go shopping at the spectacular night market.

Source: Piegu‘s blog – Blown Fuse Blog – Down hill New Zealand and up rocks in Thailand

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