Jamie’s 7th law of travelling: The view is better on the right hand side. Seattle to San Francisco, Amtrak Coast Starlight, rugged Pacific coastline versus continental USA. Mae Kok River, Thaton to Chiang Rai, nicer mountains. QED. Unlike the 5th law, it appears not to be affected by the Coriolis Effect because Sydney Airport to downtown by train, Darling Harbour, The Opera House and the Harbour Bridge.
The boat ride down the Nam Ou was no exception, with the scenery starting at fabulous and going all the way to 11. Starting in the late morning, we found ourselves at the back of a boat, slightly more sturdy than the Mae Kok long tail, but no less cramped. It’s no wonder that Asian people are so friendly if this is how they always have to travel. It’s hard to be angry at someone when their face is 3 feet away from yours and your legs are tangled up. In our case our group at the back liked it so much that we’re going out for drinks tomorrow night.
The green waters of the Nam Ou start in Northern Laos and move south, passing though a number of small towns before it meets the giant and infamous Mekong about an hour out of Luang Prabang, our destination today.
Two separate stops were necessary, once for rapids, and once for shallows, as though the river was being actively capricious. The first time, we were led to believe it was for a brief rest, but upon climbing to the top of the river bank we were pushed into a pick up designed for 10 people. The 22nd, 23rd and 24th passengers stood on the tailgate and hung on. It seems a hallmark of Asian travel that you can do more with less.
During both breaks, we were treated to some entertainment by local children, playing around in the water without a care in the world. The first group delighted in presenting us with wildflowers that they had picked. The second group were a little more mature and clearly realised that they could work the tourists for treats and snacks. After posing for photos and smiling angelically, they began hinting, at first subtly and then leaving no doubt, that they’d like something to eat. Luckily we had a packet of coconut biscuits, which we passed around. They lasted about 2 minutes.
The only minor worry was at the second stop when the boat wouldn’t restart. The captain took a good look at the engine from a number of angles, chin in hand, assessing the cause, until finally he gave up all pretence of finesse, produced a hammer and beat the hell out of it at which it spluttered back into life. Everything looks like a nail…
As we passed the Pak Ou caves, cut into the cliffs like a life-sized ant farm, we were overtaken by two speedboats, blasting past with a full complement of passengers from Huay Xai. I couldn’t see the whites of their eyes beneath their colourful helmets, but maybe that was because they had their eyes shut. It certainly validated our decision to go the long way round.
We arrived just as the sunset over the river. Luang Prabang is a thriving Mecca compared to Nong Khiaw, and there are certainly more tourists, but from a quick first look, it appears to have maintained a unique style and is full of lovely French colonial buildings. If nothing else, the hotel and restaurant signs are done in wood, rather than the neon and yellow standard BeerLaos signs which appear everywhere else in Laos. Understated lighting gives it an ethereal feel and even the main street is elegant.
I’m looking forward to seeing more of it.