Travelling by river in Laos

Many rivers flow through Laos, making them one of the main ways of transportation in the country. Beyond just going from point A to point B, travelling by river is also a way of adjusting to the Laotian pace and discovering life in settlements along the banks. If it is very popular among travellers to take a slow boat along the majestic Mekong River to or from Luang Prabang, other rivers offer a more peaceful and authentic way of travelling (and far less crowded!).

The recognisable noise of the diesel engine of the long-tail boat we are seated in announces our departure. We are leaving Phongsaly and the Akha villages in the north of Laos from the Hatsa boat landing on the scenic Nam Ou River to reach Luang Prabang most likely two or three days from now.

The Nam Ou River calmly winds its ways southwards, as we are leaving behind the dramatic mountains bordering China. Apart from a few long-tails we cross that are navigating up river, on their way to the market of Hatsa, we feel lost in the middle of the jungle. The forests along the banks reflect on the mirror-like surface of the water. A fisherman standing in his boat with a bamboo weaved conical hat announces a close-by village. A few gardens set up along the banks appear in the river bend. Soon, about a dozen bamboo woven houses on stilts are recognizable. Our long-tail is slowly approaching and we are stopping in a small settlement along the Nam Ou. Kids in torn cloths stand barefoot by the sandy boat landing where they are impatiently waiting, and locals jump off with plastic bags and cardboard boxes full of the purchases they made at the market. The journey resumes at a nonchalant pace.

After many other stops, and about 70 kilometres down Hatsa, a massive construction forces us to disembark in Sampan: dams are being built on many Laotian rivers, disrupting water transport. Locals and travellers have to hop off boats, reaching the next landing by car on a dirt-road, often newly built to supply manpower and hardware to the dam. Our only option to reach the town of Muang Khua is a rusty pickup truck acting as the official transport. Overlooking the Nam Ou River from a winding dirt road, we feel like playing in a remake of The wages of fear. This becomes especially true when the always smiling driver makes us realize his breaks do not work on this road made of ups and downs and curves…

The next morning at sunrise, we are waiting by the dock for our next river section to Nong Khiaw via Muang Ngoy Neua. An old woman is picking up some vegetables from her garden along the bank that must be flooded during the rainy season. A younger one is bathing in the Nam Ou for a morning toilet. Young monks in their bright orange robes are chatting by the boats. More travellers are standing by, as many are coming from nearby Vietnam and continuing their route through Laos. After our adventures with the Akha tribes, it feels like we are slowly stepping back into civilization and the pace of the river transport is ideal.

A few hours later, after a few rapids that were skilfully passed by our long-tail boat driver, we land on the dock of the peaceful village of Muang Ngoy Neua. Until recently, Muang Ngoy Neua was only reachable by boat. Today, a dirt road connects it to surrounding settlements. We follow the locals, jumping off to explore the area.

Setting of for a hike towards the remote Hmong village of Ban Hoy Seen, a dusty trail leads us through rice fields with karst formations in the background. A seasonal bamboo bridge crosses a translucent river stream. The massive mouth of a cave prompts us to study the geology better and to realize that many caves are drilled inside of the karst formations. Today a fun exploration, they were used by locals as shelters during the secret war during which Laos was heavily bombed.

A few kilometres further, we reach the tribal Hmong village of Ban Hoy Seen. It is quiet but from the crowing of a few roosters, and some kids playing. Houses are on stilts and exclusively made of bamboos. The laundry is drying on bamboo sticks, and the omnipresent chili peppers on baskets on roofs. A few opium plants grow well protected under a bamboo cage in tiny gardens. Inhabitants are welcoming.

Back in Muang Ngoy Neua, we contemplate the river view. Sad to leave, we are also impatient to discover the next river section between Muang Ngoy Neua and Nong Khiaw, renowned as one of the most beautiful ones of Laos. Early in the morning, we embark in our last long-tail boat until Luang Prabang, as another dam forces us to use land transport for the last stretch between Nong Khiaw and Luang Prabang. The one-hour ride amongst dramatic karst formations half covered in the mist is unforgettable.

A few bungalows on the bank indicate that we are getting closer: the bridge across the Nam Ou appears and the town of Nong Khiaw reveals itself. More developed, it is a transport hub where boats and buses meet. Nong Khiaw is set in a beautiful environment, surrounded by karst mountains with the Nam Ou River winding its way through. More touristy, still, it could keep its small town feel. As a few kids in uniforms coming out of school try their few words of English on us, we already feel closer to the very touristy Luang Prabang that we will be happy to discover after visiting the remote Northern Laos.

Claire & Marcella

Travel tips:

  • Many, many, many dams are being built in Laos, and river transport is changing fast. Check for information locally on the latest conditions, but everywhere a boat goes, land transport will pick you up if a dam is in the way, as locals still have to reach their destinations.
  • Between water and land transport, we recommend the first as it is often safer and more enjoyable.
  • Should you want to disconnect from it all, there is a small guesthouse in Ban Hoy Seen.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area!

2 thoughts on “Travelling by river in Laos

  1. Yes the river is indeed the life blood of the country serving as it main transport link. But soon roads will be built. And road traffic comes thereafter!

  2. Pingback: Interactive Map – Laos | Best regards from far,

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