The idea of our packrafting adventure on the Nam Ou river was born long before our Indian/Nepal off-trip. We visited a part of the river a year earlier and instantly felt in love with the magnificent landscape of Northern Laos as well as its people and their relaxed lifestyle. We asked Anna’s parents to bring our packrafts from Europe, so that we could re-visit Laos after our 9-month-long visit to India and Nepal. We must admit – we were a bit tired of constant pedalling in the Himalayas and the perspective of using the upper part of our body and spending a few weeks in a bit different environment was just simply perfect.
We must admit – our packrafting skills were nothing comparing to our cycling experience. We bought the boats just half a year before our journey started and only did a series of short weekend trips in Norway and did some exploration on the Canary Islands. We never had a real chance to paddle on a proper river; we knew the basics, we did some crazy surfing in the packrafts here and there, but never tried our luck in the real rock parks, strong currents, never properly learnt to catch eddies or perform a river rescue.
We wanted to paddle the entire length of the river, but there was a difficult section of the river (almost a quarter of it to be honest) that appeared to be way too risky to run without life vests, skills and – most importantly – possibility to get help. The difficult part of Nam Ou winds through Phou Den Did National Protected Area – a bio-diversity scenic reserve, where the only settlements are those of poachers and where the river is so wild (class 3), that there are no local boat drivers daring to risk their wooden vessels on its rapids.
Nevertheless, we decided to travel as far North as it would make sense (where the river was deep enough to launch the boats) and ended up just 50 kilometres from the Chinese border, in the town of Gnot Ou, where we inflated our boats and started our 2 weeks long river escapade.
We had a short section of the river to try ourselves – from our starting point to Bantang village. The river was rather slow and there were not that many rapids, so we could see how we liked it. We had no problem with finding a spot for camping – the river banks were quite flat and not that overgrown.
Some parts of the river were too shallow to paddle – we had to walk down the river, towing our boats.
With a bit of anticipation we passed through our first rapids and quickly discovered, that the packrafts are as stable on the river, as they are on the ocean.
Going down the river was rather slow and the faster running water quickly became the award for the hard work of paddling the lazy bits. The encounters with the locals – who seemed to be very surprised to see us in the middle of the jungle on those strange, balloon-like kayaks, were interesting for both sides.
From the last village before the difficult part (Bantang) we took a local bus to Phongsali, from where we returned to the river. It was a bit wider and deeper at that point and there was much more traffic – local boats transporting the goods from one village to the other.
Pumping our packrafts up was a real show for the local children!
Water buffaloes, probably the coolest domestic animals of Asia:
We were a real attraction for the locals!
Some of the rapids we encountered were really scary, but we did not skip even one. The wildest ones were usually quite long, and there was no chance to set up the camera to take a picture of us.
One of the reasons why we decided to go down the Nam Ou was the huge project of numerous hydroelectric power plant building sites. At one point we had to take a local bus to the other side of the dam under construction.
Camping along the river was never a problem. We packed quite light, we had left our sleeping bags in Bangkok and the first nights were a bit cold. The further South we went, and lower in altitude, the warmer it was.
The destruction of the jungle takes a form of slash-and-burn technique, that we observed in other parts of Asia as well.
The locals practically live of the river: they catch fish, birds, frogs and even snakes are being caught.
People live in small villages along the river. They lead a basic lifestyle, some of the families cultivate small gardens. The electricity is provided by little hydro power generators and used to power satellite dishes and TVs. We used to stop in the villages to re-supply (buying sticky rice, vegetables and Chinese cookies) and most of the locals, especially children, were rather shy.
Local delicacies: pumpkin with its flowers and a squash.
The parts of the river just before Muang Ngoi were the most beautiful. Huge mountains, cliffs, caves and jungle made this part worth a visit!
We enjoyed the river a lot, especially its rapids. We had a nice time camping on the river banks and meeting the locals. We were a bit sad that we could not visit the bio-diversity reserve and that we had to skip the difficult part, but there are those situations where safety is more important than even the best adventure.
We liked paddling, but we found it a bit too slow, especially comparing to cycling. We used to make only 15-20 kilometres a day (27 was our longest day) and slow sections were rather boring. At the end of the trip we were ready to go back to Bangkok and carry on towards Malaysia. We were happy that we could visit the river once again and that we could still witness the life of the locals before the total destabilization of the region due to the hydro power plants.