Traveling the Nam Ou (Ou River), a tributary of the Mekong, provides a unique opportunity to observe Laotian daily life in a pristine natural environment.
This is one of the more intrepid river journeys one can make – if the boats depart at all. They are unlikely to do so in the dry season (roughly late March to June), when the water level in the Ou River is just too low to allow boats to pass, but they also only leave when there are sufficient passengers, mostly tourists as the local people prefer the much faster, and cheaper, but far less picturesque and adventurous, bus service.
But if you do manage to get on board the trip will be an unforgettable experience, through pristine karstified mountain landscape and deep-blue mirroring water pools, occasionally interspersed with shallow rapids which the narrow boat only just manages to negotiate. Daily Laotian life unfolds along the banks, and consists mostly of harvesting river weeds; a large part of the population seems to be involved in collecting this, people standing up to their waists in the water and scraping the rocky bottom, especially around the rapids, for long, green, slimy weeds, which are happily put over a shoulder, or in baskets and canoes. The weed is later dried and fried, and makes a good snack. Gold panning, fishing and animal husbandry – pigs and water buffalos – are also common activities and provide ever-changing attractive scenery.
The trip goes in three stages, first from Luang Prabang to Nong Kiauw, then to Muang Khua, and on the third day to Hat Se, which is a short drive away from Phongsaly. Each stage will take you most of the day, depending on progress (6-7 hours if nothing goes wrong), and only the last stage is a public ferry. Boats will invariably be providing hard, wooden benches or chairs only (life vests may provide some relief), no toilets, no provisions (bring your own), and no in-flight entertainment. They are also increasingly noisy the further you get to the back, where the engine is located.
There are plans for up to seven Chinese-built dams in the river, so it is unclear for how long this service will continue to operate.