The boat ride we took from Siem Reap to Battambang in Cambodia was a memorable one so we thought we’d give it another go in Laos. From Luang Prabang we chose Nong Khiaw as our next stop, more remote and further into nature. Jesse described it as a small river village where you could do great hikes to waterfalls and possibly even laze down the river in a tube. Sounded perfect.
When we arrived at the dock, there seemed like way too many people to fit onto one boat. They crammed as many people onto the first as possible with one German woman downright refusing to get on due to lack of bench space (this boat had 4 comfy seats facing forwards at the front and then 2 long wooden benches that spanned on either side of the boat facing each other at the back where 12 more people sat shoulder to shoulder). She claimed she’d bought a ticket for a boat that had a maximum of 6 people. I highly doubt that was true! When the next boat docked, the remaining people hopped on but I guess we weren’t quick enough (I was sure there would be a third boat based on the fact that there were more of us remaining than there were on the first boat but there wasn’t) and by the time we got on there were no seats left. This boat was configured a bit differently with several rows of 2 wooden seats facing forward and then 2 comfy chairs at the back. Jesse and I were told we’d have to sit on the low riding 2×4 that was in the leg space in front of the two comfy chairs at the back. This was not a bench by any stretch of the imagination. This was clearly a plank of wood that was structurally holding the boat together. Knowing there wasn’t much else we could do about it, we shrugged our shoulders and sat down.
Holy crap. Talk about uncomfortable. Jesse’s knees where practically in his mouth when he sat down and cracked so loudly I didn’t know if he would be able to get up again. Usually I can sleep in just about any type of seat, but even I was thinking this was going to be a looooong 5 hour ride. Oh yeah, that was another thing. Jesse thought the ride would take 5 hours but it actually took 8. It was probably better that we didn’t know in advance. We might not have gotten on.
Anyway, the boat eventually set off and we glided down the Mekong River at a nice pace. We were sitting so low to the ground that we didn’t quite have the ability to comfortably lean out heads out the side to catch a continuous breeze. But there was a decent amount of space between us and the next seats up so at least we could stretch our legs a little. The two people sitting behind us in “first class” felt so bad for us that they put their big backpacks in front of their legs so we could lean back against them as backrests. It was a nice gesture but we didn’t have the heart to tell them that it didn’t really make much impact on our comfort. They also offered to let us sit in their seats every so often but it felt too cruel to make them take ours. We were just happy they didn’t mind that we were so shifty and taking up their leg space.
The driver of the boat made a stop about 30 min in and eventually came back and threw us 2 cushions to sit on. Guess even he felt bad for us too. The extra bit of padding definitely helped our very sore butts at first, but it didn’t take long for us to start to feel the hard wood underneath again. Oh well!
Anyway, the boat eventually turned from the Mekong to the Nam Ou river and we passed by some beautiful scenery. Again a lot of karst mountain sides and caves. The scenery is so stunning, but since we’d seen similar things before in Vietnam it didn’t make up for the discomfort we were enduring quite enough. Plus this time we didn’t pass by laughing, waving children the whole time like in Cambodia which made us a bit disappointed. But comfort aside it was still an enjoyable ride, and had we been sitting a little bit higher up and possibly on an actual chair I’m sure our memory of the ride would have been quite different.
We were moving upstream most of the time so at one point all the passengers were asked to get off the boat and hike for 10 minutes across a small island to meet the boat further up. I guess with all our weight the boat’s motor wouldn’t have been able to push through the current with enough power due to some small rapids and narrow squeezes. Glad our boat didn’t run aground!
When we did finally arrive at Nong Khiaw, it looked like a lovely town from the water. Many river view bungalows could be seen from down below and the surrounding area beyond the town looked fairly untouched. When we got off the boat, the wife of the owner of the little guesthouse Jesse had been texting back and forth with on the boat ride was there to pick us up and show us the way. We had to walk a little ways, but she took my backpack with her on her motorbike with her adorable little 3 year old son. Lucky me!
When we arrived we were shown to a nice basic room overlooking the river. We weren’t yet sure how long we’d stay but wanted to do a hike called the 100 Waterfalls trek which was supposed to be beautiful. When we spoke with the guesthouse owner about it, he told us he thought it wasn’t a good time of the year to go because the waterfalls would mostly be dried up. He suggested another one (he conveniently also had his own tour company) where we would see a bigger waterfall that did have water so we agreed to sign up.
That night we walked out to check out the town. Our guesthouse was in a more local neighborhood with a school right next door. It was nice to see all the kids playing and dancing near by. When we hit the main strip of restaurants (there is sort of one path that starts on one side of the river and continues across the bridge) again we seemed to be running into the same Luang Prabang issues. No local restaurants, only ones catered to tourists, just not as upscale. We ended up at one recommended by the guesthouse owner, but the food was over-salted and bland at the same time. In addition, it felt like we were surrounded exclusively by young, arrogant backpackers with whom we felt so old compared to. I know I’m being overly judgmental and generalizing here, but the vibe just didn’t suit us at all. It didn’t feel like the type of place we could stay for very long. We hoped we’d feel differently the next day.
Despite the restaurant having excellent online reviews, the breakfast we had the following morning was equally as underwhelming and over-salted. Luckily the hike turned out to be very enjoyable. There was a pretty big group of us, and it started with another longboat ride where this time we snagged the “first class” seats and sat comfortably the whole ride. Our guide (whose name completely eludes me right now) was a young Lao guy who had grown up in the area, and his father had come along for the boat ride because he wanted to go see a guy in a neighboring village upstream about buying a water buffalo to eat at an important upcoming family gathering. Our guide had excellent English and to our surprise actually had done some traveling around Asia himself (to Thailand and Burma) which honestly is something we don’t encounter very often. He was sharp and very informative and gave us a very honest perspective of Lao people’s struggles during the war and even current issues surrounding how tourism is impacting Lao’s natural and cultural identity. It was refreshing and impactful for us and gave us something to appreciate about this country that we still didn’t feel we’d really discovered yet. We first had a visit to a local village along the river, where we observed people at work (blacksmithing, slicing and drying tobacco, tending to their animals). We also checked out the local school, which we felt sort of bad about for interrupting and distracting their class. We learned that starting next year the Lao government will start providing free (or heavily subsidized) schooling for all children right through to high school but up until then every family has had to pay to have their children in school, which often resulted in kids never attending. Some of the other tourists had brought little marker sets and pens to give to the kids, which is one of those things we often feel quite torn about. After they gave the first marker set to one little girl, she seemed pretty thrilled but then of course so many other kids immediately came to ask for more. At this point the guide stepped in since there was nowhere near enough to go around and suggested instead he would give the rest to the chief of the village so that the kids wouldn’t think that whenever tourists came they should expect gifts. Anyway, this kind of thing always makes us uncomfortable because you just never know what our impact as tourists is having on these villages that we visit. After that the guide also suggested that another way to donate is to ask the school what they need (textbooks, stationary, etc.) and give a donation to the school instead of directly to the children. Seemed like a wise suggestion.
Anyway, the hike itself was nothing special, through a few more dried up rice paddy fields (nothing like Sapa) and then up along a slippery waterfall path of rock. When we did finally make it to the top, the pool of water at the bottom was not exactly spectacular but thankfully big enough to wade around in and cool off. Probably would have been amazing in wet season! Then the guide set up a big Lao lunch spread for us where we learned how to roll little balls of sticky rice with our hands and use that to pick up the other surprisingly tasty dishes of long green beans, tofu with veggies and egg omelette. There was also big sheets of fried riverweed (similar to seaweed but almost better) which is a local speciality. He then put out some bananas and even fresh tamarind that he had just plucked from the garden which was so sweet and tart and awesome. We were hungry from the hike and everything tasted amazing!
We headed back to the boat and returned to town. After another mediocre dinner, I decided I wanted to move on again. Even though the surrounding environment was truly beautiful, somehow I just didn’t like the way we were spending all our time always within the confines of tourist-specific activities or establishments that had no character and eating mediocre food. The tour today was great but we wanted more. Maybe I was also just missing Vietnam, but either way I just wasn’t feeling it. Laos just hadn’t clicked for us yet, so we hopped on a bus to Luang Namtha the next morning.