This is the third chapter of our Laos adventure. We can only recommend you start at the beginning with chapter 1: White spots. Enjoy!
Life along the river
After a great first night’ sleep in our hammocks we woke up with renewed energy and high hopes of how the river might change for the better further downstream. Having cooked a simple breakfast of oats and dried fruits, we jumped into our packrafts and started paddling south.
Nam Ou gradually opened up and widened its shores, allowing us to get a glimpse of local villagers as they fished, took showers and played games in the flowing river. For good reason, most of the friendly folks we passed had a rather jaw-dropping expression on their face as these two albinos suddenly came drifting by…
From time to time villagers had spread small rocks and gravel to direct the flow of the river, in order to concentrate and catch the fish. In these areas we often had to get on land and carry our equipment which turned out to be surprisingly exhausting after just a few crossovers.
To the rescue came four friendly looking woman fishermen. The promptly grabbed our packrafts, and helped us carry our gear over slippery rocks and mud. They were constantly smiling and laughing and Tobias and I both had the feeling of having just encountered true motherly love! Before setting us off they managed to communicate that we should put our life-vests on, and although the water seemed continuously calm, we decided to follow their advice if not but anything to show that we took their concern serious. Shortly after it would turn out to be a good decision.
Rocks & rapids
As larger rock formations started to emerge, the flow of the river became confined and white water begun appearing. We were excited! Nam Ou was turning more and more into the river we had imagined, with a constant opportunity to observe local life coupled with occasional adventurous paddling.
However, our experience of packrafting at this point was limited, to say the least. Except for a few days of white water course in Germany, we hadn’t tried maneuvering these vehicles in frowning water – and surely not with 20 kg of equipment strapped in front. Shortly after our encounter with the helpful fishing ladies, Tobias and I both managed to misread the river, paddle into the wrong side of a small rapid and get ourselves flipped… Having packed all of our gear in water proof bags it didn’t affect our progress, but this experience did remind us that we had to respect the river and take time to scout challenging sections.
Further downstream, the river suddenly became very quiet. We realized why after paddling another half hour on flat water.
Laos essentially acts as the battery for South East Asia. The country is on a constant quest to install more and and more dams on its rivers in order to generate electricity and sell power to its neighboring countries. What we were facing was by dam standards a tiny, old structure, but yet it had dramatically altered the face of Nam Ou for several kilometers.
The dam was surrounded by steep rock slopes and I decided that releasing my packraft down the fish latter and climbing down myself, seemed like a good idea! Tobias weren’t convinced by my reckless move and decided to head to shore, and start carrying his equipment up the rocky canyon.
As I investigated the dam closer it turned out that despite a 5 meter drop, there was no nasty turbulences at its base and that the water was in fact shallow enough to stand upright… I boldly suggested to Tobias that we should paddle it! And obviously him first, as I had already transported my raft to the feet of the dam. Somehow he was convinced that it was only a mildly insane idea – and he went for it.
The Dam had now transformed into a water coaster, and with the cheer of a small audience from the concrete structure, I obviously had to climb back up the fish latter with my packraft and give it a go as well.
Another hour or two further downstream we encountered a somewhat similar dam, that due to rocks on the low side, couldn’t be kayaked. To stop and carry our equipment in several rounds up and down steep slopes wasn’t something we had planned for, but it was a good lesson in terms of the amount of extra time such unknown obstacles consumed – never expect a 5-hour kayak trip in unknown territory to take anything close to 5 hours…
The afternoon was approaching, and the sun started to hang low. We had planned that this initial “test paddle section”, in which we were still be in proximity to civilization the entire journey, would just require one sleepover, but so far, the next town still weren’t in sight. Therefor we decided to take the opportunity to take a stroll along a nearby road looking for small villages, from which we could buy water in case we would have to camp another night. Such small detours are part of what make traveling beyond the trail an amazing experience. Dropping into a tiny road-side village with ten huts and a group of women and children sitting and chatting, is like entering a completely different world. Presumably I looked like an alien, but with a few hand gestures and a lot of laughing the women pointed down the road and indicated that I could purchase water just around the corner – which was indeed the case.
Resupplied we packed our rafts and continued down the Nam Ou – and not too far ahead indicators of Utai started emerging, the town which we had stayed briefly in while changing from one bus to another just two days earlier. Paddling past men and children bathing in the red river, we found a small shore to step on land. The evidence of a city was clearly visible by the amount of plastic trash that was lying around on the small river bed.
With a poor recycling system in such rural towns, and a presumably very low level of education, it’s not hard to imagine why simply dumbing trash along the vast areas of bush becomes the easy solution. As a designer and engineer I can’t help to think that “we” are to blame, the only realistic solution for this type of communities in low income countries, has to do with regulating the packaging manufacturers. With more and more biodegradable and plant-based packaging options, I’m convinced that it should simply be a standard to only be allowed to produce packaging and one-time containers of materials that won’t pollute our environment for the next century, even if not recycled properly.
Having wrapped up the packrafts and stuffed our backpacks, we followed a group of villagers up a small muddy path as it crooked through tiny houses with tin roofs and provisionally build cages for chickens, pigs and what appeared to be a boa. Indeed, another culture shock after a long day of paddling, as Tobias’ face confirm.
Planning for the unknown
Even just two days and one night on the river provided us with a much better idea of the pace which we could progress and what quantities of food and water we would need to bring for a day worth of paddling. By measuring the traveled distance and the remaining length of river with a string, we got rough estimates of how many days there would be in between point of contacts with known villages.
This next section provided us with a last opportunity to practice in a relatively safe environment with the option of bailing out of this hazardous adventure before the long stretch into Phou Den Din nature reserve would start. The following 2 days would go through territory with no mapped villages but would eventually lead us to cross the bridge of the main road of northern Laos, allowing us to refill water or catch some sort of transport if we decided not to continue. What followed after this bridge, was hard to tell. All we knew about this part of the river was based on pixelated satellite photos and a soviet map from the Vietnam war. With our current pace, there would be roughly 4-5 days of paddling from that very bridge unto the next known village given our current pace. However, with no idea of whether the jungle canyons might be full of whitewater it might as well become a 10 day trip, in which case our chances of survival would drop dramatically. With this delightful thought we laid down in our Chinese guesthouse to rest after a long and eventful day on Nam Ou.