Kayaking the Nam Ou in Nong Khiaw

Backpacking Nong Khiaw

The Nam Ou river flowed beneath us with growing resistance as we pushed our kayak off the muddy bank and into the current. The guy renting us the kayak laughed when we told him our plan to paddle upstream.

The current is strong you know” he said with a laugh. “Not easy”, he added.

Have you seen these?”, I said, pointing to my biceps and posing like Arnie. He laughed again and beamed me a smile. That’s when I knew I had him.

I need a good price my friend”, I quickly followed.

Amongst the jokes we continued to haggle until we finally shook hands on a price to rent the kayak for the whole afternoon. 80,000 KIP was a great deal.

So there we were, early afternoon, drifting into the current to embark on our journey upstream. We were almost tiny in comparison to the limestone cliffs which soared above us to our left. Dark clouds loomed above, smothering the peaks of the cliffs in an abundance of grey yet it did nothing to dampen our adventurous spirit.

Tom was out in front, with me in the back. Together we paddled in disarray amongst a patch of weeds, trying to find our rhythm. We were clearly amateurs in the art of kayaking.

Come on Tom! Let’s do it!”, I said, with a rush of enthusiasm.

We needed all the enthusiasm we could find, as we clumsily navigated through the weeds of the first section, heading for open water.

Left, Left, Left, No… Right! Right! *$#%!… Straight into the weeds we went.

We were nestled in a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes and we weren’t keen to hang around, especially after I had lectured Tom earlier on malaria and the importance of taking anti-malarials.

We finally reached the open water and continued upstream sticking to the near side of the river to avoid the powerful current. We were starting to get the hang of working together as a team.

I led the way. “Left, Right, Left, Right, Left, Right” I commanded as we crossed the river in a beautiful display of synchronised paddling with our eyes fixed intently on a spot at the far bank where we could rest. As we pulled the kayak out of the river and onto the sand the sun decided to make a dramatic appearance.

Backpacking Nong Khiaw

The dark clouds fleeted over the cliffs and out of sight, as the sun beamed it’s warm rays over the river which glistened like crystals as it reflected off the water. It was a beautiful sight as we sat on the bank watching life on the river go by. A few powered motor boats chugged past creating huge swirls as they ripped up the water below. Birds tweeted in the trees behind us and the sound of the river making it’s way downstream was inviting enough for us to take a much needed dip.

Refreshed by the coolness of the water, we boarded our kayak and continued upstream, determined to make a sufficient distance to satisfy our quest for adventure. We crossed the river again to escape the current and paddled tirelessly up the side past some overhanging trees.

Let’s stop here for a bit” I suggested, hoping to catch a few breaths.

We both grabbed hold of a tree branch to steady the kayak yet the current was no weaker than before and it pushed hard against us. Suddenly the kayak was turning in on itself and we were in big trouble.

Let go, let go” I screamed, but it was too late.

The kayak turned on its side and the water pushed fiercely against it until we were finally overcome and upside down.

In the fast flowing water panic ensued.

Tom, Tom” I screamed searching for his head.

Hold on”, he shouted as he appeared from underneath the water clinging to the nose of the kayak.

I grabbed both paddles with one hand whilst clinging on to the kayak with the other.

We looked at each other, both knowing what we had to do.

One, Two Three, and Pushhhhh!”

With all our strength the kayak flipped over and we were quickly back in command as we paddled into slack water to re-think our tactics.

That was scary”, I said looking at Tom with wide eyes, still pumped full of adrenalin.

We looked at each other for a second and broke down laughing. We could just imagine what the locals would have thought of us two idiots powering upstream in a kayak and capsizing as the river got the better of us stupid foreigners.

Backpacking Nong Khiaw

We quickly regained our confidence and paddled back to the spot where we capsized. With a sharp turn we crossed the river and continued up beside a bed of rushes which ran alongside the final section of our journey.

The current was stronger than ever before and we continued to paddle with everything we had. We took it in bursts, paddling hard and then clinging to the rushes, and repeating the process several times.

Left, Right, Left, Right, Left, Right” I screamed determined more than ever to succeed.

Then something caught my attention in the corner of my eye. It was a local village man on a bamboo raft in the thick of the current. He sat smiling at us as he gently flicked his wooden paddle in and out of the water. He glided past us and continued upstream effortlessly.

We grabbed the rushes for one last time and broke down laughing again. Here was us with our expensive kayak and paddles flapping about in fits of sweats whilst he just floated on by as if the river was the source of his energy. Then I thought about it a bit more and I was right. Whilst we battled against it, he used its power to his advantage. We had a lot to learn.

After one last burst we broke out into a huge pool of slack water which marked the end of our challenge.

Elated, sweating, and out of breath, we laid back in our kayak and soaked up the sun, letting the river pull us through the slack and back into the current.

For the next 30 minutes we played around in and out of the current as it led us back downstream towards home. Fisherman ventured out in the late afternoon sun with huge nets for trapping the river’s inhabitants. Kids sat with sticks hoping for a smaller catch. More boats chugged past heading upstream towards remote tribal villages, and we continued to wave and greet every passer-by as if they were our best friends until we eventually arrived at where we had started.

As we stepped back onto land I knew I had learnt a lot more about the river from being in it than I ever would have from looking at it. It had been an interesting day of adventure and I was keen for more.

Backpacking Nong Khiaw

Weird things we observed in Nong Khiaw…

Whilst eating in an local Indian restaurant with Tom – I know what you’re thinking “What’s an Indian restaurant doing in Northern Laos?” Well… we never did get to the bottom of that – we were attacked. Yes! Attacked I say! By HUGE kamikaze flying insects. I have no idea what they were but it was the first time we had both seen them. They just drop from the sky and explode on the floor, or in your face if your lucky. They had us both cowering in the corner of the restaurant whilst the locals all laughed at us. Damn them big flying insects. Talking about flying insects, we also saw really small glow in the dark ones, how cool is that?! neon green they were and very beautiful indeed.

More adventures…

After our crazy kayaking adventure upstream we went mountain biking the next day. I spent the morning looking for the best bike for the best price then we set off just before mid-day on a dirt trail which followed the river. Tom was a lot better than me on the bike, so I just followed and watched in awe as he went virtually sideways around bends at death defying speeds as I cautiously followed in pursuit. We soon entered one of the small villages along the river where we were approached by a young, fat kid who must have ate a lot of rice in his time. He took Tom by surprise and reached into his pocket and tried to steal some money. I couldn’t stop laughing as I watched it all unfold as I cycled ahead. Tom thought he was coming to say Hello so he had slowed down for him whilst I could see his true intentions and cycled off at speed. He’ll soon learn.

Backpacking Nong Khiaw

On our bike ride we passed through some amazing villages with lots of cute kids running about shouting “Sa bai dee” (hello) and waving at us. The villages were really remote, all made out of bamboo and straw. I noticed one of the kids had an Angry Birds t-shirt which was surprising, maybe were missing something and they all secretly have Iphones and flat screens hidden in their huts.

We took our shoes off and carried the bike over several streams and continued deep into the countryside. We could have kept going and going but we had to call an end to it at some point which was when we reached yet another wooden gate where we posed for a picture with our bikes. It was a good job we did stop there because coming back proved to be a lot more tiring and we were virtually dead when we got back. That was okay because we just chilled out for the rest of the evening, playing games on the chess board and drinking loads of banana shakes.

Backpacking Nong Khiaw

Overall Nong Khiaw is simply amazing. It’s full of adventure, friendly faces and situated in a stunning location. It was my favourite place in Laos and if you get a chance you should definitely go there.

The journey continued by minibus which I nearly missed due to stomach cramps (too much Indian food). We were heading for Luang Probang which is a town rather than a village, and a place which attracts many of them annoying tourists – you know which ones I’m talking about.

Onwards I go, in search of more adventures.

Catch you soon guys,

Love Jonathan x

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