October 2012 – Our boat out of Luang Prabang certainly was not the most riverworthy of vessels but she performed admirably enough on the seven hour journey upriver to Nong Khiaw.
And while my butt wasn’t all that happy about having to sit on my backpack for the duration of the voyage rather than a chair, my eyes were very happy about having to look at the beautiful scenery along the way.
In addition to the natural beauty of the dramatic limestone karsts that dot the landscape in these parts, we were also treated to a few glimpses of fishermen and farmers at work and kids at play along the banks of the river, the latter of whom would wait until the moment our boat was passing to perform front flips into the river and other equally awesome tricks.
Nong Khiaw sits along the Ou River (a tributary of the Mekong) at the base of a few such karsts. It’s small and there isn’t much to do in town other than watching the river float by and soaking up the views.
But there are great trekking opportunities in the immediate area and it was my plan to take full advantage of them. I’d met a Dutch couple on the boat and we decided to sign up with a local guide for a half-day trek to a nearby peak for our first day in town. We were joined by a Swiss couple, a French girl and an English dude. It was about 1.5 hours of steep going on a rather narrow trail to the summit. But it was well worth the sweaty effort particularly because our guide was packing delicious servings of fried rice wrapped in banana leaves and a bag or two of Lao hot sauce for a feast on the peak.
It was a good hike and our group had a fine time of it together so, over a post-hike Beerlao, we decided to book a different trek for the following day. We booked through a different agency that had only recently opened its doors in Nong Khiaw. As a result, we would be the test group for a new trek that would begin with visits to a Karen village and a Leu village and then take us across some rice fields, up a waterfall, through a bit of jungle, into a bamboo forest and out along some steep cultivated hillsides until ending up in a Hmong village. The Karen, Leu and Hmong are three of the many minority hill tribes found throughout SE Asia.
The highlight of our visit to the Karen village was a visit to the town distillery where a few elders are in charge of making enough Lao-Lao for the partying needs of the entire community. Lao-Lao, otherwise known as Lao whiskey, is a stiff rice liquor (and thus technically not a whiskey) much loved in Laos but not much loved in my mouth or stomach. But that certainly didn’t prevent me from partaking a bit on several occasions including this one when we were graciously offered a fresh shot from the still that was still warm from the distillation process. Not really a proper pre-hike beverage but when in Laos, right?
A short while later we rolled up to a Leu village where we were fortunate enough to meet up with this crew of capable and enthusiastic volunteer hiking guides…
Most of them had an old bicycle or motorbike tire which they would run alongside while hitting with a stick in order to keep it rolling. I’m told old people in America used to do this too when they were young. But one of these jolly lads had a different sort of toy which can best be described as an eight foot long wooden pole with two roughly hewn wooden wheels on one end of it. He had the pole on his shoulder and the wheels on the ground and he’d simply run along with it as the wheels spun around. It really looked a lot more like work than fun, but the gigantic smile on his face clearly indicated otherwise. In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a kid having more fun with a toy than this little dude was having with his pole and wheels. So don’t be surprised if you see me having a good time down on the bike path in Venice with one of these things in the not too distant future.
Our volunteer guides turned back midway across the rice fields…
… but we pressed on to the base of the waterfalls where we took a much needed swim break.
The swim break doubled as a snack break as we also ripped into a few tasty papayas that our guide had plucked from a tree earlier on the hike.
Fully refreshed, we proceeded to hike up through the falls. Not along them or beside them. But through them. Most of the rocks over which the water is falling are made of porous limestone and thus rather than being slippery they are actually quite the opposite such that you could walk right up the face of many of them.
From the top of the falls, we carried on through jungle, bamboo forest and steep hillside (all of which were very hot, very humid and very beautiful) before finally arriving at a Hmong village in the late afternoon.
Most of the adults were out in the fields tending to their crops so there were mostly just children running around the village.
It was clear that the village wasn’t accustomed to trekkers as there was nothing for sale and the kids stared and giggled and laughed and hid and stared some more. We had the chance to take a look inside a typical home which was rustic to say the least with the interior decor including a few very old Chinese new year posters, a shrine and the bones and skins (pelts?) of a variety of small animals.
As we were leaving the village, we noticed some kids playing on a dusty hillside with a curved path carved into it. Next thing we knew, one of them came tearing down that path on a little homemade wooden cart. He executed the turn perfectly by leaning hard into it and stopped on a dime (or roughly 800 kip) at the bottom. We gave him a huge round of applause and one of his buddies soon followed him down on a second cart with similar precision. And for their grand finale, they took it two at a time with the second one trailing his buddy by only a foot or two. It’s amazing how much fun kids are capable of having when they apply a little ingenuity to whatever is around them, no matter how little that might be. Something tells me there are quite a few American kids out there that could do well to follow the example set by these little speed demons.
Our party celebrated the successful and tiring day with some very tasty Indian food (which, aside from breakfasts, marked the first time I’d strayed from my host country’s cuisine on this trip) that evening at Deen’s Indian Food and with that my time in Nong Khiaw was done.
The following day I took to the river once again for the downriver return trip to Luang Prabang (shorter by two hours!) where I spent one final evening before unwillingly abandoning the comforts of boat travel for the discomforts of overly crowded bus travel on mostly unpaved roads. But I certainly did not mind as those discomforts are generally equal parts entertaining in this part of the world and, furthermore, there were elephants awaiting me at the end of that bus ride.