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Travelling the Nam Ou - Lonely Planet is again wrong!

  • brucemoon

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    The boat journey along the Nam Ou is memorable and enjoyable.

    Lonely Planet describes the journey in glowing terms. Wrong again, Mr LP!!

    We began at Luang Prabang, in the 3rd week of April, travelling the river over 2 days to Muang Khua .

    The dry season had ended, and with the occasional afternoon storms the section we traversed was navigable.

    We'd heard from a French lady that 3 weeks prior she was a passenger, and they had to get into the river and push the boat through some section!

    We began by taking a 10 seater (small) long boat: otherwise known as a 'slow' boat. The trip to Nong Khiaw cost 100,000kip and took some 6 hours.

    After about 45 minutes travelling the Mekong, the boat entered the Nam Ou.

    While some sections had attractive forest-like scenery, most was of hillsides the subject of slash-n-burn agriculture: varying from blackened exposed ground to crops to bamboo infested slopes.

    From time to time, we'd pass or stop at a village. Children played at the rivers edge and were all-too-willing to wave gleefully.

    With the sun beginning to cast a golden glow, the last hour through (the now) karst type scenery provided great photo opportunities.

    The boat had to negotiate very many rapids. Few passengers on the boat were comfortable with the way the slow boat coped with these obstacles. In hindsight, the boat did not have enough power for the boatman to take the obstacles with (relative) ease.

    There were times when the boatman's opportunities were compromised by the line taken and the lack of power to pursue change.

    At one section, the boatman determined the rapids were too dangerous and we had to alight walk along the river bank before returning to the boat.

    On the windless day, the river provided long sections of wonderfully calm waters interspersed with attractive protruding rocks. These were contrasted with the succession of turbulent boiling waters of the rapids.

    At Nong Khiaw we tried to get a boat to take us to Muang Ngoi for the night (20,000 kip), but insufficient passengers meant we stayed the night at Nong Khiaw.

    LP gives Nong Khiaw a bad rap. We'd disagree. While scruffy and the GH operators opportunistic, nevertheless the town offers great vista's, charming people, and some good trekking / people engagement opportunities.

    For us, the next section of the Nam Ou was from Nong Khiaw to Muang Khua (slow boat 150,000 kip).

    We'd been planning on a slow boat, but with no departure (and under extreme pressure - we had to meet friends at Muang Khua that day) we were forced to accept the fast boat.

    The scenery along the Nam Ou to Muang Ngoi is quite forested and enjoyable. Muang Ngoi is, as some suggest, a centre on the tourist-super-highway (with all that that entails)!

    For a about half an hour past Muang Ngoi on the fast boat (maybe one hour on a slow boat), we travelled amongst some of the most stunning scenery we'd seen for years. The monumentally huge mountain sides, with ravines, caverns, etc., all with rocks of varying hues or clothed in virgin forest, really impressed us.

    Once past the eye-ogling scenery, the river then returned to rolling hillsides, villages, and predominantly slash-n-burn agriculture.

    The pity is that the denudation is caused not by swidden farming, but the insatiable demand of Chinese brewers for corn as an alcohol 'feedstock'. We learned that the river folk were getting about 1000 kip per kilo of dehusked corn seed. With the prospect of Chinese 'cash', the villagers now provide no chance for hillside reforestation. The potential for landslides, river siltation, and more, now loom as ever-present 'problems' for the Nam Ou and the greater catchment!

    As we travelled further up the river, the rapids became more challenging. On some, the boiling waves were over half a metre in height!!!

    But, the power of the fast boat made navigation a breeze!

    Digressing, we have enjoyed the dynamic 'Huka' or jet boats in New Zealand. Most would agree that they offer one of the best 'fun boat rides' around. After 2 hours on a fast boat on the upper reaches of the Nam Ou, the NZ 'Huka' is a pale comparison. Put simply, a fast boat ride on a low(ish) Nam Ou is about the most heart-stopping, and exhilarating boat ride fun one could have.

    In hindsight, the warnings about the fast boat are correct. The speed it goes is such that if the boat driver doesn't see an obstacle (and sometimes they are submerged), then calamity can result.

    We were encouraged by the fact that - unlike the Mekong - when we travelled the Nam Ou, there were no floating obstacles. The lack of obstacles cannot be guaranteed - especially during and after the wet season.

    In conclusion, if you intend to travel the Nam Ou, please don't use Lonely Planet as a guide for your motivation. Except for a small section, the scenery is just not worth the trip.

    If you want to see the 'stunning' part of the river, hire a boat from either Nong Khiaw or Muang Ngoi to travel for about two hours further up the river (slow boat speed from Muang Ngoi - one hour up, another back down).

    Alternately, do the trip for the enjoyment it provides, the scenery you will enjoy, and the people you will meet. Maybe like us, also for the challenging heart-stopping fun that can be had.

    Cheers

    #1 Posted: 27/4/2009 - 17:00

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  • seagypsy

    Joined Travelfish
    5th February, 2009
    Posts: 136

    Hmm, I don't understand how LP's description of the very scenic Nam Ou is 'wrong'. It's not LP's fault that the Chinese are using up or cutting down the forest. And if you'd taken the slowboat up the Nam Ou between Moung Ngoi and Muang Khua, I think you'd enjoy the trip more. But it seems you enjoyed the riskiness of the speedboats as they hit the rapids!

    #2 Posted: 28/4/2009 - 14:21

  • brucemoon

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    seagypsy

    I suspect you have a chip on your shoulder...

    If you read LP Laos, you'd have to agree that the authors describe the journey along the (upper) Nam Ou in glowing terms. They write...

    "Boats also run far less frequently to Muang Khua. If you have the opportunity to take this trip, do! This section of the Nam Ou is isolated and the river cuts a khaki ribbon through an endless verdant spread." p. 164.

    This section is no more isolated than lower sections. A road parallels the river for many miles, servicing villages and government 'posts'.

    And, it is not the Chinese that are "using up or cutting down the forest". Rather, there has NOT been a forest along the upper Nam Ou for countless decades, and this is because of swidden agriculture. The point I was making is that in recent years, the regeneration of bamboo weed infestation (that may have given a semblance of greenery) has not been allowed to occur because in the recent decade local villagers have pursued corn production (over bamboo regeneration) to exploit Chinese market forces.

    I fail to understand your stupid comment "if you'd taken the slowboat up the Nam Ou between Moung Ngoi and Muang Khua, I think you'd enjoy the trip more". You imply that once on a fast boat, we were somehow unable to see the scenery or enjoy our experiences. Mmmm!!!!!!

    I wrote the 'article' to do two things:

    1. point out that the LP 'description' ought not be the motivating attribute for the journey (we spoke to many in the region that had read LP, and believed this was one of the last 'wonderful' journey's to be enjoyed), and

    2. describe our experiences so that others may be better informed.

    Your attempt to make mileage with inane criticisms really doesn't help others.

    Cheers

    #3 Posted: 28/4/2009 - 17:10

  • seagypsy

    Joined Travelfish
    5th February, 2009
    Posts: 136

    Sorry but it seems you're the one with the big chip.
    All one needs to do is to read the first two sentences of your post to understand how contradictory they are:
    1. 'the journey is wonderful and memorable'.
    2. LP describes the journey in glowing terms but wrong????

    #4 Posted: 29/4/2009 - 00:59

  • brucemoon

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    seagypsy

    whatever!!!

    #5 Posted: 29/4/2009 - 04:40

  • Archmichael

    Joined Travelfish
    23rd July, 2008
    Location Global Village
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    Boys, boys...............!

    #6 Posted: 2/5/2009 - 10:04

  • BDV

    Joined Travelfish
    27th September, 2008
    Posts: 20

    I traveled the Nam Ou by slow boat for three days from Luang Prabang - Nong Kiaow - Muang Khua - Hat Sa around the same time as brucemoon. The trip itself was a wonderful experience and yes, in certain areas some of the hillsides were "the subject of slash-n-burn agriculture: varying from blackened exposed ground to crops to bamboo infested slopes.". But you see this one a majority of trips through Laos. Would still recommend this trip to anybody.

    brucemoon, I really fail to see the point you are trying to get across.

    You start off with "Lonely Planet describes the journey in glowing terms. Wrong again, Mr LP!!" but then proceed to write a flowery, glowing trip report yourself.

    Or are you a bit disappointed since you undertook this trip solely by the way it was described in the LP? - "In conclusion, if you intend to travel the Nam Ou, please don't use Lonely Planet as a guide for your motivation. Except for a small section, the scenery is just not worth the trip."

    Oh, and we sheared off a prop blade on one set of rapids and almost did not make it up but but everyone seemed comfortable and just took it as it came.

    #7 Posted: 29/5/2009 - 08:15

  • brucemoon

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    BDV

    Perhaps the points I was wanting to make were lost in the detail.

    The primary point of the 'post' was to describe my experience travelling up the Nam Ou. My secondary point was to indicate that the description of the journey (and the towns along the way) in Lonely Planet are far removed from my experience.

    As you notice, I initiated the post with...

    [colour=#0000FF]The boat journey along the Nam Ou is memorable and enjoyable.[/colour]

    Then I added...

    [colour=#0000FF]Lonely Planet describes the journey in glowing terms. Wrong again, Mr LP!![/colour]

    I then went into a description of the journey.

    About two-thirds the way down I criticised aspects of the Lonely Planet description.

    Seagypsy makes the same observation as you - so clearly, the meanings I wanted to convey with my use of language hasn't been 'carried' into your (or seagypsy's) interpretation.

    - - - -

    Let me say that my motivation was that all too often we do our research, and then form an idea of what we will probably experience. Many times, we make decisions to do something based on this information. As humans, we get a negative emotional experience (eg. dejection, sadness, annoyance, etc.) when what we experience doesn't match up to the expectation. But, that's normal - and I am no different to others.

    In my 'interpretation' of the Lonely Planet description, I gained the view that the Nam Ou banks were a sort of last frontier for vegetation scenery. I was not alone in gaining this perception.

    As I posted in reply to Seagypsy:

    [colour=#0000FF]I wrote the 'article' to do two things:

    1. point out that the LP 'description' ought not be the motivating attribute for the journey (we spoke to many in the region that had read LP, and believed this was one of the last 'wonderful' journey's to be enjoyed), and

    2. describe our experiences so that others may be better informed.[/colour]


    - - - - -

    I hope that when others read this 'post', they'll learn that there IS a difference between the depiction in Lonely Planet AND the reality.

    I am sure we can both agree that the [colour=#FF0000]reality of a journey along the Nam Ou is memorable and enjoyable[/colour].


    Cheers

    #8 Posted: 29/5/2009 - 10:29

  • brucemoon

    Click here to learn more about brucemoon
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    Oops!

    Not all BB codes work!!

    #9 Posted: 29/5/2009 - 10:32

  • lotramar

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    Posted from within Vietnam.

    I prefer the Rough Guides

    #10 Posted: 9/6/2009 - 23:29

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  • pamjane

    Joined Travelfish
    5th June, 2009
    Posts: 16

    thanks for this, brucemoon. i'm hoping to do this trip in reverse, starting from Muang Khu in late November/early December. i'd read somewhere else that i should get off at Nong Khiaw and then bus it to Luang Prabang, but do you think it would just be easier/better to take the Nam Ou on into Luang Prabang?

    #11 Posted: 21/6/2009 - 22:59

  • BruceMoon

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    pamjane

    Whether you go by bus or boat is entirely your call. Both boats & buses are slow. If you choose to go by bus, except for the Vientiane - Luang Prabang route, I'd recommend not using the (supposedly faster, but less comfortable) VIP buses {ie. the 20 odd seater).

    Cheers

    #12 Posted: 22/6/2009 - 10:18

  • deuxbecs

    Joined Travelfish
    27th August, 2009
    Posts: 4

    Here's the kind of adventure you can experience on the Nam Ou river : rowing down on a wooden boat! This part of Laos is amazing! I've spent 2 weeks there, and you can read a few lines (in French) about my fantastic trip from Phongsali to Luang Prabang : http://deuxbecs.uniterre.com/68552/1.+Corsaires+du+Nam+OU.html

    #13 Posted: 27/8/2009 - 00:53

  • somtam2000

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    deuxbecs -- very nice pics -- wish I could read French! Any chance of a brief summary in English? Just wondering how you got the boat?

    #14 Posted: 27/8/2009 - 06:58

  • cheeco

    Joined Travelfish
    22nd April, 2009
    Posts: 29

    Thanks for taking your time to share this info with everyone Brucemoon! It's always nice to hear a "heads up" about the LP, as we all know that it can be misleading at times!

    #15 Posted: 27/8/2009 - 07:23

  • BruceMoon

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    deuxbecs

    I was also wanting an English version - especially when I opened your vid to see the sequential pics of the nam Ou rising. I wanted to know the time frame for this seemingly 3 metre river-height rise.

    From my 'post' (above) with reference to river flotsam, your vid shows clearly the junk that flows during the wet 9and thus could be a danger for boat operators).

    Cheers

    #16 Posted: 27/8/2009 - 07:57

  • somsai

    Joined Travelfish
    1st March, 2006
    Location United States
    Posts: 560

    Tommakune,

    I cut and pasted the url on google tranlator and got this.

    http://translate.google.com/translate?prev=hp&hl=en&js=y&u=http%3A%2F%2Fdeuxbecs.uniterre.com%2F68552%2F1.%2BCorsaires%2Bdu%2BNam%2BOU.html&sl=fr&tl=en&history_state0=

    Have to wait and see how it works after posting. From the looks of the photos it seems like they put in at Hat Sa . Isn't that the back water where the boats take out? 360 km upstream from Luang Prabang is where?

    Deuxbecs,

    Thanks for the link. I always love reading of people who have an idea and make their own adventure. I got an email a while ago from another Frenchman who walked Phongsali East to West, and then on another trip North to South, (all off road) even had a photo from the exact same spot in a village, I had taken a photo from. Got to hand it to you French fellas, you sure do get around the boondocks of Phongsali! Great stories too, what I understand of them.

    Bruce maybe it's the title of the post eh? I like those LP writers, heck I like guide book writers in general, not because I need them to tell me where to go but because I love reading what they thought of it. Glad one of them liked the Ou, wonder who it was. Figure they are running around these countries themselves, probably see a lot of stuff. I've never been on that section of the Nam Ou by Ngoi Nua, but everyone I've talked to likes it a lot.

    Bear in mind Muang Kuah is about half way up the river, and the river gets a whole lot more remote above there, no more roads running along, only a dead end at Hat Sa and a crossing way the heck up by Ou Tai. I've even seen big old trees.

    The Nam Ou has been slated for a "cascade" of dams meaning one right above the other to take advantage of the elevation change. Five dams in all. See it before it goes.

    #17 Posted: 27/8/2009 - 08:47

  • BruceMoon

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    Hey, that's one heck of a journey.

    Looking at the pics and unable to comprehend French, I really had no idea.

    Despite the incongruity of the google-translation, one is able to comprehend...

    It appears they started out at Hat Sa , smashed the first boat on rapids, recovered, bought another, were then subjected to torrential monsoonal rains, the ravages of a river in flood, opportunistic locals, cuts and bruises, running out of money....

    - 99 km from Hat Sa to Khu Muang for 80 vertical meters;
    - 80 km to Nong Khiaw for 35 vertical meters;
    - 120 km from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang for 35 vertical meters as well.

    - - -

    I delight in the translational oddities...

    "In the midst of a rapid hyper active and purulent, we lose control of the boat and are carried perpendicularly in its current, unable to extricate ourselves from the rock monster that raises its ugly snitch like a wart in the middle of the tumult.

    ...we feel the mounting horror of the accident as a venom that is beginning to act.

    ...My soul is the scene of a duel between a nameless shame unspeakable anger of the Nam Ou winner. I cash the tragedy filled with my pink underwear to have lost the rest of my business.

    ...I then reconstruct the bench in less than an hour and make the acquisition of a train for some kip, then I show a fart, which always makes me laugh a lot when I think about it.

    ...Can not go without exploding, especially in case of failure we would be absorbed into the background by the river frantic babbling some rabid froth whose message was nevertheless clear as crystal (ah ah).

    ...It invokes the bullshit of Laos and the monotony of the landscape. I can not believe it."


    - - -

    Great epic. And, the sunset pics on the Mekong arriving at LP, make for a brilliant finale.

    Cheers

    #18 Posted: 27/8/2009 - 09:33

  • SBE

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    Here's my translation about how they got the boat for you Somtam. ;-)



    From Phonsali we went to Hat Sa on the banks of the Nam Ou. It is now October 31st.

    When we arrived at the fishing village, innocent and enthusiastic, our request surprised people but we were even more surprised when they played along. Their reaction meant one big problem was solved and many of them offered to sell us a boat. Enough sellers were in competition with each other to make it possible for us to bargain the price and we acquired a boat for 500,000 kip (45 euros). I was ecstatic that everything had worked out so well, almost hysterical. The resulting boat didn't take long to appear, a pretty two-seater wooden canoe complete with a simple canvas awning and paddles.


    PS. Ton blog est genial deuxbecs ...quelle aventure! Je viens de le mettre dans mes favoris!

    #19 Posted: 27/8/2009 - 18:36

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