Published/Last edited or updated: 18th June, 2018
Mr Home can barely contain his joy as we pass Muang Ngoi and continue to zoom up the Nam Ou River.
“This is my favourite part of the river. It’s all pristine forest. I love it,” he says. It doesn’t take long before we understand why. Many backpackers do the one-hour boat trip from Nong Kiaow to Muang Ngoi, a ramshackle of guesthouses and bungalows, and don’t venture further. But as Muang Ngoi slips away from our view, the mountains begin to squeeze the river and come in close. The mist-veiled karst, those formidable craggy towers crowd over us and command us to strain our necks and look up in amazement.
We’re on a one-day village and waterfall trek with Home, owner of NK Adventure, a tour operator in Nong Kiaow. Born and raised in Nong Kiaow, Home was a guide for many years before he decided to open his own small company focused on outdoor and cultural experiences. His English is flawless and his local knowledge is evident as he points out interesting facts about our surrounds. (2018 update: Since we did this trek, Mr Home has moved abroad and now the company is run by his brother Mr Feua.)
The river landscape is so stunning that we feel reluctant to disembark when we reach Ban Sopjam, a Lao and Khmu weaving village only accessible by river. The village is small, with homes flanking a single dirt road. Red chillies and unhusked rice dry in the sun. Textiles flutter in the breeze. The 50 families of this village support themselves with agriculture, raising water buffalo and by selling weavings to the handful of visitors who come here. This place is by no means untouched by tourists but it’s sleepy, quiet and beautifully situated, with mountains always in view.
We head back down river towards Nong Kiaow and stop at another village to start our hike to Tad Mork Waterfall. For an hour we are immersed in countryside and treated to idyllic pastoral scenes. It’s October and the rice is only days from being ready for harvest. The paddies are bursting with tall, vibrant yellow-green stalks drooping from the weight of the grains.
The walk is a gauntlet: we climb over fences, navigate the labyrinth of fields and wade through streams before reaching the edge of the forest, then continue up a slippery jungle trail. It’s worth it. We let out a whoop when we see Tad Mork. By no means is it as jaw-dropping as Kuang Si but to us it’s Shangri-La, the perfect reward after a sweaty hike. We jump into the cold water for a refreshing swim.
Home lays out a picnic on banana leaves and it turns out to be one of the most delicious meals we’ve had in Laos. Pomelo fruit plucked from a nearby tree, stir-fried vegetables and bamboo shoots, omelette and of course, a giant basket of sticky rice.
This trek is a summary of Laos packaged into a one-day experience: a river journey, a weaving village, rice paddies, jungle, a swim in a waterfall and the somber realisation that all of it will soon be changed forever. The journey is a reminder of how the entire region is dependent upon the Nam Ou River and the question hangs: What will happen to it all once the seven dams currently under construction by China’s Sinohydro Corporation are completed?
Bookings can be made at the NK Adventure office on the tourist side of the river (south end of the bridge) beside Sabai Sabai Restaurant. It’s not to be confused with Nong Kiau Adventures on the town side. The price depends on the number of people on the trip. As an example, a group of four is 280,000 kip per person including lunch, water, guide and transport, with kayaking on the return an option. For two it is 370,000 kip per person.
Admission: Depends on number of people
Cindy Fan is a Canadian writer/photographer and author of So Many Miles, a website that chronicles the love of adventure, food and culture. After falling in love with sticky rice and Mekong sunsets, in 2011 she uprooted her life in Toronto to live la vida Laos. She’s travelled to over 40 countries and harbours a deep affection for Africa and Southeast Asia. In between jaunts around the world, she calls Laos and Vietnam home where you'll find her traipsing through rice paddies, standing beside broken-down buses and in villages laughing with the locals.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.