Thursday, 17th November 2016
Spotlight on the Nam Ou River
The Mekong may be Southeast Asia’s most famous waterway, but the Nam Ou River also has a lot to recommend it. In fact, spending time charting its course from Phongsali Province to Luang Prabang Province is made all the more interesting by the fact that fewer people do it. Over a distance of 448 kilometres, the river passes through stunning landscape, remote communities and the heart of Laos.
Much of the Phongsali Province surrounding the river is devoid of roads, meaning that the Nam Ou is the best way to get around. Its tributaries form a network that is navigable by small boat and one that remains largely unchanged since the 19th century. It’s easy to feel like you’ve stepped back in time and are among the original French explorers that journeyed through the region.
Your journey will start on the southern side of the mountains that separate Laos from China, providing the perfect backdrop, with high peaks in three directions. As you drift along unhurriedly, take time to notice the old-growth forests on each side of the river. On the way down to Luang Prabang Province, a total of eight tributaries join the Nam Ou, swelling its mass.
Of course, the chances are you’ll want to stop at various points along the route of the Nam Ou and there are plenty of opportunities to do so. Phongsali is the capital of its namesake province and can be accessed via Ha Sa, which acts as its port on the river. Expect to find a quaint Chinese quarter, with narrow cobbled streets and decorative architecture in Phongsali, as well as a large proportion of local ethnic groups, making it a fascinating cultural mix.
Further downriver you will come to Muang Khoua and Nong Khiaw. The former has a rickety suspension bridge that offers stunning views of the river and a vista of impressive mountains, while the latter is an adventure traveller’s paradise, with plenty of activities to enjoy. Not far from the confluence with the Mekong River, the Nam Ou flows past the Pak Ou Caves, which have been filled with Buddha icons over the years.
To the Laotian people, however, Nam Ou is more than just a geographical feature or a mode of transport for getting around, it is an important part of local lore. It is said that Khun Lo, the founder of Luang Prabang followed the waterway down through the country to establish the city. Later, a warrior king known as Fa Ngum would follow in his footsteps and make the journey, claiming the throne when he reached his destination and starting the process that would lead to the Kingdom of a Million Elephants coming into being.