A harrowing river adventure in Laos

Posted by Ted on Jan 15, 2011 in Activities, Outdoors, Travel

Of all six countries that we visited on our Southeast Asian Adventure, it was Laos that was the most challenging. The least developed of the lot, roads were not always paved, the language barrier was more pronounced, food quality was more questionable, and we narrowly avoided drowning in a river.

It all started in the quaint village of Nong Khiaw, nestled along a bend in the Nam Ou. We had decided to take an overnight kayak trip back down to Luang Prabang, 150 km to the south. The trouble began when we booked our tour with Green Discovery, one of many adventure specialists in the area; they charged us a higher-than-average commission for using a credit card and a lower-than-average exchange rate. Clearly, the “green” that they “discovered” was American dollars. That said, had that been the only issue, the most expensive activity of our trip would still have been worth the $360.

We were up early at 7am on the day of our departure, having already packed the night before. We enjoyed a tasty breakfast of banana pancakes with chocolate sauce and a couple of hard boiled eggs. We walked over to the Riverside, the one upscale resort in town where Green Discovery’s tours depart from. We met our guide, Tung, and proceeded to gather the supplies and take them down to the river where the kayaks were waiting. Despite being on-time for an early departure, we didn’t leave shore until 9:30.

It was a gorgeous day. The air was warm, the sky was clear, and the sun was shining down on the dramatic karst hills that flanked both sides of the river. Kayaking downstream was slow and peaceful, quite unlike the small, loud, and overcrowded hellboat that we took upriver a few days before. Dragonflies and butterflies flitted around us, and a large spider hung from the bow of our guide’s kayak, its legs skimming the water. We passed fishermen and giggling children along the riverbanks.

A few hours later, we pulled to shore for lunch at Ban Huihang, a small Khmu village. We hiked up the embankment and into the rustic settlement, where we were immediately beset upon by dozens of children. While Tung set out our lunch in the shade underneath a stilted house, we ‘falang‘ were the main attraction. Liz engaged them by taking and showing photos of them with her iPhone. While we ate our lunch, their gazes never left us. I decided to offer them their own diversion, and laid my iPhone on the ground, with ‘Bloom‘ set to ‘Create’. While the children seemed intimidated by the simple camera of the iPhone, Bloom spoke for itself with just a few taps from me to show them how it worked. It not only provided distraction from us eating our lunch, but it was fascinating to watch the understanding of how the completely intuitive UI and repeating patterns fell into place.

Finally it was time to get on our way, so we packed up and were escorted back down to the river by a few of the kids who waved to us as we paddled away. A couple of hours later, we stopped at Ban Houaikoung, another Khmu village on the prescribed tour itinerary. After a longer break than was necessary, we set out again and that’s when everything started to go wrong. We had navigated through some rapids throughout the day, but they were mere ripples compared to the turbulent whitewater that we soon encountered. To our novice credit, we did pretty well at first, shifting our weight and paddling down and over and around, attempting to remain upright. Then we collided with the other kayak and lost our balance, capsizing in the fast-moving river, our feet bouncing off rocks. My first instinct was to grab the drybag with my precious camera and hoist it above the waterline. Tung took the bag and helped us right our kayak and` get back on board. Our adrenaline pumping hard, our hearts beating fast, we caught our breath on the other side of the rapids and thanked Guanyin for keeping us alive. Had that been the extent of the day’s adventure, we might have even looked back on it as exhilarating fun, but it gets worse.

The sun had already dipped behind the jagged limestone peaks to our right, and soon after the colors in the sky revealed that it was setting behind the horizon. We called ahead to Tung and asked him how far until our stopping point for the day, another small riverside village where we would spend the night in a homestay. “Only 15-20 more minutes,” he reassured us. An hour later we were still paddling furiously downstream as full-on darkness descended upon us. Apparently, our guide had never run the route during the dry season when the river runs slower. We had no lights and under a sliver of a moon we could barely see our guide three meters in front of us as we navigated even more rapids. Our nerves were wracked and we didn’t know what to do. Finally, even Tung realized that the situation was dangerous and we were just not going to make it to our anticipated destination, so we pulled to the shore where we could see a single dim light of a village.

We trudged up into a dark settlement behind Tung, who asked around for the village elder. Finally, we were directed to the vice-chief’s house, who would put us up for the night. The simple two-room house with wicker walls and a corrugated tin roof was a welcome relief. Off the kitchen, we changed into dry clothes in the bathroom area, delineated only by a 5-foot-high concrete wall. We sat in the livingroom as they arranged mattresses and mosquito nets on the floor, and waited for dinner to be ready. We ate in silence, and the rest of the evening was spent in an awkward state of feeling like an imposition. Needless to say, we were disappointed by the turn of events – we had been looking forward to our homestay, and presumably our intended home was looking forward to visitors, instead of feeling obligated due to circumstance.

Once again, had that been the last complication and we managed our time better on day 2, we would have chalked it up as a colorful anecdote. Unfortunately, Liz became violently ill in the middle of the night with travelers sickness. While we ate the same meal, I was thankfully spared, but she was up for much of the night visiting the squat toilet all too frequently. I woke up with the rest of the village at 6:30a as the monks’ morning drumming in the wat next door sounded a slow beat at first picking up tempo over several minutes. Arriving at night, it was disorienting waking up in a strange place. A man walked by carrying fresh caught fish, and women with baskets of rice called “Sabaidee” through the open doorway. The vice-chief’s teenage daughter got ready for school, primping herself in front of a small mirror on the wall of the livingroom. I walked down to the small village pharmacy to get some medicine – we never knew what the discolored expired pills were, but they seemed to help.

Sick and unable to continue downriver, we waited for a couple of hours for the van that was supposed to pick up the kayaks in Luang Prabang to come and take us the rest of the way. Finally, it arrived, the kayaks were loaded, and we left Done Nun. The road followed the Nam Ou, and I could see it occasionally through the trees, wishing that we were on it rather than beside it. Eventually we made it back to town, we checked into a guesthouse, and Liz spent the rest of the day and evening recovering. What should have been a pleasant, slightly adventureful kayak trip turned out to be everything but. Thankfully, we have the memory of those children in Ban Huihang and the beauty of the river valley as some consolation for the stressful hardship we endured.

Have you had a similar experience of an activity going horribly wrong? Have you wondered if you would be lost at sea, dashed to rocks, or worse? Share your travel horror story!

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An adventurer at heart, Ted Beatie is at his happiest when he’s off the beaten path. His deepest passion is sharing the world through photography and writing, found at The Pocket Explorer. He is also managing editor for Rolf Potts' Vagabonding, where he curates a Case Study series. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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