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Paddling Laos

Domestic water buffaloes lift their heads in surprise as they view their first kayaks on the Nam Ngun River, Laos.

Domestic water buffaloes lift their heads in surprise as they view their first kayaks on the Nam Ngun River, Laos.

Domestic water buffaloes lift their heads in surprise as they view their first kayaks on the Nam Ngun River, Laos.

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  • Image © 2001 Bill Hutchins

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A dense morning mist drifted through steep walls of bamboo beside the Nam Tong river. I pushed my kayak along as laughing children raced across rickety suspension bridges draped high above the water. I'd paddled the rivers of Laos for a total of about a month and there was never a day when I wasn't wrapped in similar scenes of magic and beauty. I have just returned from my second paddling expedition to Laos. I first kayaked in that country in 1997 with a ground-breaking crew from John Gray's famous company SeaCanoe, based in southern Thailand. We used inflatable kayaks to run three rivers in that landlocked nation of mountains and jungle. This summer, on my second trip into Laos I traveled with Dave Williams of PaddleAsia, also based in Thailand, and we used a white-water style raft and an inflatable kayak to navigate five additional rivers.

Every river we paddled in Laos had its own unique character; its own pattern of villages, over-hanging cliffs, temples and intersecting tributaries. And everyone of them was a natural treasure so valuable to me that I can hardly wait to get back to Laos and paddle even more rivers. I'm not likely to run out of options anytime soon.

Laos has hundreds and hundreds of mountains and scores of rivers drain the valleys between. There are few decent roads in the country and rivers have largely replaced them as routes of commerce, communication and sites of settlement. On my first trip into Laos in 1997 I was part of an international team led by John Gray and other members of the SeaCanoe staff. We had traveled overland from Thailand into Vientiane, the capitol. From there we chartered a prop plane and proceeded to pack it with thousands of pounds of people, kayaks and gear. We were so close to the plane's load limits that we could only take on half the fuel we needed to reach our destination. We had to land at another airfield and refuel halfway along just to make it all the way up to our put-in spot on the upper Nam Ou river.

We flew through ranges of sharp limestone mountains that rose out of the clouds like ominous green shark fins. I prayed as we passed through opaque white sections of clouds that we not strike anything hidden and hard -- like a cliff face. Just about then the sunlight poured in against a field of blue as we banked hard between peaks. We dropped through a needle-eye slot in the mountains as clouds streamed over the jagged ridge like white "smoke" from dry ice. The plane skidded to a long bumpy landing in the middle of a muddy field dotted with buffalo dung.

We'd made it. That is, we'd made it as far as a plane could take us. We next traveled overland on deeply-rutted mud roads that snaked through endless mountain passes. Finally we arrived at the pretty little river town of Ban Nong Khioneua.

The next day we attracted a crowd of hundreds as we pumped up our funny little inflatable yellow boats and pushed off into the swirling brown waters of the Nam Ou.

For the next couple of days we paddled through rolling green hills peopled by slash and burn farmers tending fields of dry land rice. We slept in tiny river villages that seemed lost in a wonderful quirky time warp. There was no electricity, no phones, no plumbing, no televisions and no hotels. We stayed wherever the villagers were kind enough to find us a protective roof and always financially rewarded them for their generous hospitality.

On the third day we found ourselves drifting through high black walls of eroded limestone. We were hemmed in by sheer cliffs that rose straight up out of the river and were capped with sharp points reminiscent of a dragon's back. Fog slipped over giant rock bowls a couple thousand feet high. Black caves pocked the wall faces and jungle trees seemed to sing dozens of tropical bird songs. The calls echoed through the gorge. Giant staghorn ferns perched on thick overhanging branches draped in vines and orchids. The gorge seemed topulse and breathe; a primeval forest of rock and wood. A couple days later we reached the take-out spot. But the damage was done, I was hooked. I had to paddle more rivers in Laos. My soul was taken over by the high of the experience, and I knew I was addicted.

In the days ahead we paddled other rivers. We paddled a lowland jungle river called the Nam Ngun where I saw a gorgeous green snake swimming between emergent tree trunks in standing water. We sought shelter from driving monsoonal rains in a one-room school house. Before we left Laos in 1997 we paddled the dramatic Hin Boun river. What makes the Hin Boun so remarkable is that the river actually punches its way from one valley to another by boring through solid rock. For something like nine kilometers it passes underground in ink-black darkness punctuated by internal rapids before emrging in a new, seperate valley. On this latest trip with PaddleAsia we concentrated mainly on rivers that are close to Vientiane. Our first stop was the backpacker haven known as Vang Vieng. It is a jumble of guest houses, internet cafes, a handful of bars and a great jumping-off point for paddling the Nam Song river.

Actually one of Vang Vien's main claims to fame is the fact that it was a major staging area for the CIA's secret war in Laos during the Vietnam era. Air America ran a big airfield operation there and the asphalt landing strip is still a sort of bizarre centerpiece for the town. Several local operators offer one-day kayak trips or rent inner tubes to run the gentle Nam Song. It winds through pretty scenes of karst limestone peaks reminiscent of Chinese paintings. There are cave temples harboring Buddhist statuary and surrounded by tall, arching coconut palms.

This summer we also paddled the Nam Lik, Nam Tong, Nam Ngum, and a bit of the Mekong. A constant highlight was always the river kids. We had children swim out to our raft and climb aboard. We had boys jump off high tree branches and splash into the river beside us. Kids fished, paddled canoes, and played in waterfalls. We ate lunch with them, swam with them and laughed with them. I'll never forget their radiant smiles and genuine expressions of friendship and hospitality. As soon as I earn enough money and vacation time I'm headed back to the rivers of Laos. I'm headed back to electric green ricefields, the clinking melodies of buffalo bells, and the relaxing caress of tropical river waters. I'm headed back to colorful flocks of wild parakeets, waterdragon lizards perched on overhanging jungle branches, and hand-sized butterflies drifting between twin walls of bamboo. I'm headed back, and it can't be soon enough.

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Fact File

Paddle Asia (email info@paddleasia.com) and
SeaCanoe (email info@seacanoe.com)
both have headquarters in Phuket, Thailand.

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Published on 2/28/02

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