22 August 2002

15. - 22 AUG: Luang Prabang - Nong Kiaw (Muang Ngoy): against the current on a slow boat on the Nam Ou river

On a slow motor pirogue up the Mekong

Again up at dawn, at 7:00am we were at the Luang Prabang ferry harbor on the Mekong, just a five minute walk from our guesthouse. We load up and we are off. As we leave the last houses of Luang Prabang behind us, our slow boat begins to claw its way against the slow current of the Mekong. Soon, there is only virgin jungle all around us, and the impenetrable vegetation tumbles down decisively into the water from steep cliffs.

Different shades of dark green paint quick brush strokes down the uneven slopes. A few houses, sometimes on stilts, occasionally break our of the bush and suddenly come into view. On this stretch the river seems flat and quiet, no apparent current, no boulders to break its flow. Its dense clay-like water gently parts as we slide forward along the left bank.

After a good hour we reach the caves of Pak Ou, which are actually a bit disappointing. To my inexpert eye, the sculptures there are no match for what we have seen in Luang Prabang, there are too many people and too little space. When we leave the caves the boat takes a sharp turn to starboard and we leave the Mekong to begin our trip up its tributary, the Nam Ou. We are greeted by an immediate and drastic change of landscape. The Nam Ou’s river span is predictably much narrower than that of the Mekong, and the deep green of the jungle which framed our course until now is replaced by stark vertical rocky cliffs which drop several hundred meters straight down into the water, and mark the junction of the two rivers as a monumental post. The Nam Ou is perfectly flat and seemingly still here, as if frozen, with only a few minute ripples reflecting silvery shades and thus breaking the compact glossy brick-red coat of the surface.

Villages along the river

The village to which our skipper decided to take us, one a long series we meet as we motor up the river, is ready and set for the incoming tourists. Smiling ladies a their fighting stations (wooden tables on which their wares are displayed) politely invite us to examine various artifacts and cloths. I bought an opium pipe made of bone; I will never smoke it, I knew that, but the shape and engraving are endearing and I like the thought of giving a small incentive to honest artisans who use local raw materials and help preserve traditional skills. A few men are working with a scalpel, thy were trying to carve out a tree trunk to make a canoe, but their attitude made me think it was all staged for effect, they somehow do not look like carpenters or coopers.

A completely different story awaited us at another village a few kilometers upstream. This time we saw a few houses on stilts and asked the skipper to make a landing. The inhabitants were friendly and immediately welcomed us, but it was abundantly clear that they did not expect a visit that day! A few children approached and wanted to play, but most of the adults just kept going at their daily routines, weaving, washing, sawing bamboo. A couple of adolescents were curious to see through our telephoto lenses and had a ball when they did! Their interest turned into elation when I substituted a fish-eye lens (super wide angle) for the telephoto…

It’s lunch time and I am hoping for some local delicacy but at a food stall we see it’s all imported food, except Lao Beer (not even that!, bought by a Thai company). I am rather disappointed but there is no time to go and loo, around for anything else. It’s hot and we are thirsty and hungry!

Satellite dishes are ostentatiously visible on some of the roofs. A fellow traveler commented that this was really too bad, television would for ever spoil the gentle and innocent character of these peoples. They would be bombarded with useless commercials and will want things they do not need. They will see a distorted representation of reality outside their village. Children would spend hours sitting in front of their TV sets and stop socializing and playing outside. I could not disagree more. Even though I don’t watch TV personally, it seems to me that the information and education that an otherwise isolated population can receive throught the airwaves is priceless. Yes, it will change their lifestyle as it has changed ours. Not sure even about that, this generation is moving fast away from TV and toward the internet anyway. But how on earth can one wish these people did not have this channel of communication available to them is beyond me. Except the silly, selfish desire to preserve “genuine” populations, isolated from “contamination”, so as to be able to come here and photograph “real” Laos. Dumb!

Panning for Gold in Suptiem

After one sharp bend of the river out skipper steers abruptly to starboard and makes landfall on a small island of mud. In the distance further upstream we can make out people crouching by the waterfront but it is not clear what they are up to. We are told we can not really make a landfall closer and after we are all on the island the skipper uses the boats plank to bridge the mud island with the mainland and we start walking toward the crouching people.

As it turns out they were all women, many with their children playing around, but no men in sight. The women had big pans in their hands and they are panning for gold! One proudly shows us a tiny gold leaf she has found earlier in the morning. Most are panning the river water, and about one hundred of them work side by side along the beach. Some dig into the mud a few meters inland, and go carefully through the mud in search of glittering stuff. It was noon and the tropical sun, having finally broken through the cloud cover after several days, was shining with all its might, its hot rays hitting me heavily on the head. The Mekong displayed its usual brick-red intensity, the same color as the muddy river banks, the sky was a cloudless postcard blue and the deep green jungle thoroughly covered the steep mountainsides all around. Everything in sight was either blue, green or brick-red, nature looks so simple, so perfectly assembled. After several days of sailing up the river we had gained altitude, and the air began to feel thinner.

Leaving the ladies to their work we walked up a slippery mud path toward the village itself. Perhaps they did actually find lots of gold here, because Suptiem was evidently a richer, cleaner village than any other we have seen so far. The houses on stilts were neat and proper, built on a perfectly straight line along both sides of a main street. Some embryonic urban planning must have gone into the layout of Suptiem. A shining polished communal water pump (hand powered, alas, no generators!) stood by the road side, and people took turns at showering and filling up bottles for their homes. Curious children, as always, came around asking for pens; they looked quite healthy and clean. Some older ladies intervened and tried to sell their pretty embroidery.

As we continued our course Northward, the boat’s tack became uneven. Until now the skipper had kept a steady course and speed, but now he had to carefully negotiate his way among treacherous sandbanks and all kinds of floating debris. Sudden cross currents forced him to zigzag in an apparently haphazard way to port or starboard; one minute we could almost tough the vegetation on the right bank, the next we were headed straight toward a inlet on the left bank. The skipper’s assistant made me come down from the roof structure where I had climbed in search for better angles for my pictures: must lower the boat’s center of gravity to make it more stable during the sudden turns... safety first!

As the cruising hours gently went by, the dark green of the jungle all around gradually turned darker and darker. The silvery ripples on the brick-clay river surface turned blue. At dusk, it all quickly took on a light gray patina, which then turned into dark gray. The last pirogues still in the water hurriedly made for home, and the last few children interrupted their frolics in the water and disappeared behind the bush. We were obviously late, the boat should have reached Nong Khiaw by now, but the town is nowhere to be seen. At one point the large suspended bridge of Muang Ngoy appeared before us. A modern structure, if a bit run down, aesthetically out of context in the otherwise bucolic surroundings, but obviously a great bonus in terms of both time and safety for those who use it. From the bridge, we were told, it was another hour to our final destination.

At the tropics the sun sets quickly. For another thirty minutes or so, the large white clouds which had gathered above held on to a sliver of dim sunlight which reflected down from their Western rims. Then, inevitably, the clouds’ countours became one with the black sky. The moon had not risen over the mountains yet and all of a sudden it was pitch black all around: water, jungle, boat, even ourselves, everything was ink black. At one point, suddenly, the weather deteriorated dramatically and a thunderstorm announced itself with a series of loud roars as a strange hot lateral wind began to pick up and hit the boat from starboard. It blew a pungent sand. The thick downpour delivered the first chill I experienced since arriving in South East Asia, it felt strange after weeks of uninterrupted heat. We all pulled out sweaters, wind-breakers, anoraks, whatever we had (and thought we would never need) and the skipper ordered the plastic curtains which were rolled up all around the roof to be released and made fast down onto the boat’s sides to partially protect us from rain and spray, which made the wind-carried dust stick to our skin. Luckily all photographic equipment has long been stored away for the day.

At this point we were cruising full speed ahead into a Conradian darkness on our pretty solid but light-less and radio-less, not to speak of GPS-less, radar-less, horn-less and everything-else-less boat. I was not sure we had life vests on board but what I knew for sure was that, even if we did, in an emergency we would never have been able to find them and put them on. Even if we had put them on, what would have happened once we had been at the current’s mercy is anyone’s guess. That by that hour there was obviously no traffic at all on the river did not make me feel much safer. Nevertheless, it was somehow exhilarating to be there! We did not speak much at all, but deep inside I was excited. How did the skipper continue both to avoid treacherous submerged boulders and to tame the tricky currents without seeing a thing was a mystery to me; that we did not hit a major invisible floating obstacle, like a log, the kind you can hardly see even in broad daylight was, I am sure, sheer luck! Another hour or so later we finally got a glimpse, out in the distance, of the barely visible neon lights of what by then I wanted to believe was Nong Khiaw, our destination. Which it was!

Nong Khiaw (Muang Ngoi)

When we got there, the docking station was packed solid with various boats, and we must make landfall a bit further on, under a steep muddy incline just under the verandah of a guesthouse. The boat’s wooden plank was laid as usual and Barbara and I walked onto the mud looking for shelter for the night. We climbed up the embankment and were met the owner of the guesthouse above, no problems, there were double rooms available at Kip 10,000 (one dollar) per night. Again while all my friends carry their back-packs some boy comes down to the pier and takes my suitcase for me, and earns a little tip for carrying it up the embankment to the room!

Half an hour later we were around the dining table of the guesthouse’s verandah, overlooking the river – though there was not much to overlook as it was still pitch black all around. The wind and rain had stopped, however, and it was pleasant to taste different kinds of river fish with sticky rice for dinner. A few hammocks provided an ideal setting for after dinner conversations al fresco. As announced by a notice on the wall, at about 10:00 o’clock the generator became silent and all lights went out. The erratic nature of power supply was a recurring theme in our conversations.

Power to the people?

It is amazing how so many villages around Laos, even small towns, only have sporadic and unreliable access to electricity. Often the only source of power are small diesel powered generators, with the obvious inconvenience of noise and air pollution that they produce. The reason why this is amazing is that Laos is a major producer, and exporter, of hydroelectric power. The government exports electricity, most of it to Thailand, to raise cash, but it does not yet think it necessary to provide it to its own people. In the mid-nineties a fierce debate began over whether or not additional hydroelectric capacity should be built. Opinions were as divided among the Laotians as they wre, and still are, among foreigners, interest groups and environmental organizations. Again the divide between eternal romantics and modernizers became apparent. The former see hydroelectric power as a mortal threat to the environment as well as to the traditional way of life of many hill tribes who must be resettled to make room for the new dam’s reservoir. The latter see new hydropower capacity as a clean source of renewable energy, indipensable for the economic development of the region and a precious source of foreign currency from power hungry Thailand and, increasingly, Viet Nam. No one is really pushing for additional fossil fuel power generation, so the real issue at stake is whether or not Laotian villages and towns need a reliable source of electricity.

The answer is not an economic but rather a political one. Eternal romantics believe that rural communities, and certainly all hill tribes, can live very well thank you very much the way they have lived for centuries, i.e. without electricity. (And of course without TV!) They see the arrival of electricity as a curse which changes – for the worse – their traditional way of life, creating unnecessary demand for electric tools and appliances an making it possible for hordes of tourists to invade. Modernizers, for their part, consider the need for electricity as a self-evident truth, indispensable to raise the standard of living, and argue not over whether, but over how to best provide for it.

Later at night a brilliant full moon rose high in the sky. It highlighted the contours of a few small clouds and cast a pale light over the blacked-out village. Tall palm tree silhouettes stood still behind the rooftops. There is nothing whatsoever one could possible do in the village, so I retired to my room. The manager gave us each one candle to get around in the night; come to think of it a dozen candles lying on the floor of wood and rattan constructions was a pretty serious fire hazard, but I persuaded myself that was just my prejudiced Western mindset, pulled out my diary and jotted down a few notes until all of a sudden the day’s fatigue set in and I collapsed for what I naively looked forward to be a good long night’s sleep.

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