From Na Leng to the Ground of the Nam Houng River and back to the Mekong
This 5 part series of blogs are written by Felix from Germany, who joined me for the adventure down the Mekong River. I have not edited any of the grammar as it portrays his voice better in this form. Thanks Felix!
Of course, the Nam Houng river was way smaller and less deep than the Mekong. It welcomed us with some rapids, which required us to paddle hard to avoid crashing into some rocks and grass islands that where on the side of the river. That was a first taste of what would expect us in the following days on the Nam Houng river. After we mastered the first challenge on the Nam Houng river the following hour until we reached Xayaburi was quite nice.
We enjoyed the change of being away from the Mekong for a while (not yet knowing how lucky we would be in a couple of days to be back on the Mekong river). We passed some small villages on the way to Xayaburi and were grateful for the new environment the river offered to us. Xayaburi is a small town, but for sure no tourist destination. It actually took us quite a while to find a guest house. After we checked in we went out for dinner and walked a bit around in the streets. In one of the main streets we passed four Laos people who were sitting in on the typical small plastic chairs on the pavement and were watching some English premier league match on a laptop. I took a short look which teams were playing and one minute later Markus and me were sitting with them in front of the screen having some Laos beer with ice cubes inside (the classical Asian way to drink beer). The match finished soon and as we were both really tired from the long day and we went early back to our guest house to get some rest.
On the next morning we left Xayaburi after having some rice porridge for breakfast. Until lunch the ride on the boat was quite nice with the exception of some small rapids which required our concentration and strong paddling. On that part of the river there were almost no houses or people within sight. So we were actually pretty surprised as we just around 12pm saw a building coming up on the side of the river at around 12pm. It looked like a restaurant with a nice river view terrace. As it was perfect time for lunch we stopped and checked out the place.
Indeed, it turned out to be a restaurant which belonged to a bungalow resort. We chose a nice place on the terrace and ordered some food. We were not the only people in the restaurant. There was another group of people who were all dressed quite chic and were having an exciting conversation. Of course, we immediately got their attention when we showed up. As we started to talk to them it turned out that they were Chinese investors who were just having a business meeting because they wanted to build an elephant sanctuary on the other side of the river.
After lunch it was time to move on. It was good that we just had a decent lunch because after lunch the Nam Houng river showed its true face. In the next part of the river we almost sunk and damaged the boat several times. There were just coming rapids after rapids with big rocks slightly under the water surface and from time to time also bushes or small trees in the middle of the river. Additionally, the river didn’t go straight here.
Instead, it was characterized by changing tight bends. So basically we always had to paddle down with full speed some rapids where the boat hit several times some rocks, try to avoid the bushes and trees in the river and additionally we had to paddle against the stream of the water which wanted to push against the shore in the bend. Whenever there was a small gap where no rapids were we had to stop to relax a bit and thank to god that the boat was still in one peace and we didn’t have any broken bones.
Of course, we also had to bail out the boat after each series of rapids. Luckily (for me), the boat was heavier in the back than in the front, so basically Markus was always the lucky one who had to bail out the boat. Whenever, we approached the next rapids Markus stood up and looked out for the path we wanted to take which promised the smallest probability for us to crash and sink the boat. Then, we always took the chosen route paddling as hard as we could to keep control over the boat and not letting the water control the boat.
As I mentioned already earlier (in chapter 2), it always felt kamikaze when we took a run up to enter the rapids already with maximum speed and kept on paddling as hard as we could while going down the rapids and seeing all the rocks and trees flying towards ourselves. One time, when we were approached again a series of rapids Markus stood up again and analyzing which path would be the safest. However, this time he didn’t find a safe path. The water was just too fast and there were too many rocks shooting out of the water. So we decided to walk down the rapids with the boat.
Easier said than done. Anyway, we got out of the boat, took off all our clothes except the underwear and went with the boat to the side of the river. We were both approximately until the thighs in the water and on one side of the boat. Markus was in the back and I was in the front. We could grab the boat on the board where we normally sat on when we were riding in the boat. Additionally, Markus grabbed the rope which was tied to the boat and we normally used to fix the boat to a bamboo stick on the shore.
We started to go down the rapids slowly step by step. The ground was very slippery and uneven and the water was heavily pulling on the boat. So, it was not really possible to walk. It was more of a sliding over the stones for one or two meters and then abruptly trying to stop again the boat and ourselves if the feet found any resistance on the ground. Several times we and the boat got too much speed as we didn’t find any grip on the ground. Then, the boat just pulled us several meters down the river and we had real problems to get the boat under control again. It felt like we needed half an hour to go down the rapids. It was really exhausting. I thought: I am not sure if that’s really the safer way to get down the rapids, but for sure it’s the longer and more exhausting way.
Anyway, somehow we made it down the rapids without losing the boat or getting too much grazes. At the next big rapids we approached there was a 90 degree bend at the end of the rapids with a big cliff wall. We knew that it would get tough to get around the bend. As usual we took a good start up and paddled as hard as we could down the rapids. Both of us mainly paddled on one side to navigate the boat around the bend. We gained a lot of speed and the cliffs at the end of the bend were approaching us really fast. Markus was shouting at me to paddle harder. But, I was already paddling as hard as I could.
The cliff wall was only a few more meters away from us and the next second we would crush with the side of the boat against the wall. So, Markus shout: “Push the paddle against the cliff”. So, we both pushed the paddle against the cliff. However, that was completely useless as we just had too much speed and the water was pushing us too hard against the cliff. Within a quarter of a second we hit the cliff with the side of our boat full speed and the boat immediately sunk down completely.
We both floated in the water and I was really scared at the first moment to get pushed against the cliff and sucked down by the water, because the water was still really fast. However, luckily, the water pulled us now parallel to the cliffs. We still had to avoid another big stone which peeked out of the water and towards which the water was dragging us. Everything just went so fast.
Luckily, after we passed the stone the water became slower again. The boat actually sunk down only for a couple of seconds and then came back up again. So did our stuff. Basically, everything floated now down the river. Everything except Markus’ bicycle. The bicycle didn’t come up again and will probably for ever find its peace in the Nam Houng river (or the Mekong).
Immediately as we were out of danger we swam to the boat as fast as we could and while swimming tried to push the boat to the land. We had to hurry because we saw already the next small rapids coming up down the river and we knew that if we don’t get the boat on the shore here it will just float away without us. We arrived to swim with the boat to the side of the river. Then, we had to swim after our stuff which was partly still floating down the river.
The final result was: we lost Markus’ bycicle, one paddle, some towels, our hats, the umbrellas, a bag of Markus with clothes inside, the two bailers and the Laos’ flag. Not too bad. After we gathered all our stuff together on the shore we had to take care of the boat again. It actually didn’t look too bad. Of course the side which crashed against the cliff was a bit damaged but except for that it still looked quite good.
However, it was still full of water. So we needed to get the water out of the boat. Actually, that was not too easy. First, we had to push the boat a bit up the shore such that it was no longer under the water surface. Then, we started to bail the water out of the boat. As we lost our two bailers we had nothing but our hands. However, we noticed pretty fast that it will take very long like that. Unbelievable, but true, just a couple of minutes after we started to bail out the boat two Laos’ men in a small motorized fisher boat came up the river. They were pretty astonished to see us two with our sunken boat.
We shortly explained them with body language what happened and that we need to get the water out of the boat. They immediately came up with a solution. One of the guys took an empty plastic canister they had on the boat and cut it into two halves. We also asked if they had another paddle. Unfortunately, they didn’t have an additional paddle they didn’t need. However, we were still lucky with our new bailers.
After the Laos’ men left again and we bailed out the boat we packed our stuff again on the boat and were ready to go back on the river. It was not a really good feeling to go back on the river as we only had one paddle left. As Markus took paddle, I could basically do nothing. We agreed to stop on the very next possibility that would show up.
However, we were both a bit worried since this part of the river was not really civilized. Luckily, we (or better Markus) just had to master one or two really small rapids and then we saw some buildings coming up on one side of the river. We stopped and checked out the place. It turned out to be a plant reservoir where some people lived and worked.
One of them could even speak English quite good. We explained them what happened and they offered us a small empty room to stay for the night. We first packed everything out of the bags and hung our stuff on some lines to dry. While we were hanging our stuff on the lines Markus saw a white bag floating down the river. He immediately ran to the boat and paddled to the bag.
Indeed, it turned out to be his lost bag with the clothes inside. In the evening our host brought us some food and we had dinner together. On the next day we wanted to keep on moving. However, we first needed to get a second paddle. Unfortunately, the reservoir they didn’t have a paddle.
So, while Markus was a bit inspecting our boat and trying to make some first aid reparations, I left the reservoir in the hope of finding a close-by village where I could organize a second paddle. I started to walk down the small road that left the reservoir and approximately after 10 minutes a scooter passed me. I waved to the driver and asked him to stop, what he immediately did. He agreed to take me to the next village. Additionally to the driver I also shared the scooter with a cock which he transported in a small cage.
We drove quite a bit. If I would have walked it would probably had taken me more than one hour. We arrived in a small village not too far from the river. I walked around and asked everyone I met for a paddle. It was not easy to make them understand what I wanted by just using body language.
However, at one house I had luck. Again I had to use body language to ask for a paddle and it took quite a while until the young men understood what I wanted. He actually had a paddle and showed it to me. However, he didn’t understand that I wanted to buy it. It took another 20 minutes of body language conversation with him and older woman who meanwhile showed up until we agreed that I could buy the paddle from him. It was a big and heavy wooden paddle and he sold it to me for about 3 dollars.
After I gave him the money he pointed on a small tractor and made me understand that he wanted to bring me back to my place. Great guy. So, I hopped on his small tractor and we drove back to the reservoir. Markus was quite impressed and happy when I showed him the paddle.
Meanwhile he was able to fix the side of the boat a bit by installing a metal plate on the part where it was broken. Now nothing stood in our way to go again back on the river. Thus, we packed our stuff and after a last lunch with our host we were back on the Nam Houng river.
The Nam Houng river didn’t become any calmer than the day before when we sunk the boat. We several times almost sunk the boat again. However, luckily, we could avoid to sink the boat a second time. And after many bends at the end of the Nam Houng river we finally saw the Mekong again. Yes, ‘finally’! Our well known, not trying to kill us all the time, muddy and stinky Mekong. We were just happy.