The southern leg of the journey up the Nam Ou is the six-hour ride between Luang Prabang and Nong Khiaw which is wildly scenic, especially the karst forests around Nong Khiaw and Muang Ngoi. Closer to Luang Prabang, where the river follows Route 13, extensive logging and slash-and-burn agriculture have stripped the surrounding mountains: only where the slopes are too rocky or too steep for cultivation have stands of forest been left intact. In an effort at reforestation, however, rows of young teak trees, recognizable by their enormous leaves, have been planted. After the road leaves the river, the scenery takes a turn for the spectacular, with vertical limestone peaks and pristine little white-sand beaches.
Upriver from Nong Khiaw the scenery continues to impress, possibly even surpassing that of the stretch below Nong Khiaw, the river snaking through impenetrable jungle. Because many of the surrounding mountains are simply too steep for slash-and-burn agriculture, the forests have been left virtually untouched. When the river is not too high and fast, this leg is also blessed with shelves of squeaky-clean beach, perfect for taking a lazy swim and admiring the dramatic scenery. However, this primeval landscape lasts only a third of the distance to Muang Khoua and is then replaced by arable hills with a beaten, domesticated air about them. The journey between Nong Khiaw and Muang Khoua takes approximately five hours.
Beyond Muang Khoua, it’s another 100km to Hat Sa, the last town of any size on the Nam Ou until U Thai, far to the northeast. The mountainous scenery on the Muang Khoua–Hat Sa leg may be a little less dramatic than around Nong Khiaw, but the journey is nonetheless impressive and peaceful.
Passenger boats continuing up the Nam Ou River beyond Hat Sa are few and far between, but it is possible to charter a boat to explore Laos’s northernmost corner. Anticipate paying upwards of $60 for a day-trip. North of Hat Sa there’s no formal accommodation but it should be possible to find lodging in villages.