Starting on the China border, the Nam Ou drains all of Phongsali province and flows down through western Luang Prabang province to meet the Mekong above Luang Prabang. Much of the Phongsali province watershed is devoid of roads and still well covered with old-growth forests, and the river and its many tributaries remain in many ways as they were when nineteenth-century French explorers passed through. That said, the advent of improved roads has meant that river traffic has somewhat diminished; while this can mean that you may have to wait a few days (or charter a boat) to travel up (or down) it, it does retain an unhurried, very local charm, without the uncomfortable crowds of the more famous Mekong journey.
An important Mekong tributary, the Nam Ou holds a cherished place in Lao lore as the original route followed by Luang Prabang’s founding father, Khun Lo, and later by Fa Ngum, the warrior-king, as he headed towards Luang Prabang to claim the throne and found the Kingdom of a Million Elephants. The river begins its journey in the southern flanks of the mountains separating Laos and Yunnan in China. This northernmost part of Laos, Phongsali province, is hemmed in by high mountains on three sides, and the Nam Ou is joined by no less than eight major tributaries before entering Luang Prabang province and beginning its final run down to the Mekong. Two of these tributaries, the Nam Khang and the Nam Houn, pass within the huge Phou Den Din NBCA, along the border with Vietnam.
The main city of the upper Nam Ou is Phongsali, the provincial capital. To the east, Hat Sa effectively acts as Phongsali’s river port on the Nam Ou. The other two important towns on the Nam Ou are Muang Khoua and Nong Khiaw: Muang Khoua sits astride the river where Route 4 continues from Oudomxai to Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam, while Nong Khiaw is located where Route 1 crosses the river on its way from Oudomxai to Hua Phan province in the extreme northeast. Aside from tiny Muang Ngoi, all of the towns listed in this section can be reached by both road and river, though undoubtedly the latter is the more enjoyable option.
Tiny MUANG NGOI, idyllically set among beautiful scenery on the banks of the Nam Ou, has long been an attractive spot for tourists, many of whom end up whiling their days away here. Just an hour’s boat ride north of Nong Khiaw, the fact that the village can only be reached by river gives it an edge-of-the-world feel. Although it’s easy enough to just hang out here sipping coffee and swinging in a hammock (as, indeed, most people do), there are a lot of activities on offer, including trekking to nearby hill-tribe villages, canoeing on the river, organized fishing trips, and outings to the caves and waterfall. However, wandering the main street, especially during high season, you can’t help but feel this sleepy little place has been somewhat ambushed by tourism, with every second property seeming to be a guesthouse or a travellers’ café.
Muang Ngoi is pretty much a one street village, with dusty pathways striking off it in both directions. One excursion that you can take without a tour guide is to the nearby caves, where villagers’ hid during the war; to get there, turn left near Kaikeo and follow the path for a few kilometres. Take a torch.
Most guesthouses now offer trips and activities around Muang Ngoi, as do a few cafés along the main street. Situated on the path up from the boat landing, just beyond Lattanavongsa, Lao Youth Travel offer perhaps the most extensive range of options, from a half-day kayaking trip that includes a stop at a beach and time for a swim to a one-day trek that visits three local villages.
Muang Khoua can be reached by road or river. At one time Route 4 continued across a pontoon bridge over the Nam Ou at Muang Khoua, but it has been destroyed. Off the main road, a long curving road leads down to the boat landing on the pebble beach along the Nam Ou. The dirt road on the opposite bank is the other half of Route 4; a basic vehicle ferry makes the regular crossing.
The tourist office is situated on the main road, close to the road down to the boat landing. The Agricultural Promotion Bank is situated on the main road, just down from the Tourist Office, and can exchange currency.
Muang Khoua has a number of guesthouses; your best option on arrival is to follow the road uphill from the boat landing. Electricity is only available from 6 to 10.30pm – and don’t be surprised if it doesn’t quite run when it should.
There are a few restaurants in town, including the travellers’ favourite at the Nam Ou Guesthouse, which has a pretty standard menu with dishes for about 12,000K. Saylon Restaurant has great views of the river – come for a beer at sunset, but the food is pretty grotty. The best choice for something to eat is the Vietnamese restaurant (no Romanized name) next to Chaleunsouk Guesthouse. A small, bare-bones place, it’s got a great local feel, and serves up deliciously spiced fried rice (10,000K) and a gorgeous Lao-style yellow curry (25,000K).
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.