Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink (unless it has been properly purified first).

As Asia’s only landlocked country, I was hardly expecting Laos to have such a huge part of its cultural revolving around water. After our four weeks of touring the country from south to north, it now seems obvious that water is vital to their way of life in a way that I’ve never experienced elsewhere. Cultural celebrations as well as daily activities like finding food, cooking, bathing, and transportation all depend on these meandering water sources.

A fisherman collects his nets during the hot afternoon in Muang Ngoi, Laos.

A boy collects his fishing nets during the hot afternoon in Muang Ngoi, Laos.

After doing a bit of research, I found out that most of the Lao population lives directly on the mighty Mekong or one of its 12 major tributaries. In order to round out our trip here, we decided it was time to witness first hand the way of life of these river people.

Already, we had been enamored with the waterfalls on the Bolaven Plateau. We had enjoyed the sunrises over the Mekong while recuperating in Champasak. We had taken a longboat through the darkness in Konglor. By the time we made it to our northern-most destination, Muang Ngoi, we were ready to kayak down the Nam Ou (“rice-bowl river” in Lao) for a three day trip to Luang Prabang. Or so we thought…

Villagers live and die by the Nam Ou. Here, some passing fishermen sell us some perfectly fresh river fish for a very reasonable price.

Villagers live and die by the Nam Ou. Here, some passing fishermen sell us some perfectly fresh river fish for a few kip.

First of all, the three-day trip from beautiful but backpacker-ville Muang Ngoi was a little too pricey for us, so we begrudgingly accepted the two-day version, in which the last bit to Luang Prabang was traveled by car. What a fortunate decision. As it was, we were nearly dead at the end of day one. Not for one minute did we consider the physical implications of kayaking for 7 hours a day with our office-worker atrophied arms. I honestly don’t remember being in so much muscular pain. Somehow, we were able to recover sufficiently over night to put in a good 5 hours the following day. We both fell into an exhausted stupor almost immediately when the car picked us up at the end of the trip. It was a humbling experience.

Fish from a passing fisherman's daily catch made for an incredibly fresh dinner on the river.

Fish from a passing fisherman’s daily catch made for an incredibly fresh dinner on the river.

Along the painful but alluring river route, we were able to observe an important water festival in this part of Laos – the Nong Khiaw river boat races. All the villages along the Nam Ou get together for an impressive display of strength and finesse as the young men from each settlement don brightly colored t-shirts and dig their paddles deep into the water in time with their captain’s whistle. Water taxi long boats were seen coming and going with villagers wearing their Sunday best to enjoy the festivities. These boat races occur each year just before the Lao New Year and corresponding water festival of Pii Mai. The little boys in many villages had already acquired water guns or small buckets to soak the rice wine fueled revelers, and passing kayakers like us.

A glimpse of the annual Nong Khiaw riverboat races just before the New Year's celebrations.

A glimpse of the annual Nong Khiaw riverboat races just before the New Year’s water throwing celebrations.

Despite the physical challenge of the trip, we were delighted by what we saw along the river. Our slow but persistent paddling was rewarded by some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen: misty multi-layered limestone mountains, early-morning fisherman hurling their nets into the green water, and giant jungle trees with sinuous roots reaching into the river like so many boney fingers. We felt privileged to see these mountains, cliffs and villages from the same perspective as the locals: on the river.

Local girls survey younger siblings near the boat ramp  during the evening bathing session of Muang Ngoi.

Local girls survey younger siblings near the boat ramp during the evening bathing session of Muang Ngoi.