After a long bus ride into northern Laos, we found ourselves boarding a narrow, bright blue boat in Muang Khua that would soon make its way down the muddy Nam Ou. The river is one of two natural channels suitable for large draft boat transportation in Laos (the other on the Mekong River ends at the Thai border) stretching some 280 miles from the Phongsaly Province to Luang Prabang. Zipping along on this snake-like stream, we will travel through jungle and villages in hopes of glimpsing true river life in action.
The river comes alive as we motor out of Muang Khua. Lush jungle and cascading brown mountains tower over us along with the occasional wooden shack along the riverbed. Livestock roam freely at the water's edge attempting to cool down on a hot, humid day. After seven hours aboard our boat, we arrive at our first destination: Muang Ngoi Neua. Generators provide electricity from just 6 to 10 at night, so understandably internet service and television are scarce. Which is kind of the point. This small and sleepy town is a perfect getaway from the outside world. With hammocks galore and views of the karst formations, nature and a good read will be your entertainment. If you find yourself restless, don't worry: Trekking, caving, and kayaking are easily available, too (try Lao Youth Travel for packages starting at $28).
An hour south on the Nam Ou, you reach Nong Khiaw, a larger river town fit with all the amenities a traveler might need. Settled on the cherry blossom riverbank, the town is abundant with cafes, restaurants, and guesthouses. We liked Delilah's Place, where each Laotian dish is homemade and mains start at an affordable $3. On one side of the river lies a thriving town, filled with local shops, schools, and food stalls (feel free to give those chicken feet a try). Just over the bridge on the other side of the Nam Ou, guesthouses (try the Bamboo Paradise Guest House, a family-run retreat for around $10 a night) with hammock river views line the riverside overlooking the town and the mighty karsts behind it. Add a Beer Lao, and a dependably glorious sunset, and you've got a perfect ending to the day.
Adventure tours are popular here; fill up your day with cycling and hiking, or learn how to fish with the locals. Green Discovery and Tiger Trail are two reputable companies that offer reasonable packages.
More information: Boat tickets can be purchased at the Muang Khua boating office along the harbor. This six to nine-hour trip to Muang Ngoi Neua and Nong Khiaw start at $11 during peak season.