Drifting Down The Nam Tha River – A Slow Boat Through Laos

“Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.”
– A. A. Milne
Peace and Baaah

All travel is slow travel in Laos. For two days, we stare at the countryside out the back of a truck, waving to children as we drive through their villages and negotiating landslides. Finally, we arrive at Luanag Nam Tha. The Nam Tha River starts near this growing town in northern Laos, and continues until it reaches the Mekong.

An apparently peaceful spot, the aptly named “Boat Landing Restaurant & Bar” seems like a good place to spend a few days and organize transportation to the Thai border. Any illusions we had about peace and quiet are quickly shattered when we go to the restaurant for dinner. We are greeted by a crying baby, screaming children, diesel boats, yelping dogs, and the topper, a goat being prepared for slaughter. The proprietor and his thugs wrestle the wretched animal into a tree and secure it among the branches. Its throat is slit, and it is skinned, singed and butchered – all within sight of the dining area and its occupants.

We are the only “farang” present, and the only ones shocked by the spectacle. Except for the goat’s kid, which witnesses the entire episode. Perhaps it hasn’t been weaned, because the thing bleats its poor little heart out for mama all night long. That, along with the odd rat scurrying through the walls and dogs barking next door, lulls us to sleep. Until the roosters chime in before dawn, which gets the dogs going again.

Nam Tha River Cruising

We arrange a boat take us down the Nam Tha River, and along the Mekong to Houay Xay. The captain drives the boat and his mate helps steer with a paddle off the bow. Apart from the boat’s engine, the river is a beautiful and peaceful place. It slides through a dense jungle as tree branches hang along its banks. However, some of the rapids prove to be a challenge and the motor could stop at any time, again.

We thought we were spending the night in Nale, but our boatman insists that we stay with him in his village, Khun Kham. He hasn’t been home to his family for a while, so we consent. When our boat reaches the village, we were welcomed, not by a sea of hotel touts, but by a sea of children. The adults are still out working, so we quickly become the main attraction.

Unloading the boat at Khun Khan on the Nam Tha River in Laos

Unloading the boat at Khun Khan

Our entourage takes us for a tour of the village – bamboo huts built along the river’s muddy banks. Our boatman looks to be the best off, as his house is made of wood, and has electricity – a light bulb hooked up to a car battery. As the adults return from work and learn that we are in town, they too begin to come around to watch us play cribbage.

Traveling Riverside Blues

One woman has a baby with a nasty eye infection. We give her some eye drops and one Cipro pill broken into quarters. We relate to her, or at least try to tell her, to give the child one piece a day, for four days. Suddenly, several people approach us, clutching their stomachs and their heads. We can try to help a sick child, but we are not doctors or pharmacists, and politely refuse to offer any further assistance.

Stilted House in Khun Kham on the Nam Tha River in Laos

Our boatman’s house and entourage of local children

Dinner is served. A small rattan table about two feet high is brought out and on it are a bowl of sticky rice, a couple of different chili pastes, and a pot of cooked fish and a cartilage-like substance. We all squat around the table and eat from communal plates

With the morning comes the ubiquitous roosters. After a breakfast reminiscent of dinner, and a couple of hits of local brandy, it is time to hit the river again. As we leave, the boatman’s wife returns to work, presumably in a nearby field. His daughter resumes weaving on the loom out front, and his son goes off to play with his friends.

Where Rivers Meet

We stop for lunch at Pak Nam Tha, where the Nam Tha River meets the Mekong. More than once our captain and his mate try to pawn us off to speedboat, but we have none of it. The deal was to take us to Houay Xay by slow boat.

When we turn upstream, our progress slows as noisy and crowded speedboats zip by us. Nine hours after we depart Khun Kham, we get to Houay Xay. With our packs off the boat and the deal with the boatmen finalized over many BeerLao, we find a guesthouse. Throughout the evening, as we prepare to return to Thailand, it slowly becomes evident that Diane has contracted the infant’s eye infection.

Riverside town Oudomxay in Laos


We are glad we took the boatman up on his offer of hospitality, and for the opportunity to see first-hand how the majority of the world’s population lives. We are also glad to have the ability to leave, and that we live where we do. We are also glad that we don’t have to face the adversity and challenges many people face: an undeveloped nation, disease, landmines, and survival.


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