Rollin’ on the River

Adventure Travel, Asia, Fitness & Workouts, Laos, Lost Girls RTW Adventure, Tours & Attractions — By on February 21, 2007 at 12:53 pm

Our guide Sang warned Jen and me that we’d encounter a few small “rapids” during our kayaking adventure in Laos down the Nam Khan River, and not to worry if we ended up with a mouthful of river water-almost everyone flipped over at some point.

Determined to keep our heads (and bodies) above water, Jen and I tackled our physical challenge like a pair of dauntless competitors on the Amazing Race. We jumped into our two-woman kayak, with Jen power paddling and steering in the back and me failing miserably to set the rowing rhythm up front. Since my marine experience was limited to childhood bathtub toys and rides on the Staten Island Ferry, Jen gently explained how to dip my oars in at a steady rate, rather than stabbing at the river like a woman trying to fend off a school of piranhas. It took several minutes, but I finally got the hang of the whole “team effort” thing just in time to tackle our first rapid.

“Paddle left, paddle left!” Jen’s voice called out behind me and I did as instructed, watching with rising anxiety as our boat moved directly into a churning chute of foam. The tip of the kayak dipped down and we shot forward into the rapid, a wall of water arcing up and crash landing back inside the boat. Jen and I both got soaked like we’d just ridden the flume ride at Adventure Island, but to my happy surprise, we’d managed to keep ourselves upright. Yeah!

Sang seemed impressed when we pulled up alongside him. “Very good, I think. That was part of the river where people always fall down. You stay in boat. Now from here, no more hard rapid.”

He was true to his word-the current slowed significantly and at times, Jen and I had to paddle hard just to keep the boat moving forward. After two hours, my shoulders were burning from the effort (not to mention the scorching sun) and the stunning mountain scenery that had distracted me initially faded aptly in the background. Sang kept himself amused during the slower moments by playing “bumper kayaks” and drenching us with fat rooster tails of river water.

“Look there,” he said, motioning toward a large bank of tawny-colored sand, “That where we make the lunch. You go there.”

He didn’t need to ask us twice. With renewed vigor, Jen and I propelled ourselves toward the land, prepared to jump on top of the grub like a pair of hunger-crazed hyenas. To our dismay, Sang caught up to tell us that that his fellow guide still had to prepare the meal on a portable grill. We slumped down by the water’s edge to wait.

It didn’t take long before we’d accrued something of an audience-Laos kids came tumbling down the sides of hills, from behind trees and across the river on tubes to stare at the oddly dressed and incredibly pale women who’d just washed up on their shores. The older boys and girls gaped in awe, then giggled as we waved to them, but as I turned my attention to a chubby little man wearing nothing except a tattered tee-shirt, he burst out crying like I was the boogey-woman herself.

A short way up the riverbank, I noticed that an older woman, perhaps the baby’s grandma, was pulling the roots off a pile of sandy leaves and tossing them into a bowl. I approached, carefully, lest I freak this lady out the same way I had her grandchild. The woman looked up and nodded slightly, allowing me to sit down on the ground across from her. Some of the kids from the river bank followed suit. Gingerly, I reached for a handful of leaves, stripping the greens of their roots as she had, then watched her face carefully for a reaction. She said A few words I couldn’t understand and broke out in genuine laughter-she seemed happy to accept my help.

After the group of us (Granny, the kids and me) washed the greens in the river, Sang called out that it was time for lunch. Yes! I said goodbye to my adopted Laos family and headed up the shore.

Maybe Sang’s friend was a kick-ass chef, or maybe we were just really hungry, but our “to-go” meal turned out to be one of the best I’d tasted on the road: Spice-marinated veggie kabobs, charcoal grilled beef strips and fried rice flavored with red chili sauce. We ate our food with wide plastic spoons and noticed that our audience from the beach had slowly returned to watch us pigging out.

At least twenty children stared as the food moved from hand to mouth, but not one made a move to ask for a taste. In fact, even when we offered them bites of our bread, our rice, our kabobs, not one would come forward to accept the offering. Either they weren’t really hungry-or this was the quietest, most well-behaved group of kids I’d ever encountered.

It was only when Sang explained to them in the local Hmong language that we were absolutely finished, that the bravest ones dared to extend their hands. Maybe they’d just needed a local to let them know it was okay to dig in?

With the rest of the lunches eventually distributed (and requisite cute photos taken), Jen and I took to the water once again, paddling our way several kilometers down the river. Pumped up by our power lunch, we actually arrived at the end point more than an hour early and without spilling (a first, Sang told us). Since it would be a while before the van picked us up, we pulled the boats out of the water, stowed them, and strolled through another hill tribe village.

Groups of teen girls giggled and pointed, older women smiled, men shouted Sabadee, their greeting. I was feeling pretty good abut the whole day when I noticed a sweet-looking baby in the arms of his young mother. Without thinking much of it, I gave him a smile and watched in dismay as he dissolved into hysterics.


At that point, I decided it was time to stop striking fear into the hearts of local children and engage in a post-paddling activity best suited for adults. With Sang in the lead, Jen and I headed to a bamboo-thatched cafe and washed away the rest of the afternoon with a few frosty bottles of Beer Laos.

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