By Bruce Northam



Why knot?

(from: THE DIRECTIONS TO HAPPINESS: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons)

River Ou, Laos

River Ou, Laos

Finding your way in Laos can be a challenge. Street addresses are rarely used. If they are, building numbers match the order of construction. Lao transit often means huddling in the back of a family-size tuk-tuk. These oblong, bald-tired trucks make room for three lucky ladies riding in front with the driver, while 20 others cram into and upon the dingy pickup’s tarp-roofed bed. Because many villages can only be accessed by foot or boat, one mode of river travel presented a do-it-yourself option with two choices: sink or swim.


In northern Laos, 6-foot 9-inch travel-writing cohort Brad and I inherited a recently commissioned green bamboo raft valued at $12 to float a stretch of a river that originates in China and faces pending multi-dam destruction along its entire course. Semi-buoyant, slightly navigable, and gradually sinking due to waterlog, our 10-by-2-foot craft was also coming apart from collisions with various rocks. When night fell, we floated in nearly waist-deep water as the baleful purr of another set of rapids seemed to foretell our doom. We were weekend warriors in primetime.


The backstory of this unplanned water voyage is a lesson in international bargaining. From the last road in Nong Kiaw, we took a motorized longboat upriver to Muang Noi via the River Ou. When navigating headlong into rapids, we crashed into rocks and had to totter to the riverbank for repairs. Little did we know what an omen this would turn out to be.


Accessible only by boat, our destination, Muang Noi, is an idyllic village on an elevated riverside plain cradled by large mountains. A refreshing departure from Southeast Asia’s earsplitting transport madness, the little town remains blissfully devoid of motorized vehicles. There was only the drone of periodic generators creating electricity. The biggest currency note, 20,000 kip ($2), went a long way for frugal globetrotters seeking spectacular hikes and river floats. Here, the backpackers were starting to coexist with middle-aged European couples, likely revealing the future of this place. The predictable tourism cycle starts with backpackers flocking to an out-of-the-way gem, a decade later come the guided groups, and another decade brings the resorts.


Every town has a go-to guy. In Muang Noi, it was Kao, who for a fair wage, made many travelers whimsical daily dreams come true. On a professional level, he would be called an expediter or a fixer. We called him the magic man. When he offered to build us a boat, Brad and I clashed. I voted for continued freewheeling hiking and local riverboat tripping, as we’ve all heard foreboding maxims about boat ownership. Brad, however, saw a grand adventure brewing. I eventually convinced Brad to wait another day to decide.


A few hours later, I found myself sipping a beer in a thatched-roof establishment and wondering how to stave off Brad’s boat dream. That’s when a British guy I’d befriended stumbled in with one hand clutching a paddle, and the other a banged-up rifle. “Oh my god, they’re coming for me,” he stammered. “What did I do?” He dropped the rifle on the table and slapped his forehead. Come to find out, he’d gone “into business” with an Israeli guy to purchase a handmade boat for the market price of $12, but when they showed up to board and float their craft, the builder requested two more dollars for a pair of handmade paddles. The Israeli wouldn’t budge and demanded the paddles be inclusive of the $12 they’d already forked over. The Laotian bamboo craftsman wouldn’t negotiate. Harsh words flew, prompting the Laotian man to strut home, paddles in hand. The Brit and the Israeli trailed him through town and into his house, a hut really, and grabbed the only paddle they could find. And to make a point, they also snatched an antique rifle that was hanging on the man’s wall. While the argument over $2 paddles may seem incredibly petty, when ultra-thrifty travelers are on the road for a long time, a few dollars can make or break a budget—and possibly someone’s sanity.


After 10 minutes of consoling the sweating Brit, three calm plainclothes Lao policemen arrived at the restaurant to fetch the gun burglar. Coming to his defense, I pleaded with the cops to accept the Brit’s apology (invented by me), which included an offer to buy dinner and drinks for the boat maker and the police. With faces frozen, they weren’t interested. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for a nice guy who’d gotten in over his head. Off they marched with the Brit. Before exiting the restaurant, he thanked me for defending him and handed me the disputed paddle sighing, “You can have my boat.”


Soon after, Brad strolled into the restaurant, and I told him the full story, minus the gifting of the boat. He caught me off guard when he pointed to the paddle leaning on the table and asked what it was. Immediately after confessing that I now owned a boat, Brad lit up. “Let’s go!” he said. In a mad scrabble, we checked out of our huts, commissioned Kao to find us a second oar, and ship our backpacks downriver on the next local transport boat. Then we set sail.

Sink or Swim in Laos

Sink or Swim in Laos

Not 10 minutes into our downriver excursion, the raft began doing a wheelie since big Brad commandeered the back. Because we had warm beer on board and were careening off rocks, we agreed to name our craft Bamboozler. I knew we were in over our heads when a two-ton water buffalo swimming across the river gave us a steady warning look I interpreted as, “What the fu*k are these dorks doing here?”


Like two wagon-pulling seven-year-olds attempting to run away from home, we puffed out our chests and rowed on. Keeping pace with that mindset, we became the afternoon entertainment for children on the shoreline by echoing various animal sounds. Brad mimics a great cow. Later, we docked on the shoreline for our first of several random village visits. Kids arrived and laughed with us, and then the elder men waltzed up and chuckled at our boat, and us. Let the buyer beware. As opposed to dried brown, buoyant bamboo, our freshly cut green boat was cumbersome and basically unsteerable. Regardless, we still got credit for arriving by homespun boat and celebrated our dockings by buying all the kids pencils and writing pads from the lone shops near the makeshift marinas.


Eventually, our time on the water took its toll. “I have a feeling someone’s not rowing,” I accused Brad, forgetting there was a 240-pound guy back there who wasn’t smiling. And one oar, mine, was more likely to be used to fan myself. Both oars were two-foot long sections of bamboo sliced on one end to insert a chunky leaf. You could hardly call our floating logs a boat. When a father and son paddled by in their slick dugout canoe and ogled us with confused wonder, we gawked back at the harmony of their smooth, silent glide.


The sun set behind a cliff and the nocturnal jungle animals began to stir. The distant hiss of another run of whitewater roared louder and louder. We took swigs from our beers and braced for impact. Inexplicably, we clunked through the whitewater series like an underwater toboggan. Weaving like an unmanned magic carpet ride, we ran into rocks that spun our boat out of control, submerging it deeper underwater. Somehow, we eventually righted it, but not before the sound of cracking bamboo was heard competing with the gush of the rapids. Our limping underwater raft now set the waterline above our waists. In this part of the world, they call foreigners falang. The Falang Navy drifted on.


Having survived our brush with drowning and discovering that our sack of beer was still tied on, we discussed lighter issues. Then it occurred to us that neither of us had any idea where Kao had actually forwarded our backpacks. I yelped “wait,” to a deaf river deity. Still happily helpless and barely floating, the jesting continued…


“Brad, our raft is a bit of a lemon.”


Brad responded, “Your raft.”


Now in total darkness, we continue navigating blindly until a passing motorized passenger boat pulled up next to us, and the elderly pilot waved us into his boat. Upon boarding, we pointed to our raft, and he nodded a slow no, dismissing it with a backhanded wave. Emergency hospitality at its best. The kind, calm, and graceful Lao people make it hard to comprehend that Laos remains the most heavily bombed country ever. In a nine-year undeclared war, the U.S. dropped half a ton of bombs for every inhabitant.


Rescued at sea, we docked another mile downriver and discovered that our packs were on our rescue boat. Our good fortune multiplied when we re-encountered the apprehended Brit in that village, where he was taken, questioned, and released. After paying the apologetic would-be felon an honorarium for the stipulated boat, we shared a few laughs, and I realized that it was the first boat I’d ever bought—and for that matter, abandoned—albeit in the span of a day. Bucket list check for boat ownership.


Weeks later, back home in New York City, I found patches of reddish River Ou mud on the shorts I’d worn on the raft. Surprisingly, many of the world’s most daring pathfinders never discovered what they were looking for—riches, renown, and new trade routes to the Orient—but they all fearlessly cast searchlights into the unknown. Collectively, they mapped and helped merge the globe’s peoples and ways. Although at first reluctant for this particular adventure, I can’t imagine missing it. Brad and I didn’t exactly obliterate navigating presumptions that had endured for ages, but after smelling that Lao river again, I felt equally fulfilled and pitched my shorts into a washing machine.


∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞


Don’t bargain for a boat not in the water.” —Brendan Lake, Maine boat builder

Brad Olsen and Bruce Northam 'conquering' the River Ou in Northern Laos

Brad Olsen and Bruce Northam ‘conquering’ the River Ou in Northern Laos