“The river is everywhere.”
– Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha
In Laos rivers are everywhere. They run like long legs down the length of the country, carrying life on their broad backs, travelling swiftly in places, and in others, slow. Life on the banks of the Nam Ou in Northern Laos is fluid and slow, vigorous and languid in turn, changing with the seasons. For children there’s ample time to play and for adults, time enough to discuss the minor calibrations of the day, which is configured around the rituals of washing and harvesting. For the water buffalo, there’s no work but swatting flies.
The appeal of river life draws travellers in large numbers to tiny Nong Khiaw and Mong Ngoi Neu, villages 100km upstream from the northern capital, Luang Prabang. In January and February, when the Nam Ou is at its lowest, tourist numbers peak, and when the waters swell in June, the number of tourists ebb. This is the time the river renews itself, absorbing into its stream the reams of water that uncoil from the mountainside, gathering like snakes among river rocks, fingering into the cliffs, boring caves deep enough to accommodate whole villages. The shores, where corn and beans grow during dry season, are inundated, and when the waters recedes, a shimmering shelf of silt is revealed, ready to coax the sap to rise in another season of crops.
Life in the more remote villages of the Nam Ou has changed very little in the last century: boys are eligible to marry only after they have mastered the art of building, and the boat builder is one of the most important citizens in the village. As soon as boys are tall enough to hold their fathers’ fishing nets clear of the sand, they learn to cast, and even the smallest child, male or female, knows how to hold his or her head above water while diving with hands outstretched to grab thick tufts of vivid green river weed that their mothers transform into crisp savoury sun-dried snacks, encrusted with tamarind juice, sesame seeds, and slices of tomato and garlic.