23-Day Cycle Tour through China, Laos and Thailand, Days 11 and 12:
Boat trip on the Nam Ou and 40 km cycling from Nong Khiao to Nam Thouam.
Yesterday, we spent the day steering down the Ou river from Muang Khua to Muang Ngoi. It was raining a bit, but shielded by the roof of the slim boat we were able to enjoy the beautiful scenery along the river banks. Even though the forest we see is by no means primary forest, there are beautiful and tall trees towering above karst hills, tiny villages that can only be reached by boat and water buffalos roaming the sandy riverbanks.
Laos, as a developing country, is facing the same dilemma most underdeveloped places do: There is no developed infrastructure, no industry. In order to participate in the economic upswing of South East Asia, the people in power take the easiest and quickest way by selling the country’s natural resources. Lao’s two big sources of income are wood and electricity from hydropower projects. Here at the Nam Ou, both of these are visible. Big trees and primary forest has been logged some time ago – but what’s really striking now is the massive scale of hydropower projects. Here at the Nam Ou, the Chinese are building seven (!) dams along the river. Usually these deals work like this: The investing country or company gets the right to harvest all the initial profits of the power station, but after a set amount of time, the dams and their revenue will be handed over to the Lao government. Those deals are usually closed between the Lao government officials and foreign investors (many of the power projects are financed by China, but also South Korea, Japan and Thailand are heavily involved) – without taking the opinion of the people into account.
On the boat, we pass the construction sites of two dams, meaning that in three years, we will no longer be able to visit this spectacular section because of the new dams blocking our way. But not us but the people living along the Nam Ou will be most affected by the dams: Now, only two dams have been finished further downstream (between Luang Prabang and Nong Khiao), but the life of the villagers has already changed. The river, which used to be full of fish now no longer provides food for the people living along its shores and the fishermen of the Ou have lost their jobs. With even more dams being built, things are unlikely to change in the future. The next problem will be the rising water levels close to the new dams. Many villages we pass on our way will have to be resettled very soon. On our way, we visit one of those dwellings. This village has its own little school, some shops, and people live in solid, even some two-storey houses. China by Bikes groups have stopped here many times and our groups have always liked the tranquil and very welcoming atmosphere of the place. This time, however, already feels like a good-bye: The houses have been marked with spray paint, indicating that they will have to be torn down soon. We are told that the village will be resettled to a nearby village which lies a little further up the hills. The people here don’t complain to us and it seems like they have already accepted their fate. But then again: what options do they have?
We steer further downstream and spend the night in the backpacker village Muang Ngoi. In the morning, we once again get on the boats and ride for two more hours through picturesque karst mountains to Nong Khiaw. Time to hop on our bikes again! We cycle around fourty km on easy terrain to reach our simple accommodation at Nam Thouam. Apart from a market, this place does not have much to offer, but we manage to find a nice new restaurant to have a great dinner, ending the day in style.
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