Luang Prabang in northern Laos was recently awarded Top City in Wanderlust magazine’s annual 2015 Travel Awards. As an expat who just celebrated her one-year anniversary living in this UNESCO World Heritage town, I know well the charms that travelers fall in love with: the vibrant colors of the night market, colonial French architecture juxtaposed with centuries-old Buddhist temples, the gentle temperament of locals. But to me, it is the Nam Khan River and the community it provides for that leaves the greatest impression.
Only 262 kilometers (162 miles) long, the Nam Khan has significant social and cultural meaning nonetheless. The walls of Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang’s most important Buddhist temple, are adorned with scenes of people fishing and engaging in other water activities, evidence of the historical role rivers have had here.
The Beauty of the Nam Khan River
Today, people still depend on the Nam Khan for fishing, transportation and entertainment. As it snakes its way through the north before spilling into the Mekong river in Luang Prabang, the Nam Khan acts as a vital resource for lowland communities, the ecosystem upon which agriculture, fishing, even tourism rely. One place to experience its vitality, and natural beauty, is on the river’s west bank in Luang Prabang.
The paved road on this side of the river leading to the peninsula opens to an unobstructed view of the ethereal scene of a tranquil waterway framed by tamarind trees, bamboo forests and brooding mountains. The sidewalk is bordered by a low stone wall, more of a really long bench than guardrail, as it is often lined with locals marveling at the natural harmony in front of them. It is also one of the few places in Luang Prabang where locals and tourists can mingle freely and unscripted.
Today I sat down in the middle of the wall next to a group of teenage boys who, save for the occasional banter, admired the view together in silence. A few feet away, a woman parked her motorbike on the sidewalk and swiftly put on mascara in front of the rearview mirror. Her (assumed) boyfriend came later and the pair blended in with other couples resting against each other on the wall. Two girls perched themselves on the other side of me and huddled together, giggling as they switched between watching whatever was playing on their smartphones, and watching men cast fishing nets from the riverbank across the way.
It’s dry season now and the water level is so low that the river bottom is completely exposed in some parts, creating patches of pebbly beach where people play football and volleyball. Long wooden fishing boats are scattered on the dry land, seemingly left stranded when the water level dropped. Tourists also enjoy the beach but sadly, some have enjoyed it at the expense of local culture. A sign written in English hangs at the entrance of the bamboo bridge leading to the embankment, asking beachgoers not to wear bikinis, and not to go topless.
Linger on the wall long enough and you’ll get a whiff of the aroma of barbecue from the family-run food stand at the top of the stone wall. Unable to resist the mouth-watering scent, I got up from my spot and walked the short stretch to the unassuming grilling station. Fresh vegetables and meat are displayed in orderly rows, making it easy to order dinner by pointing. After I pointed to enoki mushrooms, crisp green peppers and chicken skewers, the woman manning the grill threw them over the fire and gestured behind her, inviting me to relax at a table overlooking the river.
Tourism to Luang Prabang is rapidly increasing and at times it feels as though this small town is overrun by travelers, and foreign transplants like myself. But sitting along the riverbank among locals, and watching the Nam Khan being used as much as for diversion as for utility by the community assures me that Luang Prabang still belongs to its people.
Kathy is a Responsible Tourism professional who currently calls Luang Prabang, Laos, home. She believes that tourism can be a force for good and seeks to uncover the power of travel through the lens of the local community. Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/kathyeow.