Monday, December 8, 2014

Nam Ngiap, it was supposed to be a class 3 first descent, turned out to be a 3 day, 36 mile, class 5 adventure dropping 2,500 feet!

not class 3

It was late the night before I was supposed to fly out of the States. As usual, I was sleeping in my van and trying to pack in the last tidbits of information about the trip. How far from the airport to the first hotel (Saysouly Guest House)? What kind of transportation? What is the exchange rate? How do I get my visa, again? I fell asleep still asking questions. With experience gained over the years, I now know this is routine; and see it as a confirmation that it’s about to be adventure time.

before, proper junk show in the parking lot
after, all wrapped up and ready to fly

YES! the kayak will fit

After slipping the curbside baggage guy a $20, he helped expedite the “wave-ski” (kayak) through the check in process - first major hurdle complete! Then it was just three full days of travel to get to Vientiane Laos.

Unwinding in Vientiane with a very traditional meal

As the plane doors opened, I struggled with my jet lag and stumbled out into the muggy air. Finally, I was in Laos. Looking at the visa paperwork, I quickly affirmed that the American idea that the country is called Laos is just wrong; it’s Lao. I also quickly realized that it’s HOT! While waiting in line for twenty minutes to get my visa paperwork, I started dripping in sweat. After my passport was stamped and “wave-ski” collected, I headed outside to arrange the third of a myriad of travel modes.

loaded up in the tuk tuk, wish these were in more countries

A quick van ride from the airport (with my kayak inside the van), I arrived at a hostel in the center of Vientiane, the capital of Lao. The plan was to meet with Lincoln Taylor. A mutual friend had put us in contact over the very rarely, but occasionally super-useful, Facebook. Lincoln and I spent a couple days collecting our bearings and meeting some of his local associates who would help make the month long adventure run much smoother. Foremost is Vianney Catteau; he has all of the adventure tourism connections.

Vianney Catteau and Lincoln Talyor scouting from space

Then we were off! The plan was to go to the center of the country and pick off the Nam Ngiap river (“Nam” means river or water in Laotian). Our beta was very minimal and it wasn’t until I begged for further information that we got an idea of the overall gradient. We would travel 105 miles falling a total of 3,000 feet. On that average it would be thirty feet per mile, hopefully creating good class three river.

Getting there

Lao is as beautiful as you can imagine

After two full days of travel by minivan, bus, tuk tuk, and sǎwngthǎew, an interesting open van that was carrying mostly onions and garlic, as well as two kayaks, we arrived in the small town of Muang Khoun 3,539 feet above sea level. Thankfully, the local guest house had a room and Lincoln and I checked in. We took a minute that night to get a late dinner, and to also grab some camp food for our presumed three or four day adventure.

Lao has gradient!

The following morning we were greeted with sunny skies and a very worried guest house owner. She thought we were going to die. (After years of travel, and it doesn’t matter where, there is usually a solid local concern that the waterfalls downstream are potentially deadly.) Honestly, the threats of waterfalls from the locals just boosted my intrigue. It was the talk of us being shot at that bothered me. We had already seen a fair share of young men toting AK 47’s. Waterfalls I can portage, but I’m not good at dodging bullets yet. During the influx of information there was a confirmation of a dam downstream (which I had thought was true from satellite imagery) and the people working there might not be happy that we were on the water.

It looked as if the trip was about to get canceled before we even got on the river. At this point, Lincoln’s Lao was exhausted, and my charades and show and tell picture game were failing as well. Eventually, we turned to technology and rang up one of Lincoln’s local contacts to help interpret. After a quick conversation, the guest house owner was all smiles and pointed us to the water.

the guest house was located just about on top of our put in

Day 1, Dam to Jungle

The river was gross. The town unfortunately has been dumping just about everything into the river. The trees on either side of the river were wrapped in plastic bags and rubbish, making an obvious and disgusting high water mark. I was starting to feel a little disappointed about the adventure. Then the gradient subsided and we were in an even more disturbing situation: a reservoir.

As we neared the dam, Lincoln indicated that we should to stay out of sight as long as possible. We paddled next to the shoreline hoping our obtrusive kayaks wouldn’t blow our cover. Upon reaching the dam, there was absolutely no hiding. The river was done, and a huge earthen dam was in our way. Slowly and cautiously we climbed on top of the dam to look down at a trickle of water leaving the overflow hundreds of feet below. Moments passed and soon a truck was heading our direction. Both of us took a slightly nervous stance. The truck slowed, window rolled down, and in broken Laotian a man asked us what we were up to. A handful of words passed and the language shifted to English (I was relieved, my Laotian still only involves a couple phrases). The truck driver was from China and he was in some way working on the dam project. Kindly, he offered a plethora of options, then stopped and exclaimed, “I should take you to where the river starts again!”

Thus, the beginning to our adventure was unconventional at best. Still ambitiously hoping for good whitewater, we piled into the back of the pickup and rallied around the huge hydro scheme. The Chinese man promptly dropped us off at the outflow and said, “It all jungle now.” I was really hoping he was right.

The outflow of the dam was at 3,000 feet above sea level and 480 feet below the reservoir. The almost two mile section that the dam dewatered certainly would have contained some good rapids. Paddling away from the outflow, there was one last very distinctive manmade feature: a roll over dam which was actually kind of fun.

Then it quickly shifted, and; we were immediately in thick jungle. One positive note on the dam is that it had prevented all of Muang Khoun’s garbage from continuing downstream. The river was now beautiful!

Lincoln looking ok off the ledge, notice the backed up hole

The rapids started to pick up and Lincoln and I eddy hopped through some fun class 3 water for a while. Then it changed; the bedrock showed itself and pinched the river in tight. The mix of bedrock and some large boulders started ramping up our excitement level. We started scouting more and setting safety for each other. It’s normally not a good idea to go into a first descent river with someone you have never paddled with before, but the river was supposed to be class 3, and we could handle that, right? Lincoln lined up for a marginal boof that was backed up by a couple of boulders. His stroke off the lip was ok, but the hydraulic formed by the rocks in the landing zone grabbed his kayak and dragged him back into the hole. After a couple of quick direction changes his boat locked deep into the crease…There was no good way out. He looked over his shoulder, our eyes met, and as he shouted “Rope!” My throw bag was already in flight. After some pulling, and a little paddle rescue, Lincoln and all of his equipment was recovered.

Lincoln getting sucked back in, throw rope coming soon

This slowed the pace immensely. A few seconds in a hydraulic usually feels like minutes and Lincoln’s energy was drained. I can only imagine that his confidence had taken a severe blow as well. Lincoln was now walking a lot of the more difficult rapids. I almost felt guilty as I asked him to set safety at a couple of the bigger drops. Late on day one the gradient really started to steepen. There were a couple of mandatory portages (water going underground) and a couple of difficult rapids. The two big ones were a slide to hanging eddy to double boof, and a bouncy low angle slide with a very undercut landing zone.

steep sieves, and long shadows, Lincoln not feeling it, end of day one

On multi-day trips, it’s always interesting to see how you deal with the pressure; accidents aren’t acceptable, and it’s telling to see how far you will push your limits. A couple big strokes and a huge smile. We were paddling the big rapids really well.

setting up camp, first night

Pausing at the base of a slide, I looked toward Lincoln and he was dim. We were starting to run out of light. We had been on the water for seven hours. Food, water, and sleep were quickly becoming the priority. Looking for a camp, we spotted a big bedrock outcropping on river right. The rock was relatively flat, and there was an ample supply of drift wood for a fire. Camp was built, hammock and wet cloths strung up, fire started, water UV filtered, and a delicious, though soon to be repetitive, meal of glorified Ramen noodles and mystery canned meat was consumed.

fire ablaze, still not sure it's going to scare the venomous snakes

That evening, guided by the reflections of the camp fire, I wandered to my sleeping bag. Thoughts of POISONOUS snakes, boa constrictors, and tigers (yeah there are still wild tigers in this region) rolled through my head for exactly half a minute until I passed out like a rock. I was exhausted from a long day. It was 8:00 pm.

Day 2, Big Drops and Siphons

The same internal clock that put me to bed at 8:00 pm woke me at 5:30 am. The birds were singing and a pale light was rising on the horizon. I was resting off the ground in my hammock, attached to two thick old growth trees. These trees were not only supporting me, but were home to another 1,000 life forms. Twisting vines, ants, singing birds, moss, all of us balanced in these two beautiful trees. I felt very fortunate to have join them for the night.

When I rose, Lincoln was already curled up next to the fire. A late night drizzle had prompted his relocation and stoking of the fire. We slowly warmed up water and got our morning meal going, consisting of squished bread and the ever reoccurring Ramen noodles with mystery canned meat. The highlight to the morning meal was re-purposing our “tuna” cans to become vessels for Nescafe. Over-caffeinated, we tried to wait patiently for the sun to rise, if only a bit, to commence the kayaker's lifetime battle against wet gear.

We stuffed damp overnight gear back into our boats and pushed off. The morning started gently, the gradient was mellow for the first half an hour. Then an equally sized river joined the Nam Ngiap, doubling the flow. At this point, the river started to feel rather sieve-like. The amount of water compared to the size of the boulders meant we were in a maze. We were now slowly and meticulously eddy hopping our way deeper and deeper into the labyrinth. Many of the channels simply disappeared under rocks. This caused an incessant amount of must-make ferries to attain better vantage points, only to find marginal downstream options. This went on for about one hour, and my mental game faded quickly. The constant ferrying back and forth above certain death was more than I was anticipating on this alleged class 3 adventure.

Intriguing sights and sounds of civilization emerged on the left hand side of the river. A road was nearing and, to be honest, I wasn’t happy about it. Our jungle mission was fantastic. The mere ten mile section would become a must do were it in a more developed nation. But never the less, the outside world was creeping in. The water quickly turned from a beautiful green to a muddy brown beside the unmanageable road and consequential land slides from deforestation.

Before we could start to think about the fact that there might be access to food that wasn’t Ramen, there was a horizon line. A family was fishing near the brink and their faces presented the story very clearly: if we went just beyond the cusp we would surely die. There was no need for words just that sunken eye confirmation.

Lincoln making a easy decision this ones a walk
We approached the horizon line carefully and found ourselves standing two hundred feet above the next reasonable section. Upon further inspection, there might be a line, and if it were just outside of a metropolitan location it would certainly be named after someone. Whether they would have been known as the person that broke themselves, or opened up a rowdy new line, we may never know. The risk to reward equation for this rapid certainly wasn’t adding up for me. We shouldered boats and admired the magnitude of cascading water.

Reaching the base of the cascade it was easy to tell that the gradient wasn’t finished. There was a stack of big drops to come. The first was a pillowing big water move, the second was a fifteen footer into a walled in death hole, and the third was an off-angle twenty footer. After a quick conversation and some safety was set, I managed to pluck the first and third drops.

third drop, landing zone was a little snug, and boily

Continuing to work downstream, we again entered into giant boulder gardens. We eddy hopped and picked out a handful of spectacular lines, all while dodging countless underwater tombs.

Day two wrapped up just north of a microscopic village and the confluence of the Nam Siam (which we were able to paddle a week later) and Nam Ngiap. On the second day we descended ten miles and 1,250 feet. We were now resting deep in the Nam Ngiap valley with Mt. Muang Khom standing 6,000 feet above us.

camp two, not excited about Ramen for dinner

Looking at our variety of Ramen packets, I suggested we wander into the village for dinner. After a very quick tour of town (there were a couple dozen structures), we sat at what looked to be the most happening place (there were two other people sitting there). We immediately overheard the other patrons. They were Chinese, and were working on yet another dam site. It also came to our attention that there wasn’t much food being served. A few broken communications and we got two bowls of soup. It was the next realization that made me audibly laugh; our dining establishment was really an entertainment venue. The young lady who was serving us dinner wasn’t a waitress - she was an option on the menu. We were at the local brothel, for dinner… Lincoln and I instantly started joking, and even asked the price for a room: less than ten dollars! As soon as my meal was done I was itching to vacate the premises and head back to the river to sleep in the much cleaner dirt.

a sketchy walk to a sketchy dinning location night two

Day 3, Death Falls and Water Buffalo 


Lincoln mixing up another round of Nescafe

Once again, the sun was far from up when we awoke, so we took our time making coffee and glancing at the next ominous horizon line. Upon a quick scout, there was a simple conclusion: the right line was guaranteed death. All of the water slid one hundred feet into a boulder. The left line looked marginally acceptable, minus the fact that, while scouting, we were dodging twenty foot deep vertical potholes. Three mornings in and I was certainly not on my A game, and we both walked.

marginal at best

The gradient stayed steep for a bit longer and awarded us with a few more big rapids. Then we saw a small fishing boat, then another boat, then lots more. We saw water buffalos, giant old U.S. army trucks (technically, the U.S. was never in Laos during the “American War” but somehow there is a massive surplus of military vehicles, and over 2.5 million tons of explosives which were dropped on the country?), and the communities next to the river started growing.

gradient tapering and the farming villages filling the valley

Most of the afternoon was spent paddling flat water. We eventually took out at Ban Hau, elevation 1,056 feet, fourteen miles downstream from the previous day's prostitute dining establishment. This left 70 miles and only 500 feet of gradient to the city of Paksan. It wasn’t enough to entice us.

the view just outside of Ban Hau

It was done! We had completed a gorgeous section of whitewater in the middle of a very dense and unexplored jungle. We were dirty, hungry, tired, and in need of cold beer and a non-Ramen meal. The small town of Ban Hau refueled our bellies and we started the next portion of the journey.

Lincoln catching a scooter ride into Ban Hau for a much need meal

“How do we get out of here?”

Hitchhiking provided the best option and we quickly jumped in the back of a truck for a four hour, bouncy, ride on a mostly dirt road to Paksan for the night.

This trip goes down as one of my best first descents. The rapids were spectacular and the fact that we went in with such little beta and produced a safe successful trip only lends merit to the paddling crew.

Overview of distances and gradient

Put in, Mango Khoun: 3539 feet
3 miles to Reservoir
Reservoir: 3,460 feet
1.8 miles dewatered
Dam outflow: 3,000 feet
7.2 miles to confluence (just downstream of camp 1)
Confluence: 2513 feet
3.3 miles to road
Above massive portaged waterfall: 1997 feet
7.2 miles to confluence
Confluence with Nam Siam: 1258 feet
13.55 miles to take out
Ban Hau: 1056 feet

adventure brought to you by Chris Baer


  1. Hey Chris and all the folks reading this great write-up, first of all, thx to Chris for raising attention for this exploited country. As some of you may know, there was a secret war in Lao during the Vietnam war. Millions of cluster bombs rained down on Lao to cut the supply routes for communist forces in Vietnam. Travelling to Lao, spend money there and donate money to helping organizations (e.g., Legacies of War).
    Find some information about the bombies in Lao here;

    Thx, Max

    P.S.: Sorry Chris, but I had to post this.

  2. Great read. Really enjoyed it. Amazing trip. Serious risk/reward factor.