Generally, between October and March, Lao rivers are Class I and II (on a scale of five). Only a few are runnable in the dry season between April and June. When the monsoon rains fall between July and October, normally tame rivers begin to rage and paddlers with rudimentary kayaking skills are advised not to venture on to them. Whitewater kayakers, however, will find plenty of challenges.
The beauty of the Lao rivers is that they are long and allow for multi-day journeys, unlike the rivers in neighboring countries. And the rivers run where roads don’t, so one passes through relatively undisturbed rainforest and encounters few signs of development, with chances to see birds and wildlife.
Read below for information on select rivers throughout the country, listed alphabetically by region
Nam Fa (Luang Namtha Province)
This is arguably the most intense and magnificent rafting trip available in Laos. This journey, loaded with rapids, wildlife and forest, starts in Vieng Phoukha and ends four days and 75 km later at the Mekong between Laos and Myanmar.
Nam Ha-Nam Tha (Luang Namtha Province)
Running near Luang Namtha near the northwestern border, these rivers thread their way through the Nam Ha NPA inhabited by a variety of tribes, making it one of the more colorful and cultural journeys. Rafting and kayaking is available through exciting 2-3 grade rapids. Oct-Feb.
Nam Ou (Luang Prabang / Phongsaly Provinces)
Most people paddle the Ou just above Luang Prabang but its upper reaches near the Chinese border are more pristine, cutting through the undisturbed Phou Den Din NPA in which there are few villages. This is the longest inbound river in all of Laos is well known for its spectacular karsts formations and natural scenery. Oct-April
Nam Song (Vientiane Province)
Kayaking on this river is one of the most popular activities in Vang Vieng. The Nam Song goes through breathtaking rural scenery and steep karsts, with opportunities to stop and visit some impressive limestone caves.
Nam Pa (Luang Prabang)
This small river meanders through rugged mountains north of Luang Prabang and has some excellent rapids as well as opportunities for birdwatching. This Nam Pa is ideal for short, one-day trips into some remote villages and forest.
Nam Nern (Houaphanh Province)
Looking to spot rare wildlife while in Laos? The Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area and Ban Son Koua villagers are now offering a two-day Night Safari program with an evening boat ride along the Nam Nern River to catch a glimpse of animal nightlife. www.namet.org
Nam Lik (Vientiane Province)
Several rafting companies offer day-trips as part of a van-ride from Luang Prabang and Vientiane on the lower Lik but the upper Lik offers numerous kayaking opportunities and long trips. It is possible to see wildlife along the way such as monkeys, wild boar, rare birds, iguana and other reptiles. Year-round.
Nam Ming-Nam Khan (Luang Prabang Province)
The appeal of this river is its proximity to Luang Prabang. The Ming can be bouncy but smoothes out once it joins the larger Khan River. The Khan offers both rainforest and farmlands and offers a number of fun rapids along the way. Year-round.
Nam Ngum (Xieng Kouang / Vientiane)
A short, wild river through deep gorges that challenges the most skilled hardshell kayakers. Located just north of Vientiane at the site of the country’s first dam, it is advisable only for whitewater experts although several short raft-based trips are offered. Year-round.
Nam Xeung ( Luang Prabang Province)
This river takes you through limestone landscapes northeast of Luang Prabang with some swift rapids. Best from July to October. Rafting possible in the rainy season only between June and September.
4,000 Islands (Champsak Province)
This is one of the more captivating areas of Laos. Here one must choose his route carefully to avoid tumbling over the many waterfalls. A fault line just above the border with Cambodian braids the river to 14-km wide, creating enormous variety in landforms and scenery. Year-round.
Hinboun (Khammouane Province)
The 7.5 Konglor Cave, through which one can paddle, is the prime attraction of this quiet river that flows through the Khammouane Range located south of Vientiane. Downriver, towering limestone karsts provide constant scenic variety. Villages are few and far between which keeps the journey interesting. Oct-March.
Nam Champi (Champasak Province)
Champi Creek is a small river that flows into Sedone River, which ultimately flows into the great Mekong. This river offers challenging one-day adventures with beautiful countryside scenery of the Bolaven Plateau known for coffee plantations and cascading waterfalls.
Xe Bang Fai (Khammouane Province)
This quiet river runs across the Nakai Plateau along the Lao-Vietnamese border. Its highlights include a long cave into which one can paddle, and remote villages. Oct-April
Photos by Oh! Magazine