The Khan River may not be as famous as its sister, the mighty Mekong, but it is equally significant to the Lao people. It is a vital piece of Luang Prabang’s rich heritage, and to experience the spirit of this UNESCO World Heritage town requires an appreciation of the Nam Khan’s role in everyday life.
By the time it joins the Mekong at the tip of the peninsula in Luang Prabang, the river has coursed 250 km east to west across the province, unraveling like thread from a spool around magnificent karst mountains and quiet lowland communities.
Like the scenes depicted on the walls of Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang’s most important temple from the 16th century, locals today spend hours fishing along the river banks, alternating between traditional fishing rods and nets.
To experience the significance of this ritual, I arranged a cast net lesson with Backstreet Academy, a social enterprise that creates “one-of-a-kind tours or activities.” My guide, Huelee, drove me to Hat Hient village, a riverside community where our fishing instructor was waiting.
Although a blacksmith by trade, Phan is a natural fisherman. The ease with which he cast the heavy net in a perfect oval onto the water (the best shape to trap as many fish as possible) was the result of nearly 53 years of practice.
“I used to come down here and fish with my father as a child,” he said.
The family tradition continues today, as we were joined by his son and brother. When they weren’t teaching me, in vain, how to use the net, they were helping each other find fish hot spots and adoringly observing each other’s mastery of the net.
When it was time to feast on their bounty, they gutted and grilled the fish over a low fire with the same skill used to catch them. The river is in their blood, I thought. Reading my mind, Phan said, “I’m happy that tourists see our life, see our nature.”
Watching Phan work the nets, Huelee said that he was inspired to become a fisherman. The Nam Khan had cast a spell over me too and I wanted to see more of it.
I headed to Villa Merry 1, a family-run guesthouse at the end of a quaint side street on the southeastern side of the river. The view from here is bookended by Wat Phon Phao, a glistening golden-roofed temple perched on a hill to the east, and charming French colonial buildings peeking out from behind banana and tamarind trees lining the peninsula to the west.And in between them life was playing out on the river before me. Kids did front flips off of the riverbank and splashed into the cloudy water next to others taking a bath. Downstream, men sat in long-tail wooden boats patiently waiting for a nibble at the end of their fishing rods. Women hunched over the surface near the shore gathering khaiphaen, or river weed, a local delicacy served in restaurants in town.
As I contemplated the scenes unfolding on the river below, the sun sank behind the mountains, shrouding the land in a magical purple hue and casting the spirit of Luang Prabang over me.
- By Kathy Eow -
World Heritage Site Criteria
To receive World Heritage listing, a site must be of “outstanding universal value” and meet one of ten selection criteria divided into two categories: Cultural - 6; Natural – 4. Luang Prabang met 3 of 6 requirements under the Cultural category.
Fishing lessons (dependent on availability of BA host) can be booked on the Backstreet website. Once reserved, the local guide will contact you to confirm pick-up time and place. Cost of the fishing activity is $15 per person (min. two persons) and includes transportation and English-speaking guide. www.backstreetacademy.com