The World Conservation Society has operated a research centre on the banks of the Nam Kading river for several years, and recently they’ve opened it up to travellers who want to stay there. The guidebook mentions it and it piqued my interest, so when I saw a current brochure about the place in Vientiane I made contact by email. It sounded intriguing: accessible only by boat or a rough road and in a picturesque location on the edge of the Nam Kading national park, it promised basic but comfortable digs from which you can explore the area. I wasn’t sure I really wanted to go until the morning I left Paksan – indeed I didn’t really make the decision until I was standing at the bus station…
It was worth the effort. My first trip on a sawng-thaew, a flatbed truck converted to carry passengers with two benches running lengthways down the tray and a canopy above. It’s the most common form of transport in rural areas, best-suited and most frequently available for journeys of up to 50-100kms, and I’d seen them all over northern Laos but never had the need to catch one before now. After jumping off at Ban Nongkham, a tiny speck of a settlement barely worth a name, it was a short trip on the back of a motorcycle (I was too lazy to walk it) to the banks of the river, where for 80,000 kip ($11) a longtail boat took me upriver for half an hour to the research centre. The centre has the feeling of a school adventure camp, situated high on the riverbank with several raised wooden buildings in a gentle forest glade. The pristine Nam Kading river can be seen through the trees, and the “Boys Own” feel was accentuated by the three young male staff on site. I was the only guest staying there that night, it turned out.
After settling in to my room – I had the pick of eight identical cells each with two single beds, mosquito nets, pillows, blankets, and nothing else – I asked for some lunch as I hadn’t had breakfast. There was no menu offered, I simply heard some chopping and frying taking place in the open kitchen underneath one of the huts (it turned out to be a tasty mix of sauteed shiitake mushrooms, fried eggs and sticky rice). While it was being prepared the head guy there, a boy-man called Khong who was probably twenty-something but looked younger, began his soft-sell about the various treks they have to offer. None of them really appealed, especially as the supposed highlights were a couple of waterfalls that looked like small rapids (at best) from the pictures. Even with my new-found adventure focus I don’t want to traipse through remote jungle unless there’s something worthy to look at! It made me wonder just how much research is actually done at this place, though to be fair it was the day after Christmas and most of the normal crew were probably back home with their families. I chose instead for the low-key option of being boated upriver a short way to the nearest “waterfall”, and then tubing back. I use inverted commas for the “waterfall” because while it’s big enough to prevent a boat going upriver, it doesn’t fall that far. Two metres, actually, hardly a big attraction in my book but it was located in a picturesque part of the valley. Getting there involved scrambling over rocks for quite a while, and the tubing started with a leap off the edge of the falls into the cool water below. We didn’t float very far downriver, but it was fun while it lasted and much more relaxing that doing the same thing in the tubing heaven/hell of Vang Vieng.
That was the highlight of the day, in terms of action. Because I didn’t want to trek the boys left me to my own devices, and I happily sat at an outdoor bench overlooking the river and started a new book. The peace was almost complete, broken only by different birdsongs and a very occasional engine rumbling past the road behind the camp. Dinner was served early at 6pm, and all four of us tucked into a simple but delicious meal of sauteed cauliflower with shreds of beef, fried egg, sticky rice and mushroom soup with lemongrass. I crashed out very early, and later I heard some motos arrive as the boys had some guests from the nearby village over. Guitars were brought out and I was tempted to join, but an unexplained fatigue took me off to sleep before I could act. Waking the next morning I was still tired, and somewhat cold as a powerful wind had developed overnight and was still blowing hard. Breakfast was yet more sticky rice with fried egg and diced beef, then afterwards another boat and moto trip back to the main road to head further south. The Nam Kading Research Centre was an interesting and definitely off-the-beaten-track place to stop, though I’d recommend it only if you have oodles of time to spare or are very keen on getting into the wilderness of central Laos.