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Kayaking through karsts

How many of you have ever been white water kayaking? Have you yet kayaked in Laos?
By Karla Held

Kayaking in Laos can be one of the more singular experiences for kayaking as you can literally kayak through some of the biggest karsts and the most impressive limestone rock formations in the world. Karsts are defined as areas of irregular limestone in which erosion has produced fissures, sinkholes, underground streams, and caverns. It’s actually a German word that was named after the Karst, a limestone plateau near Trieste in Europe.

Kayaking Laos by Karla Held

Karst is a distinctive topography in which the landscape is largely shaped by the dissolving action of water on carbonate bedrock (usually limestone, dolomite, or marble). This geological process, occurring over many thousands of years, results in unusual surface and subsurface features ranging from sinkholes, vertical shafts, disappearing streams, and springs, to complex underground drainage systems and caves.

The Nam Ou (Laotian: [nâːm ùː], literally: ‘rice bowl river’) is one of the most important rivers of Laos. It runs 448 km from Phongsaly Province to Luang Prabang Province. Along with the Mekong, the Nam Ou is the only natural channel suitable for large-draught boat transportation. Near its confluence with the Mekong are the Pak Ou Caves, famous for their Buddha statues.

Some of the biggest karsts in the world are found right here in Asia. Guilin, China, has the largest karsts in the world. Halong Bay, Vietnam, also offers a unique experience with kayaking among large karsts. Having  kayaked in both places, I’d prefer kayaking through karsts here in Laos any day.


What I love about kayaking in Laos is that you can truly feel intimate with the landscape and, if you make the effort to learn just the basics of the Lao language, you can easily feel intimate with the people and children living along the banks of the glorious rivers of this republic. I recommend taking a full day to explore a river and leave time for a leisurely lunch on the river as well as a swim with local children.

The Nam Ou River, literally ‘rice bowl’ river,  is known as one of the most scenic rivers to paddle in Laos and I highly recommend it. Being one of the most important rivers in Laos, it runs 448 km from Phongsaly Province to Luang Prabang. One of the more scenic and stretches of the Nam Ou to kayak is a simple day trip out of Luang Prabang.

There are various options for getting on the Nam Ou River for an unforgettable experience. If you have a three day weekend, you could fly to Luang Prabang on a Friday afternoon flight (Lao Central Airlines has a very reasonably priced flight at 3pm and Laos Airlines has later flights as well.) If you arrange a tour before, you could be on the river all day Saturday and/or Sunday and return to Vientiane on a Sunday evening or Monday morning.

Kayaking Laos by Karla Held

Green Discovery, which has offices in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, offers one day Nam Ou trips, two day trips including trekking and kayaking and longer trips that take you from stunning Muang Ngoi Kao to Luang Prabang. You can book the trip from Vientiane. Alternatively, there are also other tour companies that offer kayaking on the Nam Ou that can be found in Luang Prabang once you arrive. You can also bike, hike, climb, or take a moto ride in and around the Nam Ou if kayaking is not your thing.

The section that I kayaked was one of the most popular stretches from Luang Prabang and it’s roughly an hour north of the city. This section offers class I and II rapids that could be class III rapids during the rainy season.

For the more adventurous and experienced kayaker, you might want to get on the river in the height of the rainy season for the more challenging rapids.

For those of you who aren’t sure what that means, rapids on rivers are divided into six categories. A rapid’s grade is not fixed, since it may vary greatly depending on the water depth and speed of flow. Although some rapids may be easier at high flows because features are covered or ‘washed-out,’ high water usually makes rapids more difficult and dangerous.


This stretch of the Nam Ou is considered safe as it’s a wide river with wide passages. Your guide is always there to help you through the rapids as well, so I would say this river is suitable for beginners as well as more experienced paddlers. Others areas to kayak through karsts in Laos include Vang Vieng, Thakek and Nong Khiaw. You can find outfitters in all those areas.

Regardless of how much time you have to spend on the Nam Ou River, I highly recommend getting on and in it at some point during your time in Laos. Having the unique chance to kayak through karsts is nothing you will regret, and only an experience and image that will remain forever etched in your mind once seen and felt.

Rivers are divided into six categories.
This explains the system:

A rapid’s grade is not fixed, since it may vary greatly depending on the water depth and speed of flow. Although some rapids may be easier at high flows because features are covered or ‘washed-out,’ high water usually makes rapids more difficult and dangerous. (Briefly adapted from the American version (5) of the International Scale of River Difficulty).

  • Class 1: Very small rough areas, requires no manoeuvring. (Skill level: none)
  • Class 2: Some rough water, maybe some rocks, small drops, might require manoeuvring. (Skill level: basic paddling skill)
  • Class 3: Whitewater, medium waves, maybe a 3-5 ft drop, but not much considerable danger. May require significant manoeuvring. (Skill level: experienced paddling skills)
  • Class 4: Whitewater, large waves, long rapids, rocks, maybe a considerable drop, sharp manoeuvres may be needed. (Skill level: advanced whitewater experience)
  • Class 5: Whitewater, large waves, continuous rapids, large rocks and hazards, maybe a large drop, precise manoeuvring. Often characterized by ‘must make’ moves, i.e. failure to execute a specific manoeuvre at a specific point may result in serious injury or death. Class 5 is sometimes expanded to Class 5+ that describes the most extreme, runnable rapids. (Skill level: expert)
  • Class 6: While there is some debate over the term ‘Class 6’, in practice it refers to rapids that are not passable and any attempt to do so would result in serious injury, near drowning or death.

Kayaking Laos by Karla HeldKarla Held is an ACA certified kayak instructor and freelance photojournalist. She recently lived and worked in China, Thailand and Laos, where she worked with one of Laos’ oldest and well known adventure companies. She can be contacted at with questions or photo inquires.

About thepaddlerezine (654 Articles)
Editor of The Paddler magazine and Publisher of Stand Up Paddle Mag UK.

2 Comments on Kayaking through karsts

  1. Thanks for all the tags and photo/article credit. NIce work with Paddlerezine.

  2. jk thats awesome

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