12 June 2008.
I hope you’re all well.
I’ve crossed the border into Laos and following is the story of my trip down the Mekong.
I hope you enjoy.
Growing up watching Vietnam movies like Apocalypse Now, Deer Hunter and Platoon had left me a deep fascination of the Mekong River, and also left me with a shadow side that took years of therapy before I realised that it’s only myself I hated.
Starting in the Plateau of Tibet it journeys for over 4000km, through the entire length of Laos, into Cambodia before fanning out into the “Nine Dragons” delta of Vietnam. A long journey indeed and always right on time.
The 10th largest river on the planet, it is the life line of the only landlocked South East Asian country, Laos, and I find myself standing on the banks of this Asian river.
I’d arrived in Chiang Khong in Thailand, a town that is geared towards assisting you to get into Laos and onto the slowboat that sails south on the Mekong down to Louong Phabang .
For 950,00 Baht, very little indeed, which included the boat trip, all the logistics, assistance across both borders, and a lunch pack for the first day on the river. Rice, vegetables, banana and water, definitely not my first choice, but hey… it did fill the gap
Long, thin, window less and able to take 60 -70 passengers, which they do, these wooden boats are sleek and very low on the water. Low enough so that while sitting on my bench I could comfortably drag my hand in the river, feeling the fresh water beneath my fingers while not realising I was wetting the person behind me.
The seating arrangements are made up of wooden benches- not too dissimilar to a church pew- and can seat two people. Squeezing into them I knew I would be paying for my sins. A cushion, that is available in almost any shop in both Chiang Kong and Huoaxia, is an absolute necessity. 2 are even better.
The diesel engine started up, the boat eased out from the bank and we were on our way.
The slowboats are very stable in the water and I noticed someone had left their glass, which was once filled with beer, on the windowless sill for sometime without it falling off. Yes, she was Australian.
After a while the unfastened pew benches were packed aside and the floor became a big lounge area for us to pray, or to lounge around on. I chose to lounge.
The slowboats run daily, leaving at 11am from the port town of Huoaxia-Loas. But in Laos the term, “hurry up and wait,” definitely applies when it comes to transport, so you might have to wait around before leaving.
During the rainy season- May to October- they sail once a day and up to four a day during dry season. One can also take a slowboat from Louong Phabang and head up river to Huoaxia. But as it is upriver it does take longer. Which could be a real pain in the arse.
Soon people were continuously moving to the back of the boat, where there was a little Laos lady -LLL-.(I’m not sure of their political views.) with a small tuck shop with chips, baguettes and snacks. But more importantly there was also an ice box that was filled with beer, water, coldrinks and, beer?
After the initial novelty of the boat trip wore off, the first day did seem a bit long. And at one stage I did think of turning my pew over to have a quiet moment and ask for this trip to pass by quickly. Especially as the scenery of the sandy banks and forests high up on the hills, were unchanging. But all aboard were very sociable.
Once, we did stop off at a village only for little children to board and assertively try to sell us very western coldrinks and chips. Not much of an attraction.
In the late afternoon sunlight, the feel of the river did change and as the heat became less intense we were able to relax into the trip. The boat ambled along while her passengers lazed about, reading and chatting. I remember thinking to myself that a slowboat on the Mekong around about now isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Day 1 ended when we arrived at the port town of Pakbeng. This rustic but charming village, which overlooks the Mekong, is the half way point of the trip. We were met by many touts offering accommodation, along with porters who were adamant that they should carry our bags up the short hill into town. Guest houses placed further up the hill sent tuk tuks to collect their guests and bags.
Accommodation can be organised when purchasing ticket for the river trip, but they do seem to charge a bit more, like 100% extra. For between 200 Baht- 400 Baht a very comfortable double room with fan and western toilets is available
Even though the roads are still unpaved and many street vendors in stalls make it appear distinctly third world, the hotels and restaurants have really come to understand, in the relatively short time that Laos has been open to tourists, what service is about. The rooms are clean, comfortable, and the staff happy, always happy to assist.
Pakbeng is in the Opium belt, and on many occasions while walking the main road, I was offered to buy some. But even though it is freely available it is still illegal. Just to stress home the point, there was a sign in the guest house that read,” Smoking, using or buying opium in the streets is illegal. Please speak to the hotel staff if you want some”
Very helpful and happy are these staff.
A plate of rice and vegetables or chicken, costs as little as 1 US dollar. Rice and meat is also an option and as yet I’m still wandering what that meat might be. Come to think of it I didn’t really hear any dogs barking the whole time in Pakbeng, but then again I’ve never tasted water buffalo either
Eating dinner overlooking the Mekong, for a price that doesn’t even dent the pocket, is, well priceless,
Electricity switches off from 11pm in the evenings, but most of the guest houses do have back-up generators.
9 am the next morning, back on the boat…., waiting. We did eventually leave 45 minutes later than we should have. Another 8 hours on the slowboat didn’t seem like much fun. And my backside wasn’t relishing the thought. But an hour into the trip and everything started to change, besides the bar reopening that is. The landscapes started too vary, and instead of the sandy banks, there were now rocky outcrops and even the villages that we passed seemed closer to the waters edge. The one village we stopped at was on a small hillock only 100 metres from the river and for the first time we could get to see how the outback villagers lived.
5 travellers disembarked to continue their trip overland and one of them, while lifting his bag, dislocated his shoulder. As much as I felt for the guy, I was really happy that it wasn’t me. In the surroundings that we were in, a doctor was more than just a phone call away. Luckily for him there was a doctor among the passengers who was able to assist and re set his shoulder.
I’ve now seen a grown man cry.
Besides the varied landscapes, the sight of fishermen using their bamboo traps and casting their nets was becoming more of a frequent sight. Watching them artfully going about their craft can definitely be considered as poetry in motion- on beer.
About halfway through the second day I did witness and elderly Australian gentlemen, who accompanied by his Thai wife, get slightly disoriented and profess that we were going the wrong way. I think he might have become too friendly with the hotel staff the previous evening. Somebody should have told him that Opium could do that to you. Then again maybe he was just dehydrated.
The crew also caught a nice sized catfish. And they decided that hanging it in the toilet next to the toilet paper seemed like a good idea. Not if you have to go to the toilet, which is dark, sit on a toilet that is western but does not have a seat. Reaching for the toilet paper, while on moving boat, and hoping not to grab the fish is quite an experience.
Even though the first day seemed longer than it should have, the sights during the second day definitely made up for it. An hour before we arrived at Louong Phabang we passed by the Pak Ou Buddha Caves at the confluence of the Mekong and the Nam OU rivers. These caves store the many Buddha images that can no longer be, venerated on an alter. The entrances to the caves make an interesting landscape against the limestone cliffs.
At the point where the Nam Ou and Mekong rivers meet there is a massive rocky outcrop that is majestic in appearance. Quite frightening actually, but beautiful. Due to the time of the day, the sunlight gently bounced off the surface of the river producing quite a surreal reflective light. Everything seemed to slow down considerably and we all knew that our final destination was just around the next bend.
For some travellers this trip might not be as comfortable as they would like. But the sights on the second day, along with the amount of time allowed for introspection, reading or writing make up for the little aches and pains. This trip is a must, just for the beer prices if nothing else.
An alternative way to experience time on the river is to take one of the many speedboats that passed us on the way.
With 8 passengers and luggage packed in tightly, just in front of the noisy engine, wasn’t for me. 6 hours in an open boat under the blazing sun didn’t seem like fun. That along with the suggestion by “Lonely Planet” that the outcome of the trip is not totally guaranteed, suggested that a slow boat was a better option. When a helmet and life jacket are mandatory, and ear plugs are an optional recommendation I think sipping on a cold beer while very gently watching the world go by is a far better alternative than sunburnt arms and a dull whine in your ears.
But either way….just get there.