Published: June 2nd 2010May 17th 2010
Ness and I make it to Chiang Khong around 9pm and find a rudimentary guesthouse to stay the night. The next morning we cross the border in to Laos via the ferry (motorised canoe) and obtain visas from the immigration hut. From here we board a river slow-boat bound for Luang Prabang.
Two days in less than comfortable conditions and a night in Pakbeng don't rob us of staggering mountain scenery or the languid serenity of riding down the mighty Mekong, the backbone of Southeast Asia. My journal does not adequately reflect this, but maybe the photos do.
Luang Prabang is a pleasant town but disappointingly touristy. Here we have our first doubts about our supposed road less traveled and consider leaving the Mekong and our original plan and instead heading East to Vietnam. I think we are five years too late to see this part of the world unspoiled by tourism and it comes as a blow to us.
After much deliberating we decide to continue following the Mekong down to Vientiane where getting Vietnamese visas is easier and cheaper. To charter any sort of boat heading downstream from Luang Prabang (our original plan) proved financially impossible because of
the general assumption held among locals that all foreigners are rich - so we take a bus.
Vientiane is an uninspiring and functional capital city but we manage to get our visas and soon resume our journey south following the Mekong (by bus) to Savannakhet. Here a good highway and reliable border links Dansavanh to Lao Bao in Vietnam.
From Chiang Khong to arriving at Savannakhet takes us eight days but most of this time blends in to one experience, one of a desperate push south with flagging spirits trying to find real Laos and mostly failing. That is not to say we didn't find a few peaceful places to make the trip worth while.
Tom: "...We splash ashore through the muddy shallows of the Mekong and find ourselves in Laos. Now that is how to enter a country! The customs officials are scoundrels and we need our wits about us to not find ourselves overwhelmed by pushy uniformed men and confusing currency exchanges. From 50 Baht to a Pound to 13,000 Kip to a Pound which is confusing at best, but we are buying stamps in US Dollars. Transferring between so many currencies easily leaves westerners baffled and the wolves capitalise on this. We manage to push through without being too badly scammed.
Tom: "...To our dismay the longboat is packed to the gills with other westerners who somehow have also found their way to this isolated corner of the world. Ness and I sit on the floor in the aft section engine room which is hot, noisy and choked with fumes. The crew - hard faced river men - force their way through the broiling pile of tourists constantly tinkering with the laboring engine as it chugs downstream. Sitting on the open side trying to draw fresh air i see a dead pig float past - hideously bloated with four stiff legs pointing skyward like a crude child's toy in a bathtub.
Ness: "...We travel down the Mekong with the chugging of the engine constant in our ears. The cramped hot conditions begin to matter less as we enjoy watching the hauntingly timeless landscape drift past. I welcome the refreshing splashes over the open sides as the slow boat negotiates the more rapid parts of the river but worried by the occasional scrape on the hull as the overloaded vessel fails to to clear the rocky shallows.
Tom: "...Eight hours downstream the boat ejects it's suffering cargo of foreigners on to the banks of Pakbeng where the crowds of villagers wait with greedy eyes and empty promises. Ness and I duck through the crowds and make our way in to the village to find a non-extortionate guesthouse for the night. Pakbeng, when not illegally smuggling teak up river to the Chinese, seems to only be there to liberate money from tourists. Every house rents rooms, every shop caters to tourists and every cafe owner tries to sell you weed and opium - maybe to hide from the reality of what Pakbeng has become. At least this morning the boat seems less cramped, either it is larger or some passengers have opted to continue their journey by other more comfortable means.
Tom: "...Luang Prabang oozes French colonial charm, at least architecturally.. The buildings in various states of repair are beautiful, but western travelers now crowd the overpriced cafes and tour shops that line the once quaint and peaceful town center. Rickshaws are massively overpriced and hiring a motorbike is ten times more expensive than anywhere else in Asia which leaves us trapped and frustrated. We decide to share a sawng thaew with other tourists to visit the nearby waterfall and bear sanctuary which i think will be our only out of town trip whilst here.
Despite the crowds the waterfalls are beautiful and the water is icy cold to swim in, a merciful respite to the oppressive heat.
Ness: "...Luang Prabang is a big disappointment mainly because of the lack of traditional Laos culture due to all the farang and farang orientated business that choke the town. It is hard to imagine what this place must have previously looked like. The change in the people is most surprising as it feels quite hostile. Perhaps we are resented for what the place has become...
...Late in the evening we are relaxing in our guesthouse when we hear a woman's scream tearing the night. We go outside to investigate and offer assistance finding a distraught western girl sitting on the side of the road having just had her bag snatched by a man on a motorbike. It is apparent that her passport, camera, cards and cash are all now gone.
Ness: "...Due to the extortionate prices of rickshaws and motorbike rental we hire a couple of antiquated pushbikes for the day in a last ditch attempt to enjoy this fabled town. We successfully have a fun day finding the less touristy places and beautiful river views further along the Mekong. This raises our spirits for a while but we are glad to be leaving in the morning to see what else Laos has to offer.
Ness: "...The bus journey out of Luang Prabang to Vientiane has some amazing views. We pass through tiny rural villages, houses on stilts precariously perched on the very edge of mountains. As the bus weaves up through the dizzying heights we hold our breath as the driver sickeningly swings the bus round tight corners over perilous drops.
Tom: "...We arrive in the Laos capital of Vientiane after nightfall and fail to find a cheap guesthouse. After an hour of searching we accept the reality of an expensive stay and pick the cheapest hotel. We need to get Vietnamese visas quickly or this city will drain our budget.
There are more photos below