Slowly Down the Mekong

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November 18th 2006
Published: December 1st 2006
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Slowly Down the MekongSlowly Down the MekongSlowly Down the Mekong

An old rice barge south of Pak Beng. Our boat was similar, with the addition of a few roughly nailed together plank seats. © L. Birch 2006
There is a saying in travel that says, "It is not the destination that matters but the journey" and nowhere on our trip so far has this been more true than on the 2-day boat trip down the Mekong in Laos.

We had left Thailand on a fish-tailed ferry boat for the short crossing over to Hauy Xai, lugging our packs up the boat ramp with a last, fond look back at Thailand before going through customs procedures and entering Laos. I had wanted to do the Mekong boat trip ever since reading Dervla Murphy's account of a similar journey undertaken in the nineteen nineties. Admitedly, things had changed since then - it had become a lot more popular and commercialised for one thing but the same old rice barges were still being used today and the scenery would have changed very little.

Laos was poorer and much less developed than its Southeast Asian neighbours, a fact almost immediately evident from a quick look around in Huay Xai. Despite its dilapidated appearance, it looked an interesting little town but we had decided that we would try and get on a boat the same day, if possible, and start the
Into LaosInto LaosInto Laos

Crossing the Mekong to enter into Laos at Huay Xai. © V. Birch 2006
long journey south. A short hunt around near the boat jetty soon turned up an agent who told us that there would still be seats on the eleven o'clock boat (it was then about 9.50 am), so we went ahead and bought tickets. Getting to the boat pier by tuk-tuk, we shouldered our packs and slithered down a sand bank to the waiting boat. It was already quite full but it wasn't until every seat and every bit of floor space was filled that the engine was started, coughing into life with a roar and a belch of black diesel smoke.

We weren't finally underway until after mid-day but the delay afforded us an opportunity to get to know our fellow passengers, laugh about the inadequate plank seats and generally reflect on what we knew about Laos. The country was Buddhist and our first impression of the people was that they were as friendly and as easy going as the Thais had been. There were language differences to adjust to - "Hello" was "Sabai Dii" and "Thank You" was "Khop Jai" (as opposed to "Sawasdee" and "Khawp Khun" in Thailand), as well as monetary differences too. The unit of
Full Speed Ahead!Full Speed Ahead!Full Speed Ahead!

A view of the Mekong from onboard the slow boat as we head deeper into Laos. © L.Birch 2006
currency was the Lao Kip but becaue it was so weak, changing 55 pounds at the border had given us over a million kip - all in a great wad of small, tattered notes. Unlike Thailand, there was no monarchy and politically, the democratically elected government leaned toward socialism - a fact that had not earned it many brownie points with the US during the Vietnam conflict. Back in the 70s, there was strong support for the communist movement in Vietnam and although the country's stance had softened considerably, a US imposed trade embargo was only lifted in 2004. France had also had a hand in things and was a major colonial power in the region until shortly after WWII. Its influence has left a lasting cultural legacy still evident in the country today. Finally and most tragically of all, Laos had the distinction of being the most bombed nation on Earth. From 1965 to 1973, the US carried out one of the largest sustained bombing campaigns in history in an effort to counter the presence of the Vietnamese in northeastern Laos. All in all, it promised to be an interesting place.

Getting underway, the boat slipped out into
Bargaining For A Beer Bargaining For A Beer Bargaining For A Beer

There's no set price for anything in Laos. Fancy a BeerLao? Be prepared to bargain hard! © L.Birch 2006
mid stream and was flanked for a while by Thailand and Laos before the course of the Mekong took us eastward. This first part of our trip was to last around six hours, a long time to be sat on a rough wooden bench. But the scenery and glimpses of rural Laos were ample compensation for any discomfort. The Mekong too - in all its moods, turbulent one moment and calm the next - was endlessly fascinating. At some points in our journey, the river was quite wide but at other times - and once we had swung away from the Thai border - it narrowed and closed in upon the boat. Mountains rose up sharply on either side as we headed deeper into Laos. Rocky cataracts and rapids tested the boat pilot's skills as we passed through gorges where dense jungle spilled over the rocks and butterflies the size of birds flew over the water. It all seemed very "Heart of Darkness" to me. And as if to complete the picture, a group of English boys - who had brought a bottle of Lao whiskey on board - started up a card game. Each time one of them lost
Room With A View Room With A View Room With A View

The Mekong as seen from our Guesthouse in Pak Beng. © L. Birch 2006
a game, his forefeit would be to drink a generous shot of whiskey. As they sat hunched over the cards - cigarette cartons rolled up in t-shirt sleeves - the game became more raucous as the level of whiskey in the bottle got lower. The jungle, the encroaching darkness and the card game - were suddenly reminiscent of Martin Sheen's upriver search for Kurtz in the film "Apocalypse Now". It wasn't morning but I could almost smell the napalm. (*see note at foot of page)

We arrived at Pak Beng, half way point on the journey, with the last of the light fading quickly. Pak Beng was hardly any size at all and the only electricty came from generators, the first of which had already started up - their motors echoing around the enclosed space of the river valley. Our first night in Laos was spent at the "Phoy Lath Da" guesthouse where a rock bottom room in a wooden house cost 30,000 kip (around one pound seventy sterling). For the price, it really wasn't that bad and had one of the best views from any guesthouse we had stayed in for a while.

It was misty and
Sunset over the MekongSunset over the MekongSunset over the Mekong

The sun was just setting as our boat pulled into Luang Prabang at the end of our Mekong Journey. © L. Birch 2006
surprisingly cold next morning as we trudged back to the boat along Pak Beng's dusty, unmade streets. The boat was scheduled for a nine o'clock departure but didn't leave until ten, not until all the travellers from the day before and a number from a later boat had been impossibly crammed on board. At one stage, I estimated that over one hundred people had been shoe-horned onto a vessel that should safely have carried no more than sixty five. There were no life jackets or safety aids of any kind and as we pulled away from the bank, I noticed with alarm that the boat was listing to starboard. The pilot noticed too but instead of laying on another boat (which would have reduced their financial return of course), the simple solution was to load some additional plastic chairs and redistribute the passengers more evenly to compensate. This made hardly any difference at all and I found myself wishing I had a waterproof bag for my camera.

Miraculously we didn't capsize though there were some hairy moments, particularly when we hit any rapids. For some, the journey was miserably cramped and uncomfortable but fortunately we had gotten to the
Wat Xieng ThongWat Xieng ThongWat Xieng Thong

Luang Prabang's Heritage listed Wat Xieng Thong is arguably its oldest and most beautiful temple. © L. Birch 2006
boat early and had scored reasonably comfortable seats up front. From there, we had a grandstand view of the countryside - wild mountains and forests, with ocassionally, a small village of palm thatch huts to break up the monotony. Fishermen with nets wouild stop what they were doing to watch - with seeming disbelief - the boatload of foreigners floating past while naked children on the banks would jump up and down, waving and shrieking furiously.

As the day waned and the sun cast longer shadows we entered a province of towering limestone peaks that looked like something from a Chinese painting. It was a disappointment to realise that the trip was almost over. With the sun sinking over the Mekong, the first red-tiled roofs of Luang Prabang began to appear above the trees. Luang Prabang was the country's second largest city (after Vientiane) and marked the end of our Mekong Journey - at least for the time being.

The city was to hold several surprises, not least being its small scale. From the boat, it was almost impossible to see that there was even a town behind the dense screen of trees, let alone a city. And
Lao Monk in Luang PrabangLao Monk in Luang PrabangLao Monk in Luang Prabang

The monks were as eager to know about us as we were to know about them. © V. Birch 2006
later, as darkness fell and we negotiated our way through streams of bicycles, motorbikes and tuk-tuks, we discovered that there were no streetlights. It was a novel experience to be in a city where you could look up into the night sky and still see the stars.

Before night took over completely, we had a brief glimpse of French colonial buildings and ancient temples. Despite the fact that the boat trip was over, I had a feeling that we were going to enjoy our time in Luang Prabang.


*NOTE. Sorry, for those not familiar with "Apocalypse Now", this oblique reference relates to a moment in the film when a stetson wearing colonel (played by Robert Duval) calls in a bombing raid to facilitate troop movements. As the bombs are falling, he announces - to no one in particular - that he "loves the smell of napalm in the morning".


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