At high tide the fish eat ants; at low tide the ants eat fish… ~ Lao Proverb
Today we were travelling northeast, then east, then south from Pak Beng to Luang Prabang
After a restless night (thanks to the Happy Smoking and Happy Balloons on offer at a nearby bar that lured every young backpacker in the village), we woke early in preparation for our second day on the Mekong. It was 5:30am and still dark outside. We organised our packs and then headed down to BKC Villa’s dining area for breakfast. We enjoyed a selection of fresh fruit (mango, pineapple and dragon fruit), empanadas, omelettes, bread, pancakes, tea and orange cordial. It was a basic breakfast, but perfect for our long day ahead on the Mekong.
Feeling suitably refreshed, we handed our packs to the village porters who transported them to the riverbank by truck. We made our way down to the riverbank by foot, where our long wooden slow boat was waiting for us. We’d travelled on it from Chiang Khong the previous day, and we were continuing our journey towards Luang Prabang today.
We clambered down a set of concrete steps, gingerly navigated the riverbank’s sharp rocks and anchor ropes before stepping onto the hull of our slow
boat. We removed our footwear and settled in the same bench seats we’d relaxed in the previous day. The captain skilfully manoeuvred the boat off the riverbank, somehow managing to avoid the handful of other slow boats berthed at Pak Beng. I was amazed how he was able to wrangle the boat in the fast flowing Mekong without colliding with anything. If I had been at the helm, we would have been careering sideways towards the nearest rocks within seconds.
It was cool on the river in the early morning. Mist shrouded the hills and mountains on either side of the Mekong, and the river breeze had a slight chill that only the sun could dispel. We donned layers of clothing to protect against the cool air, and I settled on the eastern side of the slow boat to take advantage of the sun (when it was able to break through the early morning mist).
Life continued on the Mekong as it had the previous day. A father fished from a long thin canoe while his wife nursed their young child on the rocks. Children ran and played on the sandy shoreline, while their parents tended to fishing
nets and collected river weed.
Other slow boats passed us, and I was happy for our captain to cut the engines and let them through. We were in no hurry, and I didn’t see the need to be first. This wasn’t a race. The river was still very narrow – never more than a hundred metres across – so there was no room to journey side-by-side with other boats. At one point we traversed a particularly narrow section of the river, with barely three metres either side of the boat to the shoreline. The narrow channel was churning, with the weight of the Mekong suddenly compressed into the smallest of causeways. The captain did his utmost to get us through, and his boatmanship skills were exceptional. I did hear a dull thud on the bottom of the boat, which was more than likely the tip of an underwater rock.
The mist and clouds disappeared as the sun climbed further in the sky, but the river breeze was still cool, so our layers of protective clothing remained on. Signs of life on the Mekong were few and far between. Thick green foliage stretched down to the river’s edge from
the surrounding hills, buffalo roamed the sandy shoreline and unmanned canoes bobbed in the water. Surprisingly, there was absolutely no birdlife on the Mekong. Not a single winged creature stood on an exposed rock, swooped on an unsuspecting fish or darted across the glistening water. Not a single bird call echoed from the forest. I can barely remember a time when I have been in a water environment and not seen or heard a single bird.
A lunch buffet was prepared by the captain’s wife at midday, and it was a fairly basic affair. We started with a clear vegetable soup that was enhanced considerably by the fiery chillies that had been finely cut and soaked in a type of vinegar. I spooned them into the soup at my own peril, and I had to endure a bout of hiccups on my first mouthful before acclimatising myself to their extreme heat and taste.
Having recovered from the soup, I helped myself to stir-fried pork and vegetables, stir-fried beans and stir-fried fish with a mountain of rice. It was very filling, and once again significantly enhanced by the fiery chillies (although I was a little more careful with them
this time around).
There were a few more rapids on this part of the river, and our captain navigated them with ease. At times he would slow down and ease through them, but mostly he would increase the throttle and hit them with speed. The prevalence of pollution in the Mekong didn’t wane, and I often saw plastic and other rubbish spinning aimlessly in the river eddies.
I spotted a butterfly in the early afternoon. It was the first sign of airborne life I’d noticed over the past few days. I also noticed that the surrounding mountains (through which the river cut) seemed to be getting higher the further downstream we travelled from Pak Beng.
We pulled into a tiny river village in the mid-afternoon. After disembarking from our slow boat and negotiating the sandy river bank, we wandered around the virtually deserted village, sampling some home-distilled rice whiskey and purchasing some local woven scarves along the way. The rice whiskey packed a punch – to the point that it set my throat on fire – so I picked up a small bottle for $10,000 kip (or about AUD$1.50). It came in a small soft-drink bottle (re-used
and unsealed), so there was no chance of getting it out of the country. Not to worry. I was looking forward to a small glass of rice whiskey as I caught up on my travel notes over the next few nights… 😊
We clambered back into the slow boat and drifted towards Pak Ou Caves, which were only about a kilometre downstream from the village. After disembarking onto a makeshift jetty, we climbed some very steeps stairs to an overhanging section of rock where thousands of Buddha (and other religious) icons have been plonked haphazardly over the years – and continue to be plonked by visiting pilgrims. This is a revered religious site for many Laotians, so I will be careful with my words. It just felt a little gaudy and disrespectful to Buddha, but that’s a very subjective viewpoint on my part. We also walked to another cave a little higher up the riverbank. This wasn’t anywhere near as bad as the lower cave, but it still resembled a dumping ground for people’s private Buddha icons.
It also didn’t help that local kids, under the watchful eye of their parents, were selling birds in cages. Well-meaning tourists
are meant to buy these birds and set them free, unaware that the kids simply recapture them and sell them to the next well-meaning tourist. It’s a very enterprising scheme, but a cruel one all the same, and we didn’t buy into it.
We made our way back to the makeshift jetty, settled in our slow boat and continued downstream until we arrived at a berthing area just outside Luang Prabang. We clambered onto the riverbank, struggled up a particularly steep set of stairs to the roadside and jumped into a waiting minibus – we were heading to Legend Hotel, our comfortable accommodation in Luang Prabang for the next three nights. SHE SAID...
I woke feeling rather groggy and gritty eyed after a broken night’s sleep in Pak Beng. However, I didn’t worry too much about it, as I knew we had another very calm and restful day on the slow boat as we made our way to Luang Prabang
When we’d docked at Pak Beng the day before, we’d seen a large sign for the Mekong Elephant Park (a non-riding eco-tourism venture) on the opposite river bank. We’d later been told that the elephants
are usually walked down to the river early in the morning for their bath. Our room was on the third floor of the building and faced the river, so as were getting ready that morning, we would dart out to the balcony every few minutes to check on the elephant situation. Finally, a lone elephant walked down to the river, but it was still too dark to make out any clear details. I thought I saw the elephant lying in the water, but on looking through Andrew’s 30x zoom I realised it was a rock! So we gave up and went down for breakfast.
Breakfast at the guesthouse began with a lovely spread of tropical fruit – delicious mango, pineapple, dragon fruit and pawpaw. I then moved on to an omelette with toasted baguette, a Lao curry puff pastry with spiced potato, and pancakes with strawberry jam. And it was all very tasty. However, the tea was still weak, and we realised the fluoro-orange cordial was popular on this side of the border too.
We checked out and walked down to the river to re-board our slow boat. We settled in for another relaxing day on the water,
which would end in Luang Prabang later that afternoon. It was surprisingly cold on the river, and a mist hung low on the water. Even with our jackets on, we all found ourselves rugging up with the provided Hello Kitty fleece blankets. We warmed up with cups of tea and chocolate biscuits as we watched the sun eventually rise and burn through the grey mist around us.
The landscape was very similar to the day before, but with slightly heavier forested hills on either side. There were much the same herds of buffaloes, cows and goats, but noticeably fewer villages. There was also less shore activity, like gold panning, fishing and river weed gathering. The river was choppier and the ride bumpier, and the rocks in the water were smaller and less dramatic than the day before.
While watching our captain expertly skirt around a spectacular whirlpool on one side and unmanned fishing rods on the other, I realised that the low water level in this part of the Mekong had kept away those hideously large tourist boats we’d seen on the Mekong in Cambodia. Every cloud has a silver lining I suppose! 😊
I’d been trying
to describe the colours of the river and surrounds in my notes, but the words I desired had been alluding me. And then it struck me – everything looked like my Dad’s old colour photos where the photographic paper had started to fade. The yellow sand was bleached, the green foliage sometimes too bright but sometimes too washed-out, the villages in layers of dull browns, the shadowy water and rocks of nondescript greys, and the sky a featureless background. I’m not sure if this was because I was seeing everything through light that was bouncing off the murky water, or if these were indeed the true colours of the place. I know this may sound unappealing, but it wasn’t. It gave everything a wistful and almost ethereal quality. I was mesmerised!
At some point, Pete rallied the troupes and gave some of us a masterclass in playing Bridge. Pete and Beth are regular Bridge players and I think Pete sometimes played professionally too. It was only a brief lesson, but it gave me a grasp of the basics. And through absolute pure beginners luck, John and I beat Pete and Chris in one game! We played until close to
lunchtime, when our rumbling tummies called us to action.
Similar to the day before, lunch consisted of steamed rice, a clear vegetable soup, fried fish, pork stir-fried with vegetables, and stir-fried green beans. The soup was the stand out dish. The stir-fries were nice but quite bland, and I had to add a generous sprinkle of prik nam pla
(fresh chillies in fish sauce) to enhance the flavour.
Keo (our local guide) had been telling us about kaiphaen
(green river weed) that we’d seen women collecting from the river. The algae is harvested off rocks and the river bed in the dry season, thrashed on the river bank to get rid of excess water and dried in the sun. Keo gave us a little blob of it to try… and even though it may have be a local delicacy, I intensely disliked the slimy texture and strong flavour it had absorbed by being cooked with pepper wood (sakhaan – a local vine with a chilli flavour and slightly tongue numbing sensation). I much preferred the fried version of kaiphaen
which came in small crispy sheets studded with sesame seeds. It was very similar in texture and taste to
Japanese nori (seaweed).
Keo mentioned the option of an unscheduled stop at a small village that was famous for making ‘Lao Lao rice whisky’, which we all agreed to. Apparently they used to have a scheduled stop at some of the villages, but irresponsible tourist behaviour encouraged kids to stay home from school and hang out waiting for the boats. As a result, we could still experience a small village, but because it was unscheduled, there was no guarantee of any villagers being around to demonstrate the distilling process.
The boat pulled into a small village that looked exactly like all the others we’d passed over the last two days. We jumped off the boat’s bow onto the muddy shore, where gorgeous ducks waded into the water to feed on the algae on the bottom of our boat. A nearby floating house had a pensive looking monk staring off into the distance, so absorbed in thought that he didn’t once look our way. A steep climb up into the village took us along a meandering path between wooden homes elevated on stilts, and others built of besser blocks. Piglets and chickens roamed freely, cats lazed on dusty tables,
and sleepy dogs watched us from doorways.
It was the middle of the afternoon, and the village was very quiet. The only people we engaged with were two women selling crafts and traditional fabrics outside their homes. The second stall was owned by a lovely elderly lady who was weaving on a small wooden loom. Her stall was attached to a rice whiskey still, but as Keo suspected, no one was around to show us the distilling process. So he stepped in and gave us a brief overview of how the drink is made – sticky rice is dried and then fermented with yeast for a few weeks, after which it’s boiled and distilled.
We were given a small sample of rice whiskey each – I’ve never been a fan of it, but this one seemed particularly strong. Andrew likes it more than I do, so we bought a small bottle to support the village. I also bought a couple of scarves from the lovely old lady. Even though the scarves were good value by Australian standards, I hadn’t had the chance to get an idea of the price of things in Laos yet. However, I love supporting
small businesses like this, and I was quite happy to pay the asking price. I was pretty impressed that none of the group bargained with her either. Keo assured us that it was a good price compared to the prices in the night markets in the cities. Our visit was brief, but it gave me much needed context about the region we were passing through.
A few hours prior, I’d noticed that the small hills on the river banks were starting to morph into limestone karsts. While walking back to the boat I realised that I had totally failed to notice the karsts that filled the bank of the river across from us. They were quite stunning!
Continuing on, we visited the crowd-thronged Pak Ou Caves, where over 4000 Buddha statues overlook the river from the limestone karsts. We climbed up the near-vertical cliff to the lower cave, squeezing past tourists on the narrow steps. The cave had a couple of levels, but it wasn’t very deep. Every available ledge was crammed full of Buddha statues in all shapes and sizes. The two caves have been sacred for hundreds of years, and pilgrims filled them with statues over
time. Unfortunately, I just didn’t get any sense of spirituality from the space. There was a small entry fee, but it didn’t stop the shambolic overcrowding. The caves are sacred and unique, and deserved to have some form of crowd control, not to mention a good clean! I had been looking forward to the caves, but left feeling like I’d added to the desecration and deterioration of the place.
Andrew and Dave walked up to check the higher cave, while Carole and I wandered back down to the boat. The steps and the wooden pier were full of kids trying to sell birds in small cages to gullible tourists. They were trying to pitch a vague Buddhist philosophy by yelling ‘good karma’ at us. It’s a cruel practice of capturing birds so idiot people can feel good about releasing the birds. I just wish they would stop and think about the whole process before supporting such a ruthless trade. Someone once told me that most of the birds used are homing birds, so at worst it was deceiving the tourists, but it wasn’t as cruel as capturing wild birds every time. Errr… I think they’d missed the point if
they had to make an argument about something being less cruel than another option! 😞
We were nearing Luang Prabang, which meant the end of our blissful journey on the slow boat. That well-worn cliché that travelling is more about the journey than the destination was true in this case. To get from the Laos border to Luang Prabang by road would have been a journey of more than 12 hours in a cramped bus. Time permitting, I’d take this glorious slow boat any day!
The journey on the Mekong River allowed us to ease into Laos in an amazingly relaxing way, while watching beautiful scenery float past from our comfortable boat. It’s one of those travel highlights that will stay with me for a long time. 😊
Next we explore Luang Prabang, also known as the ‘Jewel in Laos’ Crown’.
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