Life On The Mekong

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January 18th 2012
Published: February 11th 2012
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A woman in her boat watching all us tourists cram into our ship on the second morning.
With tickets in hand and packs handed off, we boarded the slow boat that would take us south on the mighty Mekong river over the next two days to Luang Prabang. As seems to be the case with all travel in southeast Asia, our departure was delayed by more than an hour, but being in no hurry and prepared for a day of inactivity we were not bothered in the slightest. When two boats were fully packed we set off from the pier and began our journey down the river. We stopped every now and then at tiny villages along the river to pick locals up, drop locals off, and move goods and supplies from one place to another. The majority of the time, however, was spent puttering down the river at a leisurely pace. The scenery was so spectacular that we found ourselves spending hour after hour just staring quietly out of the boat. The river itself snaked quite a bit, with mostly rocky shoreline and boulders popping out of the water’s surface, providing challenges for the captain. For the majority of the trip the river was surrounded by mountain after mountain, so that we could never see more than
Naked BabiesNaked BabiesNaked Babies

Can't pass a tribal village without seeing one.
a few hundred meters inland. After about 5 hours on the water we pulled into the town of Pakbeng, our stopover point. We speculated that the experience of getting off the boat and up to the road might be compared to Normany without the bullets or carnage. Two boats of one-hundred people each were emptying out onto a tiny floating rubber pier. Compounding the space issues, touts from all the guesthouses in town were present trying to get the tourists to pay inflated prices for accommodations. In order to get from the pier to the road, one had to climb a steep rocky embankment. Of course, we were all wearing flip-flops, carrying 50 lbs. of luggage, and trying to cope with the darkness now surrounding us. We managed to make it up the hill and found a guesthouse that bargained down to a reasonable rate. As we were registering for the room which we had agreed to pay 250 Baht ($8.66 CDN) for, the owner managed to coerce two other groups to stay the night for 350 and 400 Baht, which made us feel pretty good about our ever improving bargaining skills. We then ate and slept, which from what
Welcome to Luang PrabangWelcome to Luang PrabangWelcome to Luang Prabang

The sunset over the Mekong that greeted us as we arrived.
we could gather was the only reason Pakbeng existed on the map.

We arrived at the boat early the next morning. With no assigned seats on our tickets we wanted to ensure that we would be able to enjoy the ride sitting next to one another, which can sometimes be tricky when travelling through southeast Asia as those showing up later on found out. Day two passed similarly to day 1. Seven hours of puttering along, spending most of the time observing the people and the scenery on the water and on shore in quiet reflection. As we neared Luang Prabang the mountains subsided and we caught glimpses of plains stretching into the countryside. We turned one final bend in the river and as we approached the pier we were greeted by a stunning sun sinking towards the river. We gathered our bags, jumped ashore and set out looking for a place to spend the night. Although more than sufficient, the room we found was bound to empty our wallets far too quickly ($16 per night is asking a lot), so the next morning we set out to find another place to stay. For about 2/3 of the price
From the MountaintopFrom the MountaintopFrom the Mountaintop

Looking out over the east side of Luang Prabang from Phu Si.
we found ourselves a spacious bungalow with all the amenities we could ask for (for us, wi-fi and an en suite bathroom). As Liza was 3 days in on a terrible head cold, we made use of the relaxing nature of the room and its attached balcony and had a lazy afternoon. In the early evening we went to explore Wat That Chomsi, which sits at the top of Phu Si, the hill which the city was built around. After a lengthy flight of stairs we picked a spot to sit down and wait for the sun to set over the Mekong and behind the hills off in the distance. Unfortunately, we were not the only ones with this idea. As the sun quickly approached the horizon, the 150+ people all stood with cameras at the ready. Although the sunset was gorgeous, watching the hoards of people fight for space was the more entertaining part. After descending from the mountain, we made our way to a quaint bookshop/cafe that screens nightly movies. We grabbed a spot on the floor with a pile of cushions, ordered a jug of beer and enjoyed Midnight in Paris with hilariously translated English subtitles (despite
Popular SpotPopular SpotPopular Spot

Watching the hoards of people jockey for space was more enjoyable than the sunset.
the movie also being in English). After the movie, we grabbed some dinner by the river and then called it a night.

The next day was geared around exploring the city. We rented bikes so we could extend our travel radius and paid $0.50 each to take the ferry to the other side of the river. Across the river from Luang Prabang are several old, but still functioning Wats, including one in a cave. We biked through the local town, which was a refreshing reminder of we were, considering Luang Prabang is very western centered. We visited three different Wats, however finding the last one (in the cave) proved to be a bit tricky for us (although it shouldn’t have been). We went nearly 30 minutes past the cave, into a local village and the jungle in behind it before turning back and asking for directions. We finally found it but didn’t stay very long as it was swelteringly hot, quite dark, and Liza got claustrophobic. Also, it was time for lunch. We biked back to the ferry crossing the river to the main side before enjoying a nice lunch. After lunch we biked around town, along the river
Cascading PoolsCascading PoolsCascading Pools

of beautiful blue.
and then made our way out to one of the local markets, just a few km out of town. The market was a mix of cookware, clothing, accessories, and food geared entirely towards the locals. Although we had no intention of purchasing anything we spent some time wandering around the food section just to see what they had. The usual fruits and veggies were there, but we were most awestruck by the tiny women crouched over massive slabs of meat or fish, just going at them with a cleaver. The smell was something that cannot be described. The fish floated in something that looked like mouldy brine. We ate burgers for dinner that night. After biking back into town, we returned the bikes, ate dinner and then set out to explore the night market. The market took over one of the main streets in town from about 4 pm onward. The sidewalks were lined with local vendors selling fabrics, handmade crafts, rice whiskey – with snakes and scorpions in the bottles, paintings, and food. Although we’ve seen our fair share of markets, this one seemed to be a bit more authentic as it was void of the silly gimmicky
From the TopFrom the TopFrom the Top

Looking out over the top of Tat Kuang Si waterfall.
tourist things that you can find anywhere. After a few purchases we headed back to our guesthouse for the night.

Our goal for our final day in Luang Prabang was to find a way 30 km out of town to the Kuang Si Waterfalls. We had a relaxing breakfast in town and then chanced upon a group of Israelis who were bargaining with a tuk-tuk driver over the price of a trip to the falls. It’s never nice to stereotype, but Israelis are great at negotiating. We latched onto these three who recruited a girl from Australia to bring our party to 6 and got us a far better deal than we could have worked on our own. The trip out of town took us through beautiful hilly countryside and the accompanying rural villages. After nearly 45 min in the truck we hopped out, paid our entrance fee for the park and made our way up the path. The first stop on the path was a conservation area where bears rescued from poachers were housed. They looked very content in their treehouse hammocks so we let them be and moved on. As we moved up the path we came
The AftermathThe AftermathThe Aftermath

Tat Kuang Si waterfall and the pool where the water ends up.
upon a series of beautiful blue pools connected by small cascading waterfalls. We became sensitized by the 4-6 foot drops we continued to see and then were stunned when we got to the end of the path and were faced with a 100+ foot stream of water fall from high above. Not content to stop at that point, we ascended the steep embankment on a very challenging dirt path and arriving at the top it was unclear where to go next. After wandering around for more than 15 min, crossing several shallow waterways and venturing off the path we found ourselves at the waterfall’s edge staring out over the entire mountain valley. A just reward for all the energy we had invested. Don’t worry, there was a fence keeping Liza from tripping and falling over the edge. We enjoyed the shady view for a while and then descended down the path to one of the bright blue pools. We donned our suits (swim, not birthday) and cooled off with dozens of other tourists. We reconvened with our travel party, found our driver waiting outside the gates and enjoyed the scenery on our trip back to town. We relaxed for the
Rice FieldsRice FieldsRice Fields

Some of the beautiful scenery observed on the drive home from the waterfalls.
evening, packed, and enjoyed our final sleep in our fantastic bungalow. The energy saved would prove important for our next stop, the party town of Vang Vieng.

Additional photos below
Photos: 18, Displayed: 18


Our BoatOur Boat
Our Boat

Loud and crowded but we still enjoyed the ride.
Life on the MekongLife on the Mekong
Life on the Mekong

We saw plenty of people finding food in the waters throughout the days.

The mountainous terrain that surrounded the river valley.

The main street in Luang Prabang.
Sunset from Phu Si MountaintopSunset from Phu Si Mountaintop
Sunset from Phu Si Mountaintop

We managed to fight for some space and get our own glimpse of the setting sun.
Prelude to a FallPrelude to a Fall
Prelude to a Fall

The water's last view before cascading down.
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Cooling Off

An afternoon dip after our grueling climb up the waterfall.

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