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Published: June 24th 2020
One has to cross upstream, higher up, to come downstream properly… ~ Lao Proverb
Today we were travelling southeast from Chiang Khong (Thailand) to Pak Beng
We woke early (5:30am) to catch the sunrise and prepare for an early morning border crossing into Laos. We headed down to the breakfast area of our guesthouse (which was located on the river bank) and settled at a long thin bar table overlooking the Mekong. We helped ourselves from the Bain Marie, piling our plates with stir-fried chicken, stir-fried pork, fried rice and fried eggs. I also enjoyed a small bowl of banana and yoghurt, which was very welcome – it was the first yoghurt I’d tried since arriving in Thailand. Unfortunately, the weak tea and orange cordial weren’t terribly appetising at 7am, and nor was the overly sweet bread that didn’t convert well into toast.
After our enjoyable breakfast on the river bank we organised our packs, jumped into a minibus and headed to the Chiang Khong Immigration Office, which was about 15km downstream from our guesthouse. We made our way through Thailand’s border control system, clambered onto a large bus and headed over the Friendship Bridge into Laos. We were dropped at the Huay Xai Immigration Office, where we waited patiently
as Laos’ over-staffed and rather inefficient border control system recorded our details and administered our arrival.
After waiting for our papers to be processed, we withdrew $1.5 million kip from an ATM, paid for a short term visa and jumped into a songthaews
(a converted pick-up truck with benches down either side) for a quick trip to the riverbank to board our slow boat. We were heading to Pak Beng, and it was going to take about six hours.
The wooden slow boat was an amazing vessel – long and thin with bench seats and tables on either side. There was a comfortable open area at the front, and a toilet and beer fridge at the back. Beyond the toilets were the staff quarters, where meals were prepared and the engine room was chugging away. We were cruising with the current downstream, so the boat (and the engine) didn’t have to do very much. We were very low in the river – you could let your fingers drift in the water if you leant over the wooden rail.
At the start of the trip we had Laos on one side of the river and Thailand on the
other. However, after about half an hour we left the Thai border and disappeared into Laos, although it was difficult to discern any immediate difference. Water buffalo wandered in the silt along the river bank, Laotian men panned for gold, children frolicked in the shallows, river taxis sped past and villagers looked on from wooden huts higher up on the river bank.
Lunch was served just after midday, and it was an impressive spread. We helped ourselves to rice, curried potato and chicken, fried noodles, fried pork and spring rolls. We finished the meal with fresh watermelon and bananas. Eating on a slow boat with a river breeze enveloping everything around you is an incredible experience. I had completely fallen in love with slow boat travel on the Mekong.
Our Laotian guide informed us that while the country is communist (and has been since 1975), it doesn’t subscribe to the strict communism of other countries. Temples remain, as do many other cultural facets of the old country. I’ve heard different accounts of the impact of communism throughout Indochina, and they don’t all tally, so I’m interested to see the impact first hand.
We continued to drift downstream,
with the chug of the engine becoming nothing more than a faint background noise. The lapping of water on the hull, the wind against my face, the warm river breeze wrapping itself around my shoulders – it was such an incredible way to travel. Despite being in the midst of Laos’ dry season, lush green forest crept all the way down to the river bank, and there were a few signs of life – a small hut here, a dirt path there, a wooden canoe resting on a narrow sandbar. Cows and water buffalo wandered freely, and banana plantations occasionally appeared amidst the sprawling and dishevelled jungle.
Some parts of the river were particularly narrow and shallow, and it took all the skill of our captain to navigate through the exposed rocks in the fast flowing current. Hours drifted by as we glided down the Mekong… it’s been quite a while since I felt so incredibly relaxed. The mid-afternoon sun was heating up considerably, but the speed of the boat produced a continual (and very welcome) cool breeze.
Fishing nets hung from long bamboo poles wedged into rocks, but there was no sign of the people who had
set them. I imagined they had been set in the morning, and they would be checked in the evening. From what I could see, life on the banks of the Mekong is a life of subsistence. This iconic river was astonishing, and I was continually surprised by its width. I could easily skim a rock across most sections, and it rarely stretched more than 200 metres from bank to bank.
The further we travelled into Laos, the level and extent of deforestation became increasingly apparent. It was widespread. Hills lay bare, stripped of the trees that once prevented their top soil from slipping into the river. The amount of plastic and other pollution in the water also increased. There were more houses in the hills; more people washing clothes on the riverbank; more canoes with fisherman propelling themselves with wooden paddles.
As the late afternoon sun dipped towards the horizon and the river breeze brushed across my skin, I realised this had been a truly extraordinary and relaxing travel experience. After six hours cruising downstream on the Mekong in a slow boat, we berthed in Pak Beng at 5pm.
The landing at Pak Beng was incredibly skilful
on the part of our captain, but the shore crew were less than organised. However, we managed to disembark onto the rocks, clamber over taut ropes holding slow boats that had already berthed and trudge up a set of steep concrete stairs to the main gathering area – where we met everyone who had anything to do with water tourists.
Our packs were carried by porters, then transported to our hotel (BKC Villas) in a truck. We walked to the villas (which were relatively basic), dropped our packs and headed out on an orientation tour of Pak Beng. This small river village primarily serves as a layover for water tourists travelling between Chiang Khong and Luang Prabang, so it’s a bit rough around the edges. A single street runs through the village, which we explored in the diminishing light of the early evening. We visited the village market (which was in the process of closing for the day), then walked to a point on the road that offered a vista of the darkening Mekong below.
With dusk falling around us, we made our way back to the villa to freshen up for dinner. We were eating in-house, but
we decided to head down to the nearby Happy Bar for pre-dinner drinks. I took advantage of the complimentary banana whisky, which was reasonably strong, then ordered my first Beerlao. I’d been told this was the best beer in South East Asia, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. It felt a little odd drinking on the Mekong with Bob Marley blaring through the bar’s loudspeakers, but this was something we were slowly becoming used to.
We headed to our villa’s dining area around 7:30pm. We decided to go with the local speciality – larp
(where you could choose either minced beef, buffalo, chicken, fish or pork with herbs and spices). I went with the chicken larp
, while Ren went with the buffalo larp
. The dishes came with a small bamboo container of sticky rice, which unfortunately was cold and congealed, which made it very difficult to integrate into the meal. However, the larp
itself had a very distinct taste, and the buffalo in particular was incredibly flavoursome.
I enjoyed another Beerlao with the meal, and it was fantastic. I can see why it’s a popular beer. We retired to our room reasonably early, as the long day of relaxation
was catching up with us. It’s amazing how tired you can get from doing nothing for a whole day. 😊
It wasn’t the quietest of nights. The Happy Bar had livened up with a group of young water tourists having a great time sampling the various narcotic options on offer – the Happy Smoking and Happy Balloon signs must have been an irresistible lure. Mosquitos were finding their way under our door, and other insects and creatures were walking freely on the floor. It was also very warm, so the roof fan was working overtime. I managed to sleep for some of the night, but Ren wasn’t so lucky.
If the room itself had been a little more comfortable, we may have woken a little fresher than we did. The vast majority of the room was taken up with an enormous bed, so it was difficult to move around, and there was absolutely nowhere to put any of our things. A first world problem I know, but a problem all the same. 😊
Another long relaxing day on the Mekong lay ahead of us (drifting with the current in a slow boat), so I’m sure there’ll be
time enough to recuperate from our broken night’s sleep. SHE SAID...
We woke at 5am, beating the alarm by an hour. Someone on the other side of the river (in Laos) had a very loud radio or TV, and the sound carried very clearly over the water! We were in Chiang Khong on the Thai border, and we were both quite excited about crossing the river into Laos
later in the morning.
We started the day with a 3-in-1 coffee mate (instant coffee, powdered milk and sugar) – a very Asian morning drink out of a sachet. I had intended to dress in shorts for the day, but the night had been cold and the early morning was even colder. It was the first time on this trip that I decided to pack my warm hoodie in my daypack.
Breakfast was a proper Thai breakfast of fried rice, fried egg, chicken curry, a pork stir-fry with greens etc. I also tried the toast with butter and strawberry jam, but I’ve never been a fan of the sweetish Asian sliced bread. The drinks at hand were weak tea and fluoro-orange cordial, but mindful of not getting
dehydrated on a travel day, I dutifully drank both.
We checked out and caught two minibuses to the Thai border. We went through Thai border control, but not before waiting for Peter and Beth to sort out the missing Exit component of their Thai immigration card. We walked through to the immigration booths (of which there were two), but neither seemed to be staffed, so we formed two queues with a group of older French tourists and waited. Our group was a happy and excited bunch, and it didn’t take long before jokes and funny stories of bad border crossings were being shared. We must have got more boisterous than we realised, because we got ‘shushed’ by someone… I wasn’t sure if it was a staff member or one of the other tourists who had been unimpressed with our cheeriness. We’d already decided that the other group of tourists mustn’t have been morning people… why else would they be grumpy en masse when there was so much travel excitement to be had – we were crossing into a new country? 😄
The middle of the Mekong River marks the border between Thailand and Laos, and on clearing immigration
we boarded a large bus which shuttled us across the Friendship Bridge. The ‘no man’s land’ between the two immigration posts was as desolate looking as those sorts of areas tend to look. However, there were also quite a few plots of farmed land on the river bank.
We disembarked at the Laos border control building and lined up to buy our Visa on Arrival. I was apprehensive about our form filling skills (the visa form was badly designed and had weird questions which some of us couldn’t answer), but to my relief we weren’t questioned by any of the six (!) officers who processed each form. We handed over our passport and visa form through a small window, and the two documents were passed down a long table where the six immigration officials were sitting inside the building. We then walked to another window at the end of the line where the last officer was sitting – whose only role seemed to be handing back the processed passport to us. My internal productivity analyst was getting jittery at the inefficiency and over handling in this system, but I was placated by the line moving quickly enough. 😊
The Laos visa fee varied depending on nationality, and it cost us $30USD (it was possible to pay with Thai Bhat or Laotian Kip too, but the exchange rate was pretty inflated). We had to make sure we had the exact change, and that the US dollars were crisp notes. There was playful resentment towards Christina and Philipp because they had free entry with their Swiss passports. While we waited for the others, we withdrew what seemed like a HUGE amount of Laotian Kip from the ATM. One Australian dollar is the equivalent of 6000 kip, so withdrawing 1,500,000 kip wasn’t excessive, but it still felt like a ridiculous amount. On an ATM note, we found that the BCEL machine charged higher fees than the LBMD machine.
After we’d been stamped through immigration, we were officially on Laotian soil! But not before being amused by the fact that every single member of the grumpy French group managed to entangled themselves and their luggage in the exit turnstiles. There were large clear diagrams asking people to push wheelie luggage in front of them rather than dragging it behind themselves, but it obviously wasn’t being taken notice of. The lovely official
at the turnstile was very understanding and kept unlocking the side gate for each of them. However, he did grin cheekily at us when he realised we’d been watching with amusement!
We loaded ourselves and our luggage into two songthaews
(small pickup trucks/utes with a row of seats on either side of the covered tray), and bumped our way on a dusty road to the pier at Huay Xai
. I was a bit surprised at how small and ad hoc the pier was, considering that many boats and public ferries start their journey down the Mekong from this point.
We carefully navigated the muddy banks of the river and crossed a narrow gangplank onto our slow boat. The men in the group were asked to form a human chain so our luggage could be passed from the songthaews
to the boat. It was very muddy work!
The boat was owned and run by an older couple who also lived in the small back section of the boat. There was a ‘no shoes’ policy on board, which made for a more relaxed and comfortable feeling, plus it was also respectful as we were essentially in their home. We
would be spending two days on-board, but disembarking to spend the night in a guesthouse in Pak Beng.
I was very excited when we got on-board and saw how comfortable it was. The main part of the boat was divided into four sections – just behind the captain’s alcove there was a shelf for our shoes and space for our luggage to be stored, followed by four small daybeds, then tables and seats in the middle part, and at the back a small bar and tables where lunch was served. The toilets separated our part of the boat from the family’s small ‘apartment’ which contained a bedroom, family room and kitchen. The bar had self-serve tea, coffee, beer, soft drinks and chips. It worked on a tab system that we would pay at the end of two days.
Before long we set off on our six hour journey to Pak Beng. We had met our local guide Keo at the Laos border, and he’d helped us navigate immigration. He let us settle into our journey before giving us a general introduction to Laos, including its history and customs. The Lao flag is a white circle (the moon) on
blue (the Mekong) and red stripes (the bloodshed of war). However, this flag is always flown jointly with the Communist red and yellow hammer-and-sickle flag; and the country’s official name is The Lao People’s Democratic Republic.
Keo mentioned a couple of times that even though Laos was a communist country, it wasn’t as strictly communist as China is. The Lao people are still allowed to worship their various religions as they pleased, and business ownership is allowed. So I assumed it was probably more similar to the Vietnamese model of communism – where it’s a one-party country that embraces aspects of communism and capitalism as it suits them. Keo was a lovely guy, and we took an instant liking to him.
We travelled for a little while with the stone levees of Thailand on one side of the river and the muddy banks of Laos on the other, but after we passed Pak Tha (where our boat captain had to get off and show his papers) the border deviated from the river and we had the steep banks of Laos on both sides of us.
The Mekong starts in Tibet and flows 4300km through six countries before
ending in the South China Sea. We have encountered the Mekong in Vietnam and Cambodia, and now we were experiencing it in its mid-section passage through landlocked Laos.
This part of the country was full of mountains with long and difficult roads, so the river was a popular transport option. We shared the river with a constant flow of local water traffic – barges overloaded with concrete (coming south) and timber (going north) steadily chugged along, while little fishing canoes floated silently and small speedboats noisily shuttled locals at perilous speeds between villages. Quite comically, the drivers of the speed boats wore motorcycle helmets, giving the scene a somewhat Mad Max feel.
The banks of the Mekong were more rugged that I had imagined, often rising abruptly into hills that were covered in jungles of young teak and bamboo… but sadly stripped bare of all large trees. We passed occasional small villages with basic wooden stilt huts, farmers, lone fishermen, gold-panners and river reed gatherers. The patches of farmed land contained banana trees, vegetable plots and small teak plantations. I had expected far more human activity on the river banks. As in Vietnam, I thought there’d be fisheries,
a sea of rice fields and far more villages and towns beside the river.
We saw plenty of buffaloes, cows and goats on the banks of the river, but absolutely no wildlife. There was talk of gibbons and possibly clouded leopards in the forests, but they certainly kept well away from the river. What surprised us even more was the distinct absence of any shore or water birds. When we asked Naa (our group leader) about it, she made a dismissive remark about how the Hmong villagers eat anything that moves! This wasn’t the first slightly racist comment she’d made about Lao people. 😒
Laos is resource-poor except for its Mekong waters, and it is apparently planning to build dams and hopefully sell hydroelectric power to its neighbours. I felt quite sad for the river – each of the countries it passes through uses it to their full advantage, with no one caring for its overall health.
Naturally, the river level varies depending on the season. This was the dry season, and the water was at its lowest. However, the greedy and rampant damming of the river upstream is also draining the river and causing alarming flow-on
(excuse the pun!) effects on entire ecosystems in the lower Mekong area. They are biting the hand that feeds them. 😞
The low water levels revealed a maze of sandbars and clusters of rocks jutting out along the surface, which sometimes seemed almost impassable. Our captain was clearly experienced, and he expertly navigated a course around these obstacles with ease. He had no electronics or gadgetry, just a man, his steering wheel and his alert eyes. Which is why we only travelled in daylight.
In some areas the river was wide and the currents slow and lazy, while in others the river squeezed through narrow passages where the shore seemed within arm’s reach and the boat was swept along through fast-flowing rapids. It was very enjoyable.
Lunch was soon served, and we had our first taste of Lao food in Laos! I was impressed with the range of food produced in that small boat kitchen. We were served steamed rice, a yellow chicken and potato curry, fried noodles, deep fried pork and spring rolls (which were almost like a fresh spring roll that had been pan fried). The spring rolls were fabulous, but the other food, while
tasty, was less spicy than I’d expected. So the bowl of prik nam pla
(fresh chillies in fish sauce) came in handy. Dessert was cut-up watermelon, and there were also some tiny bananas and tiny mandarins that I loved. The bananas had a very different taste and texture to the ones at home, and the mandarins had a ‘sweet and sour’ flavour… and they had seeds (something I haven’t had in a mandarin for years)!
The mood on the boat was very chilled. We drifted between chatting in small groups, to reading, to making cups of tea and munching on snacks. I swapped between staring at the scenery, writing notes and chatting with Carole and Susan. I have always found it fascinating how quickly we can get comfortable with the people we travel with. Our conversations certainly didn’t reflect the fact that we’d only met five days ago. 😊
I napped for about an hour after lunch, and then Andrew and I sat on the day beds and dangled our feet in the water through the slats on the side of the boat. We drifted into a kind of Zen-like study of the riverbanks, the curious whirlpools and
the occasional isolated village with children playing on the river bank. The soundtrack to this reverie was the put-put of our engine, the lapping of water against the bow of the boat and the faint voices of our relaxed fellow passengers.
My attention was always drawn to the herds of animals we passed. The goats and cows were clearly owned and were almost always close to villages, but the water buffaloes fascinated me for two reasons. Firstly, I think some of the herds were either wild or feral – they wore no bells and seemed to be miles from any human inhabited areas. Secondly, this was the first time I’d seen pink skinned buffaloes! They appeared in mixed herds with the usual dark grey-black ones.
Andrew and I chatted to Keo for about an hour or so about his experiences in the tourism industry, and about how Laos has changed in the last 13 years he’s been working as a guide. Andrew asked him if there was any lingering resentment towards the French from the colonial days, and his answer was simply ‘it was a long time ago, we have to forgive’. I asked him about the pink
buffaloes, and he said they were no different to the grey ones in how they work or taste, but there were various superstitions about pregnant women not being allowed to drink their milk or eat their meat. I googled these buffaloes later and found out that albinoid forms of the species were quite common in Laos and some parts of China.
After 6 hours on the boat, our first day in Laos concluded in Pak Beng
. As we approached it, 20 or so other boats bobbed around the concrete pier. We clambered to the muddy shore and then climbed steep concrete steps up to the road. Our luggage was carried up by porters and loaded onto a buggy from our guesthouse. As we walked further up the hill to our guesthouse, the initial vibe I got of the town was ‘backpacker’. 😊
We checked into BKC Villas, where we were given a purple coloured lemongrass welcome drink. There was a lost-in-translation moment when Naa told people it was coloured purple with ‘butterflies’. The horrified look on people’s faces was priceless. She’d actually meant ‘butterfly pea flowers’! The flowers of the native Southeast Asian plant impart a deep blue
colour, but it’s ph sensitive and magically changes to purple with the addition of citrus. 😄
After dropping our bags in our quite basic room, we left for a quick walk around town before it got dark. Pak Beng was a lively contrast to the quiet villages we had floated past all day. The part of town closest to the river had a wide range of guesthouses, shops selling cheap China-made mass produced clothes, a number of cafes and a couple of bars (one which advertised a Happy Hour price of ‘two drinks for the price of two drinks’ – I suppose that’s fair!).
As we wound our way uphill, it got decidedly local with a small vegetable market, a temple, tiny shops in the front rooms of homes, small garden plots between houses, and people sitting on the street watching life parade past. I love that guesthouses aren’t allowed past a certain point on the hill. This allows the locals to still enjoy their lives as they please, and there was a relaxed community atmosphere. I wish more small towns would adopt this strategy.
With no prior knowledge that vehicles in Laos drive on the right-hand
side of the road, I nearly stepped into the path of an oncoming car within minutes of leaving for our walk. And even after I realised this, I kept looking in the wrong direction when crossing the road. I needed to adopt my ‘look both ways’ mantra to stop myself from getting killed! 😱
We returned to our guesthouse and decided to have some drinks before dinner. We walked down to the Happy Bar next to our guesthouse with John, Yvie and Dave. As the name suggested, it was one of ‘those’ bars, and it appropriately played back-to-back Bob Marley songs. We were given free shots of banana whisky (which tasted like rice wine flavoured with the banana cordial that is used in milkshakes!). The first mouthful was truly gross, but the second sip tasted better. What should have been a relaxed drink before dinner was slightly spoilt by the woeful service. Those that ordered Beerlao got their drinks straightaway, but my passionfruit cocktail took more than half an hour to appear – which was very strange considering we were the only people in the bar! Regardless, it was lovely sitting outside in the balmy early evening with drinks
and travel friends. We hadn’t really spent time with Dave, so it was very interesting talking to him about his life and travels.
We hustled to finish our drinks and get back to dinner on time. Dinner was on the open deck of the restaurant in our guesthouse. We wanted to have a typical Lao dish for our first meal, so Keo suggested the larp
(minced meat salad with toasted rice powder, herbs and lime). Andrew ordered the chicken larp
, but I was curious about the buffalo larp
, as I’d never tasted buffalo meat before. I thought it would be strongly flavoured, but if anything, it was a much lighter meat than beef. The larp
itself was tasty, but far less spicy and less ‘limey’ than the Thai versions I’ve had before. It was served with small basket of khao niao
(sticky rice) – a staple of Lao cuisine – which I couldn’t even get through a third of! I hate wasting food.
We retired to bed about 10pm, but I struggled to fall asleep. The windows and doors had large gaps through which insects were entering and buzzing around the room… I resorted to using all the spare towels to block the gaps! And even though it wasn’t an overly hot night, I turned on the ceiling fan to max strength to block out the loud Bob Marley music blaring from the Happy Bar (actually it was more to block out the girl squealing along with the music!). I eventually fell asleep well after 1am.
We would be returning to the slow boat the next day, for one more day of river travel.
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