Pakbeng is a small and not particularly brilliant little town. It was clearly just a little village that was fortunate enough to be roughly half way between Houie Xai and Luang Prabang. It exists as it is now because of the boat. The hotels and guesthouses are fine for a night, but in comparison to most places are pretty shit. Our hotel was ok for £10 a night, but you could get a better deal pretty much anywhere in Thailand outside Bangkok. And we were in Laos, which is even cheaper. But it was perfectly adequate for 1 night, so I won’t grumble. The town has beer, ok food, and sold pillows and baguettes. I happily bought a pillow.
The next day we were up at dawn and the Mekong looked stunning below our balcony in the morning light. The evening before I had been dreading the second half of the trip but despite the solid bed and bizarrely huge and rock hard pillows in our room, I found myself eager for the trip. The boat was due to leave at 9am, so at 8am we loaded up on baguettes, and snagged some great cloth-covered seats at the front left hand side of the boat. My buttocks loved the added comfort of the pillow.
The morning was the aforementioned ‘bracing’ and when the boat left at the crack of 9:35, everyone was wrapped up in jackets. The day and the view then proceeded to be pretty identical to the one before. The difference this time was that the temperature remained superb until about 2pm. The scenery remained spectacularly beautiful. Our new improved seats were similarly awesome. We were so content and comfortable we celebrated with a Beerlao at 11am. Others on the boat were enjoying Sangsom Whisky and coffee which was pretty damned civilized of them.
The boat was a nicer one on the second day for some reason. The lady selling snacks, coffee and beer at the back even had a little counter. The toilet was nicer as well although I was still pleased not to have to sit on it. This was fortunate as we were supposed to be on the boat for at least 8 hours. Or thereabouts. We were originally told we would get to Luang Prabang at 4pm. Someone near us said that they had heard 3pm and someone else said 5pm.
At about 4pm I saw something I recognised. The Pak Ou caves. I had been there before on a boat rented from Luang Prabang. The caves are at the foot of massive cliff and are filled with thousands of Buddha statues. It’s pretty cool and well worth a visit. I confidently predicted another 10 minutes or so which was a mighty relief as everyone was getting a bit fed up again. It is a long time to be sitting in boat, no matter how gorgeous your surroundings.
Over an hour later, there it was. Luang Prabang at last. A finger of raised land that sticks into the confluence of the mighty Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. I could see temples and bars all along its side high above the river. It looked like the promised land. It looked lovely and relaxing. The only negative aspect was that, like around northern Thailand, the locals think it is an awesome idea to burn down half the forest. It makes farming easier and if that means a few people choking to death, what the hell. On the plus side, the smoky atmosphere made for some spectacular sunsets. The whole area is beautiful.
The looks didn’t deceive. Luang Prabang remains awesome. The trip was worth it.
In case you navigated to part 3 by accident, part 1 is here.
Our boat was due to leave Huay Xai at 11am and it was hot already. Easily over 30 celsius. Given that we were in Laos I was fairly surprised at the efficiency of the crew and the fact that we left just after 11:30. (I’m not being sarcastic, I have been to Laos before and timetables are like indecipherable hieroglyphs.) The first couple of hours you cruise down the Mekong with Laos on your left and Thailand on your right. The scenery is pretty with the occasional concrete or wooden village on each side of the low banks. Once the river turns off into Laos itself the banks rise a bit higher and eventually so do the hills behind. The riverbanks alternate between cool igneous looking rocks and white sandy beaches. Most of these beaches are deserted but occasionally you see wild buffalo lying in the sand chewing, flicking their tails and generally looking happy with their lot. At first everyone leapt up to take photos, but the novelty soon wore off.
In the hills among the jungle there are occasional villages perched on the slopes made out of wood, the houses raised up on stilts. Occasionally some of these villagers need a lift. The Mekhong river is their only way of getting around as the roads are pretty poor or non-existent. They will plant a white flag on a prominent part of beach or rock and the boat will pull in and the villagers clamber aboard and sit on plastic stools in the aisles. Usually the boat pulls into another village to let them off, but occasionally a smaller craft will pull up alongside and the passenger will transfer themselves and (usually) their tons of things into the moving boat. It’s pretty impressive.
There is a lot of talk about rivers being a ‘lifeline’ to somewhere, or that it is the ‘beating heart’ of a place. A lot of that talk is fairly valid but less so these days. In olden times the Thames for example, brought trade and wealth to London. While there is still some trade and money being made by the Thames, it is now mostly a place where Londoners can erect tourist attractions or, if you are bastard rich, even live next to. Most Londoners don’t really need it as such in their day to day lives and can go months with even seeing it.
The Mekong really feels essential to the communities that live by it. Their life exists because of it. All along the river you see villages that exist, and continue to exist, purely due to the Mekong. There are fishermen standing waist deep in tshirts and swimming trunks casting their nets by hand. There are bamboo fishing rods tied to rocks throughout its length (either the same fishermen with the nets or a really lazy guy having a nap). There are even a lot of people panning for gold, which caught me off guard and gave me a flash of avarice until I saw how clearly unsuccessful they must be given their obvious poverty. I guess they found enough gold to just about survive.
By about 3:30pm the heat was at its maximum. Even the buffalo were in the river at this point, their horned heads just visible along the water. I don’t know if the kids went to school (I doubt it), but on the beaches and rocks below each village there were scores of them playing in the Mekong. Some were starkers, some were in trunks, some in trunks and tshirts. They all seemed happy and waved, shouted and occasionally posed for photos as our boat carried on by. On one group of rocks a bunch of teenagers waved and started diving into the water. By this point, I was feeling a bit hot and cramped. I had a Lao girl on a plastic stool pressed against me on my left, Nim on my right, and a hot plastic seat welded beneath me. Even constant cans of Beerlao failed to make me feel better. I envied those kids.
From 5pm onward the temperature thankfully began to drop. It now seemed to be adult time by the river and we passed small groups of villagers having their evening bath in the river. Men in swimming trunks and women wrapped in Lao embroidered skirts were soaping up and washing their parts all along the bank. I generally tried to avert my gaze when a group of ladies were washing but when they all waved at the boat I thought, bollocks to this, and took some photos and waved back. Everyone seemed very chilled and relaxed.
By half past five everyone was pretty eager to get off. Even the pillow gang were uncomfortable and those of us in the back, full of Beerlao and stuck to our seats, were doubly keen. The sun was surprisingly low on the horizon and was gorgeous and we knew we were nearly there. Shortly after 5:30pm, we thankfully pulled into Pakbeng.
The moment our boat touched ashore, the touts were on us. It was like being boarded by overly friendly pirates. Thankfully we had booked ahead and waved them off. We wearily headed up to town and I predictably headed for a Beerlao.
Here endeth part two… In part three – we make it!
Our journey began in the mountains an hour outside of Chiang Rai, Thailand. My group consisted of myself, my wife Nim, my mother-in-law (Nim’s mum), her friend, a guide (who happened to be a student of Nim’s mum and was a local Chiang Rai businessman), and another guide who was from Laos. A lot of guides I know but they also happened to be friends, so it was pretty relaxed.
We were staying in a resort owned by another student of my mother-in-law (he was also tourist police so we felt pretty safe) called the Maenam resort and a bloody nice place it was too. Our balcony overlooked undulating jungle covered hills and fields. It was downright peaceful and relaxing. The view was hindered somewhat by the fact that half the mountain was on fire due to the annual slash and burn but It was beautiful there despite the smoky haze and falling ash. We drove two hours from here to town of Chiang Kong and had a quick breakfast of crispy pork, rice and chilli (awesome) before hitting the local market. We bought a chicken (a dead and cooked one) and some sticky rice and we were good to go.
The first stop was Thai customs which consisted of a small building by a dusty track that led to the river. It took about a minute to be allowed out of the country. Then, there before us, was the mighty river Mekong! Stretching from Tibet to Vietnam via China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. We jumped on a tiny and unnecessarily low boat that took us across the sluggish, brown (but mighty!) river. A perilous minute later and we were in Laos. I love travelling overland, it seems a lot more civilised than all the shite you get at airports. The next step was to get a visa at the Laos border office. This took about 10 minutes and for no reason at all included two queues – one to get the visa and one to pay for it. You are supposed to have a passport photo but for the unprepared, like myself, they will scan your passport for $1, which is actually cheaper than if I had gotten a passport photo in the UK. Fortunately the windows are next to each other and I didn’t actually have to move. The visa took a couple of minutes, during which time the border guards chatted to my Thai wife. It was either because they were curious about her having married a farang, or because they were chatting her up. Either way, it made the process fast and friendly.
We were now Laos, in a small town called Houie Xai, although the spelling varies (Huay Xai being another). My mum actually came here in the 60s during the war. Officially the war never visited to Laos but that, excuse my Laotian, is well known to be bollocks. In fact war did visit and it overstayed its visa and behaved pretty badly throughout its stay. My mum hitched rides all over Laos with either aid workers or CIA agents (sometimes the same person). When she was there the town was called Ban Houie Sai. It is a tiny place that now seems to exist purely for the border crossing and as a place to buy tours and Beer Lao. From here we were driven through the brown and dusty streets to the pier where our ‘luxury boat’ awaited.
I may be a soft city type but it wasn’t that luxurious. But it wasn’t too bad either. A better term would be simply ‘boat’. It was about 80 feet long and there were probably about 100 of us. There were two seats on each side separated by a narrow walkway. This averagely luxurious vessel was to be our transport for the next two days. I could smoke and they sold large chilled bottles of Beer Lao, so I was confident I could survive the trip.
First off, here is my advice if you are going to do this trip:
Arrive a bit early. Although it is supposed to be allocated seats, it isn’t. This is Laos and nothing is that organised. The boats vary, but on ours the first half of the boat had quite comfortable seats with a cloth covering and the second half had plastic.
Try and sit on the left hand side as you are facing the front. Or the ‘port’ side if you are a nautical type, you salty sea dog. This way you will avoid most of the sun. We were in plastic covered seats in the sun and it became a tad uncomfortable in the sweaty buttock region after a few hours. Sadly there are no photos of that.
Bring a pillow. A huge group of Scandinavians got on all carrying pillows. At first we mocked them (in a friendly way) and dubbed them the ‘pillow gang’ because we are so damned witty. Four hours later as my arse fused to the seat, I realised they were pretty wise. Bastards.
Bring a jacket or something warm. This may seem laughable at first when you are sitting in 35 Celsius sunshine but by the end of the first day, it can get downright chilly. The early hours of the following day are definitely brisk and bracing and other alliterative cold words like brrr (both alliterative AND onomatopoeic – woohoo). Then it gets bloody hot again.
Bring some food. You can buy pot noodles, crisps and biscuits on board but you will envy those with the foresight to bring baguettes. Or a chicken.
Wear thick sandals, shoes or preferably Wellington boots as the toilet can be a bit iffy and there are lots of bad shots on a swaying boat. The toilet on the second day was much better, so the unpleasantness seems a bit random. Good luck.
Owing to lots of photos and general waffling I have decided to split this up. Excitingly in the next installment – the actual trip…