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!