Tales from the Mekong River
October 8 -- "Welcome to Lao!" said the guy in t-shirt and denim jacket as he offered me a hand out of the boat at the Huay Xai border crossing.  Then he handed me an immigration form.  Five of us, Oshry and Adi from Israel, Pauline from Victoria, B.C. and Carol and myself had just taken the ferry to Laos across the Mekong River from Chiang Khong, Thailand.  Five passengers and our gear was a full load on the local ferry boat.
There were about 25 people hanging out at the ferry landing, going both directions it seemed.  We got our visas checked and our passports stamped, exchanged some Thai Baht for local currency (1000 Thai Baht will get you 249,000 Laotian Kip, which is a serious wad of money), then waited for a truck to take us to the long distance boat landing for the trip down to Luang Prabang.  The speed boat takes one day, the slow boat costs half as much but takes two days.  Carol and I figured we were slow boat kinds of people. Two more couples showed up, from the U.S. and from Holland, and they stuffed all nine of us into the back of a covered pick-up, with our packs piled on the roof.  Although Huay Xai seemed to be a town with just one main street, it is apparently the fifth largest city in the country.  Most of us noted that we were again in a place where they drove, for the most part, on the right hand side of the road (this is reassuring to all but the Brits and the Aussies).
The ferry boat landing at Huay Xai There were about eight boats tied up at the landing.  No dock, just planks and ropes securing everything to the mud banks of the Mekong.  Two more women joined us:  Marta, from Spain and Emily, from the United States.  They had both been working in Dublin and decided to hit the road together.

A local guide had accompanied us from the border crossing.  She led us all down the hill to the river's edge, across some of the planks and onto our boat.  She told us how to say "hello", "thank you" and "toilet" in Lao, then bid us "Bon Voyage!"  We stashed our packs below and found a spot on the wood benches or a bamboo mat-covered platform.  There's a roof over our heads with big open windows along each side.  The toilet, by the way, is a hole in the floor overhanging the back of the boat.  The boat had three crew members, and five other local passengers who watched us curiously.

Soon we were on our way, chugging down the river, away from the fields and farms of Thailand and into the mountains and thick forests of Laos.  The river was chocolate brown, the mountains a bright rich green.  It's the end of the rainy season here.

We settled in, visited a bit, swapped travel tales.  The river was about half a kilometer across, with a noticeable current.  There were few settlements, we passed by small villages every 45 minutes or so.  Occasionally we met a cargo boat, or a canoe hugging the river's edge.  Then there were the Mekong River fast boats, much like the long-tail ferries we saw in Bangkok.

You could hear the speed boats coming from about a kilometer away, then they zipped by bouncing across the top of the waves, packs and passengers stuffed in with helmets and life jackets and a very loud engine.  You don't get to move around on the fast boat.  We all agreed we had made the right transportation choice.

The river valley was a visual feast.  Sometimes there were rocks and rapids.  From the condition of the river banks, it looked like water levels had dropped about six or seven meters from the height of the rainy season about a month earlier.  There was still lots of water left.

As the hills roll by, I kept expecting to run into Humphrey Bogart as Charlie Alnutt in The African Queen.  Woops, wrong continent…  and this was, after all, the Mekong River.  Maybe we’ll see Martin Sheen searching for Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now!

All of our fellow passengers (except for the Laotions) were long-term travelers, spending anywhere from three to 12 months on the road.  When you're this far off the beaten path, you have to be a long-term traveler.  Actually, looking out over the forests and the occasional village that rolled by (and checking my map of Laos), I realized that in this part of the world, there's not even a path to beat.  All of the traffic is on the river.  This is remote…

They had warned us back at Chiang Khong that there wasn't any food on the boat, and we wouldn't be stopping for lunch.  After a few hours Carol pulled out some crackers, and a piece of cheddar cheese we'd found at a shop in Chiang Mai a couple days earlier.  In Thailand, cheese is a very rare commodity.  We offered some to Pauline, the young Canadian from Victoria whom we had met that morning.  She swooned.  "I've been going through cheese withdrawal for a month," she told us.  We understood.

Over the course of the day, people wandered off to the back of the boat in search of the "facilities".  It was a novel and unique experience, challenging, but not altogether impossible.  The ceilings were low, everybody bumps their head making their way past the engine, the crew laughs.  You scrunch down with the river rushing by below, knowing that aim is an important consideration here.  Fortunately, there is relief at the end.  Whew…

About seven hours downriver a village came into view with a bunch of boats along the water's edge.  It had vehicles, and a road.  This was Pakbeng, where we'd be spending the night.  We hauled our stuff off the boat and trudged up the hill looking for a comfortable guest house, surrounded by villagers offering suggestions and invitations.

Carol checked out a guesthouse up the road.  "Good bed, good view of the river, your own toilet," the owner promised.  Turns out it had none of the above, so we went over to the local hotel and got a corner room with two windows, both overlooking the river.

The view was nice, but soon it got dark.  Carol and I went off in search of a restaurant and found one close by, lovely little candles on all the tables and already occupied by several of our fellow travelers from the boat.  They invited us to join them so we sat down to our first taste of Lao cuisine and Beerlao, the national beverage.  It was a good time.

We soon realized, however, that the candles weren't just there for mood, that was the restaurant's only source of illumination.  As it turned out, Pakbeng only had electricity from 6 to 10:30 pm, and not all of the town was on the grid.  Wisely, Carol bought a candle and a lighter from a roadside vendor.  No need to curse the darkness tonight.

It was dark all right.  I checked sometime in the wee hours.  No moon, overcast, nothing!  I could have developed film outdoors that night.

There was a low mist over the river the next morning, but some of the other boats were already moving out.  I took my cameras and went for an early walk, attracting curious attention from the kids, and smiles of acknowledgement from the men down by the water.

Several of us gathered for breakfast at our hotel.  The view was great, but soon it was time to head back to our boat, pile in and be on our way.  We all settled in a little bit more for our second day on the river.

The valley and surrounding hills continued to be remote, lush and green.  We passed a few more boats, a few more villages, more rocks and rapids.  In the rapids, one of the crew members would come and shift some of us over to the left or right side of the boat to keep it balanced.  We bounced around a bit but stayed dry.

It was a pretty uneventful day until we came across a high cliff at the river's edge with a number of boats tied up alongside.  As we drew close we saw a number of people on steps leading up to a large opening in the cliff.  This had to be the Pal Ou Caves we'd read about in our guide books.  This was certainly worth a closer look, but it also meant Luang Prabang was only an hour away.  While we all knew it was not just the destination, but the journey, we were ready to arrive.

As it was, the town sort of snuck up on us, hidden behind the trees above the riverbank.  All of a sudden there were a number of boats tied up along the water’s edge, and we pulled in among them.  A few planks were stretched over to the muddy bank, and several men came down to help steady us as we scrambled ashore.  As with every destination in these parts, there were again many offers of "Good guesthouse, cheap price!"  Taxi and tuk-tuk drivers awaited at the top of the riverbank.

Fortunately, Carol had figured out exactly where we wanted to go.  This was a small town and it had streets we could safely walk on.  Ten minutes later we found the Heritage Guesthouse, a restored French colonial house next to a Buddhist temple.  It had a good shower, with hot water, something we’d missed over the previous few days.

Soon, clean but tired, I lay down on our new bed.  The rocking of the boat continued.  Some journeys stay with you...

Join us in Luang Prabang

This is the ferry boat landing at Huay Xai on the Mekong River where we entered Laos and went through Immigration.  Most of the ferries carried between three and five passengers.  That's Thailand off in the distance across the river.
The slow boat landing at Huay Xai in Laos
This is the long-distance slow boat landing where we set off on our journey.  That's our boat, I don't think it had a name.
Marta and Emily were two of our fellow travelers on the slow boat.
The passing scenery along the Mekong River Valley held the attention of most of us on the boat.
The main street of Pakbeng, Laos
Early morning in Pakbeng.  Market stalls were already open for departing travellers.  Like many towns in Laos, electricity was provided by a generator and was only on for a few hours a day.  There were no hot showers in this town.
Passenger and cargo boats on the Mekong River at Pakbeng, Laos
Several of the boats had already left Pakbeng by the time we got up.  We headed out about 8 am, just as the mist on the river was clearing.
On the second day of our journey, most of the passengers settled in on bamboo mats covering a front platform on the boat.
The Pak Ou Caves along the banks of the Mekong River in Laos
Although we had never seen them, we all recognized the Pak Ou Caves, about an hour upriver from Luang Prabang.

Check out our travels in Thailand
Check out more of Laos
Check out our visit to the northern hilltribes
Visit the Elephant Camp
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