Luang Prabang, Laos, June 02
Laos (Part 1)
The Laos side of the Mekong River had a more proper kind of pier and we scrambled off the longtail boat from Thailand to the immigration checkpoint up the steps from the dock. The immigration officials checked our visas, took some fee money from us, and gave us an entry stamp. We walked up the road away from the river into the small town of Houie Xay.
The town's lazy main road ran parallel to the river. A short distance down we stopped at the rather new looking Sawbaydee Guest House. It was not listed in our guidebook, but seemed inviting so we checked it out. It turned out to be a great value with spacious, clean, cheap rooms with a view overlooking the Mekong, friendly staff, and an entertaining set of guest house rules (see picture below).
The Lao People's Democratic Republic, the "Land of a Million Elephants", holds the dubious and sad distinction of being the most heavily bombed country in history. In attempts to choke off the flow of soldiers and supplies along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the United States dropped an estimated two billion kilograms of ordnance over Laos during the Vietnam War. Ensuing years of government corruption and financial crises has earned the Laos of today the ranking as one of the world's poorest countries. The majority of the Lao people rely on subsistence agriculture for their livelihood. The Lao People's Revolutionary Party has been making slow strides to encourage private capitalist enterprise and the country has only recently been opened to foreign tourists. The country's major attractions to tourists are the beautiful natural scenery and relaxing slow pace of daily life. We hoped to catch a glimpse of both over the next few days before crossing into Vietnam.
We rose early to change some money (US$1=9625 Lao kip) and have breakfast at a small cafe. There we discovered a delicacy we had been missing for a few months - good bread. Remnants of the French colonial period, baguettes were freshly made and plentiful. They would become a staple addition to our diet throughout Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia.
Back at the guest house we packed up our gear and checked out. As we were leaving, we parted with our travelling companion, Captain Davidson. Sue thought he would be more appreciated by the young son of one of the women who worked at the hotel, and by his smile I think she was right. Captain Davidson didn't seem to mind at all.
We hired a tuk-tuk to drive us a few kilometers north of town to the 'slow boat' pier. We planned on spending the next two days aboard some kind of vessel floating down the Mekong River to the city of Luang Prabang.
We bought our tickets (90,000 kip, about US$9 each) for the boat trip and then joined a bunch of other foreigners already waiting for the departure in a nearby restaurant. After an hour of mutual confusion in which we all were waiting for someone to come and tell us when to board while the boat drivers were sitting around patiently waiting for us to come down and climb on, we set off.
The boat was largish (well, compared to the other boats we saw on the Mekong) and made almost completely of wood. The seating arrangements in the narrow cabin consisted of several rows of small straight-backed wooden benches, each barely large enough to uncomfortably accomodate one foreign-sized person. Along each side of the cabin were large open windows. Some of them had tattered maroon colored curtains tied off to the sides. There were a fair number of Lao people aboard and they crammed themselves mostly into the frontmost benches, two to a bench, while each of us foreigners hogged a whole three foot bench to ourselves towards the back. All of our backpacks were piled up in front of a wall at the rear of the cabin. Behind the (thin) wall was the deafening engine room and just beyond that a small cubicle with a hole cut in the floor of the boat which served as the toilet. Believe it or not, all of this was actually better then we had expected as we had heard from other travellers that there were no seats at all on the boat and we would have to stake out space on the deck. As we were all settling in trying to figure out some remotely comfortable position, I half-expected long oars to be handed out and a large bald man in a loin cloth beating a drum to appear at the front of the cabin to keep us in time.
During the ride we became acquainted with another couple sitting near us on the boat, Andrew and Suzie from Australia. They were on a similar several month trip and we swapped stories and travel advice.
For the next few hours we cruised down the river with nothing better to do but chat, read, or just soak up the scenery. The Mekong runs for 4,800 kilometers from the mountainous Tibetan Plateau in China down through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. It is the twelfth longest river in the world. Along this stretch of northern Laos, the river is quite wide and the banks on either side quickly give rise to verdant hills. We passed several small villages along the way, usually with children splashing around in the water using plastic jugs tied to their arms as "floaties", a few fishing boats, and the occasional herd of water buffalo.
One of our stops was at a riverside 'rest area', which consisted of a few stalls constructed of bamboo poles and multicolored tarpaulins. I jumped off the boat onto the muddy bank to stretch my legs and wandered around the stalls looking for our new favorite fruit, the lychee. I didn't find any, but was engaged in attempted conversation by one of the young vendors and his friends. I used our Lao phrasebook but didn't get much farther than "Hello" and "My name is...". In the end, he ended pouring me some very warm Beer Lao (the ubiquitous local brew), which I drank, much to their delight and amusement.
Late in the afternoon the boat docked at the small riverside town of Pakbeng. We all donned our backpacks and trudged up a hill towards the main street of the town, guesthouse touts scurrying around us promising fabulous luxuries such as mosquito nets. Along with Andrew and Suzie, we looked at a couple of places which were passed up because of price, unacceptable level of toilet cleanliness, or opium-pushing owners before settling in at the Dok Khoune Guest House. We spent the evening talking in the hotel's small restaurant which had a good view overlooking the muddy, swirling waters of the Mekong. For dinner I tried what the guidebook described as one of Laos' national dishes - 'laap lao', translated on the menu in English as 'spicy pork salad'. And that it was - minced pork cooked with mint leaves and some kind of spice that gave it a real kick. I finished all of it, but was praying that I wouldn't wake up in the middle of the night with serious gastrointestinal distress...
In the morning we boarded the boat once again and resumed our positions on the wooden benches for another day of plodding down the Mekong. The day was once again slow and lazy with nothing much to do but gaze out the windows and read. I took advantage of the opportunity to finally finish Tolstoy's War and Peace which I had been reading for more than two months!
We arrived at the pier in Luang Prabang by midafternoon and along with Andrew and Suzie made our way to the Phathasouphone Guest House where Sue worked her bargaining magic and settled us into two decent 30,000 kip (about US$3) rooms.
The city of Luang Prabang, once the capital of Lane Xang ("Kingdom of a Million Elephants"), is now more of Laos' spiritual center. The city is dotted with many Buddhist temples and saffron-robed monks are a common sight on the town's streets. Luang Prabang is one of the country's larger cities, but in Lao terms that means it's still kind of a small town with a distinct small town vibe. It's a great place to spend a few days.
Towards evening we walked up the 239 steps to Wat Chom Phousi atop a large hill called Mount Phousi in the center of town. Along with a good showing of the other foreigners in town that day, we watched the sun set below the hills beyond the Mekong River. The twilight reflected off of the many golden stupas of the area's wats, providing a picturesque view of the city. For dinner we headed down to a place called Nizam's for some really good Indian food.
Across the border; view from our hotel window in Huay Xay: Laos (near side), Mekong River, Thailand (far side)
"Guest house rules", Sawbaydee Guest House, Huay Xay
Saying goodbye to Captain Davidson, Huay Xay
Waiting for the slow boat on the Mekong, Huay Xay
Riverside rest area along the Mekong
The placid Mekong in the afternoon
Main street (notice the satellite dishes), Pakbeng
View of the Mekong from the Dok Khoune Guest House, Pakbeng
Along the Mekong River (1)
Along the Mekong River (2)
Along the Mekong River (3)
Along the Mekong River (4)
Along the Mekong River (5)
Along the Mekong River (6)
Along the Mekong River (7)
Along the Mekong River (8)
Along the Mekong River (9)
Along the Mekong River (10)
Along the Mekong River (11)
View over the Nam Khan River, Luang Prabang
Rooftop of Wat Chom Phousi atop Mount Phousi, Luang Prabang
Westward view from Wat Chom Phousi (note golden stupa across Nam Khan River), Luang Prabang