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Laos Letters

Up
Mekong River
Luang Prabang
Luang Namtha
Northern Laos

Mekong River

Dear Friends and Family,

Ahhh.  Mother Mekong.  Just the name of the river conjures images of traditional life in SE Asia.  We were thrilled to learn that it's still possible to travel in (somewhat) traditional style down this twisting, muddy brown river all the way from the Thai border to the historic city of Luang Prabang.  With that goal in mind, we set off on our SE Asia Land Adventures.

Long-boats lined up on the Mekong
Long-boats lined up on the Mekong
Inside of our long-boat
Inside of our long-boat

We flew Air Asia from Johor Bahru to Kuala Lumpur, then to Chiang Mai, Thailand.  Having visited Chiang Mai in 2007 we slept just one night and took the bus to Chiang Rai, a good jumping off point for Northern Laos.

Our long-boat looked much like this
Our long-boat looked much like this
Deforestation was all too commonly evident
Deforestation was all too commonly evident

From Chiang Rai there is a bus direct to the new Laos border crossing which opened in April 2014.  The bus dropped us on the side of the big street where tuk‑tuks awaited and charged an exorbitant price for a 5 minute ride to the huge impressive structure that houses the new Thai Customs/Immigration.  Outside, further transport was pre-orchestrated in special minivans that took us across the new Friendship Bridge, including a fancy switching of lanes at midpoint, so that the left driving vehicles (Thailand) moved to the right (for Laos).  At the Get Visa on Arrival window we presented applications, passports, passport photos, US$45 each and we were all set.  We were the only foreigners that morning, so all went fast.  Once in Laos, more pre-arranged tuk‑tuks lined up to take us into Huay Xai town, which was too far to walk.

Isolated fishing village climbing up the hillside
Isolated fishing village climbing up the hillside
Fishing villages were very rustic, using local materials
Fishing villages were very rustic, using local materials

We chose to stay in the center of little Huay Xai, which meant we did a lot of walking back and forth to the boat landing, about 20 minutes each way.  We bought a phone SIM right in town at a little shop/telecom place for a buck or so and then put money on it, so the Nokia had a Laos number.

Local fishing boats were common on the Mekong
Local fishing boats were common on the Mekong
Water taxis were also quite common - note engine behind driver
Water taxis were also quite common - note engine behind driver

We hung out with fellow travelers for beers at the Riverside Guesthouse and sussed out the slow‑boat tickets, which we learned were not on sale until 8am the following day.  We arranged to have sandwiches made in the morning, and then hit small shops for juice, water, and chips for the boat ride.

Our midway stop at Pak Beng - note other long-boats on right
Our midway stop at Pak Beng - note other long-boats on right
Good western breakfasts were a treat
Good western breakfasts were a treat

Our room came with breakfast: eggs, sausage, coffee and bread.  So we took it at 7am, and Sue walked to the boat landing office while Jon stayed behind to get organized and check out.  Being the first to arrive at the little ticket kiosk on the hill above the long boats, we were sold seats 01 and 02 (at ~US$23 each).  The boat lay along the riverbank with dozens of others, and was reached by tilting, broken concrete stairs.  These longboats are notorious for having very uncomfortable wooden plank seats, but many now have forward facing car seats.  Our boat was a combination of the two, with car seats to the rear.  Although we were told that only 35 seats were taken (out of 80), a huge crowd of travelers arrived at 11am, having just crossed from Thailand.  Soon they were ignoring the seat numbers and plunking themselves wherever they wished in the front, side facing, best seats, showing a lot of bad attitude.  So we snagged 2 seats right by the entry door where there was leg room, and watched in dismay as more jammed aboard, until folks were complaining about no seats left.  The last 10 backpackers had to sit in the engine room on the floor where the boatman's family lives.  Noisy and hot!

Long-boats lined up at the Pak Beng waterfront for day #2
Long-boats lined up at the Pak Beng waterfront for day #2
Our single 6 cylinder turbo diesel - note offering
Our single 6 cylinder turbo diesel - note offering

The mud-brown Mekong was narrower than we imagined, at times less than 100m wide, often forging its way between up-thrust black rocks and white sandy beaches.  The water is shallow enough that we sometimes had to shoot rapids a dodgy business in a boat that handles like a hog on ice.  We loved the amazing display of ability by the boatmen to maneuver this 120' (38 meter) monster long‑boat.

Fishermen checking nets & pots
Fishermen checking nets & pots
These freighters carry heavy goods up the rapids!
These freighters carry heavy goods up the rapids!

The hills rose green and beautiful to the sides, though there is sadly much evidence of clear cutting the teak forest.  Where there was no logging disturbance the hills were clothed in lush bamboo jungle hiding small bamboo homes on steep hillsides.  Fishermen cast nets in the river and smaller vessels like flat-bottomed skiffs plied the sometimes swiftly flowing river.

Sue had lots of fun photographing the Mekong
Sue had lots of fun photographing the Mekong
White & black water-buffalo played & wallowed in the river
White & black water-buffalo played & wallowed in the river

We arrived at the village of Pak Beng (meaning the confluence of the Beng River) about 5pm.  We were the first ashore, having nothing to carry but day packs(!), and were met by gentle guest house owners who showed us photos of the rooms with prices for a/c or fan only.  We chose one high on the bank up river from the landing, with a balcony overlooking the Mekong.  After showers we ambled along the short street of Pak Beng and found an Indian restaurant that looked and smelled so yummy.  Strange to go for Indian on our second night in Laos, but we gave ourselves a treat.  It was awesome.

Following another long-boat through some rapids
Following another long-boat through some rapids
Beautiful scenery, but rocks often narrowed the river a lot
Beautiful scenery, but rocks often narrowed the river a lot

The second day on the river was less crowded as they put on a second boat, which was taking locals and their cargo goods to the city.  If you want an uncrowded ride on the Mekong, the way to go is from Luang Prabang up river to the Thai border.  That boat had only 4 passengers!  When we shoved off at 9am, both south-bound boats were comfortably not full.  We claimed seats right behind the helmsman and his assistant.  It was a great view of the river, and we got lots of photos.

The helm station, with the pilot on the left
The helm station, with the pilot on the left
Kids are kids everywhere. These made their fun in the river.
Kids are kids everywhere. These made their fun in the river.

When we arrived in Luang Prabang, it looked like we were in the middle of nowhere.  The longboat just swept into the bank below one small house.  Another unscheduled stop, we thought.  But no, this was Luang Prabang!  A steep, sandy path led up from the river to a small road.  This new boat landing is 6 miles (10 km) from town and the tuk tuk drivers have really cornered the market, demanding about $2.50 each to get to town.  Some of the travelers refused to pay, and began walking.  Apparently if you walk about 5 minutes to a residential area you can get to town for ~$0.70.

When the banks got low we could see the mountains beyond
When the banks got low we could see the mountains beyond
Our pretty dinner sunset overlooking the Mekong
Our pretty dinner sunset overlooking the Mekong

We were dropped in the center of Luang Prabang, (which is a UNESCO Heritage Site), right by the tourist info bureau (which was closed for the day), and we accepted an offer to see Soutikone II Guesthouse a few blocks away.  The young man gave Sue a ride on his scooter, and Jon followed on foot.  It had a/c rooms on the second floor with no view, but WiFi and hot water for ~$7.50.  That evening we walked to the main part of town (4 long blocks) and found an amazing restaurant right over the Mekong (Kham Khem LP Restaurant) and had flavorful, not spicy green curry and a stir fry with wonderful herbs, lemon and mint.  We enjoyed our first Beer Lao and enjoyed the refreshing lemon shakes.  It was quite a romantic setting on the Mekong.  We walked thru the night market where long tables of prepared food were spread in open buffets, and most of the other boat travelers were congregated there.  To us it seemed noisy, airless and hot.  It may have been cheaper than the riverside restaurant, but without the ambiance!

Fair winds and calm seas -- Jon and Sue Hacking

Laos Letters: Up | Mekong River | Luang Prabang | Luang Namtha | Northern Laos

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