Here we go…the main event of the day…boarding the boat for our 8 hour long sail (put put) down South East Asia’s longest and most important river, the Mekong. We will only be able to travel for around 6 or 7 hours before it gets too dark and hopefully we will reach Pakbeng (midway point) by then. Years ago, travellers would board cargo boats laden with chickens, rice and other produce and sail down the Mekong in cramped squalor. Nowadays, with a burgeoning backpacking scene the boats have been upgraded and we now sit in relative comfort (there’s a bar and even a toilet….although no one has ventured down to it to see what it’s like). Laos is landlocked and as such, the Mekong river is very important to the Laos people. They catch fish from it, transport their goods along it and use the water for irrigation. They even pan gold out of it!
Today, there are only 2 slow boats sailing down the river, each carrying about 100 passengers. After the 1st 30 minutes, the scenery is very familiar with lime stone cliffs, lush tree and vegetation covered hills and small camps dotted here and there with smoke rising up from a stove. It’s a hot day and those sat on the left hand side of the boat feel the heat and suns glare every now and then. The river is low at the moment, with the wet season coming soon, it will soon rise to its full level and be circa 200 meters wide. However today, our slow boat needs to carefully pick its way through rocks jutting out of the river from all sides. Many people opt for a speed boat down the Mekong but this is just sheer suicide as the speedboats roar down the river at such speed and are so low, it’s very hard for them to see the rocks. A number of them have passed us so far this afternoon and they look pretty dangerous and very bumpy. Most people on them are wearing crash helmets.
The tone of our boat is quite with most people having seen the river for an hour, deciding to try and catch some sleep to make the journey pass quicker.
By 6pm, the suns going down and our river cruise has a little chill to it. In the distance however, we see signs of life, a few buildings are scattered on the hillside and soon, the small mountain town of Pakbeng is revealed. Everyone on the boat is excited as the trip has taken just under 6 hours which is 2 hours better than we were led to believe it would take.
Offloading the boat is a disorganised affair with backpacks being thrown off to local children who want to carry them up the hill for a few thousand Laos kips. Eventually ours come off and we take them ourselves and pull them up through the towns steep Main Street. Half way up, we find our guest house (Monesvahn). It’s easy to find as we know its just across for the bakery of the same name. Lisa walks into the bakery by mistake and tries to check in! The owner has no record of our name other than we booked it 2 days ago via Agoda. It’s no problem he says as he takes a photograph of the Agoda email I show him on my iPad. The room is clean, it’s has a basin, toilet and gas fired shower (took a while to work out how to spark it up to get hot water!) and it has a communal balcony running the length of the 1st floor with chairs and tables on it so we can sit down, take advantage of the brilliantly fast wifi and watch the locals / tourists on the street below.
We head out for our first Loa beer…… …imaginatively called Beerlao! It’s not too bad. After which, we find a little restaurant near our guest house and we have a nice dish of sweet and sour pork / chicken and coconut milk with garlic and shallots…..accompanied by a tub of extremely sticky rice! It’s pretty odd being in a town where you recognise a fair number of the tourists. As we’ve all been on the same route since Chain Mai, we’ve begun to recognise a number of people. We’ve tried to speak to as many people as we can just to share stories and that’s been fun. We had a beer with the two young lads from Southampton last night (Aaron and Tom) and they were telling us how their guesthouse was a nightmare and within 5 minutes of checking in, the owner was trying to sell them opium and marijuana. Pakbeng is filled with 200+ new faces every day as people just pass through ‘en route’ to Luang Prabang and as such, it probably doesn’t have to try too hard as it doesn’t benefit from repeat customer. however, some guest houses have become internet savvy and now realise the potential of good remarks on hotel review websites. After dinner we head back to the guesthouse for some sleep.
We’re told to be back on the boat by 9am the following morning. True to form, we’re there early getting some good seats. For some reason, we’ve jumped onto a smaller boat this morning (we were told to get back on the same boat but the smaller one looked nicer). All the boats are going to Luang Prabang so it doesn’t really matter. A number of the people that we have been speaking to are on this boat so that’s fine. At 9.15, there is still a steady stream of backpackers making their way down the hill to the boats…..they have learned that nothing leaves on time so they can afford to be a bit late and still catch the boat.
It’s colder this morning and many of the tourists on the boat reach for their hoodies or jackets. We share a shirt as it’s a little bit cooler than yesterday….mind you, it is earlier. At 9.30 the boat departs and off we go….. 7 hours+ to Luang Prabang.
Over the last 6 hours, the view has remained pretty much the same, 200 meter wide river with the odd boat here and there and every now and then a small cluster of simple huts where people work and live. We’ve made a number of stops to let the locals on and off with their goods. Slowly the view has changed and now we have a wider river, dotted with more rocks and the backdrop has changed to a larger mountain scene. Slightly warm air blows through the boat keeping us nicely fresh, it’s neither too hot nor too cold. We are all debating how long it will take to arrive in Luang Prabang….we’re six hours in and some think it may be as much as nine hours. 7.5 hours in and we suddently notice more and more buildings coming into view…..signs of life abound….this looks like it…….Welcome to Luang Prabang!