Up the Mekong
Sitting in Louang Prabang I thought about my options, either north or south. So far I had not been impressed by Laos (actually, I was completely turned off) so my choice was the north. By going north we could cross into Thailand within three days. The problem with Laos is really specific to my nature. I am a long-term traveler and Laos, and especially Louang Prabang, is geared to tourists with deep pockets. From the moment I entered the country, at the Tray Trang crossing,and was told I couldn’t pee in the bushes, but had to use the bathroom (costing 1,000 kip) I knew things were amiss. I reconfirmed that feelings again and again, when asked a 3,000 kip stamp charge at the border, or the $15 surcharge at the Laos embassy in Hanoi for an advance visa, or the $1 ferry crossing at the end of the bus ride at Muang Kwa (free to locals), or the 6,000 kip shared tuk-tuk to the bus park outside of Muang Kwa (double the local rate), or the $10 minimum price per dump rooms in Louang Prabang, or the $25 per day scooter rentals, or the $12 per day bicycle rentals, and so on. In retrospect there wasn’t a single price that seemed reasonable. In every case the price was simply adjusted to the highest level that a rich foreign tourist might pay and the sad truth was that the town was full of tourists that paid happily. So I simply opted out by taking a long slow boat ride up the Mekong River to the border town of Houay Xai (after five visits to the ferry ticket office to finally get a 100,000 kip ticket, which was half the rate the guest house wished to sell it for).
Boat Day 1 Photos
Fortunately the boat ride was a pleasant counter-point to my time in Laos. In spite of the hard seats (only four soft seats that were claimed by tour agents who charged their clients double the going price); the boat was long and spacious. The locals moved all the backpacks to make room for their mats, so they could lie down and sleep, and we quickly caught on. We started moving the benches around to suit our needs and make floor space for napping and lounging. The atmosphere was un-hurried and laid back.
We pulled away from the sandy shore (no docks) around 9 am and started the intermittent race up river. The traffic on the Mekong is always busy since the river serves as the natural highway to the northwest part of the country, as it has for hundreds of years. I was originally concerned that the water levels might be too low at this time of year (the peak of the dry season) yet the volume of the river was quite impressive. What was even more impressive were the clear indications along the shore that the water level would rise as much as 20 meters during the wet season.
The day quickly became quite hot, but the constant breeze created by the moving boat provided some relief. After the initial excitement of the departure and the rearranging activity on the boat the passengers settled down to a more lethargic state and simply lounged, drank, read, ate, or napped. There was a small food stall on the boat that served drinks and instant noodles, as well as the standard western junk food alternatives. Fortunately Cristina and I had stocked up before the ride by purchasing Pepsi, fresh sandwiches, and fruit. So with ample supplies and time on our hands we napped, ate, took photos, and napped some more.
The shoreline continued to amaze as the boat wound its way up an endless series of s-curves to reveal sand beaches, double canopy jungle, scattered villages, strange large boulders, periodic rapids, water buffalo, and humanity in the midst of daily life. The river provided more than transportation. Clearly the streams that fed it provided water for farming and drinking, yet the river also provided fishing even thought the water looked thick and muddy. It also provided minerals as evidenced by the locals digging and panning (swirling water and sediment in large flat pans) for gold or gems.
As the day wore on the boat pulled up onto shore at intervals to unload supplies and local passengers. These stops were fast adrenaline filled moments as the driver (captain would be stretching the term) and crew used the motor and bamboo poles to land the craft and then depart without losing control to the swift currents.
By four in the afternoon the passengers were beginning to scan the horizon with enthusiasm. At this stage we all though we must be near our day’s destination of Pak Beng, a one-street town at the end of a road that leads to the interior. However, as the day wore on and the sun fell ever closer to the horizon our hopes were repeatedly dashed. Many times I sighted clusters of stilt houses and hoped that they were a precursor to the town, yet the river continued to churn along our gunnels as we wound our way ever higher and further to the north. Finally, as if choreographed, just as the sun touched the high slopes I spotted radio towers and the outline of a real town. So with much excitement from the passengers we approached a very high and steeply sloping bank with a cluster of boats and a few carved stone stairways leading up.
Clearly we were late and the concept of order did not apply in Pak Beng. We spent the next 30 minutes (and the remainder of daylight) hustling the boat back and forth in an effort to find a gap. Finally, after a bit of yelling, bumping, and gesticulating, a gap was created between two boats as we wedged our boat towards the embankment (almost).
Once the motors were cut we were invaded by touts trying to carry our luggage to shore. After a brief tug-o-war most of the backpacks were reclaimed and the disembarking began sporadically. I say sporadically because the boat was not actually docked, so we had to walk across planks, from boat to boat, as they bobbed in the current. Then when we did reach the last boat we had to cross a long skinny plank and jump to shore where we each had to cling to a rope and find our own footing up the sandy slope to reach the nearest stairway (about twenty meters away). All this while wearing our backpacks and in the dark to the merriment of the locals who played their flashlights over the area.
By the time we reached the top of the slope and the start of the single paved road that distinguished this town from the villages we had passed, I was ready and eager to find a room. Unfortunately our boat had been beaten to port by a very large tour group that dumped at least 100 backpack and luggage clad tourists ahead of us. So up the road we went until we had reached the far end and finally found a cardboard room for an unreasonably priced guesthouse (I was clearly still in Laos).
Dinner that night was brief and bedtime arrived quickly. Naturally there was a karaoke bar next door so sleep didn’t arrive as quickly as I had hoped. Yet morning did arrive quite quickly as the roosters began the morning ritual of crowing well before there was any sign of the sun.
I simply don’t understand where the myth of roosters crowing at dawn originated from. In no case did it apply to roosters in Southeast Asia. In every instance where a rooster was situated near a guesthouse (practically every guesthouse I stayed in) the roosters started crowing as early as 2am and as late as 4am. So by the time the sun came up we (and pretty much every other traveler) were up, packed and ready to move on. By 7 am we had already eaten breakfast and acquired our new supply of Pepsi and sandwiches for the next leg. We then went down to the port to find the boat to Houay Xai.
At the port I was directed to one of the two stone stairways and at the bottom found the correct boat and claimed one of the two front soft seat benches. I then spent the next hour on shore taking photos and directing travelers in the appropriate direction.
By 8:30am we had about half of the prior day’s westerners and about as many locals. Without fanfare the crew untied the boat and let the current back us out into the river, where the engines were applied and upstream we went.
Boat Day 2 Photos
As on the previous day, the morning seemed more exciting and filled with novel and rich images. Then the day got hotter, we got slower, ate, and then began the napping cycles as the boat wound its way around bends, competed with other boats through rapids, stopped to unload locals periodically, and whittled away the hours. The crew took turns driving the boat, and smoked continuously out of boredom.
Once again I marveled at the constant activity along the river, the fishing, the prospecting, the farming, the travel, the children swimming, and the boat traffic. We were on a super-highway made of muddy water and it was clear that the river was king in these parts.
By four in the afternoon the landscape had changed as the river got broader and shallower, and farming became more dominant (and burning). Thai shrines then began to appear at intervals. Clearly the river had turned again, and was now running along the border of Thailand. Surly we would reach our destination soon, yet it was clear that the crew had cut back the motor and we were proceeding slower. An English passenger commented that the Laos-Thailand border crossing at Houay Xai/Chang Kong closed at 6pm and it was rumored that these boats never reached the town before 6pm in order to ensure that the passengers spent at least one more night in Laos before fleeing to Thailand.
This rumor proved true as we slowed even more and then finally pulled into Houay Xai at 6:01pm. It was one more strike for the greedy land of Laos in my notebook.
We bustled off the boat without difficulty this time (a concrete landing area) and into the arms of the aggressive tuk-tuk drivers. We ignored them and walked up the hill to the road and began our search for a guesthouse and knew that we were only a wakeup away from easier travel.
We had made it up the Mekong, an old dream of mine. It had taken two long, languid days on the big river and we were now within reach of Thailand and escape from Laos. It had been an appropriate way out.
A day of Statues
Oh and while hanging around town we decided to visit the local temps and reach the highest point in town.