Our travels in Laos were topped and tailed by adventures on the mighty Mekong River. They began with a two day slow-boat trip from the Thai boarder town of Chiang Kong downstream to Luang Prabang and ended, almost a month later, with us relaxing amongst the 4,000 islands. An impressive journey in its own right, though it was our new travelling friends that made it into the great adventure.
“Life is a musical thing and you’re supposed to sing or dance along the way.” Alan Watts
Our thanks go out to; Bobbits (Lauren), Lenin (Tony) and ‘Team Gallway’; Colin “The Best Fun I’ve Ever Had Ever And I’m Not Joking” McGrath, Mariluz (Mari-looser) and Mariona (Mari-winner) for all the fun and craziness.
Staying at a lovely riverside guesthouse in Chiang Khong we gazed over the Mekong River from Thailand into Laos. The mysterious and magical landscape of undulating hills lit by moonlight sparked our imaginations about what wonders we might find beyond this watery boundary.
It is not hard to visualise the beauty to behold in Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia or Vietnam since endless talented photographers have splashed rich imagery of paddy fields, palm trees and colourful textiles across countless books and magazine spreads. Laos, however, was not so vividly known to us through image or article and so retained an mystery about its landscape, people and culture. Having spent only a few weeks over-landing through Singapore, Malaysia and Northern Thailand it was difficult to anticipate how Laos would differ from our initially brief SEA experience. Though genuinely a little wary of stepping into this unknown territory and with only a sketchy plan for a two day trip down the Mekong River we threw caution to the wind and ventured forth into Laos.
The entire guesthouse rose early, happy and excited. Gifted with lunch packs, water bottles and cushions for the wooden seats of the slow boat we all loaded into the back of a pickup with luggage pilled high between us. At this moment fate played a hand and this truck load of people became our travel companions for the entirety of our Laos experience and we soon became ‘friends beyond borders’.
Crossing into Laos – visa on arrival
With little fuss this amazingly simple task was executed at the small visa-on-arrival and passport office by at the riverside. All that was required were a passport and mug shot each and the requested amount of local currency. With protocol completed we transferred quickly by tuk-tuk to the boat departure point a little downstream. Great swathes of tourists amassed and were summarily gouged for refreshments by local newsagents. However the cafe atmosphere was bathed in early morning sun which did much to relax everyone and precipitate chatting.
All passports had to be verified by the police here so unnervingly we all handed our passports over to our guide, not something that ever comes easily to someone on foreign soil. The only comfort was the number of tourists ‘in the same boat’ so to speak! We waited anxiously for their safe return as the guides casually wandered around grasping stacks of passports.
In due course we herded down the rucksack strewn boat ramp and joined the throngs of tourists queuing to board. I have learnt that waiting and queuing are part and parcel of travelling and therefore should be calmly accepted, within reason. I quickly learnt that you can never predict what your actual journey will entail only that you will get to your destination eventually, hopefully in the near future, and generally all the richer for the experience. Time duly passed and with no progress being made I had a feeling we were now probably ‘on Laos time’. Slightly bemused by the delay, but patiently English about queuing we all waited. Old habits die hard!
Slowly tongues started wagging and it became clear that this was in fact a protest! Tourist were voting with their feet to force a second slow-boat to be provided rather than cramming us all onto one. As was had tickets for the currently empty boat we made a run for it, the best you can with a 23kg backpack and the rest! It was worth the energy expenditure as we secured ourselves the few padded car seats at the back so no sore bums or cushions required for us!
Along the Mekong River – Day 1
The impressively long Mekong River flows from the mountains of China through Thailand before entering Northern Laos where it follows closely to the Western boarder all the way to the 4,000 islands in the South before flowing into Cambodia and through the Mekong Delta in Southern Vietnam, exiting into the South China Sea.
Life on the river
Crammed with tourists and a sprinkling of friendly locals the slow boat became a lively place. We had such fun sharing food with the Laotians and gesticulating to overcome the large language barrier. At the back of the boat the motor was particularly loud and smelly even though a mountain of luggage muffled some of the machinery. The noise did not prevent the ebb and flow of chatter though or the inevitable drift of passengers in and out of consciousness as the countless hills slowly blended together and silently slipped by.
Travelling on the river provides an idyllic window into the beautifully untouched landscape and tribal culture of rural Laos. Children play on small but perfectly formed stretches of white sand dotted along the river bank. Fishing rods glisten as they dip into the fast waters is search of a bite from a hungry Mekong Fish. Communities of simple huts perch on hillsides surrounded by breathtaking views and bountiful indigenous forest. People may look on their lives as poor by western standards, but I think wealth is relative. These people to me are richer in life than all those who chase only financial wealth as a route to happiness.
Overnight in Pak Beng
Though the days travel had brought with it new found friends and a glimpse into the treasures of Laos, as the sun set I felt more than ready to disembark for the night. Blessed with a constant flow of tourists onto its banks every evening Pak Beng has seemingly won the lottery from a prosperity point of view. Never-the-less this small town lacks any panache that would normally be associated with such a place and instead of becoming a tourist haven it has become a conman’s one. Scams are rife and illegal drugs too.
Secure in the knowledge of the potential pitfalls ‘our mob’ quickly negotiated accommodation up the hill. Funnily enough, but not at all surprisingly, on our arrival at the guesthouse the price had suddenly increased! We quickly quashed this firmly by sticking to our agreed price. Eventually they kept to their word. That night we celebrated Mariluz’s birthday with dinner overlooking the river. To my great amusement ‘happy meals’ were on the menu which were summarily declined by the entire party. Knowing the sever penalties for drug taking in these parts you would be a fool to indulge. Despite our hosts suspicious nature and frequent room inspections ‘Bob Marley’ did not make any appearance that night. We gave our time over to having a great laugh with plenty of drinking, smoking, card playing (and nudity in parts)!
Along the Mekong River – Day 2
Despite the antics we rose early to secure good seats again as the Lonely Planet advised. Dragging ourselves into the vertical position, despite the inevitable hangovers, was not fun. Though further torture was to come when we were subjected to watching and waiting for the slowest sandwich-maker in history make our lunch. A dose of strong Laos coffee was administered and we finally left this grotty place and headed down to the boat for 7am. Our effort was again rewarded as we secured the only comfortable seats onboard. Happy days. Now we slipped into our seats and slowly woke up whilst on the river itself (though for some the bobbing up and down was not ideal!). As others scrambled to get a wooden seat and stow their cumbersome rucksacks, I was happy to photographically exploit the ‘golden hours’. We departed around 8am.
The scenery started out much the same on day two so alternative entertainment was gleaned from books, iPods, cameras, playing cards and chit chat as others plugged in their earplugs to drown out the increased background noise. Periodically we could hear the determined negotiations of disgruntled passengers who’d been short-changed by the greedy onboard shop assistant. As the day slipped by and hangovers subsided our smiles reappeared. Dusk arrived and so did we in Luang Prabang.
James follows the backpacker trail into Luang Prabang
Overall our group all enjoyed the Mekong trip and I would recommend it. I believe there are more luxurious places to stay on the Mekong, but obviously this is relative to your budget and not ours! My suggestions for maximising enjoyment is arriving early to secure a good seat (photographically and shelter from the sun), bringing food and water provisions onboard, a cushion and lots of entertainment and perhaps a hangover cure or sea-sickness pills for day 2!
*See the next post for our time in Luang Prabang and journey south through Laos.*
Journey’s end – The 4,000 Islands
As our month in Laos came to a close we happily came back to the Mekong River for another dose of fun and relaxation to round off the trip. Festooned throughout the southern meanderings of the Mekong River are many beautiful and largely untouched islands of varying sizes; some large enough to support villages, temples and tourists too.
Taking up our friends’ recommendation we first stopped off for some quiet time before rejoining the group on another island. Though we were having a blast travelling en mass, it was good to have some ‘Mummy and Daddy time’ too! The minivan from Pakse dropped us at the riverside where a local boatman took us over to our guesthouse on the island shore opposite. He gave such a good sales pitch for his river boat tours using good English and a non pushy tone that we booked his services for our trip downstream in a couple of days.
Don Khong is a relatively large island though easily explorable by bike. With a wonderfully peaceful vibe it is easy to tap into the relaxed pace of island life. Life here is simple with farming as the source of sustainability. Villages formed of raised wooden houses dot the landscape, though these villagers are surprisingly well connected with the outside world through satellite and the internet!
Free to roam the island or cyberspace
We enjoyed the simple life here. Cycling about amongst the rice paddies watching water-buffalo wading and grazing in the heat of the day, exploring local villages and dining at the waters edge. Romantic.
Life in the river
Travelling down river here was a special experience. Much less touristy than the northern Mekong and with many more villages draped down to the waters edge you get to see a rich tapestry of life on the river. Fishing boats and nets festoon the riverbank, small allotments grow well next to the waterside, clothes and people wash in the river and water buffalo roam free. Traditional boats navigate up and downstream transporting villagers too and fro and sometimes Monks who cover their faces from the unrepentant spray.
Our destination was the sunrise side of Don Dhet. This is the place to swing lazily in a hammock on a private balcony of your own bamboo bungalow overlooking the Mekong, or so we thought. My description is in essence true only the huts were more basic than anyone could imagine. There was finesse about this wooden bed box with no door handle and a trunk style latch with small padlock for security. The string hammock was very uncomfortable for anything over a few minutes and the facilities were a dark cold shower and squat toilet in a tin and breezeblock construction across the path beside the owners home. Still for two quid a night who’s complaining and our friends were here!
Sunrise over our bungalow and cocktails at sunset
For a while we had fun staying within the village setting, one night splashing out and enjoying a simply delicious Belgium meal at the Sunset Restaurant, though after a few days this corridoresque living arrangement became very claustrophobic and we moved on.
Don Khone was to be our last destination in Laos and it was much more our scene and my favourite island. Here the accommodation was more integrated into village life, rather than taking over from it. Locals played badminton at our guesthouse in the afternoons, school children road bikes to and from school, monks collected alms and cats, dogs, chickens and water-buffalo all roamed freely. Tourists here do not out-number locals. Perfect.
We hired bikes again and rode to the local beach to catch some rays. The bikes were really decrepit and though I started with one brake I soon had none! Lenin’s chain kept coming off and Bobbits bike was just as crazy as she. Still we managed to cycle there and back along the sand pathways, via an impressive waterfall, with no major traumas and above all had fun. I wouldn’t recommend taking the trip to see the larger waterfall from here though, although impressive the trip to the mainland is long and it was a major tourist trap which made it rather unpleasant to hang around.
From here we made the long trip across to Siem Reap in Cambodia, via Phnom Penh. While only $19 by bus it is a journey not for the travel weary, but a necessary evil to spend our last days with our buddies and celebrate Christmas at Angkor Wat! We literally danced across the border hand in hand and gave Laos one last longing look and our journey here was complete. We still miss Laos and would go back in a heartbeat!