general travel

downriver on the mekong

Sleeping lightly, I’m woken by the roosters. They start at 4am – apparently they haven’t heard that they’re supposed to crow at dawn. Later, on the boat, I overhear a couple of English guys: “Were we camped next to a bloody farm or something? The bloody roosters didn’t shut up all night!”

We pile onto the boat at 8am, along with a hoard of others, mainly coming down the river from the Thai border. As we sit for a couple of hours, waiting for all of the idiots with no temporal awareness to finally show up, I am amused by a group of German cyclists – they get their bicycles safely loaded onto our boat, use their bags to reserve lots of spare seats for themselves and get settled. Twenty minutes later, one of them decides to ask us where the boat is going. “Luang Prabang… downriver”. Ah, they want to head up river. Queue another twenty minutes of them getting themselves and their luggage unloaded, and with all parties concerned having only minimal English, trying to use sign language to convey to the Laos boat guys that they want their bicycles off the roof of this boat, and onto the roof of the other boat.

Riverboat on the Mekong, Pak Beng, Laos


The boat finally heads off down river. And the scenery stays the same. Muddy river, rocks, some trees. People fishing. Occasionally people washing and swimming. Crops grown on the sandy shoreline. Meanwhile on the boat, the English, US, and one Scottish guy all band together drinking Beer Laos.

Finally, as the sun has just set, we arrive back in Luang Prabang. Fighting all the touts offering guest houses and tuk tuks and god knows what else, we make our way up to the street, and collapse at the guesthouse.

Sunset over the Mekong from the slow boat, Laos


general travel

alarming the locals in pak beng

Having a thirteen year old guide book can sometimes lead to pleasant surprises. We expected the bus drive from Udomxai to Pak Beng to take around seven hours. Seven hours of being cramped on a tiny mini-bus, the aisles filled with plastic seats, and the leg space designed for people with much less leg than either of us had. But hoorah, we arrived in Pak Beng after only three hours. We wander down to the Mekong and confirm we are indeed already at Pak Beng, then go forth on the hunt for fruit shakes.


The main street, Pak Beng, Laos


Alas, they don’t have electricity during the day, so we can’t have shakes. We meet Lai, who is hanging out at his restaurant, practising his French by talking to a Spanish photographer. He makes us juice, and tells us about a good spot to swim in the river. Just three or four kilometres out of town, and the locals go down there and play soccer in the afternoon as well (try outs for the local team).


Feral puppy, Pak Beng, Laos


We wander out there at four, and the further we get from the main part of town by the river, the crazier the reaction to us is. Most tourists seem to just stop off for one night on their way down to Luang Prabang from the border with Thailand. So the villages a few kilometres out of town don’t see so many foreigners. Kids come running out of their houses to yell Sabaidee! at us, and we have a posse following us through town, demanding in authoritative manners “HELLO!” “WHERE YOU GO?” “WHAT IS YOUR NAME?” “WHERE YOU FROM?”.


Village kids, Pak Beng, Laos


At the river there are hoards of Laos doing laundry and bathing. We swim, then everyone gets treated to the spectacle of a 6 foot something white guy playing soccer with a hoard of Laos guys who are all about a foot shorter than him. I sit on the sidelines with an ever increasing contingent of local boys next to me.

With soggy clothes and the sun sunken behind the hills, we start the long walk back home in the increasingly chilly air. We’ve not gone more than a few hundred metres when a group of kids on mopeds come up to us. They stop and offer us a ride. Hoorah! I jump on the back of one of the mopeds, Corey ends up driving the other with the Laos kid on the back, and we all zoom together through the villages, with all the Laos laughing at us as we fly past.


Playing football, Pak Beng, Laos


We eat all of our meals in Pak Beng at Lai’s. The sign out the front proclaims “Good Food. Good Conversation… My Wife is a VERY Good Cook”. He tells us the story of how he was travelling around Laos, and happened to stop and have some noodle soup at a little place in Pak Beng. That was how he met his wife, and apparently the noodle soup was so good that he decided he would have to stay and marry her. The meals I ate there were definitely my favourites of the trip, so it was a reasonable decision on his part :)


Lai and his niece outside Lai’s restaurant, Pak Beng, Laos