Life on the Mighty Mekong

Trip Start Sep 21, 2008
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Trip End Jun 19, 2009


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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Friday, March 27, 2009

Today the Mighty Mekong was on the agenda.  We woke after a restless night's sleep in Huay Xia- partly due to a hard bed and pillow, partly due to a thunderstorm, and partly because we (I at least) were excited to take this trip and didn't want to miss the boat!  We decided to buy our tickets at the boat ramp to try and save some kip, and the best information we had was that the boat would leave at 8 am, or maybe it was 10:30, or perhaps 11:30.  So we decided it would be best to get there early to catch the first boat.  Breakfast was at 6:30am.  We had also prearranged with the restaurant to make us sandwiches for lunch.  Some eggs and some tarry Laos coffee and we were off in a songthiew (that's a mini truck with the back converted for passengers) for the 1K trip to the boat ramp.
 
Huay Xia was just waking up.  Restaurants and small food/grocery stalls were setting up for the day and kids were getting ready for school.  Everyone was preparing for the daily ritual of tourists arriving and stocking up for supplies for the boat trip.  It was their only form of tourism and there were things to sell.  Somehow everyone had to find a way to capitalize on the tourists - to buy their goods, to take a ride.  The small sum they made from a few bags of chips or a cup of coffee might be the only money they would make that day.
 
We arrived at the boat ramp, clearly ahead of the crowds.  In fact, except for a few locals, there wasn't much of anyone around.  We asked about boat tickets, but few of the locals spoke or understood much English.  Through a few hand signals and some pointing (and a little English), we figured out that the tickets for the boat were purchased on top of the hill, the office opened at 8am, and oh, by the way, there was only one boat leaving today - at 11:00am!  We were also showed our boat for the trip - a simple wooden boat with a roof, some converted van seats in the front (premium seats) and lines of narrow wooden benches in the back. 
 
So at this point, it was 7:15 and we had four hours to kill.  We grabbed our gear and had a seat in front of the ticket office.  To our surprise, a man arrived at 7:30 am to sell tickets.  We bought the tickets for 200,000 kip ($25USD) each buying them at the boat ramp (a 30,000 kip savings each - about $3.50 - compared to the agency cost).  As we were about to leave, the man selling tickets had a use for our 30,000 kip.  We could buy the comfortable seats at the front of the boat.  Paul quickly decided we needed those seats and I agreed.  Somehow neither of us could see how we would endure two days of 6-plus hours a day on the hard wooden benches (even though we had purchased the obligatory cushions in town). 
 
We pulled out our wallet to pay, but realized we didn't have enough kip, and our man's offer of change in kip at a shady conversion rate just wasn't working for us.  So we asked for our Baht back -- which he reluctantly pulled out of his own wallet - and decided to walk back into town to get more kip from the ATM.  The man kindly said he'd hold our seats for us and helped us get on the boat, stow our backpacks and save our seats with our small backpacks and pillows.  We then collectively decided that Paul would stay put to watch our gear and take photos, and I would walk back to the ATM.  After all, we had almost four hours to spare.
 
I took the easy trek back into the center of town (easy now that I didn't have 30+ kilos of luggage strapped to my back).  ON the way I dodged motorbikes and cars as they made their way through the streets.  Like most Asian countries, pedestrians in Laos don't have the right away - in fact they barely have any rights!  I arrived at the ATM only to find it "down for maintenance," so I headed back to the boat ramp kipless.  It was a great opportunity to watch life in this tiny town.  As I walked I thought about the scams I had read about in the guidebooks, and advice about the boat and the seats all being the same price, so it was important to get to the boat ramp early to get the good seats!  Apparently Paul had been thinking the same thing, because when I got back he expressed his suspicion about our little man tucking the cash we gave him in his wallet, not the money box.  So we decided right then that we weren't paying until we confirmed the extra cost with someone else.  Our friend came back to collect his money, and at the mention of scam and a request for a seat, he got oddly quiet and never asked for more money again.  We confirmed the scam when some other tourists arrived with a guide who recommended they get on the boat right away to get the good seats because it was first come, first served.
 
So now an hour passed since we arrived at the boat dock.  It was another 30 minutes more before any more passengers arrived.  Slowly but surely as time passed, more passengers arrived and got settled for the journey.  Each one dropped their shoes at the entrance to the boat as requested by the crew, so a shoe pile got bigger and bigger as departure time got closer (we grabbed our shoes and tucked them under our seats.)  We whiled away the time getting to know some of the other passengers and watching life on the Mekong as locals passed in boats, arrived at the ramp with supplies in tow or pulled up in a canoe or houseboat.
 
Our boat was more than simply a boat taking tourists on a two-day trip to Luang Prabang, it was also the lifeblood between villages along the Mekong.  Numerous locals boarded the boat as well.  Many were carrying rice and fruit and vegetables.  Some supplies were loaded on top, and others were placed wherever they would fit inside the boat.  Apparently there is an unwritten rule that the seats are for tourists (probably because the locals pay significantly less for the journey), because they mostly settled on floor mats at the front of the boat.  We knew we'd seen it all when a local lady walked up carrying a kitchen sink, which was loaded up on the top of the boat for the journey to her village!
 
Finally it was 11:00 - departure time!  We had a fairly full boat, but everyone was able to settle comfortably, many with a seat to themselves.  But we didn't move, and more time went by.  Then suddenly a pack of tourists arrived at the top of the hill - 4, 5, 10 at most.  Now we knew why we had been waiting.  They headed down the hill to board, and as they made their way down, you could see more tourists behind them.  There must have been 20-30 more!  Amazingly they all found a spot on the boat and their luggage was tucked away, and finally at 11:30 we were off.  All Paul and I could think about was how thankful we were that we got up early for the comfortable seats.  Today was a6-7 hour journey to our overnight stop in Pakbeng!
 
The Mekong River is a wide, muddy river flanked by rocky banks, sand bars and high hills.  We were taking our journey during the dry season, so we could see the many water lines on the rocks, marking the various river heights during the year.  There were often rock formations jutting out of the water and splitting the river in two briefly - rocks that were certainly hidden below the surface in the dry season.  There were also wide sandy shores that clearly were river bed in the high water season. 
 
Beyond the banks were craggy forested hills, and the many villages along the way.  They were close together during the start of the journey, but got fewer and farther between as the journey continued.  Some of them were elaborate with Wats gleaming at the top of the hill and impressive wooden houses.  Others were simpler with only a few thatch houses resting at the top of the river banks.  It also appeared that many of them built simple "summer" homes along the banks that they used during the dry season to make living easier and their walk shorter to reach their lifeblood - The Mekong.
 
As we floated by, we saw life along the Mekong play out before us as small boats rested along the banks or were rowed or motored along the river.  Along the banks, villagers were cleaning rice, or fishing, or clamming (and sometimes perhaps panning for minerals and gems).  Kids ran naked along the banks and played and splashed in the water, stopping long enough to wave as our boat went by before returning to their play. 
 
Buddhism was also alive and well, and we saw temples with monks going about their business in many of the villages.  There were goats and cows and water buffalo (some of them looked pink) resting along the shore, or in the case of the water buffalo laying right in the water, sometimes flanked by a caretaker, sometimes left to fend for themselves until the next time they were driven to more food. 
 
All along the rocky banks of the river, there were bamboo poles jutting out into the water that held fishing nets.  Some of them were cast in the water and waiting for a villager to retrieve their catch, other sitting idle for the next time they went fishing. 
 
At regular intervals, our boat would slow as we approached another village, and we would make our way to shore to pick up or drop off villagers and their cargo.  At one of the first stops, they needed to make room for more fruits and vegetables inside the boat, so the entire neat pile of shoes that had accumulated at the door was swiped away in one swoop to make room!  That lead to a massive shoe hunt for the rest of the journey as passengers came to the front of the boat to seek their shoes in the jumbled pile!
 
One village where we stopped had monks everywhere glowing like beacons in their orange robes.  Some were at the shore washing their robes and bathing, others were at the top of the hill in a gathering, and a group of young monks made their way past the boat and hopped in a small canoe to travel to the other side of the river.  It was a humorous site as our boat listed to one side as almost everyone on board pulled out their cameras to capture a shot as they rowed by!  We continued shooting as they played and walked in a line on the other shore - the leader holding out his shawl like a big orange flag as the other trailed behind him.
 
As we floated along, the scenery was beautiful.  But sadly it was shrouded in a dense blanket of haze, and sometimes acrid smoke, the result of slash and burn farming and a quest to burn down the forest and replace it with profitable rubber tree plantations to help meet China's growing demand.  We were saddened and appalled at the amount of burnt forest along the way.  Laotians have a beautiful country and the hills hold a lot of flora and fauna that are endangered elsewhere but abundant in the hills.  Slowly but surely, they are deforesting Laos for a profit, oblivious to the impact it is having on the environment. 
 
Life on the boat was an adventure as well.  As time passed, people spread out and shifted in an attempt to get more comfortable.  Some resorted to lying on the ground.  A good supply of Laobeer on board contributed to a more raucous crowd as time went by.  Occasionally the captain would have to calm the troupes and order everyone to sit down as we maneuvered through a shallow spot or down another set of rapids. 
 
The Laotians on board were warm and generous, and despite likely having very little, they eagerly shared bananas and other treats with us as we went along on our journey. 
A little over seven hours later as the sun set ,our buts got sorer and the natives got more restless, we saw the twinkle of lights of Pakbeng - our stop for the night.
 
It was a treacherous trip to get off the boat as we made our way across the gangplank, through the crowd of touts trying to sell rooms, restaurants and tuktuk rides and up a very steep stairway to reach the village.  We grabbed the first guesthouse we could find that offered rooms at reasonable rates with hot water showers (and a complimentary tuk tuk ride).  Luckily we got to our room just as the rain started.  Our guesthouse offered dinner, breakfast and packed lunches, so we had dinner (a great fried rice by the way) and made arrangements for morning.
 
After dinner, the rain stopped, so we decided to have a walk around.  Pakbeng is a one-street town with makeshift restaurants and storefronts.  Most of them are attached to homes, so as we walked, we got a glimpse of the simple existence of the occupants - a linoleum floor with a chair or two and a mattress on the floor, a small hotplate for cooking, and a TV to pass the time.  From the moment we hit the streets, we were reminded we were in the Golden Triangle where opium is king and drugs flow freely.   We had six offers for drugs in less than 10 minutes.  But the only thing to buy on our agenda was more supplies for day two of our journey.  We did our best to spread our purchases among vendors, buying only one item per store.  I'm always sad that we can't help support all of them. 
 
We ended the night with a hot shower just before Pakbeng shot down at 10 pm (literally, because electricity is only available from 6 to 10 at night!).
 
Day two on the Mekong was a longer journey that the first day - nine hours to reach Luang Prabang.  Our plan was to get up early in hopes of scoring a premium seat again, but to leave a little more to chance.  So we woke up at 7:00 this day.  The boat was supposed to leave at 8am - or was it 9:30?  Life in Laos is truly laid back, but somehow it works!  We had a quick breakfast and headed down to the boat with our gear at about 7:15.  We knew our boat today was a different boat than day one, as Pakbeng is the turnaround point for boats and the boat that arrived from Luang Prabang was ours, while the boat we took on day one was heading back to Xiau Huay.
 
We found the boat and made our way down the treacherous path.  It was clear no one else had boarded yet, and it was a real sigh of relief that we were getting the premium seats for this boat because it was much smaller than the first boat.  It had narrower benches in the cheap seats, and the front once would only hold one person instead of two.  It was going to be a tight squeeze!
 
Slowly passengers straggled on.  We recognized many faces, but there were also new ones.  How could more people than before fit on this tiny boat.  The steady stream continued and the back got more packed.  Now the back was full, yet still more passengers came.  Now the front was full too and still they came.  Finally 9:30 arrived and everyone was on the boat, and it was getting hot!  But it's not time to leave yet because it's time for the two boats to complete the business of exchanging money for the trip.  They haggled and counted passengers and counted money over and over until finally the business was done and we were off for day two, the boat busting at the seams!
 
No sooner had we gotten underway when it was time for a stop at another village, not to drop anyone off, but to pick more people up!  Somehow they fit on, luggage, cargo and all!  We proceeded to stop at two more villages and pick up more people before anyone got off!
 
The scenery on day to was similar to the first day, but the river seemed a little higher here and there the navigation seemed simpler.  It wasn't always that comforting though because when looked at the back of the boat, it always seemed to be listing slightly to the left as if one passenger shifting just a little in his/her seat would cause us to take on water.  But like everything in Laos, somehow it all worked!
 
A few of the most memorable moments of the day were passing by a village where fisherman were netting fish along the shore while a dead pig bobbed like a cork feet up in a inlet just a few yards from them.  And then there was one village we stopped at where a crowd of villagers appeared, anxious to board our boat and to sell us the charred coatimundi, the huge river catfish and the menagerie of dead wildlife and wares they had to sell.  They were a little dismayed when they weren't allowed to board!
 
As the hours went on and we got closer and closer to Luang Prabang, passengers looked less comfortable.  But everyone shifted and shared and rotated to the floor and even the premium seats to keep their comfort and sanity going!  And like the first day, the beer kept flowing.  Except for a rickety wooden benches collapsing in the back, there wasn't a casualty as we made the rest of our journey down the Mighty Mekong.
 
Nearly nine hours later, as the sun set dropped lower in the sky and changed to the color of a monk's robe, we arrived at the peaceful and beautiful banks of Luang Prabang our butts still intact and the memories of an incredible journey ours to keep!
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