Day 2 on the Mekong

About the only places open this morningare the bakeries lining the main road of Pakbeng.  Each counter is attended by small groups of tourists stocking up on breakfast and snacks for the next part of their journey down the Mekong.  The smell of breads and pastries mixes with the smell of meat roasting along the roadside.  Aside from the bakeries though, most of the activity is down at the dock where goods are being loaded onto long boats and baby chicks peck around in the dirt.

The morning is misty and cool.  I stand down at the dock, eating my breakfast, watching the going ons and noticing a couple of elephants on the opposite side of the river, swaying their trunks to and fro.

Our group all assembled and our bags re-loaded onto the boat, we board for day two on the Mekong.  It’s a subdued start to the day, watching the mist rise out of the valleys and over the mountains, little sprinkles of rain peppering the water.

Most of us are sitting writing in our diaries when a Mekong tidal wave interrupts us with a spray of water across the table and everything on it.  Thankfully the rain covers had been pulled down just moments earlier, but it didn’t stop everything from getting wet.

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A journey such as this could be called boring by some.  But it really is a chance to unwind and enjoy the simple things in life.  On both sides of the river, is pristine forest, mostly untouched by tourism or big business.  People just going about their daily lives – washing, fishing, playing – no technology in sight and I can’t help but think their lives are the happier for it.

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Gentle rain remains with us for the rest of the journey.

After a few hours we stop for a visit at the Pak Ou Caves where we glimpse what can only be described as a resting home for Buddhas of all descriptions.  Big, small, resin, wooden, gold-leafed – all of them reside here in the caves of Pak Ou.  There are two caves at Pak Ou.  One with around 4,000 buddhas, and the other – a mere few hundred steep stairs up from the lower cave – which is home to a less spectacular 2,000 buddhas.  You need a torch to make the best of the second cave, which I didn’t pack, but the stairs are a bit slippery because of the drizzle, so I stay stay and admire the lower cave – judging from the comments of the returning visitors, it’s the better of the two.  I stand at one of the terraces just up from the lower cave and admire the view of the village of Pak Ou across the Mekong, before re-boarding the boat to soak up our remaining time on the Mekong.

A further 40 minutes or so down the river, we say goodbye to our day home for the last couple of days and mount a bunch of steep (but dry) stairs for a 20 minute drive into the town of Luang Prabang.  Our hotel is a 20 minute walk from the centre of town, so we begin our time here with a short orientation walk where we discover the local night market is in full swing.

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Day 1 on the Mekong

Hannah and I rise early to catch the sunrise.  There are too many clouds for it to be spectacular but the serene calmness of the town before its inhabitants awake is priceless.  The air is still apart from the crowing of roosters.   The mountains on the Lao side of the Khong River are shrouded in mist, revealing themselves slowly as the sky lightens and the sun begins to rise.

After breakfast we head for the border.  At the border we are stamped out of Thailand before boarding a bus over the Friendship Bridge to the Laos border.  Here, we pay USD30 for our Laos visas and exchange our Thai Baht into something more useful.

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Back on the minibuses again before, a short way down the road we realise that the second bus picked up the wrong group of people.  Passengers rectified, we move on to the longboat dock.

Along the waters edge, brightly coloured longboats patiently wait for their human cargo to board.  Our bags are loaded into the front section of our private boat, while we carefully board and remove our shoes.  With everyone settled onboard and the driver installed at his car seat, the boat begins chugging and we are off.  The boat is a decent size for us.  Just behind the driver are 4 daybeds, 2 on each side along the side of the boat.  Next are a bunch of tables and chairs, a dining area, kitchen and toilets.  Beyond that I can’t tell without being nosy but I’m told most families live aboard their boats too.

Gold thread curtains line the windows.  The wooden floors creak and groan as we pad back and forth across them.  We leave the daybeds for the older couples and seat ourselves at the tables.

Outside the boat, granite outcrops, fishing poles, small long boats, sticks and other assorted flotsam adorn the waterway.  Onboard is the captain, what I assume is his wife and a second mate.

Noticing that no-one has taken advantage of the daybeds, Hannah, Erin, Dan and his Mum and I wander up the front of the boat to enjoy them, cracking open our beers and snacks.

The Mekong stretches lazily for over 4,000km and spans all the way from Tibet to Vietnam, with the lions share of it making its home in Laos.  In each of the countries it runs through, it is called something different – River of the Nine Dragons in Vietnam, Khong (Mother of the Waters) in Laos and Water of the Rocks in Tibet.

Late in the afternoon we arrive at Pakbeng, where we will be spending the night.  Our bags are loaded into a small lorry as we trudge up the hill to our guesthouse.  Pakbeng is a small town which probably only exists for its location as a halfway point between Chiang Khong and Luang Prabang.  Shops and guesthouses line the single road.

An attempt to visit the local markets ends with a downpour of rain.  Very few stalls remain open but we get to taste fresh tamarind and watch the local kids huddle from the rain.

Dinner is at the guesthouse restaurant but we head out for drinks a couple of doors down.  We call it a day when the Magoo’s rock up.