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.

20161107_093047

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.

Sar’s Surprise

Today we leave Chiang Mai early for a long day on the road to Chiang Khong.  Chiang Khong is a border town between Thailand and Laos and is where we will begin our two day cruise down the Mekong River.  I’m a little nervous about what to expect, not being a fan of boats, but I know the shoreline will be in sight at all times, so fingers crossed.

20161106105315_IMG_8183

One thing I had always wanted to see in Thailand was the glorious White Temple.  “Where’s the White Temple Sar?”  I asked during the train journey to Chiang Mai.  “On the way to Chiang Khong” he answered.  Today, while telling us about the day’s program, Sar admits “White Temple, we go there”. I look at him “Do we actually visit there?” trying not to get my hopes up.  “Yep, we go to White Temple”.  OMG YES!  I am beyond excited to hear this news.  The friggin White Temple!!!  Woohoo!

We have about three hours of driving to do before then.  Plenty of time to listen to Mrs Magoo berate Mr Magoo for everything and nothing in particular.  ‘Take a photo Dennis”, “no, don’t take a photo of THAT!”  Oh, I haven’t told you about the Magoo’s yet.  They are an older couple that we have dubbed with this name, simply because they fumble about, arguing with each other and asking questions about things that Sar has literally just told us.  All, the, time.  Mr Magoo, or Dennis, seems like a genuinely nice guy, but he is constantly lugging around Mrs Magoo’s bags and generally being berated for doing the wrong thing.  Mrs Magoo, never, ever smiles.  Everything seems to be an utter disappointment to her and I’m really not quite sure why she left the comfort of home to come to Asia, but they are here and part of our big happy tour group.

Thankfully the bickering is put on hold with a stop at a cashew nut factory.  Everyone stops here.  Yes it’s touristy, but cashews are awesome and they make some fantastic cashew snacks here including these coffee soaked ones that I picked up.  Besides, where else do you learn why cashews are so expensive?

But finally, we arrive in Chiang Rai.  Home to the White Temple.  The White Temple deserves its own gallery, which I will post,  but let me just show you the toilets, yes the toilets…

The White Temple, or Wat Rong Khun as it is rightly known is the masterpiece of Ajarn Chalermchai Kositpipat and he’s spent 18 years on this labour of love.  He created the temple with his own funds and small contributions so that he could retain total creative freedom.

“I want to be the only artist in the world who can create anything with utmost freedom; I do not want to work under anybody’s influence or thought processes.  No one in the world can order me to do their forebidding, because I do not accept any monetary donations from sources including government officers, politicians or millionaires.  Money can give the donors power to influence the takers, much like many artists who work as employees.  I, then, need to find funding to build the temple by myself”.

20161106130541_IMG_8218

There is so much incredible detail and building in this temple it’s hard to take your eyes off it.  I wanted to photograph every inch of it.  I would have slept here overnight if I could have.  Sunset at this temple would have been a gift from the heavens.  Inside the temple are incredible mural paintings of dragons, skulls and buddhas not to mention Superman, the dude in the black coat from the Matrix, George Dubbya, a minion and much more.  It’s insane.  And unfortunately, not photographable.  You should definitely go see it to believe it.

20161106125931_IMG_8201

On site there is also a gallery where you can see the artist’s other works.  I am so glad we stopped here, though if you ask Mrs Magoo (actually she’ll tell you even if you didn’t) she can’t understand why anyone would want to see this ridiculous building and what the hell was the artist thinking when he created this, this thing.  Tut.

More hours later, we arrive in Chiang Khong.  It’s a very quiet little town about 4km from the border, so there’s not much to do except for wander down to the riverbank to soak up the feel of the town and watch the locals enjoy their evening.

20161107_063913

We share a group dinner, because there’s not really much option in Chiang Khong, but Hannah and I leave early to try and track down the sweet man we saw peddling his wares earlier, which we do without much effort.  We purchase a selection of the sweets and rush back to our balcony seating to enjoy them.

20161106_203049

Well, not quite, because they are – and I’m so sorry to say this – gross.  We pretty much spit them out and then wash them down with the cheap wine coolers (also gross) we bought from the convenience store.  An early night it is for us then.  Probably not for the Magoo’s though as I hear they are still at the restaurant fighting over the bill.