Friday, February 23, 2007 Laos Lao Peoples Democratic Republic / Thailand Thailand

Cruise down the Mehkong

We'll be needing a skipper. [IMG_1140]
Crossing the Mehkong to Laos [Enlarge]

Only the tourists and chickens were awake at 05:45 when we went downstairs for breakfast at the Chiang Saen River Hill Hotel. By 06:15 we were outside in the still-dark street stepping over sleeping dogs to reach the waiting fleet of MPVs. The vehicles set off whenever they were full and we were the first one to leave. By the time we had travelled for an hour downriver to the border town of Chiang Khong, we had been overtaken by several of the other MPVs, because our driver didn't understand that you need to change down to a lower gear to go up steep hills. By about half past seven we were all standing outside the Thai border post, only half awake. The office wasn't due to open until eight, but the hotel tour manager told us that he had a special arrangement and our passports would be getting stamped as he spoke. We were sent down the hill, still passportless, to the river bank—where we were parted from our bag as people and luggage were loaded onto different longtail boats to cross the Mehkong to the Laos side. Once everyone had arrived on the other side and the bags had been unloaded, our passports materialised and were handed through the window en masse. We got them back complete with their Laos visas, and then individually queued at the immigration window to get our entry stamps. A Laos visa and immigration 'stamp' is a work of art, carefully constructed by the issuing officials who need to apply no fewer than ten individual rubber stamps, in two colours, across a double-page spread in the passport to define exactly what each person's entry conditions are. Border guards the world over must dream of being Laotian and getting to do that much stamping.

We walked up the hill into Huayxai to where another MPV was waiting to whisk us a few hundred metres to the river boat on which we would be cruising to Luang Prabang in the Laos interior. There was no pier or jetty; we boarded the boat via a plank from the muddy beach. One of the other passengers had broken her ankle and was on crutches so she was lifted on board. We must say it was a slick operation on the part of the hotel; everything working perfectly and just in time.

Our 'luxury' boat didn't quite look like it had done in the photograph, but it had comfortable seats that had obviously been scavenged from a minibus—and most of them were attached to the floor. There was a bar area selling hot drinks, Pepsi and Beer Lao. The moment the boat started moving it got very cold on board—we found out just what other travellers' huge rucksacks actually contain, as fleeces, jackets, scarves and blankets were produced from the bottom of the bags. We had to make do with putting our shirts on over our T-shirts, but we were assured that by 10:30 or so the sun would be working its magic and we would be wishing it was cool again. Several of the group, which consisted of about 25 people in total, were in the mood for a Beer Lao even though it was not even 09:00. We weren't quite ready for a beer yet so we had a coffee instead.

As we made a left turn to follow the river away from the Thai-Lao border into the heart of Laos, the landscape slipped serenely past us: the jungle-clad cliffs looked like the setting for Jurassic Park or King Kong. We passed tiny isolated villages of bamboo stilt houses, with neither power lines nor roads connecting them to the outside world. Until recently, the waterways were Laos's only feasible means of communication—they are only just beginning to be surpassed by the roads which are being surfaced and widened. Although changing rapidly, the Lao People's Democratic Republic is still extremely poor and underdeveloped outside the main cities—the first printing press only arrived in the country in 1957.

This village marks the overnight stop for most slow boats between Huayxai and Luang Prabang. Our boat just managed to do the journey in one long day. [IMG_1181]
Stop at Pak Beng, Mehkong cruise [Enlarge]

Late February is towards the end of the dry season, so the water level was very low. The level of the 'high water' line during the monsoon season was clearly visible on the river banks and we estimated it was at least twenty metres above our heads. The river banks mostly consisted of tall, steeply sloping beaches of fine sand. Hundreds of sandbanks, rocks and islands divided the river into alternative channels. Several times the boat was shaken by strong rapids, currents and whirlpools, through which the skipper had to plot a skilful course. We could see why the speedboats are such a risky option.

At about 10:30 we couldn't resist our hotel-supplied packed lunches any longer (it was almost five hours since breakfast, after all). Our big white cake boxes held fried chicken, sandwiches, a hard-boiled egg, some raisin bread, a banana, a satsuma, a carton of iced green tea and two tiny plastic bags, one containing a brownish powder and one filled with white granules. Someone wondered whether we had all been set up as drugs mules by a sophisticated cross-border smuggling ring, but harmlessly they turned out to be pepper and salt. Apart from the cheese (which was that prefabricated rubbery stuff that has 'cheese' listed as one of its ingredients), it was not a bad packed lunch! By 11:00 most of the lunch was gone and Glenn felt that it was not unacceptably early to partake of his first Beer Lao. We had heard good things about Beer Lao. It is only produced in Laos, never under license in other countries and although it is now being exported we had never had the opportunity to taste it before. It tastes mellower and a lot less chemical than Thai Singha.

Being on a boat with no local people apart from the crew, with a good stock of beer and some pretty crummy music playing on the sound system at the back, was not the way we had originally wanted to travel down the Mehkong. But given that the alternatives were to be pummelled on a speedboat for six hours, or to squat between chicken crates for two days on a local boat, we reckon we made the right choice. And doing it this way meant that we hopefully wouldn't catch deafness or bird flu.

We briefly moored up in the isolated village of Pak Beng, roughly the halfway point, where one of the crew ran up the hill to get a stamp in the boat's log book… and fetched another case of Beer Lao. If we'd been on the slow slowboat this would have been our overnight stop. It didn't look too bad, but we were glad to be pushing on towards Luang Prabang. It was 14:00, and if this was half way we needed to get a move on. The tour company's poster had advertised our arrival time as 17:00, but when we'd asked yesterday evening we were told that we would arrive between 18:30 and 19:00. Tour company posters, we have found, almost always lie about arrival times so that you're not put off. It was now clear that we were not even going to make the later estimate. The sun was due to set at 18:14 (another cool ferature of the GPS is telling you local sunrise and sunset times), so it would be fully dark long before we got to Luang Prabang. As the Mehkong is too dangerous for boats to travel at night, we wondered what would happen. Would we pull over to the nearest river bank and make camp under the stars? The beer drinkers certainly wouldn't go thirsty.

Mehkong cruise [Enlarge]

We continued down river admiring the beautiful Laos countryside as the sun got lower in the sky, the light illuminating the trees became golden and the shadows lengthened. At low latitudes it gets dark very quickly once the sun sets and by about 19:00 it had got so dark that the skipper and his mate couldn't see anything out of the front of the boat. One of the crew went back to the engine room and fetched a torch. He then stood at the front of the boat and used it to try to pick out the rocks. We were curious as to why they had chosen to put the only electric light on the boat in the toilet! So the last three quarters of an hour of the journey was spent under the stars and a half moon, just the occasional bonfire lighting up the jungle as we passed. There was a slight edginess on board as we all hoped the skipper's knowledge of the river wasn't going to let him down. We were all relieved when we saw the lights of Laos's ancient capital and present day second city beginning to line the south bank of the river, having gone for so long in total darkness. The folk of Luang Prabang had certainly gone to town with the decorations. The whole of the waterfront was a mass of lights prompting one of the group to wittily dub the place Laos Vegas. We moored up between two other boats and again in the absence of a jetty the only way onto dry land was to walk a plank across to another boat, and then down onto the muddy beach. We hope the girl on crutches made it!

We shouldered our bag and walked up the steep access road into the town centre to find our guest house, booked on Hostelworld the previous evening. It was at the far end off Luang Prabang and wasn't easy to find. Our room was small and had no AC, but the bathroom was very clean and it was only USD 12 a night. Everything was fine, until we pulled the bed covers back and saw hundreds of tiny brown dots hopping about. The bed was full of fleas. We went straight back out into town to look for somewhere else—we had passed a nice looking place on the way to our booked guest house so we decided to try there first. It was more expensive but they did have a room available, for one night only. We will have to find somewhere else for tomorrow night. After failing to find any wildlife in our new room, we went back out for our first taste of Laos food in a nearby restaurant and found it to be very different to Thai: drier, less spicy, but with harsher and earthier flavours. And virtually all the dishes seemed to be built around 'Mehkong weed' which, given the colour of the river, was a bit offputting. Their beer is better than Singha though!

Map of Day 091

Day 091
Chiang Saen to Luang Prabang

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.