2-day boat trip down the Mekong into Laos

Trip Start Jun 13, 2008
Trip End Aug 20, 2008

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Monday, July 21, 2008

Today starts extra early with a 6:00am pickup from our hotel to head to the Mekong near the Laos border.  The ride to the boat is about an hour and a half through gorgeous scenery; everything is extra green this time of year due to the rainy season.  We pass many small villages, rice fields and rolling mountains.  We arrive at the boat and since the driver speaks no English, we have to try and figure out what the hell we're supposed to do and how we're going to join a group to cross the border.  One guy starts talking to me in Dutch, and my blank stare must've clued him in that I had no idea what he was saying.  But from the looks of it, they were also trying to board the boat to cross the border - perfect, we'll follow his family.  It actually turned out to be pretty simple once we found a smiling man running around with a clipboard that fortunately had our names on the list of people crossing the border.  We get on the first boat, which takes us over to the other boats, complete all the necessary paperwork and we're on our way to another boat that we'll be on for the next two days down the Mekong into Laos.  The boat has about 30 people plus staff on it, and is open air, with cover from the sun and sporadic downpoars.  It has bench seating, some tables and is actually pretty comfortable (Luangsay Cruises). 
We met 2 other American groups; one was a mother, her 17-year old daughter and her 28-year old niece; the other was a family (the Altman's) of four with 17-year old daughter and 9-year old son.  Both groups were interesting in different ways that we discovered over the next several days. The Altman's were easily the most well traveled people we have ever met (including the kids).  They have been everywhere from Burma to Bhutan to Papa New Guinea.  The daughter has already traveled to 54 countries, was starting at Yale in the Fall, and was reading Homer's Illiad for pleasure on the boat.  The young boy was very mature and intelligent, although he was also glued to his Nintendo DS (like a super advanced gameboy).  Luckily for me, he latched on to me, which included teaching me how to play Guitar Hero on his DS, which was awesome.  His parents thought it was pretty funny to see me humming along and stringing the guitar screen, and even moreso when we got Lauren to play.  Unfortunately, Lauren is now convinced that because she wasn't allowed to have video games as a kid, her social status with fourth graders is doomed and we'll be looking for a legitimate Game Boy, other than Super Mario Brothers, for her to practice.
The 2-day trip down the Mekong was incredible.  The river was fast, deep and murky.  The scenery was something you would see in a movie: riverbanks lined with bamboo fishing traps, sporadic villages, wooden canoes, and unfortunately a lot of clear cutting of timber.  Laos has thousands of acres of teak forests and many people will indiscriminately cut the trees, float them down the river, and sell to surrounding countries.  There is also a lot of slash and burn farming technique, although our guide told us that local people are starting to notice the increased erosion so maybe their techniques will be adjusted accordingly.  During the day, we would mostly talk with other passengers, read, nap, or listen to music.  You can create a pretty eery feeling by sitting at the front of the boat and listening to the soundtrack from Apocalypse Now.
A short time into the beginning of our trip on the first day, we stopped at a local village, but we didn't get out of the boat.  This stop was right before lunch, so everyone was hungry.  Apparently the stop was for the local kids to come down to the boat and sell snacks (chips, nuts, cookies).  The kids weren't allowed on the boat, so they would climb along the outer edge, all screaming "Chip, Cookie, Nut!"  It was pretty comical, with one kid having to jump off the boat when we pulled away because he was waiting to get paid by one guy.
Along the way, we also stopped at a couple local villages.  While the villagers have gotten used to tourists coming through, the conditions are remarkable.  The typical village would have a tons of kids running around, some naked, some clothed.  The men, most women, and children over 8 would be working in the rice fields, while the remaining few women would tend to the children and make and sell whiskey and handicrafts.  The houses themselves were mostly built on stilts (to keep animals underneath and protect the houses during the heavy rain season).  Turkey, chickens, ducks, dogs and pigs are everywhere.  At one village, we got to see the whiskey making operation up close and personal. It consisted solely of rice, a big drum filled with water, a fire and a drainage pipe that dripped into a waiting bottle (see pictures).  We were brave enough to try it out, and it was very strong, but kind of good...it is rice wine, so has somewhat of a sake feel to it.  We bought a bottle for $1, which was "bottled" in a recycled glass energy drink bottle. 
 The boat didn't have sleeping accommodations, so in the middle of the 2-day trip, we stopped at a small village/town called Pakbeng.  Overall, Laos is an extremely poor communist country (ranked #138 by the IMF in per capita income, below Sudan and the Congo)  Pakbeng is kind of a mix between a rural village and town...it had electricity and running water, but that was about it.  We stayed about 2 km outside of the town, but got to walk around and take some interesting pictures of the local market, kids, etc...Although technically illegal, opium is still grown in Laos and was readily on offer in most places. Our room was part of a resort owned by the boat company we used, and is basically used solely for their boat tours, so the accommodations were very nice.  Still some peculiarities, like the open flame that heated the water for the shower.

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