IndoChina Trip – Down the Mekong
Trip Start Jul 30, 2010
66Trip End May 29, 2011
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Martin Luther King, Jr.
Yet another early start (7.30am), made even more unpleasant by the awful breakfast at the hotel served by waiter wearing so much white foundation he'd started to look like an albino. Ahead of us was a 2-day trip along the Mekong River to Luang Prabang.
The first stage was crossing the Mekong into Huay Xi, the site where heroin was refined during the late 60’s by Lao army generals with the help of the CIA, for our visas. Unsurprisingly this was a chaotic little episode which involved us giving up our passports, handing over US$35 (the French and Germans only have to pay US$30!) and then hanging around for 45 minutes before the passports came back stamped and visa’d
Getting to the boat, or barge, that would take us eventually to Luang Prabang involved a short ride on an aging and rusting tuk-tuk which could barely move once the group’s luggage had been loaded onto its roof. How it didn’t roll over Robin Reliant fashion when cornering is a miracle. Anyway we made it to the barge which was pretty large with seating for about 30 so the 6 of us had plenty of space. By 10am we were off.
We followed the river downstream, southwards, thru’ gentle rolling hills planted with rice, corn and banana trees which gradually changed into a rockier and jungle-like terrain. In many places, and many really quite steep slopes, the forest had been cut back - actually it was more slash and burn - to allow rural communities the space to grow bananas or rice.
Chugging down the river you easily lose track of time and distance as you watch the landscape go by as the flow of the river meanders south and Put, our pilot/driver, steered a course thru’ the rocks whilst whistling strange Chinese-sounding tunes
Just before lunch we stopped off at a village. The Lao people are categorised into 3 main groups: Lao Loum, the majority, who live in the lowlands; Lao Theung, semi-nomadic who live in the 'middle-lands’ and Lao Soung, who live in the highlands. We stopped off at a Hmong (one of the Lao Soung peoples) tribal village. As the barge pulled up the Hmong kids streamed over the sandy riverbank with bracelets and trinkets to buy. Claire did the decent thing and bought some bracelets and we had a look around the village which was much more primate and basic than the Longhouse community we’d visited in Borneo. It’s quite humbling to think that there are still people who live, and by all accounts live contentedly, like this at the start of the 21st century.
By early evening we’d pulled in Pakbeng – our overnight stop – where several barges were sandwiched against the floating dock which also doubled as a shop selling crates of eggs, bags of rice and bundles of corns. With lots of western goodies on sale – crisps, chocolate bars, Pringles, coke and ice creams – it was the nearest thing Pakbeng has to a 7-Eleven. The village itself was little more that a dusty road with a handful of general stores selling everything from mobile phones to mops and several restaurants and guesthouses all catering to the stop-off for-one-night travellers like ourselves.
The ambition to turn Pakbeng into something more substantial for tourists is, I think, a little fanciful but it would be interesting to come back in a few years to see how the tourism industry has developed and see what Pakbeng has turned into
The evening meal was at a local place and I had water buffalo curry which was just about the toughest meat I’ve ever tried to chew thru’. My old leather hiking books would have been easier to digest. But if dinner wasn’t great the hotel’s attempt at an ‘American’ breakfast the following morning was a new low. Truly awful – how can you screw coffee up for f***sake? By 8am (yes, another early start) we were back on the barge and heading south to Pak Ou Caves.
Pak Ou caves became a site for worship about 1,000 years ago. The two caves, Tham Ting and Tham Phum, nestled on the opposite side where the Ou merges into the Mekong, were originally used for worship of the animist spirits known locally as phi. The sites were taken over in the 1600’s by Hindu and Buddhist worshippers and the two caves now house some 4,000 Buddha icons strewn across the cave floors, in crevices and on shelves.
From the caves it took about another hour for us to reach Luang Prabang from where I’ll continue this in another entry...