Mekong and overnighter at Pakbeng - day 51

Trip Start Apr 07, 2010
Trip End Ongoing

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Where I stayed
Bounmee Guest House

Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Thursday, May 27, 2010

We departed Huay Xai at 10am on board the slowboat; an estimated seven hours this day and nine hours the next before we were to reach our destination of Luang Prabang, several hundred kilometres downriver to the east.  We would be stopping for the night at a riverside village called Pakbeng. 

Across from us on the table was Bill, an Australian man travelling alone; he'd been to Asia before, and gave us insights into Vietnam in particular.  A couple of rows behind us were two young hippy-type Japanese men, who were quick to crack open cans of beer and spark-up strong-smelling joints.  Attracted by the smell was a larger-than-life American 'dude', intent on their drugs and intent on letting the whole boat know how 'awesome' everything and everybody was (things got more irritating later as they ran out of beer and had to buy a bottle of whiskey from the lady at the back of the boat).

The slowboats plying this route are built almost entirely from wooden planks, and are open-sided, which is great for catching the breeze and having a full view of the scenery.  It started to pour down only once during the journey, at which point we briefly unravelled tarpaulin sheets to cover the sides and keep the rain out.  The upholstered seats, rows of two taken from minivans, were comfortable.  Although, the boats are apparently routinely allowed to be oversubscribed and so half a dozen or so latecomers were left to nest on the floorboards towards the rear of the boat.  To the front past the passenger seating was a pile of all the baggage, and an assortment of locals who were either hitching a ride home to their riverside village or were one of the crew.

Not too long after we left Huay Xai did the banks of the Mekong reveal their beauty.  Pure sandy banks were bordered by huge slate-looking boulders; marshy stretches soon became forested areas, glimpses of village huts dotted within; buffalo were up to their hides in water to cool down in the midday sun.  There were patches of scarred hillside where commercial agriculture had begun to be practiced, but never enough to completely break the lush green borders of the cappuccino water.

Intermittently the serenity would be broken by the sudden whine and whooshes of a 'speedboat' (little more than a wooden canoe with an outboard motor) slicing past us at speed.  The driver and two or three passengers would be wearing motorbike helmets for protection; we had been told that speedboats had become a popular method of making the same trip, cutting it to a few hours, but there had been fatalities in recent years because of their inadequate construction.  The gentler pace on a slowboat must definitely be more conducive to experiencing the sights and whispered sounds of the Mekong, anyway.

Several times the boat pulled upto the banks to drop-off locals, affording a closer inspection of riverside life.  The huge rocks in and bordering the river often had bamboo rods with fishing lines projecting from them; it seemed that the locals were fishing for single fish at a time, probably checking them once or twice a day; for subsistence rather than for sale at the regional markets.  We had learned that travel in or out of the villages could be along the river only, as roads were not made to reach these isolated places, and those that were connected would almost certainly lose their path during wet season. 

At one time the boat pulled upto some rocks, and within a minute a procession of a dozen children, some carrying small crates, wound its way across the rocks to our boat.  It was oddly charming to see the younger ones calling out to buyers for their Beer Lao bottles.  The selling frenzy was completely unsuccessful, with none of the passengers buying a single thing (the lady at the back of the boat was well-stocked), in no small part because of the fact that the children were not allowed on board and the passengers could not reach across to the rocks.  What might have been a success, we fancifully thought, was the surreptitious collection of a small covered box which we watched one of the crew take to the rear of the boat; maybe the 'Golden Triangle' still exists.  Perhaps that was the true purpose of the stop, with the kids diverting the passengers' attention?

It was around 5pm when we reached Pakbeng.  Instead of landing next to one of the several concrete steps to the top of the bank, the boat pulled-up alongside a moored slowboat, and the way out was by foot across some precarious and sharp rocks.  We soon learned the reason why the easy route hadn't been offered to us when the boat was greeted by a multitude of young men calling to the passengers to take their bags for them (for a fee, of course).  The complicity of the crew was without doubt when they started passing the baggage out onto the deck before the passengers had a chance to collect their own.  You had to virtually fight for your bags back from the guys who wanted 10,000 kip to take them for you.  Ross was initially defiant, and somehow managed to haul an awkward bulk of 25kg over the rocks without slipping, falling, and getting cut to shreds.  The other bag remained on the boat, however, and we soon came to the conclusion that after some near misses, it wasn't worth risking health in this remote area; one of the locals scampered across the rocks carrying the bag Sherpa-like.  A well-honed activity here, it seemed.

We were shortly accosted by several touts for their places of accommodation.  Given that there seemed to be no sealed road set back deep into the village-cum-township and that we had wheeled bags rather than backpacks, it would be more sensible to stay close to the boat landing.  We agreed to view Bounmee Guesthouse which was closest nearby according to the map we had.  Up the loose stone track one of the owners' sons shared the burden of one bag with Ross, whilst his brother took the other bag on the back of his scooter; one hand on the handlebar and the other hand giving us false hope resting on the bag.  Somehow, he made it to the top without losing the bag.

We were shown a room in a wooden hut of three (there was also the main stone building, but apparently these rooms were the only with double beds and were larger); the place seemed fine, though the noise of the generator five metres from the hole in the wall which served as a window was a bit off-putting.  We were assured it was only for the time being, and would be switched off before 10pm.  We accepted their suggestion of going down into their restaurant to have a drink and relax. 

It appeared that the guesthouse had made a good catch from our boat, so the brothers didn't need to go back out fishing for overnighters, and instead became our hosts in the restaurant.  The views from the verandah over the river valley were magnificent.  The one with the scooter, Lop, made a suggestion between us and a table of other passengers from the boat that we should all sit together; we were welcomed.  The beers soon began to flow along with complimentary Lao Lao whiskey chasers (their own brew of the national liquour, we were enthusiastically told), and the next thing we had all decided to try various servings of buffalo meat which were on the menu.  More travelers joined us, and by nightfall an impromptu party was underway.  Oddities of the evening included trancey music being cranked up, seemingly so out of place where we were, and our first sight of a cat catching not a mouse but a gecko!  We decided to call it a night around 1am when we realised that we had to be at the boat for 8am.
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