2 Days on The Mekong
After two fun-filled days in Luang Prabang, it was time to board the barge for our trip upstream. The boats are owned by local families, who have an agreement with the tour company to transport passengers up and down the river for a fee. That way, the costs are lower for both family and travellers. We boarded at 7:30am and made ourselves as comfortable as possible. The boat was very narrow and incredibly long, with train-style seats occupying about half the space. There was an area at the front for the driver and a retractable canopy (should the sun come out), plus a kitchen, bathroom and engine room at the back.
Physics shouldn’t have allowed the thing to turn a corner without capsizing, and I laughed inwardly when the owner split us evenly into two groups, asking one half to sit on the left and the other on the right for balance. We set off from port, all of us wrapped up warm in the cold morning air.
For the next eight hours, we were left to our own devices. Some slept, some played board games or card games (Skip-Bo made another appearance) and some read. I had ordered a Kindle before going travelling and was a little annoyed it hadn’t arrived before I’d left, so I made do with my iPod and its vast library of classical music. For that reason, the Mekong will forever more have a Maurice Ravel/Constant Lambert soundtrack in my mind.
We had made good progress, so at 3pm, the barge was moored and we climbed onto land. We had stopped at a small village on the banks of The Mekong, and we walked up the steep sand dune to be greeted by approximately 30 people; men, women and children of all ages. As our guide explained a little about the village, we walked around the site, taking in the houses on stilts, the dogs and chickens roaming free and the equipment used to de-husk rice and catch fish.
Our guide explained to us that everything there was home-made or had been charitably donated. They do not utilise money; items are traded for other goods. He also told us that the ceramic Eastern-style toilet that stood on one side of the village is the most expensive object they own. We messed about on the sand dune for a little while, then, as the children waved goodbye, we set off once more for our overnight destination.
The Mekong is over 2,700 miles long, the 12th largest river in the world, and is used as a major trading route throughout Southeast Asia. When we pulled into Pak Beng, night had already fallen, and the driver looked a little relieved that we had made it before encountering any of the larger vessels that travel by darkness.
We trudged up the hill to our lodge, tired and hungry, and dropped our bags off in our quaint little rooms, each with two single beds draped with mosquito nets and a balcony overlooking the river. Pak Beng is based exactly halfway between Luang Prabang and the Thai-Laos border and is minute, inhabited solely by people who have moved here to accommodate the enormous number of boats that travel the waters. After dinner, we slept until our next early wake-up call, and re-boarded the boat to the border.
The second day seemed longer than the first. There wasn’t a lot to do on the boat, so after eight hours it was refreshing to see the border and jump onto dry land once more. We had to disembark on the Laos side of the river, take a Tuk Tuk to the passport office and get our books stamped before boarding another boat to take us the short distance to the Thailand side.
When we arrived, a mercifully short five minute journey took us to our hotel and brought us to the beginning of our last five days in Southeast Asia…