Sunday, October 23, 2011

Laos Part 3 - Chiang Khong to Pak Beng

A brown-grey misty morning greeted me as I looked over the Mekong from the balcony. It was just before 6am. I knew the river was there, but all I could see was a blurry haze where the river would be. Trees along the banks gave the scene an almost eerie, surreal feel, like something out of a Stephen King novel.
Even with the heavy fog, the sun was already well on its way across the sky, but was just hiding behind the cloud. There wasn’t a breath of wind. Just standing outside felt like standing in light rain, but without getting wet; you could feel the moisture on your skin.
I showered quickly, ready for breakfast. The large group from the previous night had already eaten and checked out. The large restaurant at the guesthouse was empty, with a table of closhers at one end with what remained of the buffet. It was one thing to have not refilled the food, but the little that was left over was not even kept warm by the candles underneath the stainless steel plates. Not that this really impacted me, given I don’t eat meat or eggs, but there was little else apart from some thin, white, sliced bread, and a few slices of pineapple and melon. At least the coffee was hot and reasonably good.
Adisak, the operator of the Nagi of the Mekong boat, had left word with reception that he would pick us up at 8am. After our very average breakfast, there was ample time for a quick walk in the mist, as well as a re-pack of my case to put all that I needed for the next two days right on top. I wasn’t sure what the boat’s luggage situation would be, so I wanted the essentials ready for easy access in case I needed to transfer them to my day pack. Leaving my readied case at reception, I descended the three flights of stairs to river level. Once on the path that ran along the bank, the mist was so thick that I couldn’t see the water’s edge even though I was surely only a couple of metres from it. All buildings, trees, lampposts and fences were lost and smudged in the murkiness.
I returned to the hotel as Adisak and his driver arrived to pick us up. Our bags were carried to the back of the van as we chatted about the day ahead. The boat had 24 passengers booked, including 5 children. I was happy to hear that there seemed to be a good number joining us. I had read so much about the trip being run with 4 or 6 passengers. But that isn’t good for business. With the quiet season ending, more and more tourists would be visiting Laos and the amazing Mekong. Though, the idea of being one of a very few and having the boat almost to myself was very appealing.
Before being taken to the departure point on the Thai side of border, we picked more 4 passengers from another hotel just up the road. They were two retired couples from Western Australia: Mr R and Mrs S, and Mr J (with the same name as my Mr J) and Mrs L. We exchanged greetings and brief stories of where we’d been and how we came to be travelling through Laos. Straight away, I knew we I had met some excellent travelling companions.
The fog was starting to lift when we arrived at the border, leaving a smoky haze hanging over the view to Laos on the other side of the river. The border was comprised of a what can only be described as a wide, concrete, boat ramp, with two small, boxy, buildings standing across from each other; one served as the departure point for people leaving Thailand, the other as the arrivals lounge for people arriving from Laos. Both had a small, open-air area, covered with a simple corrugated iron roof for passengers to wait as their passports were checked at the departure point. We joined the other passengers already queued up for passport processing, chatting away with our new friends.
It took maybe half an hour to process our group, ready to cross into Laos. The earlier fog had almost completely burned off, leaving us exposed in the morning sun as we made our way to the ramp and onto the hardened mud banks of the Mekong. A small flotilla of long, narrow boats lined the shore waiting to ferry travellers across the wide, brown river. Adisak lead us down the steep bank. We carefully inched our way down to the boat and the little plank that served as the gang way. Thankfully, our boat had a little canopy that shielded us from the brutal sun. Once we were all aboard, Adisak wished us all a wonderful trip, and left us in the capable hands of Phet, the tour leader for the remainder of our voyage.
The crossing itself took all of a minute. It was funny watching us all scramble for our cameras and shoot away as the little boat sped across the current to the far side. Before we knew it (and before I had a chance to snap off many photos), we were disembarking on the Laos shore. Phet guided us to the Laos arrival area that looked very similar to the Thai border. We handed our pre-filled out visa applications over, with our passports, passport photos and $31 US dollars each. This is an interesting process. You hand over this very important document, without which you’d be totally f#@ked, to these guys, who seemed less than efficient (or happy with all us westerners descending on them), smoking and chatting in their little cube of a building, and had to wait, hoping that it would be safely returned.
Across the way was a little entrepreneur’s business, who understood there was a captive market just waiting to be had, with no (or at least little) competition. Many of our group went over to buy snacks, water, and other drinks for the boat while they waited for their visas. Phet had instructed us to keep an eye (and ear out) for your passport. Once they were processed, the border guards called out your name and held your passport up to the window for collection. I guess our passports were done in 20 minutes. But, as it turns out, we were almost first in our group to be finished. So I had a little time on my hands. I told Phet I was going to have a quick look up the road and wouldn’t be long, and walked up to check out Huay Xai, the little Laos town that was the counterpart to Chiang Khong. But after reaching the main road, and being accosted by what seemed to be every tuk tuk and taxi in town wanting to take me to the other boat port, I was not in the mood.
By the time all the passengers had their Laos visas issued it was mid morning. With the punishing sun almost overhead, we were quickly transported in a dodgy ‘jumbo’ (a jumbo is a type of tuk tuk that is an open-air minivan with bench-seats installed where the tray would be – similar to a song-thaew) to the other river port to where the boats to Luang Prabang depart. Huay Xia looked almost identical to Chiang Khong, but maybe bigger, with the same small featureless buildings, the boxy concrete shops, and backpackers hanging on every street corner.
The next dock was just around the bend from our arrival point, with another steep bank to negotiate down to our boat. Like before, more than a dozen, long, narrow, cabin boats awaited their passengers – but these boats were much larger than the border crossing ones. We all piled on, anxious to see where we were going to spend the next couple of days. Phet told us all about the tour, schedule, meals, and amenities, and we were quickly on our way. Most of the passengers introduced themselves. We found we had another young, Aussie guy, a few English couples, another Aussie man (originally English) with a young Thai wife, and two Dutch families with their 5 kids.
All us passengers were lined up along the boat’s windows as we departed Huay Xia, eager to get photos of the mighty river. There had been plenty of rain in the recent month, but the river level had dropped from its peak. Many horror stories are out there about the river being so low that the boats could not go all the way to Luang Prabang, leaving passengers stuck camping on the river banks and being ferried between towns on the back of trucks. But though the wet season had ended, there was plenty of water flowing downstream towards Laos. We had nothing to worry about.
We all settled in to our seats. The narrow long boat had sets of what were pretty much twin-bus seats opposite each other with a little table between, forming pods of four along both sides, and a narrow passageway ran between them. At the stern end, there was a uni-sex (clean and western-style) bathroom. A timber lined wall, and a few steps, separated the tidy bathroom from a little service area, with eskies (coolies-bins) full of cold drinks, and a few length-way tables set up for meals. Our bags and suit cases were all piled on top of each other at the bow of the boat, stacked just behind the boat’s captain’s chair. The Dutch families took up the few little pods of tables towards the front of the boat. We, and our new friends, occupied the row of seats along the port side of the boat, with a newly-wed English couple behind us. The others were along the starboard side. Somehow, Mr J and I lucked in and managed to occupy a ‘pod’ to ourselves. This meant my camera had its own seat – nice.
As we cruised downstream, we passed many whirlpools, submerged rocks, and shallow sandbanks. The Mekong does not run straight, but in a continuous succession of bends and curves. A new scene greeted me at every turn. Hanging out of the open window, I shot off the first of what would be 100’s of photos of the wonderful river bank and endless views. Every few hundred metres, a new landscape unfolded, quickly filling my camera’s memory card.
I exchanged travel tips with Mrs L, and we eagerly told each other all the storied we’d heard on TripAdvisor, TravelFish, and Lonely Planet. Now, I travel a little bit, but these retirees were seasoned travellers. Between them, they had a ‘day pack’ sized pack each, and there was one extra pack for sundries. I felt embarrassed that I had a small suitcase plus a day pack, which I actually thought was travelling light! Mr J and the other Mr J of our new-found friends both smoked, and throughout the two days, they were often found towards the stern, chatting.
After about an hour or so, the boat turned into shore. Phet announced that we were arriving to the part of the Mekong where it stopped being the Thai-Laos border and now is flowing solely in Laos. This was just a check point. Phet warned us about a group of local kids would board the boat trying to sell chips, sweets and drinks. Sure enough, as soon as the boat was within a few metres of the bank, about eight or nine young children filed on, each holding almost identical little coloured plastic baskets containing a few bags of potato crisps, a few cans of soft drink, and a few bars of chocolate. In single file, they marched up the passage each saying the same sales line, “Chippies, drinks, lolly”. Even though no-one wanted to buy anything, each child presented their basket to every table along the whole length of the boat in the hope that they would change our minds and buy from them, despite turning down every other child that tried before them.
Once each child had tried their luck up and down our boat, they filed off. Two more boats arrived while we were stopped. The troop quickly made their way to the next boat, repeating the process. They were all very polite, each with pleading looks that I’m sure have been well rehearsed on the dozens of boats that come through the check point each day. Watching as they prepared to board the next boat, there appeared to be fixed hierarchy; first the oldest girls, followed by the boys in order of height (and maybe age but it’s difficult to tell), with the youngest, smallest girl lucky last. She was adorable, with big brown eyes that filled her whole face. But they all looked well nourished, with clean clothes and footwear. I know the children in Laos are among the poorest in the world, but I was pretty sure that these kids were not going hungry.
Within a few minutes, our captain pulled away from shore to continue our journey down-stream. The way that the boat casts off and navigates the strong current is quite fascinating. First, the narrow boat is manoeuvred head first into the current, facing upstream. Next, it’s turned toward the middle of the river. Then, the captain puts the motor into neutral and lets the current take it, letting the powerful flow naturally turn the boat around. Once the boat straightens out in the middle of the river, the engine is re-engaged and we’re off at full speed.
For the next few hours, actually most of the next two days, I stared, gazed, and contemplated the ever-changing scenery. I was completely mesmerised soaking up every sight. Gently sloping river banks were frequently interrupted by giant boulders surrounded by turbulent rapids. Massive whirlpools sucked the muddy water into their vortexes, while quiet pools close to shore reflected the sky above. Vast sandbanks formed miniature beaches. In some places, the jungle extended right down to the river’s edge. But mostly, farms and rice fields lined the fertile land. Villages dotted the landscape. Here and there, single wooden shacks stood alone in the midst of huge fields, some perched near the top of the lush green hills, others almost at the edge of the river. In places, the river seemed framed either side by towering mountains. Wet season had ended leaving the countryside green and lush, with never-ending rolling hills, almost without any flat ground.
A million stories lay along the river; boys fishing with skinny tree branches and a bit of string; young children leading their buffalo down to the water for a wash and a drink, an old man patiently unravelling a birds’ nest knot in his fishing nets; a local in dug-out canoe navigating the rapid flow with a very long pole and a hand paddle; a small family of black, wild hog, darting in and out of the undergrowth trying to avoid being someone’s dinner, the village children splashing and chasing each other in a game of tag; farmers diligently ploughing their fields.
At seemingly regular intervals, a speed boat would buzz past in a flash of bright colours and spray of white water. These boats are an alternate way to get from Huay Xia to Luang Prabang. But instead of taking two days, these took about seven hours. They were open-topped, dingy-style boats with long tail propellers (not unlike that of the long tail boats commonly found throughout south-east Asia). Passengers wore motor-cycle crash helmets (or at least the smart ones did) and held on for dear life. Though it was never an option for me, after seeing the treacherous rocks and rapids of the Mekong, I would say you would have to have a death wish (or be a total thrill-seeker) to take one of these death traps. But alas, the steady stream of them rushing past in both directions meant that there were obviously many who felt it was a great option to get from point a to point b.
Along the way, we did pull in to a small town along the river. The goal was to get a glimpse into Laos village life. As soon as the village children saw our boat puling in, they scurried up the steep sandy bank to their families. Phet showed us through the village, pointing out various aspects of village and farming life. The older girls showed us how they the milled rice with heavy mallets as big as themselves, and probably heavier, that they used to pound the grain in large wood buckets. Large flat bowls full of chillies dried on low-hanging roof tops. Dogs (with a couple of adorable puppies) rested in the shade. With most of the other boat passengers, I wondered around trying to be respectful and friendly, but it felt like we were intruding, the children were curious and loved looking at the digital photos of themselves we took, but the adults were clearly none too happy about the interruption to their regular, quiet village day. The thing that made it tolerable to the villages (I’m guessing) was the large donation box standing at the entrance to the village as you came up from the river. Most of us placed a few notes into the box.
As the sun was getting low and the shadows long enough to extend the full with of the river, we approached Pak Beng – the half way point between the two major stops. To come into shore, the captain manoeuvres the boat in the same way as he pulled out from shore, but in reverse. The boat is steered toward shore at a gentle angle, at which point the engine is cut. The current then turns the boat almost completely around. Then the captain guns the engine against the flow to park the boat along-side the many other boats, all stopping at this midpoint town.

It was about 5pm as we clambered up the steep boat ramp to our hotel. Phetsokxai Hotel was very close to the dock, but up a steep driveway (review posted on TripAdvisor Bags, dropped, it was off to see the little town before it got too dark. A single paved road curved uphill to form the main street, with rows of guesthouses all claiming to be clean and comfortable. Between the guesthouses and eateries were little stores selling goods ranging from pharmaceuticals to crisps (which turned out handy as we needed more flesh-eatingly powerful ‘deet’ insect repellent – this stuff will probably kill you if you had to use it every day – but it worked better than any western ‘aeroguard’ or other concoction).
Now came the moment – the moment I’d dreamt of since researching Laos on the travel forums – my first beer Lao – in Laos. I could have had one in Chiang Khong, or on the boat, but no – it had to be with my feet firmly planted on Laos soil that I had one. Phet had recommended ‘Sabaidee’ restaurant. So after walking all the way to the top of the hill and the end of the row of shops and guesthouses, we walked almost back to the bottom and took a table with a bit of a view over toward the river. 
J and I were the first guests in the restaurant. We ordered the inaugural beers with no intention to rush our first night in Laos. It was, after all, not even 6. Before long, Mrs S and Mr R and Mrs L and Mr J all turned up – lucky the table we had chosen accommodated us all. From there, the night became a feast of lots of Lao dishes and beer (with many vego options that were delicious). We all commented on how much we enjoyed the food. In the end, almost all the passengers from our boat came to the restaurant. With a few beer laos and great food, we were all merry, mingling and talking enthusiastically. Those that know me may find it hard to believe (not!), but we were the last to leave. Once the tables were cleared, we chatted with the owner over a beer and discovered he was sponsored by a family in Sydney when he was a child. Through the scheme, he received an high school education, which must have been important for him to be able to start and run his business. But here he was with a lovely family, a successful, ongoing concern, and a fine restaurant (IMHO) to boot – now I feel better about the children I sponsor – may they all be as fortunate and prosperous as this restaurateur.
We arrived back at our hotel to find some of the younger passengers from our boat sitting out the front with bottles of lao-lao (Laotian whisky), proceeding to get pretty plastered. Though part of me wanted to join, the other part had had enough beer lao to simply turn in. My tiny shoe-box room with the (what seemed) army surplus wool blankets and grey sheets awaited me. Tomorrow, another day of wondrous scenery awaited me, followed by Luang Prabang. - k


  1. Hi! I just found your blog via TripAdvisor. It's fantastic! I'm traveling to Thailand/Laos/Cambodia with my family in December and your detailed posts have been so helpful. I can't wait to read more.

  2. I am trying to get confirmation re visa: It is clear you can get it in major cities arriving by air but I do not find much on border crossing land/water. Do I understand it correctly that you were able to buy your Laos visa at the border before taking the slow boat into Laos? do you know if this is also for Canadian and Belgian passports?

  3. Hi - I cannot advise for sure about your visa at the boarder. All I can say is that we obtained ours at the boarder, and we had to have 2 passport photos and $110 US (I think). Please look at the Laos consulate for accurate and update-to-date information. -K

  4. Well written and pictured blog KGB. I only came across it today, trawling the internet. I've done this trip four times (one in the dreaded speed boat!) and found it very accurate and informative. I'm now a septuagenarian traveller and like getting other people's perspective on trips. I'll check out some more of your blogs.