Sunday, October 23, 2011
Laos Part 3 - Chiang Khong to Pak Beng
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.
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.
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.