Perhaps it was backpacker’s fatigue, or lethargy, or the fact that we really went to Laos for our Thai visas and were very much looking forward to hunkering down in Chiang Mai, but travelling in Laos was a weird time for us.
I think it was a combination of everything, but more so the fact that we really wanted to be in Thailand, that perhaps we didn’t enjoy our time in Laos as much as we would have like to.
It is a beautiful country. A very mountainous one. Which meant that travelling by bus was both lengthy and nauseating. A 200km journey could take upwards of six hours, the minivan full-to-the-brim, heaving itself over the sporadically sealed roads, negotiating hair-pin bends, winding up and up and then down and down, throwing its contents around (us) like a washing machine set to ‘agitate’.
Which aptly describes the mood I was in after said bus-ride!
After five days in Luang Prabang, the allure of renting a place in Chiang Mai, Thailand beckoned stronger than ever. So rather than sticking it out in Laos and not having a good time, we decided to take a two-day ‘slow boat’ ride up the Mekong to the Thai border. A lengthy journey, perhaps, but anything had to be better than a bus!
The boat departed around 9am for the 8-9 hr journey to the riverside town of Pakbeng, marking the half-way point of the voyage from Luang Prabang to the Thai border.
I’d feared hard seats and a long, uncomfortable ride, but was pleasantly surprised by the ‘car seats’ installed in the boat, which provided some much appreciated cushioning for the derriere. And the first day, though it was long, provided us with more than enough beautiful scenery of enormous jutting, crumbling rock and jungle-clad mountains to keep our child-like attention spans at bay.
It was indeed a smooth, peaceful ride, the boat open on all sides, allowing a cool breeze to aerate the cabin, containing mostly foreigners and a few locals who were deposited at various small villages along the way. Often, large boxes of supplies like eggs, beer and Pepsi (the important stuff!) was unloaded along with the passengers, and they were met by eager recipients excited to carry the essentials back to the village.
We arrived in Pakbang just before sunset, and managed to find a decent room in a newly built guesthouse. We didn’t get very far for dinner (next door) where we were welcomed into a riverside restaurant with the hook “No like, no pay.” Whoa, if only this policy was enforced nation-wide we would have halved our food bill!
The staff were unusually friendly and chatty, and we were extremely taken aback by their forward approach which we hadn’t experienced in Laos much. Most of the time the people had been so laid back, they were often doing just that – laying back and barely noticing our existence! But these guys were bubbly and energetic, bouncing around, joking and laughing with the foreign clientelle.
Soon we realised that whilst the restaurant and guest house seemed to be a roaring trade, it was another trade that seemed to be main the main focus…
“Happy Shake? Happy pancake? Opium?”
Aah, no, just dinner, thanks.
Once we assured the guy that we were happy enough, he left us alone and began working on the table next to us who proved to be more willing customers.
I had read about Pakbeng’s reputation as place where people sell drugs to willing tourists, so it wasn’t a surprise to me, though I was quite taken aback with how openly they discussed opium at the next table, like it was just another menu item.
Honestly, I think they could have been smoking it right there and I wouldn’t have minded – the meal was the best we had in Laos!!! And, no, it’s not what you think, they didn’t add any ‘happiness’…
We ordered Lub gai, this amazing minced chicken mixed with herbs, lemongrass and chilli served with sticky rice, which I might add the Laotians do very, very well. And buffalo curry. When in Rome…
I finished off with a banana pancake, which contained ample happiness just on its own.
It took us two weeks and a very long boat-ride to a small Mekong village, but we finally had an amazing Laotian meal. Better late than never!
The next morning we headed to the boat again to continue our journey. Day two was even more spectacular scenery-wise, with local people panning for gold on the river-bank and children balancing tall bamboo poles as they ran along the rocky shore.
The Mekong has some pretty awesome beaches too, and I thought how cool it would be to be able to camp at one for the night. It seems there is a gap in the market for Mekong cruises, it’s either top end luxury or the basic slow boat. A mid-range slow boat cruise, visiting local villages and camping on the beach would do pretty well I thought, but I hadn’t been able to find anything like that.
Regardless, we were really appreciative of the glimpses of local life we were able to witness from the boat, the low hum of the engine lulling us into a relaxed mood. This time, we sat up front where locals usually sat. The rows of seats faced into each other, providing ample leg room, and towards the end of the journey, once a few people had got off, I even had space for a nap.
Tyrhone kept busy snapping thousands of photos, discovering different settings on the DSLR to capture some beautiful images of Mekong life. I did some writing, some reading and then some napping. Whilst we dined on cream-cheese and crackers for lunch, the captain and a few other locals rolled sticky rice into balls and dipped it into fragrant curries. I hoped for an invitation to no avail…
About 9 1/2 hours later, we arrived in the sleepy border town of Houay Xai. The border closed at 6pm so we were there for the night. We found a huge, clean room for the night which a I bargained down to 80,000 kip, or $10. We set out in search of food, hoping to recapture the culinary experience of the previous night.
Like all good plans, they generally go awry, and we found ourselves in a Chinese restaurant with owners who seemed pretty surprised to see us. So surprised, they couldn’t stop giggling, which made us wonder if they had installed the sign out-front that said “restaurant”. A group of men dined at the next table, having a jolly old-time. They seemed to enjoy the food, which was a good sign.
When a lovely Chinese lady came to take our order, we perused the menu written all in Chinese, and had no clue what anything was. I resorted to drawing a picture of a chicken (badly) which cracked her up, and we had a humourous exchange trying to order. Whilst we sat hopefully and waited for our meal, a Thai man approached our table for a chat. He was dining with some Chinese business associates at the other table.
So there we were in a Chinese restaurant in Laos, having a conversation with a Thai guy. It was a very international evening!
As he leaned on our table and sipped his tea he discussed his import-export business in vague terms, the general gist being that it was difficult to do business in Thailand due to strict laws surrounding it, but in Laos you can do just about anything, so long as you pay the right people.
Then as though letting us in on a big secret, he leaned in, checked over his shoulder at the table of his associates, lowered his voice and said “The Chinese are everywhere. Big Money.”
And with that, he wished us well and returned to his meeting.
Our meal did eventually come out, and though we had unintentionally ordered double of everything, it was pretty tasty.
Once the Chinese party had cleared out, we were the only ones left in the restaurant. We joked about doing a runner, as no-one was to be seen, but we eventually sought out the jolly lady to settle our bill.
Laughing off our bizarre evening, we topped it off with a visit to a local shop, hoping they would have some ice cream. About to help himself to the fridge, Tyrhone was shooed away by the owner.
“Medicine,” he gestured. “For Animal.”
So our last night in Laos consisted of a Chinese meal, a weird conversation with a Thai man and an attempt to buy ice cream from a vet.
We decided to call it a night before we got in to any more strange situations.
The next morning, we soon realised why our presence had come as quite a shock to some of the locals. We were on the outskirts of town, a couple of kilometers from the centre where most of the tourists usually congregate. At least that explained a few things.
Alas, our time in Laos had come to an end. A stamp in the passport, a short boat ride across the river, another stamp in the passport, and we were back in Thailand.
Whilst Laos wasn’t the easiest place to travel, our last two days on the slow boat provided us with a positive final impression. The beauty of the Mekong, seeing snippets of local village life and some entertaining interactions with the local people left us feeling positive about our time there.
I leave the story there for now, the rest to be continued…