CHIANG Khong (THAILAND) overland to Luang Prabang (Northern Laos): WEEK 18 JANUARY (cool and misty in the morning with bright sunshine in the afternoon, 25 degrees)
Most people have never heard of Laos, a land locked country of seven million dwarfed by its neighbours in terms of population and economy by China, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. Laos is a communist country, closely aligned to Vietnam and China, and is controlled by the LPRP (Lao People's Revolutionary Party). It is effectively a single party dictatorship where corruption is rife, Laos is rated 161 out of 174 countries in the Corruption Perception Index (one place below the Democratic Republic of Congo) - one to remember for all those "Pointless" fans out there. A former French colony, Laos is popular with French backpackers and retirees desiring a little bit more adventure, while sipping their filtered coffee in chic colonial cafes in Luang Prabang, nibbling on croissants, baguettes and pastries. Older Lao people can often speak French as well.
"Remind me why we came to Laos?", asked Edward as the stale sewage odour from the bathroom wafted into our chipboard walled room and I was faced with the grottiest Western toilet I had seen for a while. I managed to murmur something about "A boat trip down the Mekong River is one of the highlights of of visiting this country and Luang Prabang is meant to be one of the most alluring places in South East Asia - a traveller's Shangri La". I wasn't even convincing myself as I unpacked the bed bug sheets. After the first three days here, I was beginning to wonder whether we should back track into Thailand.
Of course, we had been spoilt in Thailand with a decent standard of guest houses/hotels and relatively easy transport we could organise ourselves whether it was the bus or train. Even in Bangkok, we always stayed at the same hotel which wasn't on any of the booking sites. It was a gem of a place with quiet, immaculately clean, spacious rooms (hard to find in Bangkok) even though they were shabby and faded, fresh towels every day and a hot shower that worked. Two doors down was Thomas's favourite Thai restaurant named "Nancy Home" that produced generous fragrant Thai green chicken curries with rice for just over 1 pound. I needed to adjust my expectations now we were in Laos.
Laos is one of Asia's poorest nations and is highly reliant on foreign donors, suffering from a lack of infrastructure and diversified industry. It relies on hydropower, textile industries and tourism for much of its income - only 75% of the country has electricity but this is rapidly changing. Most people in Laos depend on subsistence farming and the average monthly salary in Laos is approx 55 pounds. However, people in Laos are the most laid back I've ever come across in all my travels, to the point of being asleep or turning trying to avoid work into an art form. The French had saying about Laos, "The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grow and the Laos listen to it grow." In general, the locals are relaxed, calm and don't want to think too deeply, unless they are having a music face off with their neighbour and cranking up the volume to drown out their neighbour's choice of tunes. Primarily Buddhists, this is reflected in their cultural character and Lao people feel sorry for those who think too much and that too much work is bad for your brain. Sounds idyllic place to live in theory and yet ...
It is very easy not to be charmed by Laos after crossing the border at Chiang Khong, Thailand. After the usual shenanigans of paying many times over for a tuk tuk to the actual border exit point, a shuttle bus across no-man's land and a songthaew to Huay Xai on the riverfront, we were abandoned in a dusty border town with few accommodation options on the main drag and a multitude of travel agencies desperate to sell minivan and slow boat tickets to Luang Prabang at inflated prices. Overnight we became millionaires after visiting the ATM to withdraw the maximum amount per transaction of 1,000,000 kip (there are approx 10,000 kip to 1 pound). Our assumption that Laos would be cheaper than Thailand was incorrect, it came as a shock to find that food was more expensive and accommodation for three could be challenging to find at the right price and far inferior. The inflation rate in Laos is around 2% yet Luang Prabang tourist and food prices have far exceeded this at around 9% a year.
Not wanting to spend 11 - 12 hours squashed on a bus to Luang Prabang, we plumped for the slow boat down the Mekong River. The trip takes over 14 hours downstream over two days, stopping at Pak Beng overnight. Determined to secure seats on the boat, we were hiking down to the jetty at 7:30am in the morning mist with our backpacks, to buy a ticket from the jetty office that opened at 8am. Long gone are the days when there were only twenty backpackers a day taking the slow boat with oodles of room, sitting on rush mats on the deck of the boat, watching the world go by.
Mekong River Route, Slow Boat Laos
We passed the office of the luxurious Luang Say Cruise (same route down the Mekong over two days) that was being offered half price at $255 per person with an overnight stay at the boutique Mekong Village resort in Pak Beng. A world away from this was the long boat costing a fraction of the price at 21 pounds per person (no overnight accommodation included) which we plonked our bags on, securing seats relatively near the front of the boat after hearing horror stories of people trapped at the rear next to the extremely noisy diesel engine, inhaling diesel fumes and sitting in a haze of cigarette smoke (all the smokers hang out at the back). However, a German traveller struggling to lug his silver Samsonite trolley bag over the boarding plank on to the boat started waving a ticket, saying he had seats 1 and 2 reserved. I pointed out that I didn't think there was a concept of seat numbers in Laos and we decided to go with a wait and see approach - it turned out seat numbers/reservations are indeed a myth, there aren't any.
Jetty for slow boat to Luang Prabang, stopping at Pak Beng overnight
Ask four different locals when the boat with depart on its six hour journey to Pak Beng and you'll receive four different answers: 11am, 11:30am, 12pm and 12:30pm when the actual answer is "when it's full". Not just full, but full to bursting and probably overloaded so that barely anyone can move and there aren't enough life jackets. Indeed this was the case for our boat, we waited five long hours for the boat to leave and just when we thought no one else could be squeezed on, another group of ten backpackers would arrive.
Finally, the boat drifted off but we knew at this point we would be arriving late in Pak Beng when it was dark without any accommodation booked. The boat captain spends a few years learning the route before he can navigate safe passage down the Mekong. There is a different boat captain from Pak Beng as the route is complicated. I expected the river to be slow flowing but it often narrows with outcrops of rocks and fast flowing rapid sections. The captain was ever vigilant, steering a safe course through the deepest water so that we didn't get stranded on a sand bank. There are many small hamlets and villages perched above the river bank and the boat often stopped to drop off locals with huge sacks of supplies. Local children would run down the banks to wave. These villages are only accessible by the river, have no mains electricity, medical facilities or any infrastructure of note.
Mekong River in the morning
Life on the Mekong
I could tell that Thomas was not enjoying the boat trip as he couldn't expend any of his couped up energy and found the scenery monotonous. A French lady spent the six hours gritting her teeth as an Amercian tourist in her vicinity related the whole of his life history in graphic detail, his booming voice being heard from one end of the boat to the other above the din of the diesel engine. "I don't think I can take anymore", she hissed as she tried to escape, but on a packed slow boat there was no where to escape to.
Fishing Boats on the Mekong River
Life on the Mekong River
Down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang
We arrived in Pak Beng when it was dark, the touts were already out in full force. Edward went on ahead up the only winding street of the town, perched on the vertiginous slopes of the river bank to try and secure a room. Many travellers had accommodation already as part of their boat ticket or had used one of the booking sites. Near the end of town, Edward found a half decent room but it only had two beds. We pushed the beds together and I requested an extra pillow. Thomas wasn't impressed as he can be quite picky about rooms but thankfully there was an Indian restaurant to take his mind off it. In fact, most of the boat had decamped to this restaurant probably because it was the only option in town. Ravenous Thomas could at least feast on chicken korma and naan bread.
After an uncomfortable night, no one was looking forward to the next installment of the slow boat: part 2 which would be 8 hours long. The boat had been changed, so if we could get there early enough, we could secure seats with a table (a complete luxury), so it was a race to the jetty to outrun the other backpackers. This meant Thomas could do some school work on the trip downstream. For once, we were glad we hadn't booked ahead after hearing many horror stories from other travellers about their pre-booked Pak Beng accommodation. Two young girls bolted after seeing their dirty, cell like room without windows and a door that didn't close properly or lock (they never made it to the bathroom) so they checked themselves into the Mekong Village at over $110 per night but said it was money well spent. Suffice to say, they didn't receive a refund.
Departing from Pak Beng on the slow boat (second day)
Just as we were congratulating ourselves on finding seats with a table, the American tourist from yesterday eased himself into the last spare seat next to Edward. When he popped off to the toilet, the stressed French lady opposite made a point of coming over to make her views clear. "How could you let him sit there? I can't take anymore of his tales, his voice is so loud - there is no peace on this boat." I didn't like to state the obvious that the diesel engine drowns most sound out and he was entitled to sit wherever he wants.
Many hours later, six foot, 5 inches tall Dave, sandy haired and built like a truck, had regaled us with his 23 year long career in the US Army, his fluency in French which was never capitalised on by the US military (how ironic as I glanced across at the French lady), his community work with the Navajo Indians, the dire situation the US was in now Trump was in charge and his last 10 months of travelling with his gigantic trolley bag which was so heavy he could barely lift it up the steps of the jetty. I asked him if he had ever heard of Jack Reacher and he looked at me blankly. Just as well.
Another surprise was in store as we came into Luang Prabang at dusk or what we thought was the jetty in Luang Prabang. No, Luang Prabang was another 10km away which led to the inevitable bun fight for overpriced tuk tuks and a chance for blatant short changing as many travellers were still struggling with the denominations of the kip notes. Edward challenged his short change (50,000 kip is alot of money in Laos) and then warned the people behind us, as they tried to do exactly the same to them. We bade Dave farewell and wished him luck with his luggage.
At this point, we came a cropper as we hadn't booked anywhere to stay and Luang Prabang is the most expensive city/town in Laos and every where seemed to be full. It was now dark, we were all weary and Thomas was yearning for dinner rather than seeking out guest houses with our back packs. I don't know what possessed us, but we ended up in a squalid, humid room at the end of an alley with chipboard thin walls and a rather nasty toilet/shower combo that I refused to touch. There was blood on the sheets so we whipped out the bed bug sheets as a barrier. The paper thin walls did nothing to drown out the cacophony of barking dogs, crowing cockerels and revving motorbike engines from the alley below. The guest house was run by a friendly family who could speak French but not English, who lived just outside the room in the corridor behind a makeshift curtain, sleeping all on one mattress together, which put things into perspective but didn't make Thomas feel any better.
Worst accommodation on the trip so far, Luang Prabang
Worst bathroom on our trip in a guest house, Luang Prabang
Worst shower on our trip in a guest house, Luang Prabang
First thing in the morning, we would be changing rooms if we survived the night ..........