Saturday, December 4, 2010

Journey down the Mekong to Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang, Laos - Nov 30, 2010, 10 pm

I'm sitting on the front porch of my guesthouse in this fair city on a beautiful evening in (almost) December. It's a very pleasant evening  -- the temperature about 70 F and calm, and on my little lane, it's quiet. I'm working on a bottle of affordable French wine while the Mekong River, wide and abnormally placid hereabouts, is flowing silently toward Vietnam to my left while my comfy room is just off the deck to my right. Below me, the family that runs the guesthouse opposite is eating dinner, charcoal brazier sparking brightly right next to the table, family members and friends coming and going, their conversation rising and falling in the night air. There are some other conversations going on -- the neighbor lady is talking with her daughter, two guys next door are chatting away and I can faintly hear some music in the air -- a radio program perhaps, early American rock? -- the little neighborhood of  Wat Nong is feeling very friendly. This is a great place to be and I've had a super day.

In Luang Prabang - the local museum and a temple are in the background

I just reread what I wrote above and I asked myself, how can I use so many superlatives? I reckon it's because I've run out of other words that can describe the things I've seen and experienced. Of course, that's only me -- there are others who have journeyed much farther than me, and who have embraced challenges I wouldn't ever consider. But for me, a slightly adventurous retiree who is all too rapidly approaching the age of 70, being here with no schedule and no responsibilities is feeling mighty fine, mighty fine indeed.

But I need to step back a couple of days to describe the river trip down the Mekong. There are several ways to get to Luang Prabang but a good way, perhaps the best way, is to take the two-day ride down the mighty Mekong by "slow boat" from Huay Xai, Laos, which is just across the river from Chiang Khong. For 1,600 baht (about $50) I bought a package that included a minivan ride from Chiang Mai, accommodations at a guesthouse in Chiang Khong that included dinner and breakfast, and the boat ticket to Luang Prabang. It was a pretty good deal even though the guesthouse in Chiang Khong was nothing special and the meals there only so-so. But the boat ride was very cool.

A view of Huay Xai, Laos, from Chiang Khong
After breakfast and a quick trip through Laos Immigration we were on our way. We had bought some cheap seat cushions to use on the boat because we were told the seats were hard and not very comfortable. But our boat that day was equipped with automobile seats. We were a bit crowded but the seats were nice. Many of us were convinced that we had been scammed into buying the cushions (about $1 apiece) but it turned out we had occasion to use them the next day. I'll get to that in a moment. On the first day we traveled about 140 km in approximately 7 hours to the small town of Pak Beng, about midway to our destination. The photo of the riverboat below was taken at Luang Prabang but it's typical of the boats that ply the Mekong and very similar to the one we rode.

Typical Mekong riverboat
The river journey was surprisingly scenic. I had expected to travel on a river that looked like the Mekong at Chiang Khong, broad and muddy but slow moving, meandering through broad valleys and farmland. No, not exactly. It is quite a formidable river, the 12th longest in the world, considered unnavigable where we were traveling, full of rocks and small rapids and passing through wild, mostly undeveloped country. There are people living along the entire Mekong valley but they are definitely living, as we say in Alaska, remotely -- no question about that.

Here's a Google Earth screenshot of a portion of the journey. Clearly visible are some of the rocky stretches we frequently negotiated as we made our way to Luang Prabang.

Our overnight stop in Pak Beng wasn't remarkable. The town survives because of these tourist boat trips and has apparently been much built up over the years as  a result. We paid quite a bit relatively for our dinner and breakfast but all in all, it was no big deal. The Lao money is bizarre in that $1 = 8,000 kip. A meal will set you back 70,000- 150,000 kip. Getting used to those numbers takes a while. My wallet is packed with 50,000 kip notes -- each is worth a little over 6 USD. (I went to the ATM in Luang Prabang yesterday and withdrew 1,500,000 kip. Presto, I'm a millionaire!)

Mekong River looking east and downriver from Pak Beng just after sunrise

We went down to the river next morning and found a boat waiting for us that was quite a bit less cushy than the one that had deposited us here the night before. It was a smaller boat equipped with dilapidated wooden seats, small and tightly spaced. The first boat had a snack bar with sandwiches, snacks and cold beer, and let's not forget those car seats-- this one had a cooler loaded with Beer Lao -- but no sandwiches and precious little room to get back to the beer. Some of the passengers began a small revolt and demanded a better boat, like the one tied up alongside ours. My thinking was to just make the best of it so I didn't join them in making those demands. It was just as well because the other boat they were eying was going back upstream -- there was no way we were going to get a different ride. After much bitching and whining on the part of the would be revolutionaries, off we went down the river. And so too, we found a good use for those boat cushions we had brought along from Chiang Khong. During the trip I had the thought that the people operating this boat might have been driven out of business in the states. They (all of these boats appear to be family run -- the man skippering, the wife serving beverages and handling lines, etc., their kids running here and there, helping out where they can) had an obviously inferior boat compared to the one that had taken us to Pak Beng. Yet, under the circumstances, I believe they deserved to be working and earning money to support themselves. Should they take out a loan for a newer boat, if that is even possible in rural Laos, in order to keep up with the Joneses? Probably not. I think it's best to try to ignore our western standards, which really don't apply here where nobody is making big money, and simply go with the flow. We're only guests in their country after all. And it's a beautiful country.

Rocky outcrop on the Mekong near Luang Prabang
Fellow traveler Mick, a friendly Aussie I had a few beers with
We arrived in Luang Prabang after a really nice day on the water. I was impressed with this town from the moment we landed. Yes, it's more touristy and a bit more expensive than many places I've visited in Thailand, but it's a place where I could easily spend a month. It's very friendly, with a perfect winter climate.

A view of the Mekong from a riverside restaurant - Luang Prabang
A few more photos follow:

Junction of the Nam Khan and the Mekong at Luang Prabang

The Nam Khan river has special significance. We visited an old Homer friend, Scott, who has relocated to Laos and lives upstream on the banks of the Nam Khan in the tiny town of Ban Pik Noi. I'll have more to say about Scott and his home in my next entry,

A flower - of course. Luang Prabang

We spent a few days with Scott at his riverside home in Ban Pik Noi. I worked with Scott at the Homer public radio station, KBBI, in  around 1985-87. He permanently relocated to Laos about 6 years ago and has built a new life here. The visit with Scott was at his home will without a doubt go down as a highlight of my trip. Stay tuned....