The following day saw us back at the bus station to catch the Red Bus that went to Chiang Khong on the Thai border. The trip took two hours and whilst there were several local people on the bus, backpackers travelling on to Laos occupied half of the seats. As is typical of many rural buses, this one also acted as a parcel service with the driver stopping outside the package’s destination and hooting his horn to alert the recipient. The brakes appeared to be faulty, which was a little unnerving, particularly when he stopped at the top of a steep hill, engaged low gear and drove down at a snail’s pace!
Given the state of the brakes, it was lucky the countryside was predominantly flat with just a few hills in the middle. Villages were scattered along the way, together with banana and rubber plantations, the trees in the latter having cups attached to their trunks to collect the sap.
We arrived at our hostel overlooking the Mekong at about 1.30pm and adjourned to the guest house next door for a restorative beer. The arrangement was casual. A guest advised us to help ourselves from the fridge although the owner appeared later to collect our money.
Feeling refreshed, I took a stroll along the riverbank where there were several guesthouses and hotels of varying standards. Fishermen were busy on the water. There was a Thai Navy base and Chiang Khong port. Not having had enough of temples in Chiang Rai, I also stopped at the well painted and adorned Wat Luang. I have to say; it gave me a thrill to be standing on the banks of the Mekong for the first time. It was reminiscent of geography lessons many decades ago and it was exciting to be there! After two days on a slow boat this novelty would no doubt wear off.
The next morning, we caught a tuk tuk to the border where we were to meet a representative from Shompoo Cruises and the other passengers. We passed through Thai Immigration and were shepherded onto a bus to cross the Friendship Bridge to Laos Immigration at Huay Xai. Once they had issued our visas, and we had changed money, another bus took us to the teak long boat that was to be our day time home for two days.
The weather was not conducive to cruising in an open-sided boat. Thankfully, there were blankets on the boat as I was well under-dressed. The afternoon warmed up but the following morning mist shrouded the river and hills. The scenery was not as I expected. There were many rocky outcrops and small sandy beaches. Crops grew on the shores in some places and in others the trees came down to the waterline.
An excellent lunch was served on the first day. Shompoo cruises hires boats from 4 or 5 families and rotates between them thus distributing the income between more people. The menus are the same on each trip but the cooks vary and each one has their own recipe so the dishes may be different.
After lunch, we visited a small village also supported by the cruise company. There were few people about as they were tending their fields. The houses were all constructed from bamboo matting and on stilts, as the animals lived beneath. Huts were built specifically for storing rice. These had round disks attached to the stilts to prevent rodents climbing up and eating the grain.
The traffic on the river comprised long boats carrying people or, more often, goods which were off loaded at small villages en route. The different colours of the boats depicted the area from which they originated. Local people raced around in small water taxis. The drivers wore motorcycle helmets for no logical reason and their passengers looked most uncomfortable. There were also many small fishing boats. Bamboo poles protruded from many rocks, some of which were just one fishing line, whilst others held a large net in place. Fish appeared on most menus, alongside chicken and pork. I’m not sure how clean and tasty the fish were having emerged from the Mekong, which didn’t look too savoury in places!
We stopped overnight in the small town of Pakbeng. It was quiet but came alive in the evening when the boat passengers arrived, providing a boost to the local economy. We ate at an Indian restaurant which seemed a little incongruous in the middle of Laos countryside but it was excellent!
On the second day, we continued our leisurely trip towards Luang Prabang. The scenery gradually changed and opened out and more crops, such as peanuts, were being grown on the banks. They were all surrounded by bamboo fencing intended to keep the water buffalo out when they came to the river for water in the afternoon.
After another excellent lunch, we had two stops before reaching the city. The first was at Pak Ou Caves at the convergence of the Mekong and Pak Ou rivers. These caves were home to thousands of Buddha statues, left there by families at Laos New Year when they came to ask for good luck for family members.
The Whiskey Village, so named for the obvious reason, was our next stop. A villager demonstrated her process of rice whiskey production and gave us a taste of one that was 50% proof. Not being a whiskey drinker at the best of times, I declined any further tasting and went with Angela to stroll around village which had a multitude of handicraft stalls lining the streets. I’m sure they imported many of the cloths from China. We ran the gauntlet of the ladies desperate to sell something and returned to the boat.
We arrived in Luang Prabang at about 4pm and Sally, our trip organiser, was waiting. She is also a member of 5W and had arranged this tour for 8 members of which I was one of the ‘chosen’ ones. Sally has her own N.G.O., Laos Solidarity, and lives part of the year in Luang Prabang. Together with a local team, she educates teenage girls on puberty and menstrual hygiene. She also funds and distributes packages of re-useable sanitary pads and knickers in the rural communities. Thanks to her contacts and organisation, we had an incredible two weeks of fascinating day trips to look forward to and experience including some activities not open to tourists.