Seng Dhong reading a story

All aboard the Library Boat!

Book bags hanging on the sides of the boat
Book bags hanging on the sides of the boat

We spent a wonderful day on the library boat travelling to a village up the Mekong. On this occasion, Seng Dhong, a talented artist who works in the Luang Prabang Library, accompanied us. Under the leadership of Sensei, the boat visits villages up and down the river and often goes out for days at a time. The day after our trip it was travelling downstream for 10 days. Depending on the size of the schools, they either moor overnight and just visit one school in a day, or fit in more if they are small and not too far apart. The visits take a similar format to that of ours that day. Books are delivered in a large fabric ‘book bag’, which have rows of pockets containing up to 100 books. These are donated individually or purchased from money that has been fund-raised. The students visit the boat where Sensei and his assistant give a talk on hygiene, after which they read a story aloud. The children then look at the books. Teachers take the book bag back to the school and the children can each take a book home overnight. They return them the following day before the boat leaves.

There is no tradition of reading or having books at home in Laos. Until recently there was only one publisher in Vientiane. However, that is changing and organisations such as Big Brother Mouse in Luang Prabang are publishing books and improving education and literacy for adults and children. Change takes time though. Sally, herself, has published a book on puberty for teenage girls and has written one for boys which is at the printers. Both had to be carefully translated and pass the censors before publication.

The morning of our visit dawned cool and misty with the promise of sun and heat later on. We left at 7.30am and had breakfast whilst we were on the move. It was a three-hour trip up river during which we watched the scenery pass by or chatted amongst ourselves. The boat was not as luxurious as some of those we had used and Sally had brought us two cushions each. There was a table and benches otherwise there was space on the floor!

Children singing whilst waiting for us
Children singing whilst waiting for us

The children had lined up on the beach and were singing a welcome song as we approached. They didn’t stop until the boat docked. They then swarmed towards the boat accompanied by a few parents and younger brothers and sisters. They left a pile of shoes by the ‘gang plank’ and the driver hosed the sand off their feet before they were allowed on board. The library boat visiting was a big social occasion!

Boarding the boat
Boarding the boat
Small child transfixed by the falangs
Small child transfixed by the falangs

The first part of the programme was a talk by Sensei and his assistant about hygiene and the importance of washing their hands before eating. It is common for them to wash afterwards as they often eat with their fingers. A graphic display board illustrated the dire consequences of not washing beforehand. Sensei’s talk about brushing teeth was accompanied by a giant set of them. They entertained the children and, hopefully, the children absorbed the information! At least one little girl though was transfixed by the ‘falangs’ standing watching and I’m sure did not hear a word.

Next, Seng Dhong read a story. As it was in Laos, we didn’t understand it but it must have had something to do with balloons as he handed us a packet to blow up. When he had finished reading, we batted them at the children which caused an uproar. There were some very pushy boys who grabbed a handful and deprived their siblings. A number joined the other plastic in the Mekong which we weren’t too happy about.

Seng Dhong reading a story
Seng Dhong reading a story

After the commotion, the older children left the boat and adjourned to the beach to play games. Some of us went with them, whilst others stayed with the younger ones. They must have been rehearsing as they sang several songs to us. Then it was our turn, and we wracked our brains for rhymes we could accompany with easy actions. We also looked at the books with them.

Home for lunch
Home for lunch

A little later, the children lined up on the beach so we could give each of them the items we had brought. These included toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, an exercise book and a pen or pencil. There were also several large bags of the slip-on plastic sandals that many people wear. They all seemed to be large sizes, but the staff assured us each child would take them home and someone would wear them whether they fitted or not! The book bag, on this occasion, was remaining in the village. It contained fiction and specific text books the community had requested.

By the time proceedings finished, it was lunchtime, and the children disappeared back up the hill to their homes in the village for lunch. Some of our group followed to have a look around whilst three of us stayed to clean the beach of plastic and other rubbish.

Meanwhile another boat had drawn up alongside ours. It was the travelling shop selling bras, pants, t-shirts and other paraphernalia. We needed to move so the villagers could board it so, once the others returned, we set off again. Sally had brought a quiche and salads from a restaurant in Luang Prabang for lunch. By this time we were starving so appreciated the food. We were all elated after the visit. It was a relaxing, quicker trip back down river during which we chatted, read or fell asleep in the bottom of the boat.

Mobile shop
Mobile shop
Calm is restored on the book boat
Calm is restored on the book boat

We arrived back about 4pm and I rounded off my day with a visit to Saffron for an iced coffee and cocktails with Jenny and Angela in the garden of the Calao restaurant. I had thought of walking up the steps to Mt Phousi to watch the sunset but drinks by the river seemed a far more appealing option!

Calao restaurant
Calao restaurant

 

Temple at the Whiskey Village

Slow boat to Luang Prabang

Today's transport
Today’s transport

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.

Fast food at Chiang Rai bus station
Fast food at Chiang Rai bus station

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.

View from my Chiang Khong hostel
View from my Chiang Khong hostel

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.

Boarding the boat at Huay Xai
Boarding the boat at Huay Xai
Our route
Our route
The Friendship Bridge
The Friendship Bridge

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.