Lao is not very developed. Paved roads are not very extensive, nor are the transportation networks. Getting from the far-flung border town of Huay Xai to Luang Prabang involves several days of riding buses along unpaved roads. Thus, it wasn’t a difficult decision to buy tickets for the two-day boat ride to LP. We got to the pier (if you can call a bunch of boats lined up on a muddy shoreline a pier) early and were actually the first ones on the boat. We did have to wait two and a half hours, but it was worth having “good” seats for the next eight-plus hours. I put good in quotes, because all the seats were closely-spaced hard wooden benches with upright backs- we just picked a bench closer to the front and moved the bench a bit to give us plenty of leg room. I really enjoyed the boat ride. The river is brown and green gentle slopes rise away on either side. The banks alternate between rocky banks and outcrops and sandy flood banks that would be beaches. I say would be because the sand is cultivated with vegetables- sweet peas, corn, etc. I didn’t know you could grow much in sand, but I guess the Mekong nourishes the crops. Besides these little plantations there were other signs of life. Men check their fishing lines and cast nets from their small boats, women wash clothes, and kids swim in the water or jump and flip off the rocks. In the mornings and evening, the banks are filled with groups of men and women bathing in the river. There wasn’t really any wildlife, unless you count one watersnake we saw slithering across the rivers surface. The boat stopped every few hours to let some Lao off at their village.
sandy banks with crops planted
rocky banks showing high-water lines
Last night we stopped and spent the night in Pak Beng. It’s a one-street village and owes its economy to the fact that its halfway between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang. The small place was only guesthouses, restaurants, and dry-good stores- without the daily boatload of travelers, it’d be no better off than any other village. We ate dinner with a couple of Americans on holiday from teaching in Shanghai and then returned to our guesthouse for an early night. We woke up early again today; Joylani to secure some good seats and I to buy provisions for the day’s journey. We left a bit late, but the motor stopped only a few minutes after departing. We just drifted with the current for a few minutes, while the crew was shouting amongst themselves in Lao. The rudder was useless in the strong current and it became apparent that we were going to slam into a rocky outcrop on the right-hand bank. While they all yelled at one another, two of the crew ran up to the bow and began stripping all their clothes. The first one down to his briefs grabbed a rope and dove into the river. He swam perpendicular to the boat, although the current was moving him downstream at the same speed as us. When he reached the rocky bank 20 or 30 meters away, he climbed up on the rocks and pulled the rope tight against a pillar of stone. Just in time too, as we watched the slack rope rise out of the water and snap tight. It stopped the front of the boat and the back swung around until we had done a 180. Stopped against the current, the crew pulled us in to the riverbank and worked on the engine for an hour or two. I passed the time reading, before I decided to hop out and take a few pics of our stranded vessels. When I saw another boat like ours coming down the river, I scrambled down from the rocks and onto our boat in anticipation of the chaos I could see about to erupt. After two mornings of claiming and defending seats, people went crazy when this new boat pulled up parallel to ours. Everyone on our boat migrated to the side next to the new boat and began throwing their bags in. No need for planks or ropes to get across, people were climbing out of the windows to step or jump across; old ladies, kids, even Joylani Scarcity of anything can make people selfish or territorial, but I’d never seen it like this before. The other thing was that our new boat didn’t have any benches, so people were jumping in, sitting down to claim their floor-space, and then strategically arranging their bags or stretching their legs to defend it. Once all in, we looked like a boat people.
crew member that jumped, swam, and roped us to a rock
our new boat
Except for the occasional rapids, the portion of the Mekong we’ve been on yesterday and today has been extremely flat. Although debris in the water indicates that the water is moving quite fast, the surface is glassy and smooth. But the glassy top layer hides the turbulence beneath. Circular ripples and swirls appear from nowhere, giving the water the appearance that sometimes follows a waterfall or a boat’s wake on a calm day. But one of the coolest things are the many whirlpools we pass. Besides the thin vortexes that peel of my kayak or canoe paddles, I’ve never seen anything like them and certainly never naturally occurring like these. Joylani says the ride is kind of boring, but I’m content to stare out at the famous Mekong or admire the green hillscape of Lao. And that’s exactly what I’m going to do now, until we get to Luang Prabang.