Along the Mekong from Thailand to Laos

Tuesday, May 29 & 30, 2011

Chaing Kong , Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos

These two days might be considered as one. They were the days of the slow boat to Luang Prabang, Laos. In total I spent at least 15 hours traveling down the Mekong River from the Lao – Thai border to L.B. It was an experience. I’m glad I did it and wouldn’t want to repeat it.

Our group, which must have numbered at least 60 backpackers plus assorted locals, traveled in one boat to Pak Beng where we spent the night, and a second, different boat on the second day.

These boats are at least 100 feet long and fairly narrow. The experience is a bit like being on an airliner with a central aisle and seating on both sides. The boats are covered, of course, and are outfitted with side curtains that are necessary when the rain squalls come once a day as they do this time of year. For 20 minutes or so, the rain comes down very hard.

I was part of a smaller group of 10 or so, probably arranged by the same agency. We were transferred from the guesthouse in Chaing Kong, across the border and helped with our paperwork and visa process. It being a Sunday, we were each charged a premium of a dollar for a total of $36.00. From the border crossing we were driven to our boat. There was no wharf, so we had to approach the boat down a steep rock-strewn bank. These two days are the only time I wished I had a backpack rather than the large suitcase that gets heavier with each purchase.

The difference between this river trip and the others I’d taken is that here in Laos, there are very few settlements along the banks and not much traffic on the river. From the banks, heavily forested hillsides rise steeply several hundred feet. Behind them in the blue haze I saw even larger distant mountains. The muddy Mekong, quite wide at times moved swiftly, creating eddies and ripples. At this time of the year, the beginning of the rainy season, the river is low with many large granite-like rocks exposed along the banks. In a couple of months, the river will be much higher, covering the rocks and spreading up to the tree line. I could deduce this from the deposits of sand among the rocks and along the banks. The water surface has a viscous look as though it were oily.

The above description pretty much applies to the entire stretch of the river we traveled in our two days. From time to time the boat would stop to take on a few locals, a monk or two, and some cargo, which would be placed on the roof above us. Sometimes we could glimpse settlements through the trees, simple houses made of bamboo with thatched or tin roofs. Occasionally, we would pass a lone fisherman in a tiny sampan.

Because of the journey’s length we had to spend one night on shore at the village of Pak Beng, a single street running from the water uphill through what must have been a narrow valley or ravine between steep hills. The street is lined with cheap guesthouses, shops selling soda, beer, water, rice whisky, and food items. I never knew there were so many flavors of Pringle’s potato chips. The Dockhoun Guesthouse where I stayed with Robin, Hiten and Georgie is a cut above the one in Chaing Kong. It had an ensuite toilet and shower and a bit of furniture beside the bed. What’s more, it was located quite close to the river.  Interestingly, this was the only part of my package that was not arranged in advance. We reserved our rooms at the border with the man who brought us across.

The Dockhoun had a restaurant terrace where we sat after our check-in. Needing a drink after what was a long, tedious day on the river, I ordered a glass of lao-lao, the local rice whisky. It tasted smooth enough, but I was unprepared for its strength. In all, I had two glasses, which was one too many. It made me more drunk than I like, and the next morning I had an unaccustomed hangover. I’ll give lao-lao a pass from now on. Five us, including Britt, walked to an Indian restaurant recommended in the Lonely Planet. We each ordered a dish and shared a lovely meal even though I have a hazy memory of what I ate.

Finally, at 6 pm the second day, we arrived at Luang Prabang where a tuk-tuk driver who helped me with my luggage met me. I’ve checked into the Somjith Guest House located in a warren of small streets between the river and the town’s main drag. After a shower and some orientation, I walked a distance along the town’s dark streets to what is described as the best restaurant in town, L’Elephant Restaurant Français. I made up my mind to have a blowout meal and really treat myself.

The restaurant didn’t disappoint. The cuisine was top-notch and the service was a match. I ordered a Campari and soda and drank it while studying the extensive menu. In the end I chose a set menu starting with a bowl of pumpkin soup made with coconut cream and followed by perch pan-fried in butter and served on a bed of mixed vegetables. This was accompanied by some thinly sliced fried potatoes. I drank a couple glasses of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc. For dessert I ordered my favorite crème caramel. It was delicious. This was a $50.00 meal; ridiculous by Lao standards, and the most I’d paid for a meal since my last night in Dubai at the beginning of this trip.

After my dinner indulgence, I needed to walk and directed myself through the town’s extensive Night Market. There, I ran into Hiten and Georgie. We shopped together. I saw a number of beautiful things but made no purchases. I’ll return tomorrow night. Kay won’t be disappointed with my buying on this trip.

May 31

My first impressions of Luang Prabang are very positive.  Smaller than Chaing Mai, it’s quieter with less traffic.

Luang Prabang

Out on the street I walked along the main drag towards the end of the peninsula, checking out shops, restaurants, temples, etc. as I went. It’s a beautiful street due to the number of French colonial buildings still standing and in use.

Wat Xieng Thong

At one shop that sold silver Hmong jewelry I bought Kay a silver bracelet I think she’ll like. I also looked at a beautiful wooden vase priced at about $80.00. I’d like to get it for less. I walked all the way to the end of the peninsula formed by the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Kahn rivers, and around to the Mekong side where I visited Wat Xieng Thong, the largest and most significant of the Luang Prabang temples. It was a royal temple begun by King Setthathirat in 1560. It remained under royal patronage until 1975 when the Pathet Lao took over the country. The layered roofs of the sim or main hall sweep low to the ground, a feature of northern Lao temple architecture. On the back wall of the sim is a tree-of-life mosaic made with brilliant pieces of colored glass on a red ground. There are other sanctuaries with Buddha figures, including one that is reclining.

I stopped in to a couple of other temple complexes on my way to Wat Xieng Thong. At one I spoke to a woman from Ecuador who spoke English without any discernible accent. She and her husband are visiting many of the temples and comparing their different architectures. I wish I knew more about the symbolism in these building. They are satisfying to look at. I have to admit, though, that I’m pretty tired of looking at representations of the Buddha. There are thousands of them in Southeast Asia.

In my ongoing quest to experience local food, I ate at Tum Tum Cheng’s, a restaurant recommended in the Lonely Planet.  I was its only customer and felt the service was pretty lackadaisical. I ordered an appetizer of steamed cabbage leaves stuffed with sticky rice and herbs. I was given a plate containing peanuts, minced lemon grass, and salt with which to garnish it. I had to wait quite a long time, which made me think this restaurant wasn’t quite ready to serve. Then again, I have to remember that this is a very slow time of year for the tourist trade. The tuk-tuk drivers around town are languishing for lack of business.

My main course at lunch was Mekong catfish cooked with a mix of onions, small round eggplants, broccoli, some kind of tough green stems, cucumber, kaffir leaves, and bamboo shoots that were like wood and not to be eaten. It also had minced lemon grass to add bitterness. I can’t say I enjoyed it very much. I ordered ice tea, forgetting to tell them not to add sugar, so of course they did.

After lunch I made my way slowly back to the guesthouse and took a shower. It really is too hot to be outside in the afternoon. I tried once again to use my computer to access the Internet. I can connect to the guesthouse network but can’t get Internet Explorer to open my Yahoo page.

I went out again in the early evening, passing through the Night Market and buying a colorful bag with straps for my purchases. I stopped at a sidewalk table and drank a Beerlao in its usual large bottle. While I was watching the passersby, I spotted Robin and invited him to join me. He’s still young-looking but at forty, older and more experienced than most of the travelers I’ve been seeing. There are quite a few floating around that I recognize from our boat trip. Robin will be joined by friends from home in a day or two and will travel on with them.

At the Night Market I bought a bedspread, pale green in color that is really nicely made. I know we can use it at home. I also bought a cushion cover and a small stuffed rabbit that I’ll give to Idil. I’m looking forward to being back

Wednesday, June 1

Luang Prabang

Only six more days until I fly home. This is my second and last day in L.B. It’s the nicest town I’ve visited in Southeast Asia. The two rivers – The Mekong and the Nam Khan — the surrounding mountains, the greenery, the laid-back atmosphere, and the local amenities all make this a great place to stay awhile. Its only problem from my perspective is the climate. I really find the heat and especially the humidity to be oppressive.

Told by the Manchester couple I met on the train in Vietnam that the Lao people were not friendly, I don’t find that to be true. When I smile at them, they return the smile.

This morning I went out early to be at the local morning market by 6 a.m. I stationed myself next to a tourist from Shanghai to wait for the monks to come and gather alms. In front of us and to the right a line of men and women sat on the curbside. The monks approached heading towards the seated people and towards us. It seems they had arranged themselves in descending order by age. First in line was a grey-haired monk and last was a young boy. As they passed each of the seated people put a little something into the monks’ begging bowls. It might be a handful of sticky rice, a piece of fruit or some other food item. When the monks had finished collecting, they arranged themselves in a line in front of their donors and chanted something that I took to be a kind of blessing. The donors bowed deeply in a sign of respect.

Next, I walked through the market taking more photos of the transactions taking place. It was busy and there was a lot of produce, fish, and meat to be seen.

At 6:30 am it was still quite dark under an overcast sky. I walked out onto the main road and past a couple of temples on my way back to my room. I saw monks sweeping their temple compounds.

By the time I came out again after showering and resting a bit, the sky was blue and the sun was shining brightly. I walked along the main road, stopping once to drink a cup of Lao coffee, strong and tasty. I walked on and found a restaurant serving a Western style breakfast. I sat for quite a while eating scrambled eggs with ham, bacon and sausage. My set breakfast included tea and half a baguette with butter and jam.

Royal Palace

Next, I crossed the street and entered the grounds of the former Royal Palace, now a museum. It had been closed yesterday, but now was open for a ticket price of 30,000 kip, a bit less than $4.00. On the grounds is a pavilion, like a temple built in modern times to house a special Buddha statue cast of a bronze, silver, and gold alloy.

King Sisavang Vong

There is also a large statue of King Sisavang Vong, Lao’s penultimate ruler. His was a solid figure with a very strong countenance. He looked every inch a king.

In the palace itself, built on a double cruciform plan by a French architect between 1904 and 1909, I toured the large entrance hall filled with Buddha statuettes and heads, including an ancient one given to the king by India. Behind the entry hall the throne room is magnificent with its red walls covered with mosaic figures of Japanese glass in many colors. These represent various Lao legends and myths. I was sorry I wasn’t able to bring my camera into the palace; I would have liked to have taken a few picture of these lovely walls.

In side rooms are more displays of ceremonial weapons, mostly swords, given by different countries. There are also portraits and photographs of various members of the royal families along with examples of the clothing they wore.

In the rear of the palace are the former apartments of the royal family left pretty much as they were when the King was forced to abdicate by the Pathet Lao in 1975.

Chomsey Hill

Leaving the palace, I crossed the road and climbed a couple of hundred steps to reach the top of Chomsey Hill, the highest point in the town. I took my time, stopping to rest and cool off near a Bodhi tree donated by India in 1957 to mark the 2,500th anniversary of the Buddha.

At the hilltop I could see the layout of the entire town, along with parts of the two rivers and the mountains beyond. It really is a beautiful part of the country.

Down on the main street, I sought out a place where I could get some ice tea. My morning’s exertions made me terribly hot and sweaty. As it turned out, the place I chose was where Hiten and Georgie were finishing their breakfast. They went off to visit a waterfall about 35 k from the city, while I returned to my room to check my email and type this journal. We agreed to meet for dinner tonight at 7 and say goodbye. I leave on a bus for Vientiane very early tomorrow morning.

I spent this last evening with Hiten and Georgie in a restaurant overlooking the Mekong. In the twilight the river looked especially beautiful. We ate Lao cuisine and drank Beerlao. Our final stop was for ice cream near the entrance to the Night Market. It was a restful day.