Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Slow Boat Down The Mekong

Taking a slow boat down the Mekong from Houayxai in the Northernmost border between Thailand and Laos has been an unforgettable experience, the perfect introduction to what is meant to be one of the most beautiful countries in the world.

As the sun set behind the mountains and I admired its red reflection on the water, my somber mood from the last few days lifted.

On Sunday we had left Chaing Mai very early in the morning.

We arrived in Chiang Kong on the Thai side of the border mid afternoon on Sunday and I was slightly worried about crossing that late on the day. I had had a bad experience crossing in the afternoon into Cambodia.

However, both Crystel and Carles were keen to get to the other side, and clearly there was not a lot going on in the town.

After getting your passport stamped out of the country you take a long boat for a short journey across the Mekong. Despite my worries getting into Laos was very simple with little paper work given to us on arrival, although at $36 I thought it was steep.

It was easy to find a guest house, and now that I'm not traveling alone, a lot cheaper.

There was a festival in the evening organized by the local temple. The simplicity of their games and prizes gave me an idea of how different this country is from Thailand.

From this town most people take a slow boat down to the old capital, Louang Phabang, or some may go to the North part of the country where there are some of the wildest and greenest landscapes.

I aim to visit the North later on in the trip so I decided to take the slow boat the following morning. At the beginning I was a bit disappointed with the boat, it seemed full of tourists and maybe not the cargo boat I had hoped for. In hindsight I'm glad I at least had a seat. Also cargo and locals joined us later as it stopped in several places throughout the two days.

We stopped over for the night in Pakeb, some God forsaken place set up to provide accomodation to tourists on these boats. It wasn't a particularly nice experience. As soon as we arrived the local kids, and some men not so young, rushed onto the boat, and started taking people's backpacks, hoping you will pay them to take it up the hill. The problem was that it had become dark and all the bags had been left in one part of the boat all together.

In the dark no one could see where their bags were, so people started getting a bit cranky. It didn't help that each time someone located their possessions they had to retrieve it from an 'unwilling non English-speaking Lao'.

After getting a room with my two new travel companions, we joined some other people for dinner and some free rice whiskey, an evil white creamy drink, but really what were we expecting for free?

The whole town shuts at 10.30pm when the electricity is switched off, but as we had an early start we were all happy to hit the sack. I'm afraid though that I decided to go on a little bit of sleepwalking. I woke up slightly frightened in the back garden in my boxer shorts and wondering where the hell I was. It took me several minutes to realize that I was in 'the middle of nowhere' and that I needed to get back to my room.

The journey down the river takes you through some outstanding landscapes. There are lush semi tropical forests, sandy beaches mixed with sharp rock formations and some farmland. 75% of the country is covered by unmanned vegetation half of which is forest, a result of a lightly populated country. As we travelled down for two days we hardly saw any villages at all, getting a sense of how empty this country is, especially noticeable having crossed from Thailand.

My only regret on taking the boat at this time of the year is that the lights and colours are diminished by the smog that covers the region. Farmers are busy slashing and burning and the smoke got thicker as we got nearer our destination.

On the second day a mixture of smog and fog reduced the visibility even further and an eerie feeling embraced us we travelled east towards Louang Phabang. As tributaries join the Mekong gets wider and deeper, though it also seemed to be getting a lot more polluted with bottles floating on the surface all along the way.

I met some very interesting people on the boat, and got a few ideas for my trip. I'm really considering going onto Burma, although it's going to be a hard one to do on my own, and I won't meet many people there. However, everyone says it is a fascinating country, completely untouched by tourism.

There were 3 guys with their bikes, one of them Catalan. He's cycling around the world, and his final leg will take him through Mongolia, China, the old Soviet Republics, Iran and then back to Europe... now that is a trip!!!!

I am going to spend two or three days in Louang Phabang. The old capital sits in a valley of green mountains and was declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1995. It is a beautiful mixture of local architecture and French colonial style.

Boats docked by the Mekong...

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