A slow boat to Luang Prabang
Through the mist and frequent rain showers, the Pak Ou boat chugs leisurely along the Mekong River towards Luang Prabang in Laos. The drumming of the motor is like a lullaby while the softly rocking boat feels like a giant hammock. The guides and cabin crew cover the boat with a clear plastic sheet to protect us from the rain but the playful chilly breeze sneaks through the sides and numbs our noses. The guides hand us poncho-like blankets to keep us warm, a welcome gesture as we are spending seven to eight hours a day on the river during our two-day trip.
Our trip starts in Thailand where we board a small long-tailed boat in Chiang Rai’s Chiang Khong district to cross the Mekong to Huay Xai on the Lao side of the border. The weather gods are not on our side and the small craft is buffeted by rain, wind and the rough current. The women passengers shriek with fear as we pitch and roll, but the ordeal is over in five minutes and we are safely on the other side.
After going through immigration, we board the Pak Ou, a 34m-long barge with open air seating for 40 people. The boat has a bar, toilet facilities and a galley. With coffee tables between each pair of facing bench seats, we have space to place our drinks and snacks for the long hours. A lazy traveller, like me, eyes the huge seat over the large compartment where the luggage is stored. As soon as every item of baggage is loaded, I jump on the huge seat, curl up under the blanket, and settle down with a good book.
The drizzle has just stopped when we reach the Hmong village of Ban Hoei Lampane. Children shout and point at our barge and in less than five minutes the villagers, mostly women and children, are rushing down the steep slope to the bank, brandishing hand-made wristbands and bags and shouting the prices in their own language.
Unlike the villagers, who can run up and down the muddy slope with no problems, 30 of us struggle up the bank only to be confronted by a walkway that reminds me of the sticky chocolate river in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. As I’m about to step on the driest spot I can find, the sound of something falling makes me stop. One of our colleagues has slipped on the mud-caked walkway. As his attempts to right himself prove hilariously unsuccessful, we decide to call it quits and make our way back to the boat.
Before sunset we arrive at Luang Say Lodge in Pak Beng, a small port village halfway between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang. The bitterly cold weather has most of us lingering around the fireplace rather than going back to our non-heated rooms.
The next day, we visit the morning market, 10-minutes drive from Luang Say Lodge. The tiny market is full of life since it is close to the Pak Beng pier where the public boats travel to Luang Prabang and Huay Xai everyday. With roads in this part of the country scarce, the Mekong is the main transport channel for all the villages on the river,
The sun is kissing the yellowish river as we leave Pak Beng and the cruise is infinitely more enjoyable with no rain. Our first stop is Ban Baw, a village well known for cloth-weaving and rice whisky. Along both sides of the walkway, villagers lay the woven cloth on the floor to showcase its colorful pattern to passing visitors. Unfortunately, the whiskey brewer is off today, so we miss the chance to taste the famous mountain dew.
The last stop before reaching Luang Prabang is Tham Ting or Ting Cave where thousands of Buddha images are stored. The temple, 30 minutes away from Luang Prabang, was originally dedicated to the spirits of the river and was converted into a Buddhist temple during the 15th century.
“There are two caves burrowing into the cliff. The cave on the lower level contains more Buddha images but the cave on the upper level was the temple where the king of Luang Prabang performed a Buddha bathing ceremony at Laos New Year. The king would pour fragrant water into a beautifully decorated wooden vessel in the shape of a naga, which was placed over the Buddha images.
“The Buddha images you see here are just a fraction of the real number since when the Mekong’s level is high, it will flood this cave and some Buddha images are gone with the tide,” our guide explains.
The Mekong’s shifting bed, huge jagged rocks and her unpredictable waters often stir fear in the hearts of those who live along her banks, as she runs through from the Tibetan plateau through China’s Yunnan province into Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Viet Nam. But the river is also a benevolent mother, who has been feeding millions people for hundreds of years.
And as we continue our journey into the land of a million elephants, the charm of the Mekong slowly seeps into our souls.
If you go
Mekong Cruises operates three boats from/to Huay Xai and Luang Prabang. The renovated boats have a capacity for 40 people on comfortable seats and benches.
Each cruise departure has both a French and English speaking guide able to answer questions and point out any sights of interest along the way.
For all inclusive package information, call (+662) 689 0425 or visit www.LuangSay.com.
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