Wednesday, 27 March 2013

... Indochina: Slow Boat To (Indo)China

With a history filled with imperialism and war, the communist country of Laos (Lao to the Laotians as it was the French who added the "s") is sandwiched between Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma and China. So, imagine a mystical country with brooding jungles home to tigers & leopards, jagged limestone cliffs and the meandering yet mighty Mekong River. Along with Cambodia and Vietnam, it wasn't too long ago that Laos was boycotted by much of the West. Despite the communist history however, leaders of all three countries seem to be embracing change with the balance of Eastern capitalism and Eastern communism. It's an exciting time to visit! Welcome to Laos!

For me it meant queuing just before 8am waiting for the Thai immigration to open at the Tha Reua Bak pier in the northern end of Chiang Khong. As you queue you can read with interest the rules of entering Laos on a huge board, which included verbatim:

"Do not have any drugs (illegal drugs), weapon, and prohibit stuff"

"If traveler has an affair with Laos people that did not been the couple - it's illegal. If infringe would be remarry detain and pay for 500 - 1000 US dollar and return that traveler back to country"

"Traveler should realize that Thai and Laos language is too closed and simply understanding. Therefore don't despise and use scathing word as a funny story or make a fight to each other between Thai and Laos"

You have been warned!

Once those formalities were done it was a long-tail boat ride across the Mekong River to Huay Xai and the Laos immigration post.

I've always told myself I would never ever get onto a boat that appeared to be overloaded with weight. Unfortunately I was already on the boat prior to them adding a bunch of cargo. Better yet, it didn't appear that well balanced either. I felt like I was riding in a boat that had been lowered and should be sporting alloy rims and blue halogen lights. There's a boom box in the back, right? Can someone please point out where the life jackets are? I'm pretty certain I was actually sat below water level. Thankfully the ride took all of 5 minutes.

Once crossing into Laos it was time to apply for my visa. Not sure why but Canadians get dinged the highest out of everyone for this visa, $42USD, and they won't accept old looking bills either. The whole process of applying for and then getting your visa was a bit of a gong show. You hand over your filled out forms (one for arrival, one for the visa), your passport and one passport photo. Then you wait.... And wait.... And wait some more until they call your name. Then you pay them your visa fee. It took around an hour thanks to the arrival of several boats at once. I was also able to finally get my hands on some Kip, the Laotian currency which you cannot get this outside of Laos. With an exchange rate of around $1USD to 7900 Kip I was almost a millionaire.

If time is on your side, like me, you take a slow boat to Luang Prabang over two days with a night in Pak Beng village. I suspect your experience will depend on the condition of the boat and the number of people on it. These boats can hold up to 70 people and there are tales of more than 100 people being crammed on like a huge floating sardine can. If you can opt for a boat with train-style seats... Yes slightly less authentic but your back will thank you after 2 days of being on a boat. Take plenty of water, something to eat and a sense of adventure!

Traveling through the highly scenic Oudomxay Provence in Northern Laos along the mighty Mekong river is something else. Thick jungle forests rise upwards to give some of Laos most rugged terrain. The river gives this eerie sense of calm yet I suspect has quite the current.

At first you think to yourself "what's with all the litter" as you see plastic bottles strewn everywhere. These are actually makeshift buoys for fishing nets. Bamboo fishing rods and nets are set up sporadically along the river bank providing a source of food. I didn't see many villages along the river however people were seen panning (for gold!), washing & fishing, water buffalo hydrated themselves and children played & enthusiastically waved at you as you sailed by.

Occasional "fast boats" overtook us (6-7hr trip to Luang Prabang) and long-tail boats provided villagers with a means to travel up and down the river. Judging from the tide marks along the bank however the water level seemed quite low, likely as a result of a huge hydroelectricity dam built north of the border in China. Laos and Cambodia seem set to follow suit, which could have a huge ecological impact on the region and it's wildlife.

You feel an utter sense of calm and contentment as you sail along feeling a gentle breeze, smelling the fresh air, perhaps reading a book (or two as was my case), listening to music and may be taking a nap. Bliss.

Pak Beng is about halfway between Huay Xi and Luang Prabang on the Mekong river. About 300 people live here and to call it sleepy would be an understatement. It is essentially one street. The most excitement is when a rooster starts crowing at dawn. It was wonderful! My digs for the night was at the wonderfully rustic Mekong River Lodge, literally perched on the slopes of the river bank, my room being a hut on stilts overlooking the river complete with mosquito netting for your bed.

The mozzies came out around 630pm but thankfully it's not monsoon season so it wasn't too bad. I suspect I'm am now oozing Deet from my pores and its somewhat keeping them at bay. It was very hot and humid upon arrival almost 7 hours after leaving Huay Xi but cooled somewhat once the sun had set. A quick walk around the village afforded nothing but genuine smiles and a sweet curiosity about you from the locals. It was market day - stalls of fresh produce, freshly caught fish from the river (still alive... How much fresher can you get!?!), chickens, pigs... It was wonderful.

Eats was, believe it or not, at a restaurant that specializes in... Indian food! However Hashan also serves a lot of traditional Laotian dishes too including water buffalo and Mekong fish. I opted for the latter, despite the extensive range of veggie options, and it was delicious. Phakdee bakery provided me with a freshly baked apple croissant (French influence?) for my lunch tomorrow.

A quick note: Laos is an incredibly conservative country. Be a mindful traveler, especially in the villages, where people have covered their bodies for centuries out of religious observation. Pack a pair of trek pants and a longer sleeved top for when you disembark the boat. No-one needs to see you shaking what your mama gave you! Besides think of it as less skin for the bugs to attack!

For those interested, one of the books I read is titled "Until I Say Good-Bye" by Susan Wendel-Spencer, a terminally-ill woman with ALS. I highly recommend it.

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