Highlight of this trip was the boat trip from Laos to Thailand on the Mekong River
10.03.2005 - 18.03.2005 30 °C
Travel Notes : Laos March 2005
Early trip to airport to join Bangkok Airways flight to Laos. It was on time and I got to Luang Prabang at 1pm, got my visa on arrival ($30 for 15 days) and checked into the Sayo Guest House in the center of town. It is slightly overpriced ($25 a night .. it would be $12 in Thailand) for a large room with all mod cons in the former servants’ quarters at the rear of the colonial style house (rooms in the main house $35 to $40). I spent nearly a week in Luang Prabang last year and my main purpose in coming here this time was to catch the boat which takes two days upriver on the Mekong River to Thailand.
One of the treats of Luang Prabang is to have drinks at sunset along the Mekong River .. I followed this by dinner at a smart restaurant .. Coleurs … had an interesting stew of local vegetables and mushrooms. The food is not as spicy as in Thailand but the flavours are intense.
I walked around town and noticed many changes compared with a year ago. There are many more Internet shops and tour offices and fewer places selling the things local people need. Perhaps most alarming is that the colourful local Dara market is closed for redevelopment. The old building appears to be under restoration but somehow I fear that the new improved market will be selling tourist trinkets instead of barbed wire and agrochemicals. Closing the market also means that many of the quiet corners of the town are now taken over by the tribal people selling handicrafts (they used to be located one the fringes of Dara Market).
My favourite spot, a small park where the two rivers converge was a delightful place last year but now has lots of stalls selling textiles and tourist crap. I did manage to find a quiet spot to write up my journal only to be interrupted by a young man (16 years old) who seemed plausible enough at first until I realized it is the same story I have been hearing in that part of the world for years. Claimed to be a novice in a nearby temple until a week ago when the head monk threw him out because his family did not send food or money
(a Thai friend later told me this is most unlikely). Anyway, he was looking for someone to pay for his English lessons… father dead, mother in remote village 3 hours away .. not enough to eat (but I note he had all the most up to date clothing and a cell phone). I finally got rid of him. I am not saying there were not con artists last year, just that I did not encounter any …
Perhaps it was not my day.. my sunset drink was ruined by a party of 10 senior age Germans arguing about how to divide the meager bill for their Cokes and drinking water. A young Australian couple sitting near me were getting angry because these people were disturbing the peace and quiet and also blocking the view of the sunset as half of them stood around the table arguing. Finally I exercised my schoolboy German and said ‘Sitzen Sie sich, Bitte (Seat down … Please). One man came over to me as if to start an argument when the young Australian fellow made his views known in more forceful terms, supporting me. The German scampered and they sat down but still ignored the sunset .. their tour guide finally came and led them away. I thought of Noel Coward’s song ..
Why do the wrong people travel?
Travel they say improves the mind,
An irritating platitude
Which frankly, entre nous
Is very far from true.
Personally I’ve yet to find
That longitude and latitude
Can educate those scores
Of monumental bores
Who travel in groups and herds and troupes
Of various breeds and both sexes, till the whole world reels
To shouts and squeals
And the click of Rolliflexes.
Why do the wrong people travel When the right people stay back home?
Noel Coward (from Sail Away)
By the way, this roadside restaurant is part of the Boungnosang Guest House – my favourite spot for sunset drinks and the best spring rolls ever! Not greasy, paper thin pastry, tasty veggie filling … and less than a dollar for a ample portion of three spring rolls.
Dinner at the Elephant .. a posh French restaurant near the Villa Santi. Unfortunately they have scrapped the Laotian meals they had last year and it now seems to feature meat in various forms including wild game (deer, wild boar). The highlight was the watercress soup .. it was such a deep green colour that I suspected additives but when I saw it in the market next day I realised it was genuine and recalled that this part of Laos is known for its watercress. I followed it with spicy sausages …. The place was packed with tourists living it up .. while dear by local standards (main course US $8 to $12) it seems cheap for the French in particular .. the quality and atmosphere are excellent.
Friday 11 March
I was having breakfast at the Luang Prabang Bakery when Gary came along. His wife Nao joined us with a complicated story about tax and labour law problems ; all of which she placed at his doorstep. Because she tore up their marriage license in a fit a pique, they may have to get married again .. cheaper than paying the bribe to get a copy of the first license. What a country! What a marriage!
Drinks in the evening with Gary at Nao’s Place (previously the Bakery Bar). The police now insist on 11pm closing. So I got home early and in good shape to join the boat tour next morning.
Saturday 12 March
The monks were doing their begging round when I walked to the boat landing. Mostly older local people have cooked rice ready which they add to the begging bowls which the monks carry. There were 100 monks (young and old ..) so that is a lot of rice. Some enterprising local tribal women tried to sell me rice to give to the monks but I did not think it was appropriate. This is an interesting custom and while I am fairly sure it is not their sole source of food, it keeps the monks grounded and well connected to the local population .. I wonder how well priests or Church or England vicars would do if that were the custom in England?.
The boat is nice .. it was designed for 34 people and as there are only 14 of us, there is a lot of room to spread out. We had breakfast after setting out .. enjoying dawn on the Mekong River. The haze in nearby mountains makes it look very much like one of those Chinese paintings. Our plan is a two day trip to Thailand – 160 kms ( 99 miles) the first day, overnight at a hotel which belongs to the boat company, then 140 kms ( 86 miles) the second day.
We were going 16 to 20 miles an hour and were being passed by the high speedboats which carry 6 passengers. These are long narrow boats with an auto engine mounted at the rear (usually a VW engine, I was told) with a propeller welded to the driveshaft . The noise from these high speed boats is deafening. They travel at nearly 45 miles an hour and have a poor safety record.
I was expecting something special from this trip and certainly was not disappointed, This is a remote part of South East Asia; there were no towns of any size and only a few villages. The river has rugged rock formations on each bank (and sometimes rugged rock rapids), with steep hills which often turn into mountains. There is a great deal of white sand forming banks and when the rocks protrude from the sand, it looks like a Japanese garden (OK .. before you complain .. I should say it looks like my idea of a Japanese garden). Some of rocks are a rose colour but my attempts to catch this in a photo failed. An hour from Luang Prabang we stopped at the Buddha caves .. I was hear last year but this time it was not so overrun with people. I noticed a statue of Buddha with hand folded across his stomach ; this was new to me and the guide said it represented reflection. I wonder if this one is a Lao invention, cannot recall seeing it in Thailand.
Back on the river there seems to be another boat every 20 minutes or so including a cargo boat carrying logs which had a huge satellite dish on top .. somehow I suspect that this is not for picking up CNN or Lao television .. I smell nefarious activity, We met the sister boat in our fleet and it was packed .. this made me realize how lucky we are to have so much space.
We stopped at a ‘Whisky Village’ where hill tribes make some local hooch. This firewater is sold in cities as Lao Lao (I had some at Gary’s birthday party last year). The village has 36 families – mostly agricultural workers (or possibly poppy growers?). They had clean drinking water from several communal taps in the village and there is a primary school ; the adjacent village has a secondary school. This place did not have the 'human zoo’ feeling that I have seen in similar places in Thailand, but it still makes me uncomfortable. These people set up tables and perhaps 20 women are trying to sell handicrafts or antiques, but none of my group is interested … I donated to the school fund which I felt justified taking up their time but basically I think these people might be better off not getting involved with these boat tour groups.
I never tired of watching the river, the rock formations and marveling at the skill of the captain to negotiate some very tricky rapids – quite treacherous in places. There are many narrow gaps to negotiate and he did this for 10 hours with only the occasional break. We arrive at our overnight stop (Pakbeng) at 6:30 pm. The hotel is very atmospheric with rattan and bamboo huts with all mod cons, smart design, lovely linens on the bed. Probably best described as elegant rustic if that makes any sense. We were the only guests there and had a nice dinner .. I chatted with several people from the boat and especially with a French speaking Canadian mother / daughter team who sang the praises of Montreal in summer … music festivals all summer long...
Early to bed but the countryside is so noisy that I did not get to sleep until late. It was a shame that we had so little time to enjoy this hotel .. lovely setting and well designed. It was dark shortly after we arrived and we had to be up for 6:30 breakfast.
Sunday 13 March
No electricity when I got up at 6:00 and I had to shower and shave with aid of a torch (flashlight) but of course, the power came back on just before I left the room. Breakfast a weird affair .. too sweet! The drink which looked like apple juice was very sweet – could it be diluted honey? Mango was OK but accompanied by rice with coconut .. more sweet!
Back on the river .. I wish I knew more about the geology of this region. Most rivers (and certainly places like the Grand Canyon or Copper Canyon) look as though water (and possible wind) have eroded the soil and cut through layers rock and soil. This river has such jagged rocks that it looks more like the fissure of an earthquake which then filled with water. Extraordinary landscape. There were very few rounded rocks (the type you normally see in a river).
Every mile or so we saw people fishing or working in plots along the river. It was odd to see small (say 6 or 8 years old) kids playing right at the edge of this fast flowing river without an adult nearby. I guess these kids can swim by the time they can walk. This got me to thinking about the quality of life issue – although these people are poor, the kids have a freedom which is lost in the ‘civilised world’ where parents do not let children out of their sight.
We passed a logging camp with working elephants – very picturesque until you look up and see how the mountain side has been gouged with no apparent attempts at replanting. Surely this will mean more erosion, more mud in the river. More silting up, etc.
We stopped at another village which really set me to thinking about the effect of tourism on these people. Much of the stuff they are selling is brought in, they dress in their tribal costume to create some sense of authenticity (most of the people in the village who were not selling wore normal western clothing).
Why can’t I just travel and not start analyzing everything? Reminds me of the New Yorker cartoon .. lady to a travel agent ‘ We just want a vacation – we don’t want to learn anything’.
4 hours from Pakbeng and the landscape changes .. the mountains are now off in the distance and the river banks flatten out to a broad plain. The rugged rocks are not as frequent and the whole effect is less dramatic. There is still interest because now there are more towns and eventually we reach the Thai border on the left … quite a contrast in posterity to the Lao side on the right.
I spoke to the guide about my one disappointment – we saw no giant catfish (Mekong catfish are huge .. 2 to 3 meters long and up to 300 kilos in weight). He said they are bottom feeders and are rarely seen and it is no longer legal to catch them so very few people have seen any for years.
We arrive a Housie Xai around 5:15 pm. There as a fairly hectic trip through Lao immigration , a ferry across to the Thai side and entry procedures there. Two days of being coddled has its effect – it was a rude shock to have to deal with reality again.
I came to Singapore to check out the much talked about liberalization of the city since Lee Yuan Yew gave up direct control. It certainly is a more open city and the contrast with Bangkok rather marked. As Bangkok becomes more Victorian (alcohol sales in Bangkok now limited like the bad old days in Britain. Sales from 11am to 2pm and then again from 5pm to 11pm. Bars to close at midnight except for certain designated entertainment zones) Singapore swings until late (3 am in most cases) and there seem to be an amasing number of thinly disguised brothels (Talk Cock Sing Song along from my hotel was one that caught my eye). Yet most of the city seems devoted to its favourite activity – the making and spending of money.
Tuesday 29 March
Afterthoughts and Facts
• Mekong River
BBC Radio announced that Laotian dam project have been given OK by World Bank in spite of big questions aver the environmental (and indeed economic) impact
• Birds on the Mekong
"I was struck by the absence of bird life ; I saw none, and only occasionally did a bird’s cry filter from the forest above me to the left. …. It was eerie that one hears more birdcalls in New York’s Central Park than outside a Laotian village".
Pages 149 - 150. The River’s Tale by Edward Gargan.
Sao Guest House
$25 per night (over priced but this is an expensive town for Laos)
Boat trio (deluxe)
Luang Say Cruises
Sakarine Road, Luang Prabank, Laos
I booked this two days before departure .. only $170 because they have so few takers on what they consider the return trip …. Normal fare is $300 plus a $50 single supplement coming downriver from Thailand to Laos.