Laos travel 18: Mekong two-day slow-boat and Pakbeng
From my journal: The boat finally leaves, not full, but with a spacious mix of men, women and a few kids, at noon. And so we journey. A long narrow wooden boatload of people mostly unaccustomed to doing nothing, really, for eight hours. The engine puttering. Past impenetrable jungle and hide-away settlements.
People, individually, in pairs, in small groups, take turns going to the back; to smoke, or not smoke. A small stove-like grate is on slow burn, for butts. Some had back just to chat in the open section.
There is a loo inside. You put paper in the bin. There is big sky above the path the river has cut. The Mekong. Mysterious. The world’s 12th-longest river and the seventh-longest in Asia, I read on Google. A working river but minutes go by with no sign of a “fast boat” — then one comes by with a washing machine balanced on it.
Fellow passengers are chatting. Dozing. I am not the only one journaling. Some Danish kids have comic books. It feels lazy, unaccustomed as we are to the slow pace and no entertainment, except what you make of it all. Munching is one of the displacement activities.
The jungle — impenetrable and brooding
It’s like stepping back in time. Way back. The people in the settlements we pass. Cannot imagine how they get there. Is there a there, there? OK. Not original, but apt. And, well, they got there via the river, of course. The jungle for the most part looks impenetrable. Brooding. And yes, foreboding.
The boat driver’s bed is in the back room where the backpacks are piled. His wife sits at the table of “for sale” provisions. Beer. Chips. Instant noodles. “Take your own extra food. There’s not much on the boat and it’s pricey,” my EasyTrip friend had advised me the previous night. There’s a toddler who sleeps then wakes and is given noodles.
There’s a boy of maybe eight. His mom makes sure he has an afternoon nap and later, it is he who helps his dad with the landings. This is their life. Their business. Their survival strategy. We are passing through, each of us on our own paths, living our lives; ours dissecting theirs for this brief intersection of time.
There is a mellow feel on the boat. Unreal and real at the same time. Different but the same.
We tie up at Pakbeng
We tie up at Pakbeng. I am booked in just up the hill. At Monsavan. A middle-aged man shows me my room. Can I rather be upstairs? More light, I think. He nods. I head up and look. Can I come back down? He nods.
Across the single narrow road that buzzes with scooters and is lined with places to eat, is the Monsavan bakery.
Settle after walking the one-street town from end to end on the Ounhouan Restaurant where the sign outside — repeated in small print on a xeroxed copy-paper business card I have — is: “My wife is a very good cook. Just Chilin Same/Same — but Better.” Plus “We cook traditional food in our own wood fired oven and if (sic) is the bester (sic) in pakbeng we offer free WiFi Lao banana whisky and you will also get a free dessert!”
Must be like tuff old shoe
Settle on the Mekong water buffalo larb or laap. “Must be like eating tuff piece of old shoe. Jap man must be interesting conversation??” My friend Robin Whatsapps, when I get on WiFi, see a note from him, and we have a trans-world exchange. Nail on head, I tell him.
The water buffalo is 30,000 kips and a soda water 8,000 kips. Disconcerting at face value.
At another place, nearer me, later, I have the dessert of sticky rice, fresh mango and coconut milk. Could anything be tastier? Can’t imagine what…
Get a Whatsapp from Noi from EasyTrip to try the morning croissant from the Monsavan Bakery for brek.
This I do, after the sweet early morning vision of young boy monks walking up the street opposite me with their begging bowls. In gentle rain.
Have my first Lao coffee
Have my first Lao coffee. Get pastries to go with my chicken sandwich lunch provided for day two of the slow boat trip.
Which is slow to get going. I record in my journal annoyances and complaints from the three French journos and the Dutch couple. How much we forget that’s not immediately recorded. Not remembered, not worth remembering? I do remember the three balsy French journos. Fondly.
And so we head on, another eight hours, to the outskirts of Luang Prabang — and then having to buy a ticket for 20,000 kip to crowd into a tuc-tuc taxi for transport to my bookings-com lodgings. And what new discoveries?
© Wanda Hennig 2016, story and photos.
Next up: Laos travel 19. Learning about Luang Prabang and Laos