At Chiang Kong, Thailand, we crossed the Friendship Bridge to Houayxay, Laos. Excited to be taking the slow boat along the Mekong, through the jungle and mountains. I thought of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness .
Having found ourselves on the backpacker route, we have fallen in with a mixed crew of young international travellers. Canadian Dave and the Dutch twins, are on a similar journey and we now have a nodding acquaintance with many other faces that seem familiar from the bus or boat journey.
We had became surrogate parents to homesick adventurer Kayleigh, a shy young English woman. She was literally willing herself to be more outgoing, while the youthful Germans Stella and Matt had invited us out to dinner saying “you guys are so cool, for old people!” I laughed wondering if my own children would share that view.
The slow boat was surprisingly quick but slow in comparison to the fast moving small rocket nosed speed boats that screamed past, like arrow heads across the water. The slow boat itself took about 50 people in old bench car seats and reminiscent of an old Melbourne W Class tram chugging along open to the elements.
The scenery was breathtaking: Sailing through the fast moving, turgid, spiralling whirlpools then narrowly passing rocky island outcrops, that left us gasping. Dotted along the course of the Mekong, small fishing villages rose out of the lush steep sandy banks, where water buffalo, goats and wild boar shared the rich delta country with farmers who were busy tending neat rows of freshly planted crops and fishermen who were tending their nets . I scanned the jungle for evidence of elephants among the banana and palm plantations that reached up from the steep gullies towards the limestone cliffs
Fuelled by cheap Beer Lao, an increasingly loud and excitable group of backpackers had congregated towards the rear of the boat, exchanging war stories, sharing joints and generally getting to know one another.
To our amusement, a young English woman peeled off her shorts to reveal the recent tattoo on her upper thigh announcing to anyone who was listening “It says feel the fear, try everything. But I want to get it removed because I’m scared of everything!” She didn’t receive much sympathy.
“I’m getting one that says- I’m allergic to stupid people” a voice said to much laughter.
We stayed overnight in a very basic guest house in the small riverside village of Pak Beng, with its unmade streets, mangy dogs and gekos scampering along the walls. It wa rudimentary by western standards but I’ve stayed in worse places. However, when the intermittent electricity finally failed, a couple of young honeymooners were brought to tears. We walked out on the street and had our first taste of Lao food Laab and noodle soup it was delicious.
Laos is a very poor country, with a grim colonial past. Tourism provides an opportunity for village people to make a few dollars, so while the slow boat could navigate the river right into Luang Prabang, the crew dropped us 10 kilometers from town, where tuk tuk drivers, competed with each other for our fare. Some passengers were angry, feeling ripped off, but it’s only a couple of dollars for the tuk tuk and it’s their chance for a piece of the pie
Joy House, our hostel by the Mekong in the old city of Luang Prabang sounds like a house of ill repute but it was a great cheap hotel close to the night market full of stunning delicious Lao street food. The green papaya salad was especially tasty. Sitting on the verandah of an old French colonial building in the steamy tropical heat, slow moving ceiling fans gently mixed the sweetly flavoured perfumes of flowers food and fruit into an intoxicating soothing balm that wafts through the evening air.
A long wild winding bus ride through some of the most beautiful remote countryside I have ever imagined took us to Vang Vieng. The Nam Song river there was once famous for tubing, partying and opium but quieter now since the well publicised drowning deaths of young backpackers, many of them Australian in the last few years.
After a couple of days we made our way to Vientanne the Laos capital, a vibrant, exotic, eclectic city. There’s much to do here : We visited the COPE centre where artificial limbs are made for the many ongoing victims of the “Secret War”, which saw the American military turn Laos into the most bombed country in history with an estimated 270 million cluster bombs dropped on Laos , they are still killing and maiming 40 years later.
At the Lao Trade Union Development Institute we were warmly welcomed by our comrades at Union Aid Abroad (APHEDA) where Khampasog, Vilada and Soulisa happily talked us through the various projects APHEDA were working on to assist workers particularly in the area of occupational health and safety training.
Its also been great to catch up with Pete and Bernice, Australian friends from Footscray. After a few more days exploring the delights of Laos we plan to make our way back to Bangkok on the 2 class overnight sleeper train and from there to another exotic locale.