Dawn broke and we took a 90 minute drive down towards the Thai-Laos border at Chiang Kong. Paperwork, taxes, and some more taxes later we were officially in Laos, Land of a Thousand Elephants.
A further short bus ride after customs, along with the to be expected extortionate tourist tax and visa, and we were boarding the Luangsay riverboat, alongside 12 other passengers ranging from our favourite 2 couples: US naturalised Swiss dentist Alan and his lovely wife, who were travelling with Brigitte and her husband; to Scott, a wiry, slightly lonesome character from Arizona, a couple from the UK, and an initially frosty pair from France who, after some harrumphing around the place upon our arrival on the boat (I think they weren’t so keen on the idea of children on their luxury cruise) thawed after our two days together and turned out to be rather lovely. We were to be together for the next 48 hours, visiting various river villages often with no access whatsoever to the outside world bar the river., to end in Luang Prabang, the Unesco protected second city of Laos, somewhere we’ve been desperate to see for years.
Two days on the mighty Mekong must surely be one of the best ways to get a feel not just for this glorious, if polluted, river, which is the life source for so many, particularly in land-locked Laos. It was the start of the dry season, so comparatively the level was low, but it is a thing of tremendous beauty. The currents run strong, very strong in parts, and it requires considerable skill to manoeuvre the multiple eddies and whirlpools, that would be more accurately termed rapids in many parts. Add to that the rocks of all sizes and raggedness, plus those concealed under the muddied surface, and we felt huge admiration for the boat captains, all of whom navigate the river at surprising speed, without help of radar or rules. At the peak of the rainy season navigation gets treacherous indeed, as debris from villages and fallen trees accumulate in the middle of the water.
We were due to navigate just a small portion of the fantastic 4800km of the Mekong that runs from Tibet to Vietnam, with a stopover for the night and some stops in local villages and temples before Luang Prabang. With Thailand initially on our right, Laos on our left, we were rewarded with truly some of the most breathtaking views of misty green and blue mountains, oxen drinking at the river edge, temporary dry season vegetable patches grown on the exposed sandbanks, children bathing, elephants working…. a privileged window into Mekong life.
Like slow smiles rising out of the water, the local fishing boats glided past, men crouched over their nets ready to throw into the water. Makeshift fishing rods impossibly perched on rocks in the middle of the rapids. Larger thatched riverboats used to transport oxen and cargo, punctuated by extraordinary turbo dugouts that literally go past at breakneck speed carrying saffron-clad monks with motorbike helmets were the only thing to break the calm.
Our first stop was a village of just 500 people, belonging to the Khamu tribe, just one of Laos’s main tribal people. Of the 7.4 million strong population, just 120,000 live in Vientiane, the capital, and a further 80,000 in Luang Prabang. Many still live in villages such as these.
Interestingly, there was no enterprise or commerce here whatsoever. Villagers looked on disinterested as we walked through the scorching dirt streets, past clapboard houses on stilts to protect from rain, snakes, mice and scorpions, painted in faded reds and greens. In Laos, unlike many other places, men do the wicker weaving, and women the loom. Still a predominately animist people, senior members refuse photographs for fear the image will take away one of their souls.
How keenly we felt the injustice of our comfortable lives here. How much, at least in material terms, we have, and how little these villagers do. Our camp in the Philippines seems positively affluent compared to some of these hillside villages. Granted, they have water, fabulous lush countryside and can be well fed. But for our eyes at least, life seems challenging here to say the least, as it is plays out in very basic conditions: two outdoor shared bathing areas for the whole village, significant malaria and dengue during rainy season, and a shared latrine per house. With no road access, their lives depend on their fruit trees, coconuts, bamboo and own vegetables, with medicines and other basic needs fulfilled by the riverboats.
A smiling young girl washes her teddy bear in rather dirty looking water running off from the bathing area. Mothers sit in the darkness of their huts with their many babies. Bored looking teenagers sit on patios watching us walk past. Most Try their luck in the cities, but having limited education here- and very little English- many are forced to come back to the village. Everyone is friendly but detached. They don’t look unhappy, the village seems fairly clean under the circumstances, but they don’t seem particularly interested in us. A small toddler in a dirty t-shirt plays happily with a tyre and stick.
With just one doctor’s visit per month, many ailments are dealt with by the village shaman, in traditional animist tradition. Animism is still strong in Laos, alongside Buddhism and some Islam. As our lovely guide explained, himself an animist, they believe in the spirits, principally of their homes and the forests. Everyone has 31 souls, all of which can be affected for good or bad. Illness means a soul has been taken by a bad spirit: the shaman, a call for help to one’s ancestors, and potentially a sacrifice to pacify a bad forest spirit is the way to regain the afflicted soul.
Ancestors are remembered and revered, as are the dead. Bodies are often kept in the home for up to four days after death, for people of high status. Food is offered at each meal to the spirit of the deceased for the next 13 days, after which the spirit is ready to be released to join the rest of the family’s ancestors. It’s a rather wonderful way of immediate remembrance and mourning.
House spirits are celebrated every year during their own new year celebrations, accompanied by the sacrifice of a cockerel and construction of a new shrine. Depending on the tribe and lunar calendar, this tends to fall in April. Elder members in particular still near many tattoos, to ward off evil spirits.
As we boarded the boat once again, bound for our riverside lodge, feeling rather humbled to be able to escape that heat, bound for the fabulous Luangsay Lodge. Nestled in the trees just before Pak Beng and its collection of hostels where the other boats stop, this is a place of beautifully designed wooden cabins set half way up the mountainside, merging into the jungle behind, all with the most breathtaking views you could ask for. Arriving to chilled towels and lemongrass tea, we had two next door cabins that looked out over the sunset, over utter perfection. From inside, shutters all thrown wide open, we just had to stop, sit, and contemplate what must be one of the great spectacles this planet has to offer. Mists rising as the sky turned pink over the vast Mekong eddied below. The mountains disappeared in hues of orange and purple, and the reflections of riverboats turned into silhouettes that faded from view. Silence apart from the sound of cicadas and the occasional late boat, and some monster mosquitoes beginning to make known their presence.
Various gin and tonics and a fabulous Lao supper of minced pork and coriander, flash fried beef on Lao skewers, chicken lemongrass curry, vegetable and egg spring rolls, broccoli, carrots, cabbage, rice and sticky rice…. mango, watermelon and sticky rice balls with honey for pudding and it was time to roll back to the cabin.
Girls happily in bed, alberto making the most of the wifi in reception, I ready myself to burrow under the mosquito nets only to find a spider literally the size of the palm of a large hand awaiting me with glee.
Off I go, then, not to alberto who remains blissfully unaware on the phone, I enjoined the services of the two Lao concierges on night duty, for immediate assistance, and marched them back to the cabin. They saw the spider and said it was a baby, and that normally they were at least double the size, which obviously didn’t help a great deal. Something of a comedy act followed as the spider scuttled around the room and I declared I wasn’t going to let them leave until I saw a it physically leave the premises, dead or alive. Brooms, wooden sticks, torches and 10 minutes later it was safe to sleep.
Late as always the next morning, we grabbed breakfast and headed back down to the boat for an 8.30 departure. There had been an almighty storm the night before, swelling the river as a result.
Currents strong, the brooding mists began to rise off the river, and the morning sun started to break through the cloud. The faded mountain green typical of the dry season of yesterday had briefly given a new lease of life after the night rains, the banana tree leaves shining silver with moisture.
The cool was quickly burnt off by a searing heat, evident in the cracked mud of the shoreline further upstream. There didn’t seem to be much chance of riverside vegetable patches here. We sailed on to see teak plantations, banana, mango, coconut, papaya, pineapple and jackfruit trees, as well as wild banana in some places- the variety with lots of seeds favoured by monkeys. Villagers here practice slash and burn agriculture, which leaves a fair bit of their terrain unworkable for a while, and trees are prone to part ways with their roots on multiple occasions during storms. Farmers here would expect to earn perhaps 6 dollars a day, so many families try to supplement their wages with gold panning, something we saw on various occasions at the rivers edge. On a good day, people can apparently pan up to 10 dollars worth. Villagers wash clothes alongside the water buffalo while little boys swim boisterous downriver. Boats lying low, pregnant in the water after the rain….
There was accumulated debris and rubbish on the river today after the rains. Frankly it must be chock full of detritus, and it’s almost surprising any fish can survive at all. Once famous for catfish, that used to grow up to 3 metres, this has now been almost completely fished out. Apparently the Khmer Rouge used to blow them up for fun, one of their lesser atrocities.
The hours pass and it remains mesmerising. Occasional small valleys open up between the mountain ranges, flanked by riverbanks glittering with endless reserves of river sand, perfect for construction.
It’s a privilege to have time simply to watch, to observe. Time slips by without us realising, all of us rather spellbound by the slow pace.
Our first stop was a Lao- Buddhist and Khamu (and therefore animist) community living together in a village called Ban Bor. Here however, people made the most of our visit, offering up piles of handwoven scarves for five dollars a piece, showing us their traditional looms and weaves. Men weave stools and baskets in the background as the women drive a not very hard bargain. Here there are only 300 people, but they have a nearby school, water and electricity. Their clapboard houses painted in wonderful colours, now faded.
On we went, lunching aboard, ready for our final stop, the Tam Ting Caves. The village opposite, Ban Pak Ou has royal patronage having been given the task of looking after the cave temples. Looking out over a tributary framed by a majestic limestone mountain reminiscent of El Nido and Halong Bay,
The two natural limestone caves were found in the 8th century by southern Chinese immigrants and were soon appropriated for the worship of spirits. Long believed to be the home in particular of the Mekong river spirits, in the 14 century the Lao king married a Cambodian princess and brought Buddhism to the country, making Laos a Buddhist state, and converting the caves into a Buddhist temple. Artisans across the country were requested to make statues for the caves, and today there are over 4000 in one cave, and 2500 in the other- and counting.
Finally, at about 4.30 we neared Luang Prabang. Gradually houses appear high on the riverbanks, alongside huts and occasional golden stupas as civilisation beckons. Nevertheless, this is no swarming metropolis- a grand total of 5 boats made up the hub of the main port…. a grand staircase up to town awaited, thankfully with porters fitter than ourselves, so goodbyes were said and up we went….