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Slow Boat to Northern Laos

The humidity of the summer in Laos enveloped me like a cloud. The heat like blanket I am unable to remove. I try to remain still. If I don’t move a muscle, I’ll stop sweating & maybe my shirt will dry out.

It’s all in vain though, as the sweat seeps out of my pores & the sun moves ever higher in the sky following. The morning rains that have swept away the refuse of the streets & an almost tangible tranquility encompassed the world.

‘Get there before it all changes’ seems to be the penultimate catch cry of travellers the world over & Laos is no exception. The city of Luang Prabang in Laos’ north had so captured my attention that the 3-day journey from Bangkok seemed irrelevant. Although the added attraction of 2 days on the mighty Mekong river certainly enhanced the trip.

The boats’ engine roared into life & the serenity was instantly shattered. A roaring diesel motor that pounded my ears for the next 6 hours as I made my way down the majestic Mekong river to the riverside village of Pakbeng.

The ride up from the hustle of Bangkok hadn’t prepared me for the peacefulness that inevitably descends upon you upon arriving in Laos. This landlocked country that has withstood, whether through choice or otherwise, the rapid onslaught of the modern world & all its vices remains a mystery to many. The Mekong slowly slipped by as my mind settled into ‘Lao pace’ and we steamed off down river.

It’s a day to the overnight stop at Pakbeng followed by another to Luang Prabang. The boat, a long vessel with a poor sense of balance, measured about 6 feet across which meant proximity to the other passengers was well into ones ‘personal space’. Its high centre of gravity confined all passengers to the lower cabin not allowing anyone to sit on the roof. I found a comfort in the roar of the motor. Without the ability to talk with ease to those around me, I was able to take in all the majestic river & surrounding countryside had to offer.

The Lao people are an interesting mix of ethnic minorities with some 85% of the population inhabiting rural areas. As we sidled down I watched as the mountain’s defences would occasionally recede & allow a few basic wooden huts comprising a village to exist along the shores of the river. Semi – clad children played by the waters edge. Every now & then water buffalo would appear by the riverbank, cooling their bones in the humidity of the afternoon. The mountains were covered in dense, vibrant green foliage, a feast for the eyes, but almost too much to take in. I sat in my own little world in a semi – dazed state wondering why I was so awestruck. Having recently spent an extended period of time in the oversized expanses of China the stark contrast was overwhelming.

The town of Pakbeng hugs a bend in the river almost exactly half way between Houay Xai, where we’d boarded, & Luang Prabang. Once a rustic, small village home to local villagers with the odd trader stopping by en route down the river. Mostly boat owners taking their cargo to wherever they were headed would stop in making use of the port it offered. Today, with the burgeoning tourist industry as a result of the worldwide trend of travel, along with the Lao government’s loosening of visa requirements, many more are flocking to this landlocked paradise to enjoy the previously hidden magic. Pakbeng is well & truly a part of the changing scene with a number of English signed restaurants & basic guesthouses catering to the overnight visitors.

With the engine noise still ringing in my ears & a deafening silence surrounding me as a result, I checked into a basic local guesthouse for the night. Day 2 of the river journey continued in similar fashion arriving late in the afternoon at our intended destination. I was not going to miss the hard wooden benches or the close confines & soon enough I was luxuriating in the hospitality of one of Luang Prabang’s local guesthouses. Quite a basic affair. Thatched walls allowing the breeze almost free passage through the house. Polished wooden floors a pleasure for the souls of my feet. The hum of the wind in the palm trees and the distant chanting of the monks made the 2 – day ear – battering seem worthwhile.

Luang Prabang is an immensely pleasant city. So often as a traveler I am filled with preconceptions & ideas of what certain places will be like. I had high expectations of Northern Lao’s world heritage listed city & it surpassed them all. You can’t help but slow down to the pace of life in Laos, & this was even evident here. My three days passed all too fast. Enjoying the reflection of the setting sun on the Mekong river, making friendly chatter with the monks at many of the city’s numerous ‘wats’ (Buddhist temples) & delighting in the numerous delectable Northern Lao dishes.

There’s also the unforgettable experience of getting caught in a local rice wine (known as ‘Lao Lao’) drinking session down by the riverside. On two occasions I stopped to be friendly & on both occasions I staggered back to listen to the palm trees & sober up. My journey through Northern Laos was more than a sobering experience. A journey to where time stands still & you must adjust accordingly. Laos is changing there’s no doubt about that, but it’s enduring magic & majesty will remain regardless as they try to keep pace with the rest of the world.

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