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River Road

I had taken the quick and easy way into the tiny South East Asian country of the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos, and I was going to take the long and slow way out. Flying into the capital city of Vientiane from Bangkok had taken less than two hours and included a meal, beverage, and comfortable seat in a midsize plane. The vast majority of the people of Lao would never ride in a plane, they were much more familiar with my next choice of transportation– two days on a slowboat up the Mekong river.

I woke before dawn and walked through the dark quiet streets of Louang Phabang, once the capital of the country called ‘Land of One Thousand Elephants,’ and now a World Heritage Site. A stream of monks in their bright orange robes was flowing out of the small town’s many monasteries to collect the morning’s offering of rice from the locals. The main road of Louang Phabang is a wonderful patchwork of traditional Lao wooden houses and hints of European architecture– reminders of when Laos was the French colony of Indochine. Golden-roofed Wats, decorated with mosaics and murals of the life of Buddha sit under the gaze of wrap-around balconies and 19th century shuttered windows.

‘You want fast slowboat or slow slowboat?’ the man at the Navigation Office desk asked me. ‘Or you want fast boat?’ he added before I could reply.

‘Fast slowboat leave Monday Wednesday and Friday, take two days to get to Hauyxai. You stay one night in Pakbeng, Slow slowboat take three day, leave Tuesday and Thursday, not so nice. ‘ A small crowd had gathered to listen to his explanation and offer advice in Lao. ‘Maybe fastboat? You have lots of kip? Takes 5 hours, very fast, you get helmet and jacket for safe’ He mimed putting on a crash helmet and life jacket evoking a smile from the old woman trying to sell me bananas.

‘Fast slowboat’ I decided easily enough, since it was a Friday and I wasn’t in a hurry to speed out of the country or part with too much kip. No one ever seems to be in a hurry in Laos. Less than a two hour flight from the Westernized hustle and bustle of Bangkok, life in Laos continues in the same way it has for hundreds of years. But things are beginning to change. In the mid 90s the government reversed it’s stance on tourism and declared 1998 ‘Visit Laos Year.’ Despite their efforts and all Laos has to offer, monks still outnumbered tourists everywhere I went.

A tourist trail is forming between the capital city of Vientiane, the small riverside village of Vang Viang, Louang Phabang, and the Thai border to the north. The trip can be made easily in a week, but 10-15 days is best to fully appreciate the lush countryside, magnificent temples, and friendly people .The usual mode of transportation is local bus or boat. The boat ride to or from Louang Phabang is considered the high point of many tours of South East Asia.

At the riverside, passengers were nimbly boarding the narrow blue boat. The gangplank was a flimsy wooden board, but family members, weighted down with children and bursting sacks of belongings, managed it without a wobble. When we were all settled there were 40 of us sitting two-by-two on wooden seats eating bannanas and baguettes (another remnant of the French).

Two hours northwest of the city, the Mekong passes by a series of caves set in limestone cliffs above the pale green water. The lowest and most accessible of these cave is a sacred place for the Lao. Whenever a Buddha statue becomes too old or damaged to venerate in a wat, it is place in what is known as the Buddha cave. Inside, just out of the sunlight and stretching back into the darkness, are thousands of Buddha statues of every size and material. Some are no more than a few centimeters tall, others several feet high. The ones in the back are hardly recognizable as more than worn lumps of wood, but others retain there serenity and grace under flaking gold paint and a thick layer of dust.

Most of the sights along the Mekong are more subtle– elephants loading lumber onto wooden barges, dozens of brightly colored fishing boats, innumerable hints of tiny villages hidden by the jungle, and always smiling and waving children playing on narrow sandy beaches. 10 hours on the water makes for a long day, but the ever-changing scenery keeps it interesting.

Still, everyone on the boat was relieved when we arrived at Pakbeng just before dusk. A primitive and somewhat rough village, Pakbeng is just discovering its new role as tourist stopover. New guesthouses and restaurants are opening along its one dirt road every month. Virtually every room costs the same amount, 200 bhat (about $5, fairly expensive for Laos), but the quality of facilities and cleanliness varies wildly. The nicest by far is the modern Sarika Guesthouse, the first building above the river, but more interesting accommodations can be found a few minutes walk up the road. The evenings are short in Pakbeng, the generator power cuts out only a few hours after dark. But there is enough time for a dinner of fresh river fish or spicy noodles and a nightcap of lao-lao, the local rice whiskey drank everywhere from large communal clay pots.

Just after dawn I returned to the boat and found I was the only Westerner continuing to the boarder. The other few tourists had caught and even earlier bus to points further north. A small trekking industry is just forming around the town of Maung Sing, but problems with opium and lingering social unrest along the Chinese and Burmese border still keep most tourists away.

The second day passed very much like the first, slow and scenic. A few times we crossed paths– or wakes — with the infamous speedboats. Traveling at amazing speed, and generating a huge amount of noise doing it, the sleek plastic boats make the two day trip in less than 5 hours. I had a hard time envying the poor passengers blazing by in crash helmets and bulky life-vests.

Our captain couldn’t have timed our arrival at Hauyxai better — just at sunset we docked and unloaded. Sunburnt and a little stiff I waved goodbye to my shipmates and headed to the river-taxi that would take me across the river and into Thailand. Despite having more than a month left of my trip, I couldn’t help feeling like I was leaving the best of the East behind me.

Practicalities Visas: 15 day Visas for Laos can be arranged through any travel agent in Bangkok, at the Friendship bridge at the Thai Border, and at airport in Vientiane. Visa extensions are only possible at the embassy in Vientiane or from an embassy before you arrive Border Crossings: Thailand, Vietnam, China, Burma, The land border between Cambodia and Lao is currently closed to foreigners. Money: The Lao currency is the kip. There are currently around 8,000 kip to the dollar, but this fluctuates wildly. There is no bill larger than 5,000 kip, so carrying large amounts of money can be a hassle. ATMs are non-existent, but many banks and guesthouses will allow you to take out cash from a credit card and changing travelers checks is easy in any large village. Costs: $20 a day is a good rule of thumb, though it is possible to get by on as little as $10. A basic room with shared bathroom can be as little as $2 in Vang Viang or as much as $8 as in V. Meals are usually under $5 for even the most elaborate dishes. A bus from V to Vang Viang costs $6; The fast slowboat from LP to Hauyxai costs $12 for both days. Health: Lao is considered very malarial so anti-malarials are recommended. The usual precautions regarding food and water are wise. Bottled water is widely available. Further Reading:,

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