Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Laos: slow boat down the Mekong

Sunset at Huay Xai, Laos, looking back over the Mekong river to Thailand.
Having lost my camera memory card, this photo is from Lonely Planet
Coming from Thailand (see part one of this blog), Laos is both familiar and subtly different. The people are from the same ethnic group, they have a similar language and the same religion. The streets of a Lao town look very similar to those of a small rural Thai town. They have the same wooden stilt houses with the same spirit shrines in the corner. The shops accept Thai currency and locals sit in cafes watching melodramatic Thai soap operas on TV.

However, there are small but significant differences. Where in Thailand you see yellow royal flags hanging next to the national flag, in Laos their place is taken by red flags bearing the communist hammer and sickle. And where Thailand hustles and bustles, Laos moves at a slow, sleepy pace. Here, roads are often unpaved and bicycles and motorbikes are the main modes of transport. “Thai people view Laos as a backwards province of Thailand,” I was told in Bangkok, and while it’s true that the economic benefits of development were absent, so too were their darker side effects, like pollution, over-population and prostitution. It was in many ways a refreshing change.

We arrived at the border crossing by bus from Chiang Rai. Here, the Mekong river forms the border between the two countries. On one side was the Thai village of Chiang Khong, on the other bank the mirror-image Laos village of Huay Xai. The passport office on the Thai side was a small wooden hut at the bottom of a dirt road. From here, a handful of small wooden boats ferried passengers across the river, while lorries lined up to make the crossing on shaky-looking articulated barges.

Sat on a plank in the wooden boat, I was struck by the arbitrariness of lines on maps. Looking out at the Mekong, it seemed just a river and not even, at this point, a particularly remarkable one. There was nothing much to distinguish one side from the other. The same water flowed past both banks and birds flew freely across with no idea they had, like us, left a Kingdom and entered a People's Republic.
Checking out the view from Wat Jom Khao Manilat, in a surviving photo
from Joyce’s mobile phone © Joyce Lee/Laos/2012
Once we'd settled in at Huay Xai, we took a stroll through town. Opposite the boat pier was a steep flight of steps going up to an ornate gateway, beyond which a small temple, Wat Jom Khao Manilat, commanded superb views over the river to Thailand. The decoration was similar to Thai temples, but the craftsmanship was a bit less professional. Some of the Buddha statues had heads that were a touch too long, others a shade too round. After looking round the temple, I climbed a three-story bell tower (a sign saying 'LADiES do noT ENTRY TO The upsTairs' prevented Joyce from joining me). From here, I watched the sun set behind the mountains that formed a magnificent backdrop to Chiang Khong, as small boats silhouetted their way across the blood red river.

The sun set with a clang clang clang, and I turned to see a young monk on the temple steps ringing a small metal bell. Soon, other monks emerged from the wooden buildings around the edge of the compound and made their way towards the central prayer hall. A trio of teenage monks fooled around, doing martial arts moves with broomsticks, and I was struck by how, despite the orange robes, they were still just boys. Once inside, the monks started to chant and clap, creating hauntingly beautiful music. The small building was filled with orange robed figures who bowed down before a plaster figure of the Buddha, which half an hour before had seemed cheap and tacky but now felt magical and sublime in the half light.

I find it interesting that, as an atheist, I can still be moved by religious ritual. I felt the same way watching sunrise from a temple in the mountains of Nepal and listening to the evening call to prayer echo among the minarets of Marrakesh. I guess that the music, movement and colours trigger something in the human psyche, evolved over thousands of years. On this level, a Buddhist ceremony works in a strikingly similar way to a Catholic or Muslim one.

The Laos version of Buddhism is also interesting for political reasons. Unlike neighbouring communist countries, the government of Laos has never persecuted its monks. However, one branch of the religion is banned, monks are made to go through a compulsory course of political 'education' and their religious texts have all been heavily edited by the communist party, to ensure they are ideologically in line with Marxist thought.

Ticket to ride
Joyce and me on slow boat, before the tour groups arrived from Chang Khong
© Joyce Lee/Laos/2012
The next day, we got up early and made our way to the 'slow boat landing' at the other end of town, to buy tickets for our two-day journey to Luang Prabang. It was to be a challenging trip, made more so by the fact that I'd just developed a particularly nasty cold. Over the next forty-eight hours, I sniffed, sneezed and coughed my way down the Mekong. Luckily, we got there early because the tour company had overbooked the boat and late arrivals had no seats. They had to sit on the wooden floorboards in the back next to a noisy and smelly engine, which hammered away like a pneumatic drill, pumping black fumes out the back of the boat.

There were many boats like ours going up and down the river, most doubling as a passenger/cargo boat and a home to the family that ran it. In our boat, the father steered, the mother minded the bar, their teenage daughter stowed bags in the hold and their young son directed passengers on and off the boat. The front two thirds of the vessel was for passengers or cargo, while the back third was living quarters for the family. They had a single bed deck above the engine with a pile of dirty blankets, a small kitchen out back with pots and pans hanging from nails in the wooden walls, and a line for washing strung across the window.

On top of the engine was a small shrine, with offerings of incense, money and food. This could either have been for spirits on the boat (like the spirit houses in land folks’ yards) or for the ngeuk, powerful snake spirits believed to live in the Mekong river. In the early days of communist rule in Laos, the party attempted to end worship of ngeuks and cancelled the annual festival. That year, there was a drought. The next year the party reluctantly allowed the festival to go ahead and the rains were plentiful.

River life
A river boat on the Mekong, from our return visit to Luang Prabang in October
© Andy Brown/Laos/2012
Heading south from Huay Xai we first passed an industrial area, with mining platforms in the river. Convoys of lorries drove up and down the banks with their backs full of black coal. After a while, the buildings disappeared, replaced by green hills folding in on themselves and rising to triangular peaks. The jungle was broken by occasional shrines, their flaking gold roofs emerging suddenly from a green wall of trees, and villages of bamboo and straw huts.

In the river, men fished with wide nets held between two bamboo poles like giant chopsticks. There were rocky outcrops in the river and similar fishing nets were often left wedged into cracks in the rock. Women washed clothes in the murky brown water or panned for gold with large wooden bowls, with a wide rolling movement from side to side. Surprisingly, the river was lined with sand beaches and tall sand dunes. Villagers had planted crops along the top of the dunes and water buffalos sat in their shade, swatting at mosquitos with their tails.

We stopped at a few villages along the way to pick up sacks and crates of goods. The traders were often accompanied by children selling sarongs to tourists. As our boat appeared, the word would go round and kids would come running down the dunes, kicking up sand behind them in their excitement. The Mekong river is clearly the main artery for trade in this part of Laos.  Further south, roads take the same role, with similar villages strung out along their concrete banks.

Young monks jump into the Mekong river, near Luang Prabang
© Andy Brown/Laos/2012
For me, the best part of the boat trip was when I rode out front, sat right on the prow with the water rushing silently past just beneath my feet. When the river narrowed, whirlpools formed and the boat rocked alarmingly from side to side. Like paragliding or quad biking, I found the view, speed and mild danger involved exhilarating (Joyce doesn't agree, ‘I just find it scary,’ she says). In reality, the worst that was likely to happen was that I got wet and embarrassed, like the time I rode my bike off a Bangkok walkway and into the Chao Praya river.

I stayed out front for about an hour. Then, just as the sun set behind the mountains on the right bank, a white pelican flew out in front of us and across the river from the left. The whole scene was plunged into sudden gloom except the bird which, catching the last rays of the sun, shone like white gold. It was so bright that my camera only captured a reverse silhouette, with an empty white bird-shaped space in the middle of the picture. Sadly, this photo, along with all the others from the first half of the trip, is now lost.

We stopped the night in Pak Beng, a Wild West kind of town snaking up a steep hillside in the middle of nowhere. It was dark when we arrived, but touts from the various local guesthouses had lit a fire at the top of the bank, so we could see their cards and pictures. It was still a struggle climbing up twenty metres of bare rock with heavy backpacks and no torches.

The second day was longer than the first, with eight hours on the river, but I was in a better mood and starting to get over my cold. My head, which had been stuffy for days, suddenly cleared and I felt normal again, like getting over a bad hangover. Eventually, Luang Prabang emerged out of the jungle like a mirage, complete with tarmac roads, brick buildings and electricity. It took us a further hour to get off the boat, while people searched for their bags in the dark among a huge pile of luggage. From the pier, we caught a tuk-tuk to our riverside hotel, collapsed on the first comfortable bed we’d seen for days, and slept for ten hours.

Read part three of this blog »

Late afternoon light on the Mekong. Photo: Lonely Planet


  1. What a nice, long, descriptive read...almost feel like I'm floating down the mekong myself! Sorry to hear that you lost your memory card, what a bummer! :-(

    Thank goodness for nice memories and smartphones :-)

    1. Thanks Jenny, I'm glad you enjoyed the ride! We had distinctly mixed feelings about it at the time, but in retrospect it was a great adventure.

      We do still have the second memory card, so the Cambodia blogs will have more authentic imagery!