I have three different currencies in my wallet. I think in three different currencies to decide if I got the proper change at dinner last night converting from Thai Baht to Lao KIP. I paid for my Lao visa in dollars. Dollars are accepted more readily than Baht. I am still a couple of days from Luang Prabang where I will have to get serious about thinking in KIP. A country a day keeps the Alzheimers away?
The morning of my departure for Luang Prabang is peaceful and cool. But the last couple of days have been anything but. Oddly, multiple communication issues have arisen, coming from every direction. A package full of gifts I had sent back to the US came back to Chiang Mai because there was a small flashlight in there. Batteries are a no-no in international express mail. I lost some photographic data from my camera. My Thai visa had an error on it that was not caught until I tried to leave. Due to an error made by the Thai consulate in Washington, DC, I was fined and lectured. It’s going to cause me more trouble later, and likely money, when I re-enter in two weeks and when I exit June 1. Then I left my phone on a bus. Can it get worse?
The sky in Huay Xie , Loas is hazy—if I could see anything that even looked like sky. It’s like the day forgot to wake up. The air is dense with moisture or pollution, or both. It was this way all the way up from Chiang Mai the day before. In fact, the previous day in Chiang Mai had been so thick with the residue of agricultural burning that planes from Bangkok were being turned back due to poor visibility. My tuk tuk driver even complained of it.
It is this way annually. But no one seems to know what to do about it. Like karma, it’s just there. Like losing one’s phone or having the slightest impatience in transitioning between nations. Bureaucracy is like a spinning star, light years away. Two observers will see very different things.
The long boat leaves the dock a few minutes before 10am. There are about 18 passengers. About 10 of them are a German group with a Lao guide. There is a French woman with her handsome Laotian son adopted 20 years ago. Their journey is his first visit to Laos. There is a very talkative Canadian computer engineer (with his Asian wife) conversing with a solo American for the three solid hours directly behind me, comparing notes about their worldly travels. There is also an Afrikaner couple.
With constant focus, the pilot threads (who lives on the boat with his wife–who does the cooking) confidently through eddies and shallows. This is necessary especially at this time of year, with the Mekong is at its lowest level, only 1-2 meters deep in some areas. The water level and flow have varied for two months since it is controlled at a Chinese dam way upstream. It is also 8-10 meters below its annual peak, reached during the rainy season between July and October. The Mekong stretches more than 400 0 km from China to Cambodia. More than 2000km of that is in Laos. Although this company is owned by a Thai living in Chiang Rai, these tour boats are all operated by Lao.
Occasionally, fast boats with inboard-outboard engines ferrying tourists down river to Luang Prabang roar by, carrying up to 8 people seated in two rows, all wearing life jackets. Their trip takes a mere 6 hours, which means they are covering the 350km to Luang Prabang at a bone-rattling average speed of 60km/hr. Notice that the pilot of the fast boat is the only one wearing a visored motorcycle helmet. Our trip will take a leisurely two days.
Lunch is a delicious combination of stir-fried vegetables, fried fish, noodles, sticky rice and a chicken curry, followed by papaya and pineapple.
We reach Pak Beng, the overnight spot, at about 5pm. We hike uphill to our pre-arranged hotel. The Mountain Riverside Lodge is a bunch of duplex bungalows overlooking the river.
Each unit is all hardwood, with a little sitting area inside, shutters instead of windows, a veranda, a fan and mosquito netting over the beds. Although the day had been hot, the evening cooled to a very comfortable temperature. We also had a power outage of about 90 minutes, but that did not stop the restaurant across the street from serving dinner by candlelight.
Roosters were crowing by 5am the next morning. I rose, sent some emails, showered, walked a little. By 6:30 there was breakfast and coffee available. While eating, I heard strange noises that I took to be cows or water buffalo. But no, there were a couple of elephants bathing across the river, having a great old time splashing around. They were too far away to distinguish, but I suspect it was a mother and baby.
We left on time, going upriver first to pick up the German tour group. It was cool, requiring more than one layer as we got underway downriver at 12-14 knots. The current looks to be about 4-5 knots alone, so we are making about 20 km per hour. The entire trip from Huay Xie to Luang Prabang is 360 km. Because of our early start, today we will cover over 200 km. including a stop along the way for a break.
The scenery is no different today from yesterday. Steep banks, small sandy beaches, large dunes, craggy shale islands, jungle covered hills, small villages on the hillsides, infrequent evidence of roads, pathways up from the river into the hills, fishing boats at the shore, fishing poles set among the rocks, the odd group of wild cattle or water buffalo, plastic in the water, swirls and eddies everywhere, shallows, and the pilot constantly making small alterations of course.
By the middle of the second day, I see a tape loop everywhere I look. And throughout the two days, the sky is the same as well, thick haze hides the sun, even the second range of mountains beyond the immediate view. In late morning, we stop at another village. We wander up the banks to browse the collection of houses, animal pens, dirt pathways, a few concrete structures. Children play at the water’s edge. Some Women have laid out their weaving for us to view, entreating us to come closer and check out their handiwork. As I wander through the village, I see there is a loom at each house. The product is not all the same. There are degrees of intricacy and complexity of patterns. It is all mostly silk with maybe 10-15% cotton.
I am a sucker for this. But we are shuttled to this village by tour operators who may or may not provide any reward to the village for putting themselves on display. There is no guarantee that we will buy anything. And if we do not, are we blind to their need? And if we do, how does one choose who is most worthy when clearly they are all in equal need and equally deserving?
I buy two items. One is about $7(50,000 KIP) and the other, much more intricate, is twice as much. I wave a $10 (80,000KIP) at the second. She accepts. I now have more of these than I know what to do with.
The arrival at Luang Prabang will be some 15 km from town. From there we will be ferried by minivan to our hotels by the tour boat company. Altogether a great trip by a very good company. We were very well taken care of by Nagi of Mekong.