Laos by boat

 

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With Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand I spent a considerable amount of time plotting my itinerary, which involved tricky decisions about which provinces to visit, which ‘must see’ things to include etc. all within the confines of visa restrictions.

With Laos my itinerary was determined by what my wounded body would allow me to do. Sadly, on crossing the border I had to forego the famous Gibbon Experience: two adrenaline-filled days traversing the jungle canopy on ziplines and sleeping in a tree house surrounded by gibbons. Instead I embarked on two-day boat ride down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang and treated myself to a superior cruise with just 8 people in a lovely wooden boat as opposed to the 70-80 people crammed onto the public boat.

Good decision! The boat was very comfortable, crew delightful and the plentiful regional food delicious. My fellow travellers included a couple who work for the Arts Council so we had lots to talk about, including our mutual respect for my beloved Tricycle Theatre and several mutual colleagues.

The Mekong is a narrower river than the Irrawaddy (my trip from Mandalay to Bagan) and there is more life on the riverbank. Over the course of two days we travelled 310km enjoying National Geographic scenery; mountains, farmland, hillside villages and children playing or fishing on the riverbank. There were also lots of water buffalo bathing and grazing – roaming free as farmers replace them with machines.

One of our stops along the river was to visit a remote Khmu village. The Khmu are the largest minority ethnic group in northern Laos. Agriculturalists who practice animism, they live and work communally storing rice in elevated buildings with unusual mice traps and apparently practicing magic. The villagers were clearly very poor and dint loom all that happy with their lot.

By contrast, further downriver we stopped off at a Maung village where they make Lao Khao (a.k.a. Moonshine) from fermented sticky rice. We watched the process then drank the blow-your-head-off result. This villages were very different from the Khmus. They were better off, sunnier and more welcoming, inviting us to play boules – a throw back to French colonisation, and eat with them. I reckon the air is filled with whisky vapours, making everyone permanently high.

We docked in Luang Prabang at sunset on Easter Day and I had my first glimpse of this sophisticated town with tourists wearing chinos and polo shirts!

Visiting the charming night market I was struck by how quiet the market was and how gentle the female stall holders were – quite a contrast to the noisy, more commercially-minded Thais. Even the night food street, heaving with diners was less frenetic than in other places…….. oh and the fish baked in lemon grass was sublime.

Historic Luang Prabang is perfect respite for weary travellers. It offers lovely treelined streets filled with magnolia and bougainvillea, artisan shops and cafes. It also has a fabulous palace and several beautiful temples. In Laos the structures are made of wood with dramatic sloping roofs sweeping almost to ground. Typically painted red or black with gold writings and carvings many are covered in intricate glass mosaics making them real works of art.

I haven’t exactly been burning the candle both ends but in LP I went to a open air screening of ‘Chang’ a silent movie made in 1925 with incredible live footage of villagers being chased by tigers, marauding elephants, monkeys up to monkey business and live folk music. The film went missing for 60 years and there is no record of the equipment used to get such amazing footage. David Attenborough would be mightily impressed. I met a mice bunch of people there and shared a few beers.
I also went to a traditional story telling theatre to hear legends of Luang Prabang; how Phu Si hill got its name and the shaping of the two mountains, to the accompaniment of an evocative bamboo instrument called a Khene. It’s been decades since anyone has told me a ‘Once upon a time’ and it was engrossing.

My only excursion outside the city was to Tat Kuang Si waterfall deep in a forest. The drive was through roads with teak trees as far as the eye could see and on arrival I came face to face with Moon Bears (of which no mention in the guidebook). They are friendly enough when behind a fence but, no surprises, they can be quite vicious.

I’m a bit sceptical of must-see waterfalls. Like caves, every major province in every country boast stunning examples of both but in reality they usually disappoint. Tat Kuang Si was the exception. The water flows over limestone , the particles collecting calcium carbonate which reflects the light making the water shimmer a chalky turquoise blue. Unable to get my dressing wet (knee wound became infected and I had to get a course of antibiotics from the doctor), I couldn’t swim in the natural pools but I enjoyed watching youngsters diving off high board taking selfies.

Before leaving LP I crossed the rickety bamboo bridge linking the north and south of the town and took a short stroll. Goodness knows how, but I managed to loose my wallet. Honestly, the two things you tell your kids not to do is ride a motorbike and loose their money. Well in true gap-year style I managed to screw up on both within a week!

We are heading into low season now so everywhere is a bit less crowded which is nice, but it continues to be extremely hot and hazy.

The next leg of my journey towards the Vietnam border was by Sorngtaaou (half minivan/half Tuk Tuk). I wasn’t expecting a 3:5 hour journey bumping along on a bench with my leg hanging out the back but once again the scenery was spectacular, mainly following the course of the Nam Ou river so the time passed quickly. My destination was the delightful village of Nong Khiaw, a starting point for travellers travelling north, nestled along the banks of the river.

Simple boats transport locals and intrepid travellers up river to Nuang Ngoi, another delightful stop-over village and thus on to Nuang Khua, the final stop before the border. I was fortunate to be in a boat with 5 locals who generously shared their lunch of rice, beef and fiery sauce with me in exchange for crisps and nuts. One of our party was carrying a sack which he kept a tight hold on the whole way. I was told it contained a horn but of what animal I didn’t dare ask.

The river was scattered with locals harpoon fishing or prospecting for gold, children swimming and playing naked, strange pink buffalo mooching around and all against a backdrop of soaring karst mountains and azure blue skies. The only negative was a couple of areas of deforestation to make way for hydroelectric stations being built with Chinese investment. Enough said.

We had to keep shifting side to balance the boat as we navigated rapids and boulders. Luckily we had an expert at the helm and it was exhilarating. Not so another boat with 18 people packed in. They hit a rock which gouged a hole in the side and had had to bail out quick smart. Stranded on the rocks, we took half of them in out boat and arranged for another boat to come and collect the others. At one point I got completely drenched but apart from that it was yet another stunning journey.

Nuang Khau was a bit of a dump, providing the only below-par room I stayed in in Laos. There was also a huge wedding to which the whole community had been invited so there was nowhere to eat apart from a noodle stall where randomly I met two Frenchmen my age who I subsequently crossed the border with. Every cloud has a silver lining n’est ce pas?

So that was it for Laos. Just 8 days travelling in a ‘V’ shape from west to east. I enjoyed Luang Prabang and I absolutely loved travelling along the Mekong and the Nam Ou, visiting places off the tourist trail and meeting little known ethnic minorities. To be honest I didn’t want to go to Vientiane or Vang Vieng anyway, so apart from the frustration of being semi-immobile I felt I’d had an authentic experience of the country.

Next up Vietnam which is going to be SO different.

With Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand I spent a considerable amount of time plotting my itinerary, which involved tricky decisions about which provinces to visit, which ‘must see’ things to include etc. all within the confines of visa restrictions.

With Laos my itinerary was determined by what my wounded body would allow me to do. Sadly, on crossing the border I had to forego the famous Gibbon Experience: two adrenaline-filled days traversing the jungle canopy on ziplines and sleeping in a tree house surrounded by gibbons. Instead I embarked on two-day boat ride down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang and treated myself to a superior cruise with just 8 people in a lovely wooden boat as opposed to the 70-80 people crammed onto the public boat.

Good decision! The boat was very comfortable, crew delightful and the plentiful regional food delicious. My fellow travellers included a couple who work for the Arts Council so we had lots to talk about, including our mutual respect for my beloved Tricycle Theatre and several mutual colleagues.

The Mekong is a narrower river than the Irrawaddy (my trip from Mandalay to Bagan) and there is more life on the riverbank. Over the course of two days we travelled 310km enjoying National Geographic scenery; mountains, farmland, hillside villages and children playing or fishing on the riverbank. There were also lots of water buffalo bathing and grazing – roaming free as farmers replace them with machines.

One of our stops along the river was to visit a remote Khmu village. The Khmu are the largest minority ethnic group in northern Laos. Agriculturalists who practice animism, they live and work communally storing rice in elevated buildings with unusual mice traps and apparently practicing magic. The villagers were clearly very poor and dint loom all that happy with their lot.

By contrast, further downriver we stopped off at a Maung village where they make Lao Khao (a.k.a. Moonshine) from fermented sticky rice. We watched the process then drank the blow-your-head-off result. This villages were very different from the Khmus. They were better off, sunnier and more welcoming, inviting us to play boules – a throw back to French colonisation, and eat with them. I reckon the air is filled with whisky vapours, making everyone permanently high.

We docked in Luang Prabang at sunset on Easter Day and I had my first glimpse of this sophisticated town with tourists wearing chinos and polo shirts!

Visiting the charming night market I was struck by how quiet the market was and how gentle the female stall holders were – quite a contrast to the noisy, more commercially-minded Thais. Even the night food street, heaving with diners was less frenetic than in other places…….. oh and the fish baked in lemon grass was sublime.

Historic Luang Prabang is perfect respite for weary travellers. It offers lovely treelined streets filled with magnolia and bougainvillea, artisan shops and cafes. It also has a fabulous palace and several beautiful temples. In Laos the structures are made of wood with dramatic sloping roofs sweeping almost to ground. Typically painted red or black with gold writings and carvings many are covered in intricate glass mosaics making them real works of art.

I haven’t exactly been burning the candle both ends but in LP I went to a open air screening of ‘Chang’ a silent movie made in 1925 with incredible live footage of villagers being chased by tigers, marauding elephants, monkeys up to monkey business and live folk music. The film went missing for 60 years and there is no record of the equipment used to get such amazing footage. David Attenborough would be mightily impressed. I met a mice bunch of people there and shared a few beers.
I also went to a traditional story telling theatre to hear legends of Luang Prabang; how Phu Si hill got its name and the shaping of the two mountains, to the accompaniment of an evocative bamboo instrument called a Khene. It’s been decades since anyone has told me a ‘Once upon a time’ and it was engrossing.

My only excursion outside the city was to Tat Kuang Si waterfall deep in a forest. The drive was through roads with teak trees as far as the eye could see and on arrival I came face to face with Moon Bears (of which no mention in the guidebook). They are friendly enough when behind a fence but, no surprises, they can be quite vicious.

I’m a bit sceptical of must-see waterfalls. Like caves, every major province in every country boast stunning examples of both but in reality they usually disappoint. Tat Kuang Si was the exception. The water flows over limestone , the particles collecting calcium carbonate which reflects the light making the water shimmer a chalky turquoise blue. Unable to get my dressing wet (knee wound became infected and I had to get a course of antibiotics from the doctor), I couldn’t swim in the natural pools but I enjoyed watching youngsters diving off high board taking selfies.

Before leaving LP I crossed the rickety bamboo bridge linking the north and south of the town and took a short stroll. Goodness knows how, but I managed to loose my wallet. Honestly, the two things you tell your kids not to do is ride a motorbike and loose their money. Well in true gap-year style I managed to screw up on both within a week!

We are heading into low season now so everywhere is a bit less crowded which is nice, but it continues to be extremely hot and hazy.

The next leg of my journey towards the Vietnam border was by Sorngtaaou (half minivan/half Tuk Tuk). I wasn’t expecting a 3:5 hour journey bumping along on a bench with my leg hanging out the back but once again the scenery was spectacular, mainly following the course of the Nam Ou river so the time passed quickly. My destination was the delightful village of Nong Khiaw, a starting point for travellers travelling north, nestled along the banks of the river.

Simple boats transport locals and intrepid travellers up river to Nuang Ngoi, another delightful stop-over village and thus on to Nuang Khua, the final stop before the border. I was fortunate to be in a boat with 5 locals who generously shared their lunch of rice, beef and fiery sauce with me in exchange for crisps and nuts. One of our party was carrying a sack which he kept a tight hold on the whole way. I was told it contained a horn but of what animal I didn’t dare ask.

The river was scattered with locals harpoon fishing or prospecting for gold, children swimming and playing naked, strange pink buffalo mooching around and all against a backdrop of soaring karst mountains and azure blue skies. The only negative was a couple of areas of deforestation to make way for hydroelectric stations being built with Chinese investment. Enough said.

We had to keep shifting side to balance the boat as we navigated rapids and boulders. Luckily we had an expert at the helm and it was exhilarating. Not so another boat with 18 people packed in. They hit a rock which gouged a hole in the side and had had to bail out quick smart. Stranded on the rocks, we took half of them in out boat and arranged for another boat to come and collect the others. At one point I got completely drenched but apart from that it was yet another stunning journey.

Nuang Khau was a bit of a dump, providing the only below-par room I stayed in in Laos. There was also a huge wedding to which the whole community had been invited so there was nowhere to eat apart from a noodle stall where randomly I met two Frenchmen my age who I subsequently crossed the border with. Every cloud has a silver lining n’est ce pas?

So that was it for Laos. Just 8 days travelling in a ‘V’ shape from west to east. I enjoyed Luang Prabang and I absolutely loved travelling along the Mekong and the Nam Ou, visiting places off the tourist trail and meeting little known ethnic minorities. To be honest I didn’t want to go to Vientiane or Vang Vieng anyway, so apart from the frustration of being semi-immobile I felt I’d had an authentic experience of the country.

 

Next up Vietnam which is going to be SO different.

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One thought on “Laos by boat

  1. Pete

    Nice one Gin…almost makes me want to get my old back-pack out ! Glad you enjoyed LP…might even be the same waterfall that we declined to jump into !
    Sorry to hear about your knee..hope it doesn’t restrict you too much…maybe time for a little R&R by the pool in Vietnam ?
    Have fun,
    Pete xx

    Like

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