Huay Xai was merely a staging point for our onward journey which was to be by slow boat down the Mekong. Over two days, we would wind our way down river. Our destination, the UNESCO world heritage city of Luang Prabang. It was also possibly the best travel option that could have been afforded a man with a head as sore as mine!
By early afternoon, my head was feeling good enough to crack open my first beer. We’d spent the earlier part of the day getting ourselves familiar with the vessel (not much to see really), taking in the wonderful views of the shore and nursing my head.
An unscheduled stop was arranged by Somdy (well, it wasn’t on our Gecko’s official itinerary) which was a real eye opener at a small local village. The villages in this region are all isolated as no roads have yet been cut through the jungle (at the time, something like 75% of Laos was still unspoilt forest) so the river is their only means of getting about.
This particular village was part of an ethnic minority with animistic beliefs and very poor. It has become a regular stop on tours run by Somdy, as he is fond of bringing them clothing for the children and in the case, pictures from an earlier trip.
The boats certainly weren’t designed with sleeping a large group in mind (well, at least not to tourist tastes anyway) so after a short stop so we could take a dip to cool off, we pulled in at Pak Beng for the night. A small town, literally at the end of the road.
I found it a real charmer, with a single main road that curled its way down the hillside all the way to the water. After an evening wander where we took in another local market it was time for dinner, beer and bed before our journey’s resumption in the morning.
Our final day spent on the river again involved a lot of down time, broken with the odd slow boat in the other direction or the odd engine roar as a fast boat overtook us going like the clappers. Not that there was nothing to see at all. The odd fisherman, and plenty of peanut crops being grown on the sandy riverbank, although the obvious highlight is when my eagle eye spotted elephants at work on the shore!
Another visit to a local village followed, although these folk were certainly far better off with local school for the kids and plenty more money from the government. Some more local rice whiskey and the purchase of some small fish for an afternoon snack by Somdy set us up for one last stop just shy of our final destination.
The Pak Ou caves lie only 25km from Luang Prabang and these days sees it’s fair share of tourists. These riverside caves house many Buddhist statues in various poses, made of various materials and in varying states of disrepair. Watermarks on the side of the caves served as poignant reminders of how powerful and dangerous the river can be with some stains 20 or so metres above the current river height!
A short cruise down the river remained and there ended our time on the Mekong.