WE’RE ON A BOAT FROM NOWHERE…
We’re back on the slow boat today, making our way from our half-way stop, Pakbeng, to the town of Luang Prabang. The scenery is just as beautiful as yesterday, though our day started out much damper than yesterday as a tropical storm had blown in overnight. We woke at 5:30 this morning to the sounds of thunder and rain, and have had to contend with periodic downpours the whole day. Still, it’s given us an appreciation of why the forest here in Laos is so very green! During our travels from Pakbeng we got to see more jungle-covered hills, tiny thatched villages, water buffalo, water birds, and local people fishing along the river. Another fantastic day cruising the mighty Mekong…
Pakbeng is definitely in the middle of nowhere! There were no street lights on last night, and after 9:00pm it got incredibly quiet. The only place in town there was much activity was down by the wharf, where the slow boats dock for the night. We got down there around 7:00am, ready to reboard our boat for the day, and the place was a hive of activity as all the travellers who had stayed in the village overnight made their way through the rain and mud, down the steep steps to their respective boats. In all honesty, as comfortable as we were last night, it was a relief to bid Pakbeng farewell. The place feels like a frontier town, flavoured with more than a dash of the unsavoury. No doubt many people love that kind of rugged place, but for us it was just a little too rough around the edges.
As we set off on our journey, the rain eased, allowing us glimpses of the jungle and its inhabitants through the mists. For the rest of the morning, the scenery continued to impress and beguile us.
The Mekong is the world’s 12th-longest river; it’s 4,350 km long and runs from the Tibetan Plateau China’s Yunnan province*, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The river is a major trade route between western China and Southeast Asia.
*Went walking through Tiger Leaping Gorge (Yunnan., China) in April and saw the Mekong there.
In English the river is called the “Mekong River”, derived from “Mae Nam Khong”, which means “The Mother of all Water” in both Thai and Laotian (the 2 languages are very closely related and mutually intelligible).
We’ve seen lots of birds and fish during our travels these past couple of day; unsurprising given the Mekong is one of the richest areas of biodiversity in the world – only the Amazon boasts a higher level of biodiversity. Some of the fish in the river are huge apparently; our Laotian boat captain told us (translated through our guide) that there are giant catfish in the river that grow to be 3m long and weight 300kg! The Mekong is home to giant freshwater sting rays too, and in some areas there are still Siamese crocodiles* to be found in the water. No swimming in the river for us I think!
*This small crocodilian is just about extinct though, Laos is the only country where the crocodiles have still been seen in the wild.
After another awesome boat-cooked lunch, we stopped for a visit to the Pak Ou Caves. Crammed with Buddha images, this system of caves was carved out of the limestone by water over the aeons. Revered by the locals, the caves have been a sacred site since the 16th century when they first began to be used as a Buddhist place of worship.
People come here to pray and bring offerings, usually in the form of a statue of Buddha. Over the centuries more and more Buddha statues have been added to the collection, and today they number in the thousands. Some were huge and gilded in gold, others the size of finger and made of simple wood.
We walked through 2 caves: the first was very shallow and busy with other tourists, whilst the second was much deeper and quieter (which may have been due to the fact that the second cave was further up – some 300 steps up the mountain!). Both were lined with Buddha statues, however.
From the caves it was just another hour or so down the river to Luang Prabang. And so it was that, after another long (but very comfortable) day on the river, we arrived in Luang Prabang this afternoon around 4:00pm.
With a population of 70,000, Luang Prabang is the largest city in Northern Laos (which itself only has a population of 7 million). Often touted as the prettiest city in Laos, it’s one of the last bastions of French colonial* architecture left in the country. Due to its unique cityscape, Luang Prabang is UNESCO World Heritage Listed, and from the little we saw during our stroll this evening, we can see why.
*Laos was once part of French Indochina, along with Cambodia and Vietnam.
We didn’t see much of Luang Prabang tonight – we’re just exhausted after 2 long travel days! But we’ve got a few days here now to relax, recover, and go exploring, so we’re not worried about missing out on everything Luang Prabang has to offer. It’s been a great 2 days and we’re incredibly grateful to have had such an amazing experience. Our slow boat journey down the Mekong River has been a fantastic experience, and one we will remember forever. Nature here in Northern Laos is unspoilt and at its most impressive; the mountains are beautiful, with their covering on rainforest, and the river is just awe-inspiring. What was initially the most dreaded part of our South East Asian adventure has turned out to be one of our favourites!