Our last 2 days in Laos were a bit different! Almost no temples! Great news if you have temple fatigue after Laos part 1! At 6.30 next morning we were collected by the Shompoo Cruise company who took us to their very, very long boat moored on the Mekong. We were embarking on a 2 day journey up the river to Thailand, with a night onshore halfway at Pakbeng. The guide was keen to tell us that the company name is not Shampoo, but Shompoo, which means Pink...hence the decor!
I had seen pictures of this huge boat on the flat calm river, and was reassured that my dodgy sealegs could cope! However January is well into the dry season, and the river level has fallen a lot since the rainy season. Our boat was owned by a local family who live on board. We were reassured that the captain was an expert pilot, and would get us through the rapids, and over the sandbanks safely. Rapids... let me off! And there were rapids, lots of them, but he was brilliant! For an extra bit of jeopardy, the fenders are long, dangling logs, and occasionally, if they get hit, or the rapids are bouncy, they swing in through the 'window'!
The journey is 300kms long, and we were surprised that the boat, which is called the slow boat, actually went at a fair speed - Chris estimates an average of 9 knots - despite going upstream against a strong current.
The alternative fast boat is not for the faint hearted. A slim longboat with a powerful engine, roaring along. The ones that passed us were horribly loud, and the occupants frequently had their hands over their ears, and were getting soaked. Their cases were perched in front, and apparently there are often accidents!
On our lovely boat there was just 20 passengers so we had lots of space. We were the only English people, but managed to make friends with everyone, including entertaining a German 4 year old with my very limited dredged up German, and chatting a lot in French. Our guide, Deang, had been a child monk and came from a village in the very North of Laos...12 hours journey from Luang Prabang. He confirmed the stories about the monastery being the only way to get an education, and being taken there aged 8. He was very grateful for the education though, and spoke excellent English.
This trip also had 2 bonuses. Firstly we made a stop on each day which broke the journey up. On day 1 we stopped at Pak Ou Caves. As we approached I saw the cave, up a flight of about 35 steps, and thought 'yes, I can manage that'. It turns out that was the lower cave. We then climbed several hundred very high and uneven steps to the Upper cave! We could hardly breathe by the time we got there! This is the Cave of a thousand Buddhas, and is a sacred shrine. In the Laos 1 Post, I mentioned the Chinese bandits raiding Luang Prabang. The local people grabbed as many Buddhas as they could and hid them here. Many remain, including one that was burned in the temple fire. The second cave was for those to ill or infirm to get to the top!
The second bonus was the Captain's wife and daughter prepared a super lunch onboard, and Chris could even get his beer! Fruit, a drink and flowers were also left at the front of the boat to appease the River Serpent God so that we had a safe passage!
Driving along the river was so relaxing, with lots to see. Water buffalo, smiling children and even a working elephant pulling logs.
The scenery varied between a river valley between hills, and then running through sandstone gorges. There were often huge rocks exposed in the water, and evidence of previously much higher levels! The first photo has 2 washed up trees on top! Depressingly there was also lots of evidence of a disturbing future for Laos. Their Government has given Thailand and China the rights to build huge dams on the Mekong for hydroelectric power, in addition to the railways and roads. But almost all the electricity will go to Thailand or China. In addition, many river dwelling villages will be relocated to the mountains, and the whole ecosystem will be damaged!
Around 5.15pm we arrived at Pakbeng, our halfway village. After an incredibly steep climb up the bank, we crowded onto tuktuks to go to The Sanctuary hotel. It lived up to its name. So peaceful, and we just caught sunset over the river. We were invited to have dinner with 2 couples from France, and had a very enjoyable evening.
Our second day on the Mekong began in the dark... we are getting used to these early morning starts! Sun was appearing as we left Pak Benh and there were low clouds curling around each promontory. The hotel had prepared a packed breakfast. Omelette, toast and bananas for Chris, and fried rice and pancake for me. All were delicious!
The river was changing, more gorge like in parts, and then more cultivated with grass covered lower slopes where they will grow rice in the rainy season. We stopped to visit a village which is supported by Shompoo, the boat company. They have provided them with a fresh water supply, health and hygiene supplies and education, and help fund a small primary school, which is rare in rural areas.The houses are ramshackle, and mostly made from bamboo, but some have a metal roof which makes them last 8 years rather than 1 or 2. The children were mostly barefoot. A few huts had a solar panel and apparently they use the power to watch TV! This is seen as a positive because they learn Lao rather than being dependent on their tribal dialect. Because of the support they get, this village has animals, and there were pigs, geese and chickens wandering under the houses, most of which were on stilts above the river. The rice stores had wooden discs on the legs to stop rats getting in, much like the stone mushrooms that Swiss barns rest on. We met a 15 year old girl with her 8 month old son. Quite normal here. Traditionally, they record ages by making a tiny fold in a bamboo leaf each year. This was not a tourist village. There was nothing being sold, but of course they were hoping for continued support from the boat company.
Another way to support the villages is a great charity in the UK called Baraka Community partnerships, who run 2 book boats in Laos taking books, educational supplies and health education to over 100 remote villages.
Lunch on our boat was excellent again. We are now moving towards the part of the Mekong which is the border between Laos and Thailand. One traveller told us that last time he was on this boat a dead body floated by. It was not uncommon, especially in the 80s and 90s. Either Thai citizens trying to escape across to Laos, or the reverse. They either drown, or are caught by security forces and meet with an 'accident'!
As we progressed along the river the terrain became more mountainous in the distance, but still every so often a group of barefoot children would be scrabbling on the water, or tending some goats, or a woman would be panning for specks of gold.
We stopped for the captain to buy his permit to travel the next stretch of the river, because, just around the corner, everything changed. The river became the border between Thailand and Laos. Everything on the right bank remained as before. Eroded banks, occasional wooden shacks and dishevelled families. In contrast, on the right was a very strong looking reinforced embankment, 9 metres high, with smart houses and well tended gardens and farms. Our guide summed it up. He pointed to Thailand and then Laos and said, "Money" "No Money". We are looking forward to finding out what life in Thailand is really like! Our captain did stop for fuel... it is cheaper here and also in Luang Prabang you have to carry it a long way to the boat!
We landed at 4.30pm and then a slightly convoluted procedure takes place. A tuk tuk ride to the Laos immigration post, (once a wheel that would not turn was fixed!), where you pay 10,000 Kip (about 40p) each because the immigration officer is working overtime (after 4.00pm!). Then a 20,000 kip bus ride across the Thai Laos Friendship bridge Number IV to the Thai border control. From there a walk outside to find our transfer to the hotel in Chiang Rai, a city in the north of Thailand, and just a mere 85 miles away.
Bye bye Laos.. we loved you too! See you there!