Here’s our bus from Chiang Rai to the Thai/Laos border.
It wasn’t luxury, but it also wasn’t capable of high speeds, so swings and roundabouts. It creaked through small towns, passing dried up rice paddies, the cracked ground resembling the scales of some giant beast.
The trees were russet coloured and dessicated, the result of severe drought in the region. I wondered what life was like for a rice farmer waiting for rainy season. It wasn’t a happy train of thought.
Laid back Laos
The first thing we saw once we’d negotiated the border crossing was a massive casino nestled on a hillside – gambling is illegal in Thailand, but not in Laos.
A battered songthaew was waiting to transport us to our destination. The driver, who was about as athletic as Ronnie Corbett, somehow managed to haul eight backpacks onto the roof and set off.
Geographically we were a kilometre or so from Thailand. But the difference was immediately noticeable. The paved road gave way quickly to a dirt track, and we crawled carefully across a shallow ravine bridged only by some loose wooden planks. Children played in the dust outside houses made from bamboo.
We arrived at a potential lodgings and the owner, slouched in a wicker chair, audibly sighed when we asked to see a room. He led us to one overlooking the Mekong on two sides, lackadaisically flicking at switches and tugging at curtains. I felt a grudging respect for the honesty in this display of reluctance. We took it, it really was an awesome view. Maybe why he doesn’t need to try to sell it.
Twinkle twinkle little bat
Next door was a wood-framed bar and restaurant where we ate simple but wholesome fayre. An eight year old girl with a Hello Kitty notebook and a business-like manner took our order. Matt was presented with a mighty pile of pork laap, a Laos national staple whilst I had a noodle soup packed with fresh veg.
Here we rediscovered the subtle sweetness of Beerlao, one of the most important Laos commodities, with a large government shareholding and which contributes $US 61.6 million to the national economy. This delicious beer even has its own power ballad.
The occupants of the table beside us had already indulged in it heavily, along with a hefty share of Laos whisky, which they were swigging out of the bottle. One of the group, an American in his mid-fifties in a fluorescent orange sleeveless t-shirt, turned to offer us some. His voice had been nagging at me throughout our meal as it really reminded me of something. It clicked suddenly – the exact same voice as the dormouse from Disney’s Alice in Wonderland with a bit more slurring (listen here, and enjoy this little treat from this fine movie).
He told us he was cycling across Laos, but that he felt inferior as ‘this guy’ (gesturing to the bearded man beside him) had cycled all the way from Denmark. ‘This guy’ turned out to be Jim, a very modest and quietly spoken man who had indeed travelled all that way with basically nothing but his bike and a tent. He said Iranians were the most hospitable people in the world, playing a game of one upmanship with each other over who could offer him the most comfortable stay with the best food. He said the border crossings at Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were the hardest, and that they checked every single photo he had taken on his camera and mobile phone. Pretty intrepid bloke and a privilege to chat to.
I prefer to be described as big boned
The next day I was presented with an almighty breakfast pancake. As we checked out, the receptionist seemed much jollier calling after us to come back again and adding mysteriously, ‘With your son’…
We had time to poke about Huay Xai a bit before boarding the slow boat to Luang Prabang. A two day journey up the Mekong was before us, costing a mere 220,000 kip (around £20 each). The wooden boats were painted bright colours with small shrines on the prow, presumably an offering to the river gods: animism (appeasement of the spirits present in everything, kind of) is practised throughout Southeast Asia.
The boat departure time was 11.30am. We got there at 10 to be safe as we’d heard about overcrowding. I sat watching the world go by. The boat beside us was empty other than a cardboard box which suddenly gave a little leap and started bouncing towards us. I tuned in my ear and managed to make out the sound of cheeping chicks within.
More time passed. People started to whinge. Then a Laotian man boarded the boat. He was bristling with self importance, his hair sprayed into a sideways quiff, his shirt tucked into a belt sporting a golden panther. He was clutching a smartphone in his hand, and on his finger was an ostentatious ring – a large ruby nestled within clusters of diamonds. Or perhaps a whole load of cubic zirconia. He started off by explaining why the boat was running so late: basically because there was nothing to do in Pak Beng, the town we were staying in half way, so they didn’t want to get there too early (he must have assumed we’d rather sit on a sweaty boat for two hours waiting, which didn’t bode well for Pak Beng). His mobile phone trilled ‘I’m sorry, important call.’ On hanging up, he proceeded to brand us all ‘large red headed westerners’, and then revealed the true nature of why he was there, to try and sell us rooms at a Pak Beng guest house. He strolled through, signed some people up and left.
Finally, an hour after schedule, our journey down the Mekong could get underway.
(PS In case you’re concerned about my finances from the title of this blog post, it’s actually a lyric from the exquisite ‘Moonshiner’ by Bob Dylan – have a listen. You’re welcome.)