Monday, 10 August 2015


In the morning we meet Johnny and Jess, Kiwis who are also cycling to the border post.  They've just bought bikes in Chiang Mai and are travelling pretty light. We go through all the usual border post stuff and then have to wait for a bus to take us over the bridge into Laos.  It's frustrating but we knew they don't let you cycle this bridge.  And they charge more to take the bikes, the swines.  On the other side we are the last to go through immigration and time has ticked on.  We all want to take the boat to Pak Beng down the Mekong but it's nearly 11am and we might be too late.  It's not high season but there are plenty of backpackers crossing this border.  What's interesting is that many seem to have an organised trip - only a handful have travelled independently.  I don't know what they pay for the air-conditioned minibus and the tuk tuk pick up, but they're not getting much more than anyone else.  But of course they don't have to think about anything.

In the village of Huay Xai where the Mekong boats depart from there's a proper ticket office with fares posted up on the window.  And there's a boat waiting.  It's almost full, but there are free seats right at the front where we board.  Bikes are hoisted onto the roof and tied on, and all our panniers get carried to the luggage rack at the back.  There must be a hundred tourists on the boat plus twenty or so locals.  The woman in charge walks down the boat and tells all the Lao to go to the back where the engine is.  It's the worst place.  She is making room for late arrivals - a van load who beat us through immigration only now turns up.  Is there a seat for everyone? Only just.  And then the extremely long slow boat eases out into the river and we're off down the Mekong.

The river takes us to Pak Beng for an overnight stop and then there's another boat to take us on to Luang Prabang.  It's wet season so the river is high and the riverbanks are lush green.  The locals are travelling to their villages on route.  They have to jump off on to makeshift floats or another boat or directly onto the mudbank.  This proves tricky for anyone transporting their scooter.  

We spend our first day chatting with Ned, from the States.  He used to work in Laos in the early seventies and was here when the war began.  At some point he gave up teaching and started dealing in Chinese antiquities.  We begin talking about China and he shares his insights on a country where he's been doing business for about 30 years.  As he explains, he has "dragged along the bottom" in China and seen the worst excesses of a corrupt and despotic regime.  In fact once we get Ned started he just can't stop himself.  He believes China is the world's biggest threat at the moment with all the trouble over the islands in the South China Sea (there's oil there of course).  And he talks about the importance of guanxi when doing business in China - connections.  If you know a senior official in Customs, then your container will pass through quickly.  But if you don't?  Then it's parked up over there for months, or the contents destroyed. Ned has clearly had it with China.  Now he wants to travel and explore parts of the world he hasn't visited before: despite living here back in the 70's he has never visited the north of Laos.  He is fluent in the language and chats to the locals.  

The river is not very wide, except at the larger bends, and the views are not spectacular.  Now and again we can see bigger distant hills.  The nearer hillsides sometimes have sections denuded of trees - slash and burn every year before the rainy season blights the region with smog and ash.  The farmers grow 'dry' rice, Ned tells us and he points out examples.  What the tourist cannot see is that over 30% of the land is now in foreign ownership - mostly Chinese and Vietnamese.  In the province bordering China they are planting rubber.  There is also a plan to build a railway from Kunming to Vientiane.  It will criss-cross the Mekong and tunnel through the mountains and the plan is to allow China a 1km strip of land with that rail link.  Laos is a poor country run by a gang of men who are selling it off piece by piece it seems.  And the people we see living in rural poverty by the river will see none of the money.  

At the end of the afternoon we arrive at Pak Beng - a halfway point on the way to Luang Prabang.  The boat disgorges its load.  Backpackers struggle up the muddy, brick strewn bank to meet locals touting for their accommodation.  It's a drag to have the bikes and panniers in a situation like this, but we don't have the time to cycle.  With Jess and Johnny we follow a woman to her place, dump our stuff and head to the Indian restaurant we passed on the road.  We all order different curries but they all look, and presumably taste, remarkably the same.  Of course, Pak Beng is a classic tourist trap but no-one is getting too ripped off and it's clear the tourists bring important cash to the village.  The next day we board a different boat with all the backpackers for the next stage of the journey.  Jess and Johnny are going to cycle to Luang Prabang so we say our goodbyes.  We remember cycling here in 2010 being a rude introduction to cycle touring.  We just hadn't expected such big hills and such steep roads.  And the roads were being upgraded by the Chinese at the time.  The landscape is beautiful but we are quite happy to be sailing down the Mekong today.

fishermen selling their catch

There's a super-friendly Dutch family sitting next to us today and a young American couple opposite us.  Korine and Juan are from New York - you rarely meet travellers from New York - and we natter throughout the day with them all.  It's Korine who suggests we write to Primus about having our stove pump confiscated in Bangkok.  There's more leg room for everyone today and it feels more relaxed than yesterday's tight squeeze with everyone getting some breeze off the river.  But locals once again have to ride at the back.  The waters have receded half a metre overnight. The land opens out more on this stretch of the river so there are better views and there's only one moment when we get stuck on a mudbank after dropping off some locals when everyone looks a bit ruffled.  Ned gets up to help pole the boat off the mud.

At mid-afternoon the hill-top temple overlooking Luang Prabang comes into view.  We dock at the foot of a long staircase which makes me wince - but at least there are stairs.  By the time we've got everything off the boat and the bikes loaded at the top all the backpackers have gone.  The boat drops us about 10 km north of the town, presumably to provide some tuk-tuk drivers with employment.  Off we go in the sweaty heat to find our home for the next few weeks.

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