Backpacking in Mekong’s brown water

Cruising down the river   | Photo Credit: Hanna Summer

The maximum time we generally spend on boats would be a couple of hours. So the prospect of spending two full days on a country boat, that too on one of the mightiest rivers, seemed definitely appealing.

We first heard of the boat trips on Mekong River, from some travel blogs; some had found it interesting, while for some others it was a trifle unappealing. Mekong-style slow-boats ply between Luang Prabang and Huay Xai in Laos, taking two days to cover the 300-odd kilometres (boats are not run on the Mekong River in the night, as it is too risky, with many rocks present). Speed boats cover the distance in one day, but are generally considered too dangerous, and were definitely not for us.

We decided to go upriver from Luang Prabang, as it suited our itinerary better. We were picked up from the hotel and brought to Luang Prabang port, a few kilometres outside the city, before 7 am. It did not seem to be a good day for the tour company, as there were only six passengers on board the big boat, including us. The seating was comfortable and the boat was equipped with two clean, modern toilets.

It did not take us long to realise that the boat was a family affair. The owner of the boat was the driver, with his wife being in charge of cooking and housekeeping, while the elder son helped around. The cute, younger chap seemed to be enjoying himself, driving his remote-controlled toy car all over our feet! The family lived on the boat, in the living quarters at the rear.

The Pak Ou caves

The Pak Ou caves   | Photo Credit: manx_in_the_world

An hour after we left, we stopped for a quick visit at the famous Pak Ou caves, located right by the river. It is a Buddhist shrine, which was patronised by the erstwhile royals of Laos, housing more than 4,000 idols of the Buddha. The count increases every year, as more are added by devotees, during the yearly festival. There is a lower and an upper cave, with the latter being reached by climbing a flight of steep steps. The upper cave houses the king’s idols, and was exclusively used by the royal family in days of yore.

The steep banks of the river are mostly covered with thick evergreen forests. There is very little habitation on the river, barring a few stray villages, an indicator that Laos has the lowest density of population among Southeast Asian nations.

We left Pak Ou caves at around 8 am, and the boat did not stop till it reached Pak Beng around 5.30 pm, manned single-handedly by our driver.

Pak Beng is a small riverside hamlet where all boats stop after Day 1, the economy of which seems to be primarily driven by tourists halting here, during their upward and downward journey along the Mekong. We found quite a few eateries, and guest houses. Next day, we boarded the boat at 6.30 am, when the river was still partly shrouded in mist. Shortly after Pak Beng, we saw extensive road-construction on one side of the river, which seemed to be causing ecological damage. Our guide told us that it is a road being constructed by China, to support the construction of a dam which Laos is planning to build on the Mekong, so that they can generate hydro-power and export to China. This means that the boat trip that we were doing now will not be possible after a few years.

Backpacking in Mekong’s brown water

Shortly, we started seeing scores of people wearing straw hats, squatting by the side of the river, and sieving water, in the hot sun. They were panning for gold; another humble source of income for the poor, which could be destroyed by the dam.

There was a customary stop at an isolated tribal village on the river, where the guide tried to give us a glimpse of a traditional lifestyle. No communication was possible with the villagers though, as none knew a word of English.

Till now, we had Laos on both sides of Mekong. A little past noon, at a certain point, Laos territory ends West of the river, and Thai territory begins. From here onwards, the Mekong forms the natural boundary between Laos and Thailand. The Thailand side looks more developed and prosperous than the Laos side.

Extensive banana plantations, stretch for kilometres on the Laos side of the river. Our guide explained that these huge plantations are run by Chinese companies, on leased land. The fruit, however, found no favour with the locals because of the use of pesticides.

The Mekong has a lot of traffic, be it in terms of speedboats, ferrying both locals as well as tourists, cargo boats, and passenger boats like ours. Local markets function right along the route, something that is bound to change when lifestyles change.

The boat ride is perhaps the most unhurried activity you will do anywhere in South East Asia. And, it becomes all the more precious when you know it may not be possible for long.

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Printable version | Jul 29, 2021 10:29:53 AM |

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