|Today we joined the Straybus tour. We had breakfast in two of our favourite places; one for the muesli with fruit and yoghurt and a mango shake and the other for coffee. The best coffee we had tasted in Chiang Mai.
We packed, checked out and met our guide, a young Dutchman who had worked for Straybus for a couple of years. All very laid back and we left Chiang Mai around midday and headed for Chiang Khong on the Thai/Laos border. The minibus was very comfortable, even better than yesterday's. There were only three travellers, us and a young German girl, so we had plenty of room.
We stopped at Chiang Rai to visit the White Temple. A modern construction, completely over the top. It was white with many tiny mirrors set the the plaster which made it glisten in the sun. It was very extravagant, I'll try to post a photo sometime, but we are told wifi isn't very good in Laos. The architect was there, revelling in the praise from the Thai people. There was also an exhibition of his work in an adjacent building; equally ornate and over the top. It was an interesting experience.
We drove on again through a very rural area with many rice paddies, either just harvested or about to be . Some organised planting of smallish trees that had been cut to capture the sap, not sure what they are and the guide didn't know (why would he?). Though a range of hills finally arriving at dusk in Chiang Khong. A very pleasant drive..
We were put up in a quant little homestay and wandered in to town to find food. Not a very exciting town, there were very few places to eat. We went to the bar recommended by our guide but we were not impressed. In the absence of anything better we stayed and had a very good Thai green curry and a Chang beer. The owner was Dutch which explained why our guide had chosen this place. Anyway the owner was very hospitable even though his politics weren't exactly PC. He poured us a tequila which we downed, then he poured another. We decided it was time to go, while we could still walk - it was a 15 minute walk back to the homestay, which did help.
Up early in the mourning as we wanted to be at the front of the queue for Thai emigration as apparently the queue can be very long. Pancake and bananas with something that passed for coffee, and we set off to the dockside. We were early so had to wait for half an hour until the Immigration Office opened at 8 am. We cleared the Thai border then had to catch a ferry across the Mekong to Laos, the ferries are small boats so piling on the luggage for our party was a bit of fun! Across the Mekong our tour guide took our passports and visa request docs up to the office and we waited. And we waited.......eventually the passports reappeared so we were officially in Laos. Collected a baguette for breakfast and into a songthaw to carry us to the riverboat dock. Another young German girl and a new guide joined us here, a young Laotian, called Chit who told us a bit about customs and language. He had very good English and was easy to understand and during our seven hour riverboat trip we had several long chats with him, learning about life in Laos, his family and his job. One of 8 children originally, sadly, two brothers had died as children and another as a young man of malaria. Very sad and not untypical, but a salutary reminder for us to keep taking our Malarone.
Straybus had chartered the whole boat, it was about 50metres long and had over 50 fixed seats, so we had plenty of room to walk about and enjoy life on the river. The Mekong varied from about 150 to 250 metres wide but full of swirling currents, back eddies,small whirlpools and the occasional rocky outcrop. It was the end (we hope) of the rainy season so the river was very high and flowed very quickly. We passed through a rural landscape, hilly, even mountainous in parts, with crops grown right down to the river's edge. Little villages or hamlets from time to time, each with their rows of buoys marking their fishing lines/pots, some cattle, a few goats. Very peaceful as the boat just chugged gently along.
Lunch was typical Lao fare; green curry soup, fried fish, stir fried vegetables and stir fried chicken with different vegetables, plus a huge bowl of rice. This was followed by fresh pineapple, neatly chunked, it was the sweetest we ever tasted. And all this while the spectacular views glided past. Fabulous!
After very pleasant afternoon travelling down the mighty Mekong we arrived at our overnight destination, Pak Beng. We staggered up the steep hill to our guesthouse and checked in. Waylaid by three guys insisting on carrying our bags; they just grabbed them! Of course they wanted paying but I only had one note, so offered it and two of them walked off leaving the other, who had carried the heaviest bag protesting he hadn't been paid. I told Chit very firmly the money was to be shared, which he passed on, and the guy set off after the others. What a palaver!
We had a look around the village, it was pretty poor, though a new market building had just been completed and there a few newish 4x4s around. We all went off to dinner together later at a nearby restaurant where the guide was obviously known and we had a great time. Chit produced a bottle of what he called Laos whiskey, but it tasted nothing like it or anything else we'd tried. So it was shots all round while waiting for the food to arrive. The food was good, not too spicy but all freshly cooked, washed down with Laobeer. More shots, then the younger people decided to go back to the boat for more drinking; we just shuffled off to bed.
Another early start as we had a five hour boat ride to our next stop. We walked down the hill to the dock past many children struggling up the hill to school. They were all smartly turned out in their school uniform.
The river was narrower for quite a way, down to less than 100 metres in parts with more eddies and small rapids where the rocks poked above water. Much cooler today, the cloud level was low, brushing the hilltops and easing into the valleys. Again, we passed small villages and isolated buildings, tall forests right down to the river's edge. Buffalo, cattle, goats and pigs foraging by the riverside.
After a couple of hours we stopped off at a Hmong village, Khok Ek, and the sun came out; suddenly much hotter. We saw the infants school, supported by Save the Children, good to see evidence of charitable giving, and the secondary school; the old schoolhouse, used for the first year, and a brand new school building. Interesting to potter around, we came upon a woman making paper from bamboo, a family of pigs rooting around and many chickens and ducks. The women from the village laid out some crafts, including very pretty scarves. So we had to buy some, didn't we!
Back to the boat and lunch underway. We stopped at another village, Ban Lad Khammune, to join in the celebrations for the opening of a new hospital. The hospital wasn't finished, but I guess plans for the party were fixed. There was traditional Lao dancing by the village children, all smartly dressed in traditional costume. They were very good, the dancing is quite stylised and deliberate. Bottles of homemade Lai-lai, Laos rice whiskey, were being brought around with shot glasses for everyone to drink, it did seem impolite to decline this hospitality and it did help the afternoon pass. After the schoolchildren finished, adults were invited onto the dance floor
Dinner was served in one of the village houses, there was still a bit of a party atmosphere and the food was good and plentiful. We were then ushered in to a neighbouring house for a 'Baci' ceremony. This entailed us joining a circle of people sitting on the floor with one hand on a central platter while those who couldn't reach touching the elbow of those in the inner circle, so that everyone was 'connected'. A bit a chanting, a swift shot of lai-lai and then the Lao people came round and tied short lengths of cottons string around all the falangs (foreigners) wrists - both wrists! These and the ceremony were to give thanks and bestow good wishes and good health for travellers, and for anyone who was sick. It have me the opportunity to think of my parents and my nephew Nick who is to undergo a major operation.
We were clearing away the Baci ceremony when I felt a sharp pain in my big toe, I looked down and in the poor light I could see a small scorpion scuttling away having just injected me with his venom. It was so painful, I had to go outside. The villagers, of course, had seen this before and there told graphic stories of what had happened to them when stung. Apparently nothing could be done just a clean up (with a shot of lai-lai!) and wait until the pain eased; anything from an hour to two or three days if the villagers were to be believed.
The ceremony over we were invited to watch the schoolchildren perform the same dances as this afternoon. Well, the kids were keen to do it! And more shots! Bedtime, we were shown into one of the village houses, more like a small barn really, very little furniture and the bed was a mosquito net covering two thin mattresses on the floor. The loo was particularly disgusting even though by now we were used to the 'hole in the floor' type.
Well, the night didn't go well, apart from my throbbing toe, the bed was extremely uncomfortable, and going to the loo was a nightmare. We were woken abruptly at about 4.15 by a dawn chorus of cockerels, all competing to make loudest call. We staggered down the slope to the boat for some peace and quiet and a cup of tea. Breakfast of a fried egg and some bread appeared and soon afterwards we motored off down the river. The two girls also had a poor night, so conversation was a bit muted.
A couple of hours cruising and we stopped at Pak Ou Caves. Here we saw thousands of Buddha images that were placed throughout the caves over a period of hundreds of years. It was all a bit grimy and tatty, Ruth declined as it was over 200 steps to e cave and her knee was playing up again. Back on the water for another hour and we arrived at Luang Prabang. The river cruising had been really good, we passed through some stunning scenery and it was totally relaxing.