|Today the temperature is pleasant but not warm enough to relish the cold shower. Mr and Mrs Singkham prepare breakfast for us and regale us with stories of the various elixirs that he takes to stay fit at 75.
We walk down to the river to find the riverboat that is to transport us to Luang Prabang over the next 2 days. It is owned by a family who live on board in the tourist season. The boat is about 38m long and 2.5m wide and all the cooking is done in their quarters at the front of the boat. The son is very particular about respecting his elders (which are all of us) and tries to bend down so that his head is below the level of ours as he passes by. Whilst we appreciated the custom, we were all wanting to say 'for goodness sake just walk normally'.
We cruise restfully down the mighty Mekong listening to information from local guide Sa and take in life on the river: coal barges taking local coal to China to be sent back as electricity; longboat taxis speeding by with drivers in motorcycle helmets; families loading their excess rice and corn into sacks and onto barges for sale elsewhere; peanuts growing in the sandbanks; little groups of people dotted along the banks of the river panning for gold; herds of water buffalo with gambolling calves; people setting their nets and checking the long lines - bamboo poles wedged between rocks at strategic points.
We stop at a local village of one of the poorer tribes who eke out their living growing rice, corn and fruits and vegetables along with pigs, chickens and ducks; and the money given by groups like us to see their way of life. The men are off working in the fields while the women dry and pound the rice and look after the animals and younger children who are not at school. Some of the older women are heavily tattooed and we hear that during the Vietnam War these tattoos signified their fierceness.
There are 3 villages within about 30mins walk from each other and they share one school. Schooling is not free: elementary school is the cheapest, secondary and university are very often beyond the reach of parents to affortd.
The village only got electricity 2 years ago but now satellite dishes sprout like trees among the houses. The local chief sits with assistants in front of the village hall that is being expanded to include a health clinic, preparing the manifests of crops etc that must be supplied to the government.
Back at boat we enjoy a simple but sumptuous local meal as we continue our journey down river. For 25km Thailand is still on the starboard side before we are travelling totally within Laos. The river stretches over 5000km from Tibet to the sea, passing through 6 countries on the way. 2000km are in Laos and it is the lifeblood of the country. We will travel over 300km in the next 2 days.
Pak Beng is a little town whose only reason for being is that it is halfway to Luang Prabang. It is full of basic guesthouses and restaurants catering to the passing masses. It is a steep climb up from the boat and the local boys jockey for the right to carry your bag up for you. Some look to only be about 5yrs old and we are torn between whether such tiny mites should be carrying heavy bags and the desire to contribute towards their education costs.
Once we have checked in to our guesthouse, we walk the length of the village taking in the remnants of the market as people packed up their unsold herbs, vegetables and fish; the local temple with the monks beginning their evening chants; and the spectacular sunset over the river valley. Local restaurants plead us to dine at their establishment.
We are surprised to find on the restaurant tables a bottle of complementary local rice whisky rather than water; a large bottle of beerLao is also cheaper than water but having already had 'beer o'clock' on the boat I opt instead for a pineapple shake which rapidly becomes a pina colada once I comment that it is made with coconut milk. I pass on the opportunity to try buffalo and bamboo and choose the 'Find Rice'.
Kom shares some Buddhist philosophies and how these materialise in the lives of Cambodian people. Sa tells us about how he did do some time as a monk but he only lasted 3 days - by day 2 he was so hungry he broke the rule of no eating after 12 noon. His father decided he wanted peace and quiet rather than family life and joined the monkhood leaving his wife and family to fend for themselves. Sa is now married with a 13mnth old son (Scott) and his mother lives with them in Luang Prabang. Kom decided that he didn't want to be monk as they are not allowed to touch women 'and his wife is too beautiful'. He and his wife have adopted his 7 yr old niece and have a 3yr old son and 9 month old daughter who are exceedingly cute in the photos he proudly shows us. Kom's younger brother has become a monk at 16 and will probably stay one for life as he is recognised for having the qualities that may lead to him becoming a very senior monk.