It is 5.30am…and I am awake…courtesy of yet another cockerel!
It seems perfectly pointless going back to sleep since the air-con still hasn’t started and the room is heating up…we dress, pack our things and decide to wander the town as it rises. In fact its pretty much risen already as daily life seems to begin at day break!
We stagger out into the street and decide…uphill or downhill towards the river. A gaggle of noise to our right drags us down the hill. About two streets down there is a small crowd of kids seemingly fighting over something by the road. As we get nearer, I realise what it is. It is one of my most enduring memories and a huge regret at not being awake enough to take a photo. Four or five school-children (judging by their immaculate uniforms) are fighting half-heartedly over the decapitated remains of what appears to be a recently killed porcupine. Each child is fighting for access to the longest of the black and white quills still firmly attached into the corpse – tugging wildly to release the grip of the dead animal and transform it’s body into multiple writing tools for school. As each combatant is satisfied, a small flow of happy faces trots off up the hill – presumably towards their school. The sight is so surreal that I can only stand and smile – but my room-mates are not impressed by the headless beast and we press on down the street; watching the same shopkeepers open the same shops with almost identical ranges for the waking slow-boaters to gather their provision for the long journey ahead.
As we near the river itself, the activity increases. Dogs lie about watching their owners prepare peanut butter baguettes and egg rolls for small last-minute stalls before the boats. Men gather on the boat roofs and piles of produce – sharing sticky rice balls from small plastic bags and talking as they watch the sun rise along the river. This place is so filled with peace and yet so alive and vibrant it is hard to believe that Laos has seen so much conflict and suffering. The people seem so friendly and relaxed.
We buy our baguettes and wander back uphill towards and then past our guest house. Since it it still only 6am it seems worth seeing a little more of this place before we depart down the Mekong.
As we wander up the road, we see two of the school girls from the porcupine battle earlier on. They are now walking with purpose up the road ahead of us. We talk about what it must be like to go to school and grow up here and we wonder aloud where the school is. Immediately they turn – “its just up here on the right – you can follow us if you like” they say! We are instantly embarrassed. Having assumed that they would not understand us we are treated to a fast education on the speed with which Laos is developing. Even in a small backwater such as Pak Beng, the english language is being learned voraciously in schools. I pray that these bright youngsters take more from their future than the guy from the restaurant last night.
The street soon runs out of paving as wander further away from the river. A beautiful old temple in yellows and blues hides behind rusting gates and overgrown gardens, chickens and dogs run everywhere in the road and the signs of building work and increasing tourism are everywhere. I feel fortunate to have seen Pak Beng this early in its development. I have already heard from friends that it has grown dramatically to this point but it is clear that Laos will not stay still for long and Pak Beng will soon be an important staging post in the inevitable trek of tourism across the country.
We head back to our guesthouse to collect bags and pay the owner before staggering back down to the river with our gear – taking a few more photos as we go. There is a growing group of travellers waiting for boats…but no sign of our boat from yesterday. Eventually we spot amidst the flotilla what looks like the same boat we arrived on and we head towards it. Fortunately, this sees a common mistake and we are soon correctly informed that this boat arrives in Pak Beng, turns about and heads back upriver to where we boarded. Another boat takes us to Luang Prabang – and we are now pointed in the right direction! Due to our early rising we have actually secured comfortable seats facing one another towards the front of the boat and are just settling into our sunny position when we recall the warnings in the Rough Guide about sunburn. Luckily, the boatmen have also noticed the fair skinned tourists and their suffering and the large sliding roof is soon applied before we pull away from the dock.
For much of the day, the mood continues as per yesterday: people read, chatter rises and falls, card games swell and ebb, photos are taken and stored, books are finished and exchanged, the beautiful scenery passes and the locals bring more supplies to the boat as we pull up against the shoreline. Occasionally, we have new arrivals – a young boy who is being taught to cut open some form of fruit with a very large knife, a monk who sits staring out at the river…but generally our troop continues as it was for the 6 hour journey.
At about 2pm, the heavens decide that our trip needs some excitement and they release a deluge open us so heavy that all the rich blue side panels of the boat are rolled down in seconds by the fast soaked passengers – each then securing the strings of each panel to anything they can – including in some cases their own arms! The noise is deafening and despite our desire to see the passing life outside, any small opening in our protective shell lets in such a howling and wet gale that we content ourselves to read in the blue light and resume our chatter until the sun reappears.
By late afternoon the scenery around us has changed dramatically. Instead of lush green hillsides and small rocks in the path of the river, there are now huge cliff faces and huge rocks in the river. Fortunately the river too is far wider and whilst still a rich coffee-brown, its eddies and swirls seem less aggressive than they were when we left Pak Beng. There are also more river goers alongside us and we frequently receive greetings and shouts from long boats with single drivers and cargos of anything from nets to fruit to large white sacks of rice. We also see more and more fishing nets spread between long sticks wedged into the rocks by the river. Occasionally we get to see the men and women who tend to these apparently deserted and delicate laceworks. They stand in their narrow canoe-like craft and confidently drag their catch from the fast flowing river – often strangely motionless and across the fast running currents. It is a mystery to me how they stay so steady whilst the fierce waters rush under their tiny boats – perhaps the sheer shallowness of its construction reduces the impact – it seems impossible to me and I stretch my head to try to understand as we pass these minute dramas of river life on our way in to Luang Prabang.
As the settlements become more frequent and the fishing nets more closely grouped, we realise that we are coming near to the end of our trip. Bags start to be repacked, books stowed safely away, cushions abandonned and conversation turns to lodging arrangements in the old capital. As advised by Noom, I have booked ahead at Spicy Laos – keen to see how the sister of Spicy Thai stacks up against her Chiang Mai neighbour. As we pull towards the dock – again crowded with young boys read to whisk luggage away into waiting tuk-tuks, I am glad that I am able to wave them away with the knowledge that I have a pace to stay and I know (roughly) where it is. We make our goodbyes and the usual best wishes and vague plans to catch up over the next few days in Laos and the 2 day friendships forged on the journey from Thailand are released once more. I gather my things and trudge up the hill to find a less pushy driver to take me to Spicy Laos.
The French colonial house which constitutes Spicy Laos (the sister to Spicy Thai in Chiang Mai) was built in 1936 and served as a royal residence for a Laos’s prince until 1975. It is intricately decorated around the upper areas of each wall and shows delicate hints of its part grandeur in the main entrance to which I climb up a wide staircase from the courtyard below. I am expected and shown to my room which is, to be honest, a disappointment. It is a tiny space filled to the max with 3 bunk beds and the only spare bed is the top one in the corner. I need to charge up my phone but the electrics in the corner are stuffed full with charging equipment and hanging from the wall exposing bare wires. I decide to check the internet and upload my photos from the boat trip and clear my camera for whatever Luang Prabang has to offer.
Much like in Chiang Mai, the internet in Spicy premises is fast and efficient and before long all my boat trip photos are up on facebook and I am read to go. Frustratingly, the cards that I brought to store photos do not seem to work at all in my camera. This means that I can take about 180 photos before I need to download and delete those on the camera. I recognise that uploading to facebook does not retain the full detail of the photo and I worry that I am losing memories as I go along. I have taken to storing a high level overview of each day on my Blackberry so that I can write it up later but I am not convinced it will all stay with me. I wish I had the strength to do like many around me are doing and write a paper diary of all my thoughts each day. My mind is wandering so freely during long travel days and days wandering alone in silence that even with a book in my hand I’m not sure I could capture the sense of space. Its like emptying out the crap and slowing down the processing speed and then inserting random, unrelated pieces of information with no expectations of an outcome and then watching. Im really enjoying the slow-down.
I am interrupted from my reverie by the arrival of a large troupe of very loud and muddy people who demand that I will be joining them for a meal on the terrace, the disco in town this evening and the waterfall (where they have just come from) tomorrow. Before I get a chance to agree or not, Laura introduces herself and shows me her incredibly muddy legs and body and pretty much everything else and tells me she really needs a shower. Louis is next in – a gloriously beautiful blond curly haired adonis with the confidence of a well heeled public school boy and the manners to match. He says hello and asks about me and then the rest of the gang tramp in and the noise levels settle at a constant party level.
It takes me a moment to adjust from the swell of the boat mob to the chaos of this party but I join them for fish with your fingers on the terrace and we all start to share travel stories. Laura laughs long and loud at my “fuck It Button” story. She too has pressed the button having been made redundant (I think) from a good job and deciding to sod off and do some travel. She is working in a bar in Cambodia but has come up to Laos for some reason (visa/old friends/break) and will be about for a week. She is clearly a real party animal…yet also the first person I have met who is not mid twenties and gap-yearing.
Once the fish is all gone and the beer cabinet s running dry, we all pile into a tuk-tuk to head to the disco. When I say all…there are 12 of us so Laura hangs on the back and everyone else piles into and onto any surface they can. We are a mixed bag of Canadians, English, Laos and German/Dutch (wasn’t sure and never asked) and I wonder what on earth will happen in a Laos Disco when this mad crew arrives. As it turns out, there is only one disco in Luang Prabang so everyone who is under 25 is there – mostly locals and the carpark outside is full of mopeds and teenagers.
I know it’s going to be a heavy night when the beers turn rapidly to shots and Laura and Pheung (who works at Spicy Laos) drag us onto the dancefloor to dance like no-one is looking – 80s style seems predominantly “in”! I am struggling to keep up and feel part of the gang and for some reason find it hard to relax in such an established group and in such a weird location. When they all head off to the bowling I head home and went to bed – disturbed only by the late arrival of Louis at about 4am who mumbled briefly and then passed out. Noone else came home until the morning!
I pray that there are no cockerels in Luang Prabang!