There is nothing like sitting in an internet cafe, listening to some wonderful jazz playing in the background, and sipping on a sweetner-free banana smoothie to make you reflect on the fact that just six hours before you were in a backwater Lao town, waiting 6 minutes for your email to download on the computer! I’m spending the night in Chieng Rai at the Wiang Com.Hotel I used to base myself here when I worked in a refugee camp years ago. In fact I stayed to stay at this very hotel…… well actually the old one was torn down and replaced by this very modern one with all the amenities that you would really want. This hotel used to be outside the main part of town. Now it is right in the middle of it all.
I left Luang Prabang on a slow boat at 7:30 last Wednesday for the two-day journey up the Mekong to Houei Xai. My traveling companions are two German couples, a Mexican family, a woman from Pennsylvania and a newly-wed deaf couple from Queens, NY! Plus a few Lao along for the ride.
We briefly stopped at the Pak-Ou Caves. The lower cave is packed with hundreds of Buddha statues that have been left there over the years. The way the light enters the cave, it gives a very eerie effect to the images that stand there as if they are patiently waiting for some magical event to unfold.
Our next stop was at a lowland-Lao village. The village is authentic enough to let you know that this has not been on the tourist list….. not yet anyway. The people are as curious about us as we are of them. It is a small farming village where the women suppliment the income by weaving cotton and making some of the most potent Lao rice hooch this side of Tokyo! We spent the first day (10 hours) drifting up the river as if we had no schedule what-so-ever. The river is wide and the very high, steep hills fall right to the river’s edge in most spots.
The villagers along the route are engaged in eeking out their meager living by farming the slopes, fishing the river, and even panning for gold in a few areas where tributaries empty into the Mekong. The French attempted to open mines at these places but not enough gold was found to make the mines profitable.
We stop at a place called Pakbeng (mouth of the Beng River) for the night. We stayed in traditional styled “huts,” except that these huts had hot water! It was all very civilized. After traveling in such remoteness to see this “resort” in the middle of it all reminded me of a scene in “Apocolypse Now” where they are journeying up the river and come across this flashy USO show. The effect is just too surreal….. too out-of-place……. Waking up in the morning under a mosquito net was at least reassuring.. that and the “too-kha” (sort of a large version of a geko) serenading me half the night! Oh, yeah, the mosquito net fell down during the night.. that was fun.. what little bit of hell we will put up with for a little paradise! I opened up the shutters and beheld a sight that blew me away. There in front of me is the river, and the other bank a steep hill with clouds slowly stealing their way across them, swallowing the trees and sticky rice farms and small huts that dot the verdant landscape.
We left at 7:30 for the last 10-hour leg of the trip. We are passed by fast moving speed boats that make the same journey in six hours that we do in two days! If you really need to get there in a hurry….. I can only imagine how numb the passengers must feel when they reach their destination! The river is loaded with rocks…. one wrong turn and those speedboats and their passengers could be history. I’ll take the slow boat any day. We stopped in a Thai Leu village and it is interesting mixture of Buddhist and animism. A phalic display for fertility set up some years ago when the village was founded. The shamen devining that this is a perfect spot. For the first time in Laos a woman will not accept US dollars (usually merchants perfer the more stable dollar or Thai baht to the Lao kip) from one of the women in our group. She looks at it in a very mistrustful way. I loved the village and get some good photos there before we leave.
Slowly the high hills give way to an area of plains and smaller hills. There are more villages and life seems more vibrant as we get closer to our destination. As we arrive I am surprised that the town of Houei Xai and the Thai town on the other side, Chieng Khong, are at least ten times the size I recall them being in the late 70’s. After we dock and I bid farewell to my fellow passengers, I headed to the Theveesin Hotel located on the main steet.
Our arrival is late in the day, so this gives me only one day to explore the town of Houei Xai. I walked the two or three kilometers to the morning market that is filled of every kind of vegetable, fruit and meat. There are a number of tribal people walking around in their native costumes. Up above the food market is the clothing and household wares part of the market. Not one other Westerner in sight.. I am the odd character in the mix…. maybe they should have been taking pictures of me?! There are a lot of local and Chinese-made products for sale. This reminds me that the Chinese border is only 100 kilometers away. I am filled with a desire to just head north for the border! Next trip! Spend a good part of the rest of the day at the temple on top of the hill and looking for the old French fort. When I finally near my destination, I am told that the fort is off limits. Oh, well, it IS the journey not the destination, right? Wish I could have stayed at least one more day in Houei Xai to explore the hilltribes that live in villages outside the town. Seems like I am going through Laos always saying that I wish I had just one more day……..
This morning I arose early after not getting too much sleep because the dogs in the neighborhood howled all night at some unseen intrusion in their territory. It is raining. I checked out and made my way through the wet street to the boat landing. As we are making the crossing in the low long-tail boat, we are suddenly bombarded by a heavy rain. Despite the roofing on the boat, we are soaked by the time we get to the Thai side of the river. After getting through the immigration formalities, I make the steep climb to the main road to secure a taxi to the bus station after the taxi drivers down on the quay try to charge me twice the price despite my speaking to them in Thai. Ugh! More rain…… I see the happy side in that I can’t get any wetter….
The three-hour bus ride to Chieng Rai takes us through the back roads and not the main road as I had hoped. As a result the bus did not pass by Ban Thong where the refugee camp had been located. I doubt if much is left there anyway. The trip is wonderful through the hills. People speaking dialects that I can’t comprehend get on and off the bus at the most remote locations. We pass rice farmers working their fields planting the rice seedlings. Hilly roads that don’t effect me in the least since the mountainous trip through Laos….. It is nice in a way to be here now….. A long shower washes the dust, wetness and mud from the day’s travel. I miss Laos already…………
On to Chieng Mai tomorrow……….