“[His eyes were] green in colour, and of a peculiarly metallic glint, which caused them, as we shook hands, to be exploring my person for good spots to hit. What was probably intended to be the smile that wins, appeared to me a grim and sardonic twist of the lip. Take him for all in all, I had never met a man so calculated to convert the most truculent swashbuckler to pacifism as a glance; and when I recalled Ukridge’s story of the little unpleasantness at Marseilles and realized that a mere handful of half a dozen able bodied seamen had had the temerity to engage this fellow in personal conflict, it gave me a thrill of patriotic pride.”
PG Wodehouse: Ukridge
The cross over into from Chiang Khong on the Thai border and into Huay Xai, Laos was remarkably straight forward and easy. At half past eight in the morning we were picked up and then whisked across to the river crossing point. From here we were then taken across the Mekong River on long boats. Bored officials stamped put passports for US$35.00 each and then all the travellers congregated together in a small shop to wait for enough people to fill our slow boat.
What became immediately obvious is that Laos is certainly not the road that is seldom trod anymore. Each boat can take about fifty people and we and our fellow backpackers filled two boats on a random Monday morning. We were gullible enough to book a room in advance for the nightly stop over in Pak Beng when we crossed over and during our wait a charismatic Laotian took the opportunity to warn all the travellers that Pak Beng was a den of inequity and bustling with thieves straight out of the Arabian Nights. “There are many thieves” he quoth, “that will separate you from your baggage and make away with it in no time at all.” And then “Make sure your room is locked, and that the windows are sealed closed. Carry your valuables with you at all times.” I hugged my camera bag that little bit closer to my side. The rest can go, I am tired of carrying it. This little man then went on to tell us about his guest house in Pak Beng, apparently clean, safe and hospitable. It was, I was relieved to note, the same place that we had already booked. In retrospect I would argue all of those points. Our room smelt of urine, the staff had offered me weed (“Hey my freeend something nice to schmoke?”) twice before I even made it up the hill from the boat (dudes, I DON’T smoke! Not even cigarettes, they make me feel ill!) and when we refused to stay there a sturdy, strong in the arm (very) thick in the head gentleman challenged me to a bout of fisticuffs. I declined but I am getting ahead of myself.
We were still in Huay Xai, the Laos side of the border. “Usually our rooms are 500 Baht a night” our host intoned, “but for now it is off season and they are only 300. Additionally Pak Beng is very small, not many guest houses and the electricity goes off at 10 o’clock. It is better for you if you reserve a room here and then you know you are safe.” I patted myself on the shoulder and for the six hours we were on the boat I felt comforted that the thieves and villains of Pak Beng would have been foiled by boy scout-ish preparedness. The slow boat journey is beautiful with forests on either side of the river and the occasional village, but Koko had been right. After all the Mekong is the twelfth largest river in the world and though our section was comparatively small it still took us from Thailand deep into Laos.
The river itself is a hive of activity with everything from food to trucks being transported along on a variety of boats. On the shores villages spring up as you round in bends of the river and occasionally our boat would stop to allow vendors on who sold food and drinks to the travellers. The amount of life on and around the river was fascinating but three and a half hours in and my bony behind ached as though I had been caned (this from the cramped benches) and I found myself coveting the cards of our neighbours. I read, shifted from side to side, had a couple of large bottles of beers (ok, four) and then finally we were toiling up the banks of Pak Beng towards the promised comforts of Bounmee.
“Bounmee Rooms, 150 Baht” a chorus of touts cried out. In my finest PG Wodehousian tone I heard myself saying “What ho? 150 Baht?” We had been charged three hundred. Upon arrival we kicked up a fuss. We demanded to pay 150, but no, they would (reluctantly) go down to two hundred. They showed us a room redolent of stale urine with a broken fan and still demanded 200 baht. Nipun went to have a word (several in fact, and created a stink not entirely unlike the one in our room) and was told by a Laotian brute of a man that “You are one woman and he is one man in Laos. You do not live here. I will make your stay in Lao very difficult.” We managed to get our deposit back and went in search of alternative lodging, pausing only to tell the man that had tried to intimidate Nipun that I was a journalist and he should look out for the latest copies of the Rough Guide and Lonely Planet when they came out. He went doo-lally and the next thing I knew he was trying to get me to put down my backpack so we could escalate our discussion to the next level. Given that he was an ogre of a man and had “a face like boiled meat” I passed up the opportunity to trade blows with him. I legged it, and quickly at that, though in secret I was delighted with how riled I had got him after he had threatened Nipun. Later, dinner at the local Indian restaurant proved to be true to form with three separate tables having to argue their bills and us included after that. We did not need an alarm clock to wake us to quit that ghastly town. On the boat we heard further horror stories about Bounmee, with rooms with no hot water, lights that did not work and a general inhospitable demeanour from my erstwhile friend the boxer. No doubt he was stewing away and thinking long and deep on how he would like to boil my guts up in a cauldron and brand me with red hot pokers.
After another nine bum crushing hours on the slow boat the next day we arrived in Luang Prabang, the former capital of Lao and a World Heritage site. It is the antithesis of Pak Beng and having been here for three days now we love it. More on that later.