The Mekong River Day 2
We awoke this morning to the sound of elephants. It transpires that elephants are brought down to the banks of the Mekong River every morning to be washed by their keepers, (the Mahout). The whole event takes about an hour once the elephant arrives at the water’s edge and, having recognised the sound, I dashed out onto our balcony to see if I could get a photograph. I did. The elephants make quite a noise whilst they are being washed but, I suspect, this is as much enjoyment as anything else. Having got a reasonable photograph of the elephants, Captain Clarke and I went down to meet with Madame Cholet and Great Uncle Bulgaria to take breakfast. Breakfast was an interesting affair and, if I am to be totally honest, not one of my most enjoyable culinary experiences in the Far East. We were firstly served with a pancake that was accompanied by butter and hibiscus jam, (hibiscus jam, I can assure you dear reader, is an acquired taste and one that I have yet to acquire!). This was accompanied by a glass of banana drink, (I’m afraid again I am not keen on banana), and followed by some very sweet bread that had been toasted. Tea was served, but not English tea and not with milk. Altogether not great. If I were to be reviewing the Pakbeng Lodge I think I would say this was a hotel that was 5 points from being fantastic, but unfortunately, the missing 5 points were the most important!
We left the Pakbeng Lodge and re-joined our boat. The cabin boy, (Roger), had apparently become sick and so was returning to the border on another boat. Our husband and wife team, however, were perfectly capable and, as we set off I was able to catch a quick snap of our bathed elephants as they were about to be walked back up into the mountains. And so we continued our journey down the mighty Mekong River. Today we had 200km to cover before we would finally reach Luang Prabang which is both our next stop and our destination for today. The scenery down the Mekong River is nothing short of stunning. Two days of relatively gentle cruising down the river gives one an opportunity to really soak in and appreciate the stunning views of jungle on both sides of the river, the mountains and the spectacular weather patterns that surround it. Our lovely lady host on the boat, (who’s name we unfortunately never learned), served us a very refreshing cup of Lao tea, (in Lao they have their own tea which is either black or green – we were served black), as we cruised our way southwards towards our final destination.
Now, talking of gentle cruising, there is another way to get up or down the Mekong river and this is by speedboat. These boats move so fast that it was almost impossible to get a photograph, but I have one, (albeit a little distanced), that I managed to get as a speedboat sped past us. One has to keep in mind that this journey is a total of 360km which we are taking two days to cover and will spend in the order of 18 hours on the water doing so. The speedboat will do the entire journey in 7 hours – including an hour stop for lunch! There is no such thing as comfort on these boats and most occupants wear crash helmets to protect them in the case of an accident which, according to our guide, is relatively frequent! The boats bounce on the water in, what appears to be, a terrifying way and the occupants must be holding on for dear life! Our entire party prefers our mode of transport!
On the way down you see some amazing scenery and some pretty amazing sights too! For example, we were merrily making our way and suddenly we found ourselves passing a small boat travelling in the opposite direction … carrying a motorcycle! How did they get it in the boat? How do they keep it in the boat? And where on earth, (or presumably in Laos), are they taking it? The Mekong River is the single most important natural feature of Lao. It runs right through Lao and on into Cambodia and the Lao people rely on it for everything from food, to transport, to commerce. The tribes that live in Lao, (more of that tomorrow), live either on the water’s edge, in the mountain jungle, or on top of the mountain and all, regardless of the tribe or location, rely on the mighty Mekong in some way.
As we meandered our way along the Mekong we saw another elephant, this time a working elephant walking alongside the river. Elephants are very important in Lao which was once known, (many years ago), as the ‘Land of a Million Elephants’. There are not that many elephants left in the wild now, it is estimated that there are anything between 600 and 800 wild elephants, (plus a number that are kept in captivity for tourism), but numbers are declining. The two main threats to wild elephants are hunting, (unfortunately this does still go on in Laos), and the local people themselves. The tribes that inhabit Lao who have, historically engaged in a ‘slash and burn’ approach the the natural habit and forestation in order to expand their farming areas. Fortunately, this is no longer practiced and the government is finding ways to encourage the tribes to find other ways of earning an income.
Another stunning lunch served on the boat was followed by a visit to a village set on the site of the Mekong where local crafts are practiced, (mainly weaving of cloths that are made into clothes, bags and other things), and where Lao whiskey is distilled. Now, do not be deceived, dear reader, Lao whiskey is like nothing you have ever tasted before! The whiskey is fermented in a fairly primitive way by using a large barrel, lighting a fire underneath it, then on three stages within the barrel, adding water, fermenting rice and then more cold water at the top. What this produces is a liquor that is distilled from the fermenting rice and is over 50% proof! The taste is somewhat of an acquired taste and I was most impressed to see Captain Clarke down a glass on his own whilst myself, Madame Cholet and Great Uncle Bulgaria shared a glass between us. The whiskey costs locals around 80p per bottle which, when compared to beer which costs double that, makes it a very attractive tipple for them. Rather interestingly, we discovered that the fermented rice when finished with is fed to the pigs who are often to be seen wandering around drunk!
As I mentioned earlier, the scenery really is stunning. This photograph is taken where the Ou River runs into the Mekong River and is typical of the scenery that one will find all the way down the river. Having completed our visit to the village, where purchases were made, we returned to our boat to continue our journey. Only a matter of minutes away was the ‘Cave of a thousand Buddhas’. This is actually two caves, each where, quite literally, thousands of Buddhas have been placed. The lower cave was, apparently, used by the Lao Royal Family, (when such a thing existed), to visit and offer gifts to Buddha. People still visit the caves today to pray and offer gifts, but it has also become quite a tourist attraction. The steps to the caves are unbelievably steep and, as Captain Clarke rightly pointed out, the rickety wooden planks between the jetty and the rocks, the incredibly steep steps with little or no handrail, would never be allowed in the UK!
As I mentioned there are two caves, a lower cave and an upper cave. We visited the lower cave but, frankly, nobody in the party had any appetite to climb the 288 steps up to the upper cave, (particularly if they were anything like those to the lower cave), so we decided that a visit to the lower cave to see the Buddhas was quite enough. And so, it was with some sadness that we rejoined the boat for the last time to complete our journey down the mighty Mekong River to Luang Prabang. The entire journey, from first joining the boat, to spending the evening at the lodge in Pakbeng, to the elephants, the stunning scenery, the visits to the village and the caves and, above all, (even for myself), the absolutely spectacular lunches, will undoubtedly feature as a highlight of this trip and will be something to be remembered for a long time to come. We took many photos during our journey down the Mekong River and, once we work out how to add a gallery, we will, of course, post them here.
Finally, we arrived in Luang Prabang. It was time to say farewell to our lovely boat crew. We never did learn their names, but over the two days we were on the boat, they couldn’t do enough for us and were such lovely people. It transpires that they have two children, a son of 10 years old and a daughter of 5 years old. During the high season Mum and Dad live on the boat and the children live in their apartment in Luang Prabang. Apparently, the daughter is already an excellent cook and they very much fend for themselves! When we arrived at the caves which were about an hour and half boat ride from Luang Prabang, a small boy jumped from another boat onto ours – it turned out to be their 10 year old son! He had hitched a lift on a boat going up river which he knew would stop at the caves at around the same time as we did so that he could join Mum and Dad and come with us on the last part of our journey. A lovely boy and he even spoke some English!
So, having arrived in Luang Prabang we were met by our new driver, Guy, who will drive us throughout our stay in Luang Prabang. He seems to be a man of few words having only said, Sabaydai, (back to that one tomorrow, but suffice to say I’m working on getting this Lao language cracked before I leave), since the moment we met him. We were transferred to our hotel, (which I will save photographs of until tomorrow), which is an old French colonial building and is stunningly beautiful. Having arrived at the hotel at around 5.30pm we somehow managed to fail to make any arrangements with the rest of our party. We had been made aware of the ‘night market’ by our guide and Captain Clarke and I decided we should visit it. We did ask Madame Cholet and Great Uncle Bulgaria, but they were understandably tired and, as we had not made any prior arrangements, they declined. I needed to get some local currency in any event, so we decided to go ahead and visit the market. Having visited the nearest ATM, I can quite literally say that I am now officially a millionnaire! Albeit one million Lao Kip is approximately £80!
The night market turned out to be quite a place. There are many, many stalls selling everything from the locally woven material, to Chinese lanterns, to paintings, silver jewellery and food! The market was busy, but not too busy and Captain Clarke and I spent a very pleasant hour or so before returning to our hotel for dinner. I have to confess that all of our party chose to eat ‘western’ food and we all chose a buffalo steak in various different guises. Jolly good it was too! For my own part it was good not to have to smother myself in my latest cologne which is already a bit boring. Following the incident with the malaria tablets yesterday, I am no longer taking them but, in order to ensure that I am protected against mosquito bites, (to which I am very prone), I no longer wear the ‘eau de toillette’ that I used to wear and am now confined to wearing ‘eau de deet’ which, whilst it smells disgusting, will protect me against mosquito bites until we reach Vientiene on Tuesday. It’s RudyMenTerry!
Click to view the photo gallery for this post here