BootsnAll Travel Network

Mekong River: Open What?

9am on the 9th of January, and Bec and I were sitting in the back of a pick-up truck with 6 other travellers, legs akwardly pushed aside by the row of packs resting in the middle of the tray, being driven along the main road in Chiang Khong on our way to the ferry port.

The slow boat to Luang Prabang leaves from the Laos side of the Mekong river, and upon reaching the port and having our passports checked, we were ushered down the banks of the Mekong to a long-boat, perhaps 30 feet long, and no more than 5 feet wide. About 20 travellers squashed in, and we were ferried across the river to Laos. Not quite the usual Monday morning commute.

We made our way through passport control on the Laos side, having organised our visas through Sayan back on the Thai side of the river. But beyond here it was nothing short of confusion. Like us, the majority of travellers had organised their slow boat tickets back in Chiang Khong, but no-one seemed to know where we were meant to go, or what time the boat was leaving. Eventually, after standing around for a few minutes shrugging shoulders with other travellers, we were called over to a small table on the side of the road, where our tickets were checked and we were sent further up the road, away from the river, and greeted by a friendly young guy who sat us down out the front of his agency and handed us each some sort of yellow drink. Right then, guess we’re in the right place?

Shortly after, I headed back down to the passport check on the riverbank to exchange some money. I handed over $60 US, and began to check the exchange rate as the lady behind the counter sorted through a wad of notes. Before I could work out how much I should get back, the lady smiled and spun around a calculator; 641,000 Laos kip I was due. Guess I probably should count it, I thought, before she handed over the biggest wad of cash I’ve ever seen; at least an inch thick. The entire amount was made up of 5000 kip notes. Um, maybe I’ll just take her word for it.

After an hour or so of sitting around back at the agency, we were piled into a mini-van and driven a few minutes up the road to where our slow boat would depart from. Another half hour of waiting there in a cafe, and a bit before 11am we we walked down to a where a couple of slow-boats were docked. And by docked, I mean resting a few metres out from the sandy shore-line with just a narrow gangplank connecting it to land. There were two boats waiting; one full to the brim with people, all tourists, waiting for their boat to leave, and another practically empty.

“I hope we’re on the empty on.” Bec dreamed.

I checked our tickets; no such luck. We tip-toed across the gangplank, and walked with our packs through to the back of the boat. The boat was about 50 feet long, and was set up like a wooden school bus, with hard seats and upright backs. But at the back, just near the engine, was a more open area with plastic chairs where one could easily stretch out. If you could handle the noise, then coming in late was a bit of a blessing.

A rather welcome blessing too, once I realised I was sitting right next to the esky, which gave me my first taste of BeerLao, the national beer available everywhere, and essentially the only beer available anywhere. And damn good it is too.

The boat was manned by three or four young Lao guys, probably in their early twenties. I ordered a beer from one, and after kicking back for an hour or so, a refreshinhg can of beer in one hand, legs stretched out in front of me, watching the scenery slowly swing by, he approached me with a smile. He wanted to ask me something, and with the noisy engine making normal conversation all but impossible, he leant in close, put his cheek up against mine, his mouth to my ear, and asked, “Open?”

Huh? Open? What does he want? Open what? I looked up at him in confusion. He smiled, and beckoned for me to lean in close again.

“Opium?” He asked.

Ahhhhhh. I looked up with eyes of understanding and saw him pull his head back with a cheeky grin and a nod. I smiled, gave a bit of a laugh, and shook my head, “No thanks.”

About a half hour later, the same young lad approached me and again leant in to talk into my ear, muttering something that was unintelligible. I looked up in confusion, and he leant back, pursed his lips, and took a toke on an imaginary joint. I couldn’t help but laugh. “No thanks mate,” I shook my head. Less than 5 hours in the country and I’d already been offered opium and marijuana. Crikey.

Once I’d avoided becoming involved in the Laos drug trade, the scenery began making a wonderful impression. The gently sloping hills of the first few hours were slowly giving way to steeper, greener hills, with the odd thatch hut sticking out the top of the tree canopy, lonely and isolated.

The scenery changed quite dramatically along the way, now that I think about it, but the change was so slow as to be almost imperceptible. The slopes turned at times into small grey cliffs, dropping suddenly into the brown, murky water. Small beaches appeared, which would oftern turn out to be the home of a small village. The boat would pull up to the shore; seemingly in the middle of nowhere, before a group of young Laos kids would come charging over the hill and down to sand to the boat. And then stop. The youngest would stare in confusion, while the older ones, perhaps 7 or 8 years old and used to the boatloads of tourists stopping by, would pose for the cameras inevitably clicking away. They would stand with legs spread and arms on hips like little Lao super-heroes.

These villages would come and go every so often, and the boat would stop to unload and pick up supplies. And by supplies I mean live animals. The squeal of a big, fat, hairy pig as it was picked up by its hind legs and its ears and hoisted onto the front of the boat pierced the ears. A dog was literally thrown from the shore up onto the roof of the boat, not muttering a sound as it flew through the air.

After 6 or so hours, as the sun began to set behind the ever growing mountains, we pulled into our overnight stop, the electricity deprived village of Pak Beng. The entire town ran on generators, which were switched off at 10.30pm, plunging the dusty locale into darkness.

Bec and I ate our dinner by candlelight, at a dingy looking restaurant located in, essentially, an open fronted shack. The owner was eager to speak to us, in order to practice his English, and told us he’d only opened two weeks earlier. He also mentioned he’d just been married, two weeks ago. Busy week, apaprently.

He gave us some Laos literature to read while we waited for our meals, including a book of Laos folk tales. I would now like to share with you one of these tales, a story about Xieng Mieng, the cleverest man in the Laos Kingdom. The book was full of stories of Xieng Mieng, but I will share just one with you now.

Xieng Mieng was known throughout the land as the cleverest man in the kingdom, but another man wished to trick him and prove that he was cleverer. And so he took a bamboo pole, farted into it, sealed it up, and went out to find Xieng Mieng. Yes, he farted into it, and I’m not even making this up.

Upon reaching the village where Xieng Mieng lived, a local cafe owner noted how tired the man looked, and offered him some tea to help refresh him. He saw the bamboo pole, and asked the man what he was doing with it.

“I have farted into it, and I am going to trick Xieng Mieng into smelling my fart to prove I am cleverer.”

The cafe owner asked the man how he could be sure the smell had remained in there during his long walk. Hadn’t he farted into it hours ago? “Perhaps you should check it is still there, before you offer it to Xieng Mieng,” the cafe owner suggested.

And so the man unsealed his pole, took a whiff, and affirmed that, yes, the fart smell was still there.

“Ha ha.” Replied the cafe owner. “I am Xieng Mieng, and you just smelled your own fart. It is I who am cleverest.”

I tell you, how can you not love this country?

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3 Responses to “Mekong River: Open What?”

  1. Tony Hogan Says:

    Hadn’t caught up for a month or so on your travelogue so was surprised to know you were are both in SE Asia or Laos, Nikki and I just got back from a 3 1/2 week travel around southern/central vietnam, cambodia with a quick trip across the border into Thailand for xmas / new year. Would have been gr8 to catch up over there but these things happen. Hope to see you both up in Qld sometime sometime soon. Happy New Year to you both. Trip was brilliant for us went like clockwork although as you can imagine spending a little time in 3 countries and flying back to home from where we landed (Saigon), meant countless hours on buses, boats and the occassional business class plane flight (courtesy of again trying to cover a fair bit of distance and booking 1 to 2 days before we wanted to fly in peak times). Basically backpacked the distance; highlights for me being the incredible history of and size of ankhor waht with the feeling of a lost civilisation created a 1000 years ago, mind you hard to escape the masses at anytime of day, the beatiful Hoi An (Vietnam) full of early 18th century French colonial architecture and a brilliant place to have clothes and shoes made for a very cheap price in a turnaround time of 24 hrs, and an old stamping ground of mine; Koh Chang which has the largest national park of the all the islands in Thailand and a few years ago was nowhere near as touristy as some of the islands until the masses of European decided to holiday there over the xmas break. Bec might have made a good call about not going south when you were in Bangkok. Mind you I still love the place.

    Have fun both of you (fairly obviously not needing much prompting there), jealous that we didnt have the time to get to Laos this time but will now get back to reading about your time there and dream of a cheap asian beer or 3.

  2. Posted from Australia Australia
  3. Dylan Says:

    whoa, you’re in Asia! crazy, i hope to be following you later in the year, i’ve got a desire to go back home overland, so i’m sure i’ll have some good stories to share when we meet up again, as i’m sure you will.
    Keep up the awesome adventure

    Peace love and hugs


  4. Posted from Belgium Belgium
  5. admin Says:

    Hey Tony, great to hear from you mate. I’m a bit out of the loop when it comes to Hogan family movements, so I didn’t even know you and Nikki were headed over.

    Hoi An and Ankgor Wat are the two highest on our list of places we want to go to from here on, so good to hear you recommend them. Looking forward to getting my hands on some tailored suits, that’s for sure.

    Not sure if we’ll get to Queensland when we’re back home, as we’ll only be there for a short time. We’ll get up there one day though. Say g’day to Spock and Sarah for us.

    Cheers mate,

  6. Posted from Lao People's Democratic Republic Lao People's Democratic Republic

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