Sunset on the Mekong

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It’s a two day, easy ride from Udomxai to Pakbeng, stopping en route in the small village of Muang Beng, where we find the perfect, simple, family run guesthouse we’d envisaged. A basic, spacious room, a rickety wooden veranda and a restaurant nearby that serves up ‘fur’ – Vietnamese noodles – and banana fritters and papaya for desert. The ideal cyclist’s pitstop.

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Our terrace: the perfect place to kick back after a day in the saddle.

Pakbeng is our first step onto the SE Asia backpacker ladder, as it’s an overnight stopping point for the slow boat from the Thai border to the popular hangout of Luang Prabang. There’s not much to it. A narrow street lined with markets, restaurants, guesthouses and shops, that drops right down to the sandy shores of the Mekong. But like everywhere on the tourist trail, its thirst for tourism is growing, and it uncomfortably flits between the local, devalued Kip and the hard currency of the tourist dollar . Outside a shack, a sign reads implausibly: Internet. High Speed. Broadband. As unlikely as it sounds, I head over to check it out, finding three computers under dustcovers, in a room shared with a thriving hairdressing salon. ‘Tomorrow’, comes the reply to my enquisitive glance. Somehow, I doubt it, and I’m kind of relieved too.

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Poor little fellows: roadside snacks served on a banana leaf.

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A battered old Laotian number plate.

Arriving by bike means we’re ahead of the backpacker cattle boat from the border, so we easily find ourselves an overpriced wooden guesthouse overlooking the Mekong, built on stilts above the palm leaves. But it can’t be faulted for atmosphere. There’s a terrace just big enough for the two of us, with views towards the slo-mo hustle and bustle of the small port below. A collection of longboats are moored up. Pencil thin speedboats buzz about, steered with bamboo shafts, dodging eddies and hugging the shores where the current is slowest. The river must be at least 150m wide here. Mammoth, rusting container ships – their house-sized cabins made from wood and corrugation – are being loaded up with heavy sacks piece by piece. An endless stream of men haul them across their backs like little worker ants, walking gang planks and moving ceaselessly until the big hulls are almost full. Laotian flags – red and blue with a white spot – twist in the breeze as our first Mekong sunset lights up rocky islands in the river, and picks out leaves in the jungles to either side. “We’re relaxing”, says Cara in mild surprise, looking up from her book. And indeed we were; a strange feeling after the struggles of the last couple of days, and even all the riding over the last couple of months. Sitting on the veranda above the palm leaves, the sun warming our backs, watching the comings and goings of the river traffic… until they fade into darkness, lit only by a nail clipping of a moon.

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