Not quite Apocalypse Now…

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Come morning, we board the boat for our Mekong river journey. Us, and perhaps a hundred or so other foreigners, which comes as something of a surprise after the relative remoteness of our travels so far. Yep, we’re firmly back on the tourist grid, except that this one is of the budget backpacker variety, rather than the mass Chinese flag-waving tours of North Yunnan.

Also a surprise are the sardine-can conditions on board. We’re beginning to learn more about tourist and local price distinctions in Laos, and the growth spike of tourism in a country that ranks amongst Asia’s poorest. Our tickets are 9US each, plus 5US for each bike, which certainly ensures a decent revenue from each boat trip. Which is fine, except for the fact that there’s no qualms about packing us in. The hard wooden seats are so closely spaced that even locals can’t sit comfortably. Most of the taller men adopt a kind of foetal position, contorting themselves into different shapes as limbs go numb. Meanwhile, our bikes are roped up on the roof. Luckily I have a quick check, as I realise the panniers have been lobbed on beside them, ready to slither off as we chicane through the first set of rocks…

Including the Mekong, which runs the length of the country, there are over 4000km of navigable waterways in Laos. Up until recent years, these channels were the main source of trade and travel. But as the road network improves – largely down to foreign investment – most locals prefer a cheaper, bumpier bus ride over the uncertainties of river transport, given the fluctuations of the dry and rainy season. Nowadays, it’s the romantic lure of travelling the Mekong that keeps businesses going, catering predominantly for tourists – as we’re finding out.

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BeerLao: Lifeblood of Laotians and Aussies alike.

The banks of the river are lined with white sand beaches and craggy rocks, and when these recede, the jungle bows down straight over the waters. Occasionally, we stop at small villages where naked children play in the shallows. A few goods are transferred, a few more passengers are squeezed in, then we chug off once more. The odd pencil thin speedboat passes by in a deafening roar of noise, flitting like a pondscatter – most passengers wear both full face helmets and life preservers, as accidents are relatively common. Despite the conditions and initial grumbling, the mood is upbeat. Aussies quench thirst on Lao beer, or nurse headaches from yesterday’s leg from Thailand with Lao coffee. The motor drones on, the toilet fills ever higher, and the beer flows more freely with each hour that goes by… It’s not exactly Apocalypse Now, but it’s a slow and peaceful journey, as we steer round rocks and eddies, watching the forest canopy go by. Halfway through the day, the captain’s wife buys a catfish from a fisherman, his skin as dark as the mud flats, who paddles up silently alongside us. It’s big, some three foot long, and ugly. Heaving and struggling and twisting like a wrestler who won’t give up, she struggles to haul it through the boat, hanging from a hook that pierces its fat lip, its long whiskers waving around to either side.

By early evening, steeper rocky humps rise out of the jungle, mist lightly lingering around their edges. And as we near Luang Prabang, long flights of stairs descend down to the waters edge from magnificent Wats – Laotian buddhist temples – and timber houses poke out above the foliage. A golden light coats the faces of our fellow travellers, and the sun, reflected off the water, dapples the roof of the boat. Finally, we pull up at the jetty as the sun is setting over a postcard silhouette of a jungle outline.

We’ll be glad to get back on the bikes and away from the crowds. But yes, I guess travelling the Mekong is still a romantic experience…

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