Most travelers who venture into Laos from the Northeastern corner of Thailand find themselves journeying to Luang Prabang on board a simple boat that drifts along the Mekong River over the course of two days. It’s not a cruise; there are no activities or buffets. Instead, the Mekong River’s slow boats function like a bus on the water; they’re narrow, full of seating, and transit-oriented. The only pit stop is the sleepy town of Pakbeng, where the boat unloads for the night.
The seats? Salvaged from minivans.
It’s a trip that evokes the romanic (if bloody) traveling lore of intrepid explorers venturing to Southeast Asia many years ago for gold, glory, god, or as a pawn at the hand of various empires. Even with a motorized boat, one feels at the subject to the river’s whims as the captain navigates around the rocks cropping up–rocks with unknown underwater masses lurking beneath the Mekong’s lazy surface.
View Northern Laos Travel Distances in a larger map.
As a mode of transportation, the slow boats operating along the Mekong River are delightfully inefficient, taking days–not hours–to reach the destination of choice. Huay Xai and Luang Prabang are 115 miles apart, but the river journey covers 186 miles of Mekong at a pace best described as puttering. Opting for the slow form of travel is a deliberate choice for most tourists. The locals often choose the speed boat or bus for the sake of expedience.
Not pictured: the OTHER rainbow.
But! The patient are rewarded with the views from the boat which are gorgeous–double rainbow gorgeous. Steep, vividly green mountains fall into the rusty Mekong abruptly, with a few bright white, water buffalo-covered sandbanks breaking the line. The monsoon season clouds lurk low, slightly above the water, adding a distinct moodiness to the otherwise, cheery and sun-dappled hills.
Fishing boats along the Mekong.
From the boat, one can observe the agricultural and fishing activities of rural Laos. Bamboo fishing poles crop out of the rocks dotting the river. Occasionally, a fisherman paddles over, pulls up the rod, and reveals a square net full of river fish. Farmers plant crops directly into the 45-degree angle slopes, not bothering to terrace the surfaces first. Little rust colored foot paths wind around the green fields, traversed by sure-footed farmers and cows.
Clouds? Meet mountain.
While trash and litter collect in the various whirl pools and tides along the Mekong, and the occasional fisherman takes a dump while waving jovially at the boats passing by, the experience on the river is mostly one of joy. As someone who has largely accepted the view that the rich get to live in the prettiest places, the Mekong’s surroundings impressed. The farmers and fisherman, probably living on what they can harvest from the waters and grow on the hills alone, get to live in paradise.
Rusty, rocky Mekong River waters.
As I mentioned earlier, few locals use the slow boats for transportation between cities. One exception is fishermen along the river hitching a ride by standing a top the river’s rocks and wildly waving. The boat would slow down and offer access to the boat’s rear living quarters to the fisherman, his kids, and his catch. The boats are another part of the Mekong River economy in Northern Laos, providing work and drifting homes to the captains and their nomadic families.
If looking at pictures is your thing, I posted plenty of snapshots of the Mekong and Laos at my Google+ album here.