No one, save for locals, stays in Pakbeng for very long.
Pakbeng is sort of on the backpacker trail through Laos accidentally, as it marks the approximate half-way point between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang on the Mekong River, thus making it an excellent place for slow boats to unload for the evening. Historically just another rural Laos agricultural town, a new paved road connects Pakbeng with the rest of the country, starting at the boat dock.
When our boat pulled up to the pier, it seemed as though half the village was waiting for us. Guesthouse owners courted overnight guests with binders full of room pictures and rates, kids goofed off and asked for candy, the town’s solitary bartender passed out flyers indicating the location of his establishment and promising a good time. We followed a very nice lady to the guesthouse run by the village leader, and quickly went off on a walk down the sparkly new road before sunset.
The Pakbeng pier where the slow boats unload and the road ends.
Our evening stroll proved fascinating, as it demonstrated the degree of penetration by the tourist industry into the Pakbeng at large. The local economy is surely transforming as a result of the presence of people like me, and fast. Towards the waters edge, guesthouses and restaurants with english menus compete for business in the evenings, while in the mornings every building seems to transform into a stall hawking sandwiches, fruit, water, and beer to travelers heading towards the boats. It was quite nice, actually, how well-attuned the town seemed to the needs of a slow boat passenger.
However, tourism has not penetrated the village in full; we marched just a kilometer or so up the brand new road to find ourselves the only falangs in a nearly storybook presentation of rural Laos life. Children ran out after us, saying “hello” or “sabaidee” and practicing their western waves with encouragement from parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Women carrying buckets of water from one of the communal well fountains smiled at us, slightly amused as we dodged the chickens and dogs that ruled the road. The level of enthusiasm generated by our presence probably indicates that not many slow boat passengers take this walk, despite it being one of the only things to do while in the town.
Pakbeng towards the river end.
This end of Pakbeng screamed “FERTILITY” at the top of its metaphorical lungs. The natural environment supports so much life with its nutrient rich soil and proximity to the Mekong’s fish. Free-range children, goat kids, chicks, puppies, and kittens meandered about the roads like a church’s Easter petting zoo unleashed, while fruit trees plop their wares at eye level.
The sheer number of children under the age of 10 we witnessed during our short stay in this very small town shocked me, as did how involved they seemed with daily adult life. Small girls helped with laundry and small boys helped clean the day’s catch with seemingly no struggle. At eight years old, I would have pitched a fit of massive proportion if forced to do my family’s laundry.
Daughters of the restaurant owner in constant motion.
Tourism seems to have mixed effect on Pakbeng. Certainly the non-agricultural economic opportunities offered by the slow boat’s path brings revenue to the town. Neighboring villages cannot have the security of Pakbeng in the case of disruption to the agricultural cycle. Yet, the presence of foreigners changes the pace of life.
The single bar was the only establishment open after 9 pm, and as we walked to it, a sketchy shirtless guy whispered, “smokey, smokey” to us in an attempt to sell us drugs. Apparently there are enough willing drug users arriving via boat to have established a drug trade in the small town.
Disaffected dog convention.
On our walk, a couple of children asked for money, shouting, “Five baht! Five baht!”
They may not have known what exactly they were asking for, but it worried me about what’s to come for Pakbeng. I witnessed some of our fellow passengers offering up sweets or small amounts of money to the village kids unprovoked. While it sure is fun to watch a kid completely freak out in joy because of an Oreo, these kids don’t have the dental practices that we do. And that 5 baht piece or 1000 kip note? It’s going to be used for candy, not go to some piggy bank college fund.
Kids are perceptive. If they get rewarded in sweets or money by running around and being cute, they’ll ham it up. Worse, adults might start to encourage the kids, training them to elicit pity, and then we’ve all worked together to create a culture of begging. Any visitor to parts of Cambodia or India can tell you this is a really bad thing that we should work hard to avoid.
Chicken and chick in motion.
But, right now? Right now, Pakbeng has avoided this. The road that starts at the river and connects the town to the country at large acts as a representative gradient of the tourist impact in Laos with the riverfront area largely transformed, the outer areas looking the same as they have always looked, and a few spruced up houses and motorbikes in between.
If we could do our Laos trip over again, we would have spent a few days in Pakbeng, observing the town activities during the hours between 10:00 am and 5:00 pm, when the falang are largely absent. The morning we left, the town prepared for a wedding; village men drank tea and admired the groom’s sword while the women got to work preparing feast, all dressed in silk finery. We could have sat on the edge of Mekong with the goats and the chickens left entirely to our own devices in nearly unspoiled rural Laos.
This goat ate all the flowers off this slow boat.
*Note: You would have to be a total idiot to take drugs in Laos. Total. Idiot. Sure, they’re for sale (like they are everywhere in the world), but the salesmen also get a commission for turning you in. Unless you want to be robbed by a guy in a badge with questionable legal authority or thrown into a Laotian jail, do NOT succumb to the temptation. Small Laos towns are NOT destinations for drug users.
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