The slow boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang is a journey of epic proportions, taking in two days along the Mekong! Despite it’s name the slow boat is actually not that slow, sailing along at around thirty to forty miles an hour. Rather it should be called the long boat as it stretches quite a distance from font to back. Rather conveniently this allows them to fit more tourists on board and boy do they do that! That said however it was not nearly as bad as I had expected. Turning up early meant I got a good seat with leg room of sorts. For those who turned up late, well what did you expect?
The journey itself was picturesque with rolling hills, vast forests and jagged rocks emerging from the murky brown waters. The thing that struck me most however was the vast emptiness along the riverbank. I had expected the ride to be similar to the eight hour one i did in Kerela. Yet surprisingly the Mekong did not appear to be as central to the people of Laos as say the backwaters or the Ganges are to India. There were a few wooden villages, some bathing and washing but always sporadic. I guess in hindsight it isn’t so much not making the most of the Mekong river but rather that Lao has such a tiny population.
The first day was enjoyable. The scenery beautiful. We arrived in a place called Pakbeng as the sun set. It’s a strange place as it seems to exist solely to provide accommodation and baguettes to tourists coming from and going to Huay Xai. Not a lot happens there. The second day I found more painful as I found myself counting the minutes rather than admiring the scenery as much. It still went relatively quickly though and after eight or so tiring hours we arrived to a welcoming party of hotel owners. I jumped on the back of a motorbike with one of them and sped to an absolute bargain.
Luang Prabang is a world heritage site. It’s incredibly green and very relaxed. I liked it a lot although that may well have been a result of the all you can eat night market that has sprung up. Fill your plate as high as you can for less than a pound. I was in heaven.
Two memories stick in mind of my time in Luang Prabang. The first was the small boat I climbed into and crossed the Mekong to the other side. On arrival I went and visited a few of the temples. By far the best was Wat Long Khun. It had nice murals but that was not the reason for me enjoying it so much. Rather it was the family perched on the stone outside who asked “would you like to see a cave?” Why not I thought. The father promptly pointed to the key bearer, an eight year old girl and told me to follow her. My teacher hat firmly on, I wanted to ask why she was not in school but judging by her standard of English i guessed that she must be a fairly regular attendee. To get to the entrance we climbed a series of degrading steps before we reached the door. It reminded me of Moria from Lord of the Rings. The girl passed me a torch and we entered. Inside was a series of Buddhas all decapitated lined up along the edge of the cave wall. Nice enough but nothing particularly special. Ready to leave I noticed that my guide had disappeared further into the cave through a narrow channel. Following we passed stalagmites and many other Buddhas before coming across a large wooden eagle deep in the cave. It was quite a sight!
The other memory was waking up at 5am in the morning (I had tried the previous morning and not woken up) and stumbling out onto the road to witness the monks receiving their alms. I had expected to have to walk to the temples to see it but no there in front of me sat five or so women and one man standing waiting to give food to the twenty or so monks that approached. I watched the exchange before making my way into the center to see the more established place to witness it. I was passed by two tour jeeps and saw lots of flash photography, tourists were everywhere. I headed back to the hostel pleased to have seen such an ancient ceremony at it’s purist.
In between visiting other temples and watching recent film releases in the evening, my time in Luang Prabang soon vanished. From there I took a mini bus and sped through the mountains towards Phonsovan. By far the most interesting part of the journey outside of the scenery was the food stop we had. On one of the stalls selling various items was a large jar filled with liquid. Inside was a chopped up bear, minus its head. Lovely!