If speedboats are too much for your heart, the roads too much for your skeletal system and flying too pricey, don't despair: see Laos from the comfort of a slowboat. From Huay Xai, the sense of transition, as the muddy bottom unwillingly releases the boat from its hold, and the prow is snatched by the current's powerful grasp and propelled down river, is only the beginning of a beautiful trip down the Mekong River.
That first morning, a mist smelling of old fishing nets and burnt wood had rolled down the banks, submerging the Mekong and Thailand beyond in a swirling ocean of cotton wool. As the sun finally sears through and kisses my skin I notice a cold stickiness to the air and a layer of dew on my clothes and find myself regretting the mist's early demise. Upriver, out of sight and in response to the glimpse of sun, the first speedboat pilot of the day guns his engine. The speedboat soon skips past, dodging the remnants of the mist and dancing around the occasional stony outcrop. Rapidly out of view, the wail of its engine persists, vanquished only by distance and the piercing cries of a nearby pig.
Poised on the slowboat pier at Huay Xai, I'm gesturing to the boatman trying to find out the fare to Pak Tha, a two-hour ride downriver. Yet again I'm interrupted by the squealing pig behind me -- some locals are trying to squeeze it into a tuk tuk. Impatiently I glare at them, only to have foolish grins returned. Exasperated, I return to the boatman, and ask, for the fourth time, how much to Pak Tha, and for the fourth time, hear the reply "Pak Beng, Pak Tha, same same". Wearied by my lack of Lao, and staring glassy-eyed at the queue of farangs behind me, I know he's reminiscing back to when locals and bags of rice were his only fare.
Eventually, our narrow boat is set adrift and within twenty minutes Huay Xai is behind us, replaced by striking forested mountains and tranquil jungle. The banks are covered with suggestions of villages unseen; dishevelled fishermen, immersed to their waists, cast nets in our direction and the laughter of children playing in the shallows drifts over the water's surface. On the shore, groups of old women dig up a variety of shellfish and collect seaweed, while the occasional fire roasts breakfasts for others.
But it's the river and the traffic upon it which are the most fascinating. The Mekong, thick with sediment drifting from as far as the Tibetan Plateau, is a swirling chocolate brown. Narrow in places, its banks alternate between fine grey beaches and razor sharp limestone formations more than capable of scuttling an unwary boat. We dodge spinning eddies and slide by larger whirlpools spinning and cavorting around the stone pillars and ridges lying in wait below the surface.
The major rivers in Laos are the highways and their tributaries the on- and off-ramps. Slow-moving sampans wallow in the shallows and long slender canoes ferry from one bank to another or instead, drift with the current while the occupants cast weighted nets looking for a catch. Speedboats belt past in top gear, leaping our chop before skating onwards. Precarious, almost out-of-control at speeds of up to 80 km/ph, their passengers are often helmet-clad and wear lifejackets -- testament to a less-than-exemplary safety record.
Pak Tha is quaint -- three dirt roads, a handful of temples and some beautiful scenery, yet very few people find themselves here overnight. We were the only two farangs in town and wandered the village trying to find the guesthouse we'd heard about. It took us no time to stumble upon a likeable local who spoke a bit of French, a little English and knew all about the guesthouse -- he owned it. Before we knew it we were sitting by a noodle stall, finishing off lunch with our room-key in hand.
For a village of its size, Pak Tha is well-endowed with wats, each of which has its own style and character. Concrete green dogs guard the entrance to one, their rusty wire nose hairs twisting and snarling, while another has the more standard concrete naga stairway and a particularly ornate bot all with a garish touch of Cao Dai thrown in. Large temple drums can be found at all three of the temples and by late afternoon the rhythmic chanting echoes all the way down to the riverbank.
Because the Mekong is quite low, the bank before Pak Tha is both broad and long, allowing it to play host to food stalls hawking coconut cookies, noodle soup, smuggled Chinese beer and "made in Thailand" Coke. Speedboats are being both manufactured and repaired and at the northern end of the bank, while by the mouth of the Nam Tha, sampans are built while kids play chicken in the rapids. Take a look at the confluence of the Nam Tha and Mekong -- it's about thirty metres into the latter before the greeny blue of the Nam Tha finally fades into the milk coffee brown of the Mekong.
By four in the afternoon, we are camped on our veranda, basking in the sun, watching a volleyball game before us while the river slips by in the background. We notice a number of military characters lugging up a sound system and cases of beer from the river, but lulled by the idleness of the Mekong we choose to ignore it. We should have known better. It's eight in the evening when the music starts and almost dawn before The Singha Beer Singing Competition is complete.
Singing competitions aside, there are loads of things you can do in and around Pak Tha, but speaking Lao is an advantage. We did a boat trip up the Nam Tha to Pak Hat and pushed onwards to Pha Udom by jeep, a trip well worth doing. When we decided to make a move downriver to Pak Beng we just hopped back on a slowboat and were there by nightfall. The other farangs in the boat looked at us curiously and said, "You stayed in Pak Tha - why? It's not in my guidebook..."
Let's hope it stays that way.
By Stuart McDonald
Last updated on 14th May, 2015.