Pakbeng sits midway between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang on the Mekong. As the river was once the only major transport route in the country, Pakbeng developed as an overnight stop for both cargo and passenger ferries. Set in a scenic spot where the Nam Beng flows into the Mekong (Pak means mouth and Beng is the name of the river), the town itself doesn’t have a lot to offer except a number of guesthouses and restaurants that have sprung up catering to travellers who almost all depart early the next morning.
The slow boat journey down the Mekong from Chiang Khong on the Thai border is spectacular and it remains a popular transport route and bucket list experience with backpackers, so Pakbeng is flourishing with no signs of letting up and we think the recent addition of two upscale lodges is a good thing. Road travel in Laos is notoriously challenging and the slow boat allows for more people — young or old, budget or comfort seekers — to see the country instead of being limited to flying in and out of one city.
But don’t dismiss Pakbeng as simply a transit point to get to Thailand or Luang Prabang. For those looking to go further afield in Laos, the town is a corridor to interesting possibilities. It’s a relatively easy bus ride to Udomxai, gateway to the north: Muang La, Muang Khua, Phongsali and Nong Kiaow. Just across the river is Sayaboury province and a one-hour boat ride plus one-hour by road delivers you to Hongsa, famed for its elephants.
Hotels and guesthouses get very full in the high season and often you’ll have to visit a few guesthouses to find an available room and sometimes have to settle for something you weren’t looking for. Arrival by boat can be chaotic but don’t sweat. Touts now meet the boats, usually selling the worst rooms in towns at inflated prices. Go at it alone and have some places already in mind. The town is mere steps up from the boat pier and a quick walk around will often bring you better value than the touts offer. It is advisable, if you want peace of mind after the long journey, to either book ahead or charge up the road to find a hotel before everyone else on your boat (but don’t elbow anyone out of the way, alright?). In the early morning, as most travellers are making their way down to the boats, the street is lined with stalls piled with drinks plus things resembling pastries and freshly-made sandwiches. Restaurants are also open early to serve a breakfast of baguettes, coffee and those pastries.
While there are now ATMs, they can’t be relied upon. We suggest having kip with you before you arrive. Money changing is possible at selected guesthouses. Restaurants will usually accept baht or dollars and a couple of banks lie further up the road about a kilometre from the boat dock (open only in daytime, of course). We even spotted a brand new Western Union sign. Be careful when changing money as frequent attempts at skimming have been reported and some moneychangers have gained a reputation for being less than honest. And honestly, sometimes people just have trouble with the math.
People walking alone or in small groups may be offered drugs and in recent years a number of foreigners have died in Pakbeng from drug usage.
The town of Pakbeng is not a place to hang around in and very few people do. Unfortunately the locals are very aware of this fact, and some take advantage. Occasional thefts occur, so be careful of your valuables and leave nothing important in your guesthouse room. It’s always a good idea not to flash any indicators of wealth: cameras, jewellery, expensive clothes or wads of cash.
This is a long introduction for a very small place. For many, Pakbeng is their first taste of Laos and this is unfortunate since, in so many ways, it is the furthest from the real Laos: Western music blares from bars, touts will meet you at the pier, and so will children who cheekily try to get a gift from you and look for things accidentally dropped.
Yet do try and understand: the town is stuck in a groundhog day. Locals rise early to sell breakfast to tourists, clean the rooms, wash the linens and wait for the next batch of bargain-hard backpackers who all leave the next day. The locals may appear sullen but a genuine smile and some friendly banter can go a long way.
The town also faces inequity when it comes to the distribution of wealth. Clearly foreign visitors have more than the locals, but disparity among the people of Pakbeng is also a problem – those who serve the foreigners earn considerably more money than those who don’t. The distinction can be seen in the housing, clothing, cleanliness and the big eyes of the more unfortunate looking at those who are not.
By Cindy Fan.
Last updated on 12th October, 2016.