May 5, 2013

Mekong Tourist Pak Beng

Old style freighter about to enter the rapids bellow Xiengkok.  All photos Jan 9 and 10, 2009

Up where the Golden Triangle still exists, there still is a place without much government or anything resembling one. Xiengkok Laos is at the end of the road, and the road ends at the Mekong, and that’s why I was there. For the time being the river itself is the fastest, if not the best way out. Out to mobile phone coverage, the internet, and money changers. Out to the electric grid and roads with cars and trucks. The upper Mekong hasn’t been gentrified,,,, yet.
Fast boats Xiengkok looking upstream. Burma left, Laos right.

Xiengkok lies halfway up the three or four hundred kilometer stretch of river where Laos shares a border with Burma. I know other foreigners pass through, but I’ve never seen one. Mostly it’s a bunch of steep hills with trees and a river cutting through them. The river is relatively narrow and it carries a heck of a lot of water. The water is in a big hurry to get downstream someplace where it can widen out, take it’s time, and get sabai.

I’ve no idea who controls the part of Burma across the river. I’ve never even seen people over there. I know it’s Shan State, but not run by the Shan State Army and most assuredly not the Myanmar Government. Warlords.

Despite it’s reputation for being the lawless center of South East Asian opium cultivation, (and methamphetamines now) the whole place exudes a feeling of listlessness. As if nothing happens and nothing ever will. The river transportation is by way of fast boat, and I don’t remember much of the ride.
Chinese freight boat emerging from narrows.
It was early, sometimes with thick fog just meters above the river. We stood by for a few minutes somewhere waiting for a Chinese freighter to make it’s way up the narrows. The Chinese blasted a route through the rapids a decade or more ago, it’s kind of a tight squeeze for two boats to pass each other by.

When golden tats start appearing through the trees on the right you know you are getting close to the Thai border. There is a big casino on the Burma side operated by a large Chinese syndicate. Thais and others cross to do the gambling that is illegal in Thailand.

The Lao side of the river is Ban Mom, with a large boat landing. The tour groups out of Thailand taking the opium tour (without the opium) get a boat ride across the river to Ban Mom and for ten bucks they can get a real Lao stamp on their passport good only for Ban Mom. Lots of places sell T shirts, and pickled snakes in bottles of whiskey, that kind of thing.

There was a woman at the locals restaurant waiting for me or someone just like me or even better would have been five someones just like me. She was a sawngtheau driver waiting for fares. But there was only me. After hectoring me to finish my bowl of pho, and after I paid way too much money in advance, we drove around town for half an hour looking for more riders. We found none.

The road over the piece of land formed by the big turn of the river was a lot longer than I’d thought. Maybe her price wasn’t so outlandish.

I know I slept in Huay Xai, the town that is the traditional entry point for backpackers on the South East Asian circuit. They enter from Northern Thailand, take a slow boat that is reserved just for western backpackers for two days down the river to Luang Prabang, then down to Vang Vieng for partying, Vientiane, Sii Pon Don, then out to Cambodia and they’ve “done” Laos. Huay Xai is smack dab in the center of what is called the banana pancake trail. A well trodden route for western independent tourists.

Cat skin, I think clouded leopard, Huay Xai
I might have crossed briefly into Thailand to renew my visa or use the ATM, I don’t remember. I’ve passed through Houay Xai a few times. Whatever the case by late the next morning I was down at the fast boat landing on the far side of town checking out the possibility of a ride further on down the river. It took awhile but finally we took off, a couple other passengers, and the fast boat guy.

Down at the first big bend of the river Thailand skedaddles off to the east and the Mekong continues on between Laos on both banks. It actually flows like that all the way down almost to Vientiane when it once again becomes the international border.

As people flagged us down from the bank the boat got more and more full. If you count babies we had nine people on board. The gunwales were barely above the water, but when we got up to speed we were skipping on down the river as normal. The other passengers were all Hmong, which was weird. Hmong live up on the mountain ridges where the air is cooler and there is less malaria. Maybe they were relocated Hmong.

Quiet of mid day Pak Beng

My destination was the town of Pak Beng. (“mouth of Beng”, as in where one river dumps into another) Pak Beng has held a nefarious reputation on the Banana Pancake Circuit. Many tales of not enough rooms in the hotels and sleeping in makeshift bamboo places with tons of rats. Being sold drugs only to turn around and have money extorted by police. Any horror story you might care to imagine. What I was especially waiting to see was the mobbing of the slow boat by the town as children try to grab backpacks for the porter fees, and steer folks towards hotels for commissions.

The main drag getting ready for slow boat Pak Beng

The arrival of the slow boat to Pak Beng had taken on a larger than life reputation, part of the backpacker mythology. Something one just had to see, like the running of the bulls in Pamplona.

The town was asleep it was noon. In the time between the slow boat leaving in the morning and the other slow boat coming in the evening, Pak Beng reverts to being a regular Lao town. Kind of like a beach town in the winter, half deserted and waiting for the main show. I checked in to the very first hotel I came upon. No electricity in town until the generator kicks in when the boat comes. I killed time.

The people of Pak Beng gathering for kao poon before the arrival of the slow boat
Slow boat approaching Pak Beng
Later in the afternoon I and seemingly at least one person from most of the hotels and restaurants went down to meet the boat just above the landing. An Indian fellow struck up a conversation, the owner of the local restaurant, every town has to have one Indian restaurant. He spoke in measured tones no trace of the typical choppy fast lilting Indian accent. Laos is a very small country, it’s easy to gossip about towns and people and businesses. English speakers who have stayed very long invariably have something to talk about.

A young Lao guy also speaking English joined us but bantering the Indian using made up simplified English. “You Bengladeshi, yes sir, you Bengladeshi kohn kahk” Bengladeshis being the predominant South Asian illegal immigrants of the the country due to proximity just across... Burma. Khon Kahk a slightly racist jibe at South Asians in Lao Language. The Indian cursed him soundly but in a bored tone. A nightly ritual no doubt.

The rest of the crowd talked quietly. They waited patiently with flyers advertising room rates and restaurant menus. They had none of the look of sharks smelling blood. When the boats finally arrived there was no pushing or crowding or hard selling at all. The backpackers looked tired from sitting on the boat all day and maybe sipping a couple of  those large Beer Laos.

Backpackers arrive Pak Beng

Imperceptibly my attitude had changed towards my fellow tourists. Rather than wishing to see them mobbed by touts I hoped they would soon set their largish backpacks down at one of the many new clean guesthouses and order off the English language menus of the now opened restaurants waiting to serve them “chicken curry” with a side order of fries. The people getting off the boat seemed less like gap year stoners and more like middle aged professionals taking two months off to see SEAsia. The main street of Pak Beng with the coming of dusk had transformed itself into a set for a Jimmy Buffett song complete with candle lit tables and soft reggae playing in the background. Looks like I missed Pak Beng at it’s peak by about ten or twelve years.

Today is over four years later still. Pak Beng is now undergoing major road work and a bridge somewhere a couple kilometers upstream. An all weather hard surface road will provide access to Chang Mai and Lampang from Udomxai and Mengla. (Thailand to China) It’s looking like there will be three bridges on the upper Mekong in Laos.

Things Change.