Slow Travel on the Meandering Mekong

“I won’t go back to the Gibbon Experience office with you; I’ll be dropped off at my house,” our guide La told us as we bumped down the dirt road through the jungle at the end of our ziplining expedition. Curious, someone in our group asked where his house was. “It’s near the stoplight” was his reply. “The stoplight?” “The stoplight.” Perhaps it’s not surprising that Huay Xai, a town of 12,500 people has need of only one stoplight. What is rather surprising, though, is that this little town is actually the capital and largest city of its province.

Laos is a predominately rural, developing country – over half of its seven million people live outside the cities, of which only one has more than 100,000 residents. Being landlocked and mountainous, Laos is also at a disadvantage when it comes to trade and transportation. Road travel is very slow due to the mountainous landscape and a lack of highway and tunnel infrastructure; a bus ride between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang, only one hundred miles apart, takes twelve hours!

The most natural means of transportation in Laos is the wide Mekong River, which flows past the homes of more than half the population as it traverses the entire length of the country. Numerous boats ply the swift current, connecting small villages hidden in the jungle with larger cities such as the capital Vientiane. As my next planned destination, Luang Prabang, is situated on the Mekong downstream of Huay Xai, I opted to go the traditional route and hopped on a boat.

Slow Boat on the Mekong River in Laos
This boat is nothing fancy – a wooden hull powered by an oversized lawn-mower engine and equipped with seats that look suspiciously like car seats.

Although this is the same Mekong that fills the rice paddies of southern Việt Nam, it has a completely different character in Laos. Rather than drifting leisurely through palm-lined canals, the Lao Mekong rushes turbulently over a rocky bed between mountains blanketed in thick jungle. Even though the river is navigable year-round, it can be treacherous, particularly in the dry season when the level is at its lowest. Fortunately, the captain of our boat knew the river well and guided us in a zig-zag pattern around protruding boulders, foamy whirlpools, and white-caps breaking over underwater obstacles.

The Mekong River in Laos
It’s hard to tell from a static photo, but the river is flowing very turbulently.
Dramatic Mekong Scenery in Laos
Mountains and villages characterize most of the scenery between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang.

As we made our way downstream, the boat occasionally pulled up to the riverbank for a brief stop. At some of these stops, the Lao passengers sitting at the front of the boat would interrupt their gambling to help make emergency repairs in the engine room. Most of the time, though, the stop was just to let someone on or off. For the people in the isolated riverside villages, this boat is not a pleasure cruise but an important means of transportation. Some people carried on huge sacks of supplies, some brought their chickens, and still others brought on crates of empty Beerlao bottles for refilling in the capital.

A Village along the Mekong River in Laos
Villagers heading home after hopping off the boat.
Lao Entrepreneurs along the Mekong River
These little entrepreneurs made the most of the boat’s arrival by climbing up the railing to sell bracelets and toothpaste (of all things…) to the tourists.

Villagers such as those on the boat make up a large proportion of the country’s population, and many belong to ethnic minorities – nearly half of the population is a member of an ethnic minority with its own unique language and traditions. Unfortunately, many people living in Laos’s rural areas struggle to live normal lives. During the war in Việt Nam, over two million tons of ammunition were dropped over Laos, partly as a result of the effort to disrupt the Hồ Chí Minh Trail, which ran through Laos. Much of the ammunition used was in the form of cluster bombs, which break open in the air and release hundreds of smaller bombs that spread out over the landscape. Only about two thirds of these so-called “bombies” exploded when they were first released, meaning that there are an estimated eighty million pieces of unexploded ordnance (UXO) left in the country. These pose a serious threat, because they can explode if disturbed.

Nearly every day, someone is killed in Laos by a UXO explosion, while many more people survive explosions but with severe disabilities. Organizations such as UXO Lao work every day to clear areas of unexploded ordnance, but at the current rate, it will take another century to clear the entire country. Other organizations, such as COPE, help amputee victims of UXO explosions by providing recovery assistance and prosthetics. However, they face issues of public awareness and lack adequate facilities and personnel to effectively reach many of the rural areas in Laos.

The UXO Visitor Center in Luang Prabang, Laos
The UXO Lao Visitor Centre in Luang Prabang provided information on the organization’s work and methods. The bomb shells displayed in the courtyard are only a tiny fraction of the ammunition they have disarmed.

Though the distance between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang can be covered in just six hours in a speedboat, the risk of running aground or hitting a rock leads most people to choose the slow boat. So, after a full day on the river, we arrived at the halfway point and pulled up to a small dock at the village of Pak Beng to spend the night. The people in Pak Beng have fully capitalized on the constant stream of passengers stopping in their village, so despite its tiny size, there is no lack of guesthouses, restaurants, bars, and bakeries (that sell the largest pain au chocolat I have ever seen!). Most places even offer packed lunches for the next day’s journey.

Continuing our journey down the river the following morning, I spent some time simply enjoying the scenery pass by. Jungle-covered mountains line the riverbanks with very few signs of development aside from the occasional village. However, occasionally, a mountain will lack its forest cover, leaving the bare earth exposed. This is the result of the deforestation that organizations such as the Gibbon Experience are working to counteract. For the most part, though, the Lao Mekong offers a remote stretch of largely-untouched landscapes that are harder to find in the more populous neighboring countries.

Deforested Mountain in Laos
An bare mountainside reminds of the deforestation issues that Laos is facing.
Outcropping on the Mekong River in Laos
Large rocky outcroppings are common along the Mekong in Laos.
The Port of Luang Prabang in Laos
After two days of leisurely making our way down the river, we arrived at Luang Prabang.

As the sun was beginning to approach the mountains behind the boat, we rounded a bend in the river and tied up to the Luang Prabang pier. It is possible to continue much further down the river by boat, but two days of idleness was enough to recover from the intense trekking of the previous few days. Now, after nearly a week in the country, I had made it to one of Laos’s largest cities. Tiny Huay Xai may be the twelfth-largest city, but Luang Prabang is the fourth-largest, and I was eager to find out what Lao urban life is like!

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