Mighty Mekong

We’re sitting on the second floor verandah of the guesthouse, a perfect point from which to watch the traffic on the Mekong pick up in a rush to beat the falling darkness. Speedboats, a vivid mix of banana yellow and blood red, skip along the river, reaching speeds of up to eighty kilometres an hour. Their mosquito-like drone almost drowns the soft grumble of the wooden slowboats ploughing along more determinedly.

Children play volleyball in the schoolyard below while a woman picks herbs from her back garden in the house next door, her son dutifully following with a black kitten clutching his forearm. Turkeys strut like Spanish dancers around their feet. We can hear the raspy grunting of pigs, the scrabbling of chickens, and the wails of babies. Soldiers carrying up speakers and a generator from the water’s edge arouse our curiosity.

This is Pak Tha, a thriving village located at the confluence of the Nam Tha and Mekong rivers. It’s a two hour slowboat ride downriver from Huay Xai in Bokeo province, Laos. Few tourists stay here, preferring instead to get the boat from Huay Xai all the way to Luang Prabang, or vice versa. As word gets out about Pak Tha, however, picturesque in its own right and a base for a scenic daytrip to Pha Udom, things are likely to change.

Upon our arrival at midday, the guesthouse owners – there is only one guesthouse – found us from their noodle shop vantage point. We were led to ‘Phong Sa Vat – No. 5’, as the place is called in black magic marker on brown cardboard out the front, and given a key to the building, probably either an old school house or colonial government office. Painted pale green with bright blue shutters, guests stay on the second floor where there are three double mattresses and plenty of blankets. Conditions are basic, with a toilet and bucket shower located outside.

Following a lunch of omelette, sticky rice and a tasty red tea, we set out exploring, and found, surprisingly for a town of Pak Tha’s size, three very attractive wats. Reminiscent of Vietnamese Cao Dai temples, they are colourful to the point of being garish. Keep an eye out for the guardian dogs of one of them: their nose hairs are spectacularly menacing.

The Frenchman Francis Garnier described Pak Tha, in his Mekong Exploration Commission Report of over a century ago, as being a ‘considerable village’. He noted that he visited a number of pagodas here, one containing ‘a very well-made clock of such refined workmanship as could only be found in Europe (!). This was evidently not a local product and the Chinese script which encircled its base made us place its origin in either Tong King or Yunnan.’ We were unable to find the clock, but for the curious traveller with more than a smattering of the Lao language, this could be an intriguing project.

At the mouth of the Nam Tha we watched in amazement as young children plunged into the wild rapids, letting the water carry them down, around and over jagged rocks. Nearby, a boat builder was putting the finishing touches of paint to a new sampan, while in the shallows of the Mekong, two fishermen tossed wobbling arcs of nets into the water.

For dinner, we could have eaten something substantial at one of the thatched huts dotting the Mekong’s dry river bed, but instead supped on thick roast bananas bought from a street vendor for a mere 50 kip each. There wasn’t any further choice, as the noodle shop had closed, and there weren’t any other shops along the main street.

After watching the moonrise from the veranda, we turn in early, but as our heads hit the pillows, the first ominous notes of an electric guitar sound. Then singing begins, and is broadcast throughout the whole village on an exceptional sound system. It goes on and on – and on, successfully penetrating earplugs literally until sunrise. We eventually learn that it was a Singha Beer singing competition. At least we know now what the soldiers were doing.

We decide to attempt finding Pha Udom, a town marked on our map as having a population of 15,000, but about which we’ve heard nothing. After an excellent breakfast of Lao noodle soup with lashings of fresh herbs and chilli, we ask a boat pilot about getting there. Eventually we negotiate for a sampan to take us to Pak Hat, from where we can charter a jeep the rest of the way.

Crossing the Mekong into the Nam Tha is no easy manoeuvre, the rocks the children were playing among yesterday now appearing more fearsome. The boat pilot at the front plunges a bamboo pole into the rapids to keep us away from the rocks, but the current is strong, and she cries out urgently to the other driver, who cuts the engine. The boat sounds as if it would like to split neatly in two as it lurches forward and upwards. The pair leap out onto the nearest rock, muscles visibly straining as they push the boat safely away.

The mist thickens as we progress, and drapes the steep mountainsides like a motherly ghost. It’s quieter and clearer than the Mekong, too shallow for speed boats to traverse. Undoubtedly stunning scenery unfolds: undulating hills, sharp mountains covered in lush forest, cultivated patches of land, the surprising vermillion of a poinsettia tree. An hour later we arrive at Pak Hat, our faces pink and numb with harsh cold.

We find a jeep driver who’ll take us on a return trip to Pha Udom for 30,000 kip. His jeep, with Cyrillic script curling across the dashboard, has seen better days – possibly even a war or two. Nevertheless, it gets us there along a good road that snakes between huge limestone karsts which penetrate the mist and disappear, but eventually emerge triumphant. We swerve to avoid various animals: piglets chasing mothers with teats like bell pulls, black mountain goats whose eyes are the colour of setting suns, a gaggle of pure white geese.

Pha Udom turns out to be a sizeable town, and from the few signs in English around, we deduce that it has grown partly as a result of a ‘reintegration and resettlement program’. Possibly hilltribe people have been relocated here in an attempt to stop them growing opium, or simply to bring them under better government control. Although scenically located on a hill overlooking the Nam Hat, it’s not a town for tourists. We feel out of place drawing so many stares, so we walk through a few streets, note the unusual plain wooden wat, and jump back into the jeep.

By mid-morning, the mist has been burnt away by the sun and the temperature has escalated. Back in Pak Tha, we spot some tourists who have wandered up from the day’s passing slowboat, still moored below. Hurriedly, we grab our packs, return the guesthouse key and make our way down to the boat. We’re back on the tourist trail again.

Information
Currency: US$1= 2500 kip
Getting to Pak Tha from Houay Xai: The daily slowboat leaves any time between 8:30 and 10:00am. While tickets for the popularly traversed route from Huay Xai to Pak Beng cost a set 14 000 kip, the price to Pak Tha seems to be set arbitrarily – we paid 5000 kip each. The trip takes one and a half to two hours.
Getting to Pha Udom from Pak Tha: Boats can be chartered for 15 000 kip one way to Pak Hat, more or less depending on your ability to speak Lao and your bargaining skills. A jeep can then be chartered to Pha Udom, 30 000 kip return.

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