It may be only 6 a.m. but the early start and cold air mean that breakfast is due. “Shall we make a brew?” my Yorkshire pal asks, and so we cuddle our tea and sink our teeth into our baguettes.
Travel in Laos
Morning fuses through mist into day time. A haze envelopes the boat as it starts its course along the Mekong. This is a waterway full of stories. Through seven countries over 4350 kilometers it runs, and has been a route of transport, trade and travel for thousands of years. Relationships have been forged, goods bought and sold, communities created, ideas spread, migration formed, and new developments forged. It continues to be all these things and more to do this day, including a passage for travelers from one country to another.
Rocky crops lie dotted in the fast flowing water (fast flowing against us) and the driver stoically steers, never once moving from his seat.
Flanked by mountains, the banks are layer upon layer of sandy silt, gently undulating rocks rising up into hills that are not stark or sever but endless gradations of grey in the distance, edged by sniffles of trees closer to shore. The land is fertile, and so the greens are lush, natural fauna interspersed with terraced crops, tumbling trees occasionally broken with organized square fields.
Occasionally we see long thin sticks perched from a rock, a piece of string dangling into the still water in the hope of catching a fish. Even more occasionally, I spot a fisherman sitting at the other end. Fishing and farming form the livelihood of over 95 percent of the Mekong village families, and exchanging goods rather than money is still one of the main ways in which they support their families.
As mid-day approaches, things start to warm up. The canvas wind breakers are rolled up and part of the roof unfolded. The blankets come off, although the sharp bracing breeze stops the idea of any kind of sunbathing. Lunch is cooked by our hosts, a typical Laotian feast of fried chicken, fried rice, and fried vegetables (spot a theme?), tamarind, chili and lemongrass perpetually evident.
Nourished, I nestle down with my book on my lap, looking up to marvel at how untouched and unvarying the scenery is, yet that it can still hold my gaze and startle me with its beauty.
Around 5:30, we arrive at the village, Pakngeum, where we are to sleep tonight. The boat pulls up on a sandy shore, palm trees on the beach and large flat swathes of golden sand stretched out. Expecting to see Robinson Crusoe rise from behind the dunes, I’m surprised at the tropical feel of this northern part of Laos. About 100m up a steep shaft of sand are bamboo huts. This is the host village, and we climb to visit them.
This is simple living. Consisting of a handful of bamboo huts on stilts and only three concrete buildings (the school, the village hall, and the council, none with windows) the fishing and farming village is unlike anywhere I have slept before. It is home to three separate tribes, each with different languages, traditions, and livelihoods. All subsist and survive in the space, growing and working alongside one another.
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