Drifting along the mighty Mekong river on a slow-boat from Chiang Kong to Luang Prabang was like floating around the lazy bends of consciousness. The crags of ancient boulders, veiled mountains and dense rainforest provided fertile ground for internal exploration as the soft hum of the engine rocked us into a gentle trance.
I don’t believe an escape is complete if it doesn’t include some form of watery component. They say dreaming of water in its various forms reflects your current mood, but in waking life water does more than reflect: it informs and affects our moods. Perhaps this is why it took eleven days for that chilled holiday vibe to set in. Bangkok and Chiang Mai provided a fun, cultural introduction to South East Asia, but it was only after a five-hour mini-bus ride dropped us at Thailand’s border in Chiang Kong that I started to really unwind. This was thanks to a night spent in a rustic wooden bungalow overlooking Laos from across the Mekong river.
While sipping on a chilled Chang on the balcony of our guesthouse, we watched local fishermen potter around on their long-tail boats as a break in the clouds released a momentary splash of gold, softening the distant mountains. Then dusk set in and the Laotian celebrations began, marking the end of Buddhist Lent and giving thanks to the water. The karaoke and blaring music came first and then a trail of lanterns were released into the blackening night. Impressive trains of fire boats made from bamboo and oil lamps were sent down the river. It sounded like a raucous occasion. I had a feeling I would like the people of Laos.
The following morning, Billy and I took a rickety tuk-tuk down to the border crossing and made the five-minute journey across the Mekong to Laos. Having opted for a lay in, we missed our two-day slow-boat to Luang Prabang. Instead, we spent the day in an empty, family run restaurant, watching over Chiang Kong from the other side of the Mekong. Only the distant whir of the river’s traffic could be heard as layers of thick cloud blanketed the mountains beyond and whipped up a storm. The pitter-patter of the ensuing downpour lulled us into a state of peacefulness. I realised, my watch had stopped.
We finally began the first leg of our slow-boat ride to Packbeng the next day. For a while we followed a thick muddy track along the riverbank, marking the birth of a new Thai road, to our right. We floated past a temple only accessible from the river. Eventually settlements became more sporadic and less substantial. The broad bends became tighter, as the river ebbed and flowed around precarious boulders, worn down by time and increasingly dwarfed by the steep incline of the neighbouring mountains. The dense layers of rainforest that smothered the banks with a velvety green appeared to be untouched, uninhabitable.
It was startling to see empty long-tail boats tied up to muddy river banks, hours into our journey. It provided a clue as to the lifestyles of many Laotian people — the majority of whom live in rural areas, off of the land. We also saw wild buffalo, rainbows and the kinds of crisscrossing valley vistas you might draw as a kid, without realising that it is the power of ancient rivers and rains that carve their shape. Meanwhile, fast-boats sliced through the peace, with passengers wearing motorcycle helmets in an attempt to protect them against their appalling safety record. If you’d wanted to get to Luang Prabang in six hours, this was the way to do it.
With the beers now flowing, the slow boat pulled into Packbeng for our over-night stop. As we piled into the engine room to collect our bags, the valley filled with darkness and a crowd of locals gathered to entice us back to their guesthouses, whispering ‘weed?’, ‘opium?’. The following morning as we ate breakfast on our guesthouse’s terrace, we watched elephants amble down to the river to take an early bath with their babe.
The second leg of our slow boat trip to Luang Prabang took seven hours and involved multiple stops as we collected passengers from remote abodes along the river, often dropping them at other seemingly remote locations. We chugged past more elephants, cows and buffalo, before the river widened once again and we saw our first sheer krast cliff. At the foot of it was a cave adorned with Buddhist ornaments. By the time we reached Luang Prabang, Billy and I were like two chilled droplets of water, ready to go with the flow.