Mekong Smile Cruise – Night 1 – Pakbeng
At first sight, Pakbeng seems to be a village erected exclusively to cater for tourists since most visitors on a slow boat to/from Luang Prabang stop here overnight, with boats mooring at the river bank and visitors sleeping in one of the lodges and roaming around the center. Pakbeng is indeed small, and its only road comprises a few small guest houses, restaurants, bars and little convenience stores that cash in on the money slow boat tourists bring in.
However, Pakbeng is more than that. Its main road is now sealed and connected with the town of Oudomxai, and though up to recently the village depended on electrical generators, a World Bank loan was invested in a hydroelectric station that has just been completed. One way to reach Pakbeng is by bus, though I have heard it is a rough and long ride…
While in the main broadway businesses boom and locals are constructing new houses and stores, including hardware and building material stores run by a Chinese population, the simple hamlets perched on the hills behind are not connected to the grid and are still inhabited by hill tribes who walk to Pakbeng on a daily basis, selling their produce and buying commodities.
We disembarked the boat and walked the steep climb up the sandy slope above the boat landing – there are locals offering to carry your bag up in exchange for a tip, the size of which you better agree beforehand – to reach our accommodation for the night, the Mekong River Lodge, a handful of teak bungalows on stilts perched on a cliff. They have all the modern comforts inside, fans and mosquito nets and bathrooms with hot water showers, and large terraces overlooking the Mekong. Rooms can be booked by calling +85620 55171068 or through the email firstname.lastname@example.org
I showered, sipped an afternoon drink and left for a stroll. I passed the local market, which was about to close for the day, and kept on walking uphill until there were fewer houses – most of the guesthouses and businesses are along the first 100 mt of the main street. I reached a temple on the hill – Wat Kokkor Mingmoungkoun – from where I enjoyed a great sunset over a particularly scenic stretch of the Mekong; I then ventured down the steps and inside the main temple, where four monks were doing the afternoon chants sitting cross-legged in front of the Buddha statue. Most of the old temples in the area were destroyed during wars with the Thai Kingdom over 300 years ago, so this is a quaint rare example of a Buddhist temple from the great Lanna Kingdom times.
Next I set off to search for food. Several guest houses also offer meals, and there are enough small restaurants around to fill your belly. I picked a nice restaurant on the riverfront where I met our guide Kae who was having dinner with some of the boat passengers, and I joined them for a meal of buffalo sausages, local delicacy Larb, and pumpkin soup, washed down by the local drink lao lao bong, water and strong fermented rice sipped through a straw. Kae informed me that Pakbeng was the south terminus of the Route 46 from Yunnan, China, during the Laotian Civil War (1953-1975) and that in Pakbeng, located in the Golden Triangle area, one of the world’s drug production area, marijuana and opium have been part of the local culture for thousands of years. Some of the tourists are silly enough to buy drugs they get offered by the locals, only to get scammed a few minutes later into paying a hefty bribe by someone showing a police badge. When in Asia, stay away from drugs!
Dinner was followed by another stroll back to the hotel. Calling Pakbeng a sleepy village is an understatement: it is dead-quiet and most of the town shuts down by 10pm. I accommodated myself on the wooden chair of my terrace and looked at the starry sky and at the dark Mekong waters below, until my eyes started closing. Eventually, I hit the bed…
A cruise over the Mekong is a good and more luxurious alternative to the crowded public slow boats. Mekong Smile Cruise is indeed a good choice, we had a great relaxing trip exploring and appreciating an interesting stretch of the river. I definitely recommend this option, which was one of the highlights of our tour.
Mekong Smile Cruise programs and prices can be found on www.mekongsmilecruise.com – for booking and information you can contact owner Pheng at email@example.com or at firstname.lastname@example.org
Mekong Smile Cruise Day 2 – Pakbeng to Luang Prabang