Laos              
Pakbeng
           

Pakbeng is not somewhere you are likely to stop for more than a night on your way between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang ... but you should. It is full of interest for a day or two.

For the jet boats, it is just a refueling and lunch place on the six or seven hours between the larger towns; and for the slow boats, it is the place where you overnight without really getting to grips with it.

But if you are interested in Lao culture, if you want to get as much as you can from the Lao experience, it has a lot to offer.

For us, it was the lonely ruralism and industry of the place: it has a pulse of its own, regulating
its day by the waves of falangs who want to
buy its services ... and, less obvious to
the passing eye, working as a market town and linking by difficult roads to Muang Xai.

You arrive on a slow boat – if you are lucky, one that is not hopelessly overcrowded – and jump from the boat on to the rocks that form a natural mooring area, struggle up the rocks and into the street, and climb the hill to the hotels and restaurants.

Maybe 100 or more falangs pass through in a day, with the fishermen's frenzy of hoteliers and other businesses trying to catch this tempting shoal.

For most, it is check in, freshen up and then inspect the mile or so of eateries and small businesses selling everything from secondhand television sets to the soap you forgot to pack – and, at the top end of the street, there is the market (most stall are open in the mornings but some later in the day).

We were looking for vegetarian and vegan fare and found a good selection of places to eat, including a choice of two southern India restaurants. The owner of one took our order, then went to cook it ... wonderful.

Most visitors get up early and fight their way on to the connecting boat to Luang Prabang, another six or seven hours down river, or up river to Huay Xai. Plus, of course, the obligatory couple of hours waiting for the boat to leave.

We were up early too, photographing the misty beauty of the place, the ‘middle of nowhere' views of the Mekong, and later the industry that surrounds the mooring area as goods are loaded or unloaded and the locals just enjoy the simple pleasures of watching and being there.

A woman was organising a gang of men who were carrying huge sacks down to a waiting slow boat ... it was hard to see exactly what they contained, perhaps clothes, but the markings were Chinese.

There were logs piled up waiting their turn to go off to the mills of neighbouring countries (notably in southern China ).

And a big truck had braved the Muang Xai road to deliver a consignment of cheap Chinese motorbikes for the more affluent of the region. A few days later we saw similar machines being delivered in very rural Honsa and wondered if they were the same ones. They were certainly the same type and there were scores, maybe hundreds, whizzing around the dirt roads, carrying goods from market, getting children to school; one knocked down a toddler who ran in front of it and its rider was thumped a few times by the baby's father; and every one of the machines kicked up the choking dust for the people walking.

Later, when the morning light had flooded Pakbeng and almost all the falangs had fled on the slow boats, we walked through the surrounding roads. They led into areas of traditional homes and living, not unwelcoming to us as outsiders but remote from the tourist frenzy of the main drag.

On the road through the top of the village, we came upon a splendid temple, the monks and novices wearing saffron woolly hats as a defence against the cold of January. They were eager to talk, eager to show us their home and their vision of the meaning of life. June, my wife, talked to the monk and he gesticulated so expressively that, when reviewing the photographs later, it looked like a dance.

Some people regard monks and novices as remote and staid; I have never found them to be that and there, on the hillside temple above the Mekong, one of the younger monks asked me to explain a sentence in English – it seemed to need a sex education approach but I couldn't tell if he wanted that, an English lesson or just a bit of a laugh.

When we worked our way back down to the mooring area, the fast boat men were waiting to do some business. We haggled a price for a boat to the nearest landing place to Honsa, an hour and a half down river and then over a mountain range.

And, just because we'd enjoyed a meal there a few years before, we walked down to the old ‘floating restaurant' that acts as the landing point for the fast boats. The Mekong was quiet, a man walked on the silt beach with his buckets for water from the Mekong and high above Pekbeng waited for the next wave of falangs.

 

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