Sunday, March 15, 2009

Pak Beng

We'd been told by the guesthouse owner that his "nephew" would be picking us up at around 9am. The romantic in me believed this. Once he dropped us off at the pier we realised it was pure business, a production line and we were just raw materials. Bargaining for the price for the bike was without the humour that we had come to expect when discussing the price of things. No doubt like many others we were glad to see the back of him.
After that things became much easier. We were extremely early for the boat. We thought we had an hour or so wait before a 10am departure. It wasn't until a last minute rush at 11 that we looked like departing and another 30 minutes passed before we actually did. The boat even turned back to pick up some late arriving passengers.
The boat was narrow with 30 or so rows of 4 seats with an aisle down the middle. It felt stable enough but rocked about quite a bit as it had no keel. Often when the boat went over a shallow section we could hear it scraping on the bottom of the river. There was a rough wooden canopy above the seating area. We'd been lead to believe that unless we bought cushons we'd have a very uncomfortable ride, though once we arrived we saw that most of the seats had cushons already and some of them were from old buses and quite comfortable but had the tendancy to collapse. The engine was at the back of the boat and had a little shrine with some offerings, this seemed to keep it going as required.
Though there were a few locals on it the boat ride put us very much on the gringo trail. It was a bit disappointing, embarrasing even watching these characters as they swilled beer and bahaved ignorantly.
The landscape was reasonably flat on both sides of the river at the beginning of the ride but after a while the banks became quite steep. Every so often little villages would come into view. The houses were constructed on poles with rooves made from dried leave roofs perhaps from the ever present banana or coconut palms, walls from woven bamboo.
As with previous days it was very hazy and seemed to get more so as the day progressed. I was later told that it was pretty bad at the moment and that it was expected that it would rain some time soon and when this happened the haze should clear up for a while. Though with this being the dry season there was a lot of burning and the rain didn't come so frequently.
Near where there were villages it was clear that the forest was less dense and evidence of clearing by deliberate burn off could be seen. At other points quite thick forest came down to the water. The river though passable was only so to reasonably small boats. The navigator had quite a job with lots of rocks and rapids to avoid.
As the Sun was coming down we arrived in Pak Beng. Everyone was heardedoff the boat and through a rush of locals touting their guesthouse. The town had a single road with all the accomodation and restaurants being there, we had no trouble to find a nice basic room with a bathroom at the Villa Salika for 50,000 kip (~ Euro 4.50). There was no hotwater but as we had been lounging on the boat all day this hardly mattered. The whole town hummed with generators.
Later we wandered up the street and had a simple dinner, including our first introduction to fish sauce which takes more getting used to than we could manage that evening.

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