Update 5: 29th April 2003

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Mekong map        Lao busLao bus

Despite everyone’s advice, I wasn’t really prepared for the realities of life in northern Laos – no telephones, intermittent electricity and very little transport from place to place. I stayed the first night in a so-called ‘eco-guesthouse’ near the Chinese border, but the most ‘eco’ thing about it was the five-mile trek there and back from the village of Muang Sing.

Luckily for the next leg of my journey there was a daily songtheaw, and in this relative luxury I reached the village of Xieng Kok on an amazing stretch of the Mekong where the river passes through a long shallow gorge with Laos on one side and Burma on the other. I booked into a guesthouse from where I could keep an eye on the shipping. There were plenty of Chinese cargo boats going up and down, and speedboats whizzing about like wasps. But what I really wanted was a rumbling old slow boat, and all these seemed to be going upriver to China – very slowly, because their cargoes were so heavy and the current so strong.

I needed to go downstream, though I was happy to wait because all this was interesting to watch and I could take walks along the dirt roads through the forest. The speedboat owners made me various offers for a trip downstream to the Lao port of Ban Mom. On the first day the price was US $120, on the second $70, and by the third it was down to less than $50 so I took that one. The next problem was that the Chinese were blasting the riverbed just downstream, part of their programme for making a deepwater channel from China to Thailand; but undeterred we set off. The speedboat was driven by a lorry engine with no cover and no gearbox, so when the revolution counter read 4,000 per minute that’s how fast the propeller was turning. We practically leaped into the air and were soon careering through the water at 40 mph. I’d seen other passengers on these boats wearing motorcycle helmets, which they never wear on motorcycles but certainly need on these water rockets. There weren’t any to be had in Xieng Kok, but I was happy enough that they’d found me a lifejacket. I can’t tell you how exciting it was, holding tight to my seat as we swished through the rapids. After a few miles a man on a rock waved a red flag at us and we pulled up on a small beach. He climbed down, talking into a mobile phone, then said “It’s OK; they’ll wait for you to go through.” So off we went again, past warning signs painted on the rocks in Chinese, and soon we were speeding past the blasting ships and the Chinese engineers on board were waving their hellos. Eventually we emerged from the gorge, the landscape on both sides became flatter, and a couple of hours later I was dropped off in Ban Mom.

I looked around at the wide straight boulevards and large expensive houses, and thought this looked a good place for hitch-hiking. But the houses mostly belonged to drug barons, who perhaps understandably rather relished being cut off from the outside world. The avenues formed a rectangle four blocks by two, on which gigantic Toyota Land Cruisers drove round and round. Beyond were fields and forest. I finally discovered the road out halfway down one of the blocks. It was little more than a footpath really, passing through a duckpond before broadening into a proper track, and sure enough after a couple of hours one of the Land Cruisers came bouncing along. The driver was alone in the vehicle – unheard of in Laos – but he was extremely friendly and turned up the air-conditioning for me as we soared over the rutted road on big balloon tyres. After an hour or so we arrived at his house – another monster – where his wife brought out the best chopsticks and treated me to a filling noodle lunch. The man said he was tired of driving but his son would take me onwards. This was obviously a treat for the son, who rounded up his friends until there were six of us in the vehicle, bouncing over the ruts. His driving became steadily more erratic, and eventually he laid his head on the steering wheel and said he felt ill. I suggested he go home slowly and I would continue on foot.

Soon I came to another riverside village, Ton Peung, where I found a friendly couple – the man American, the woman Thai – sitting by the Mekong watching the sun go down. I booked myself into a guesthouse nearby and found myself sharing a room with a foot-long gecko – more a baby crocodile really, but without the teeth. After a while the American returned and said his girlfriend’s family would like me to go round for a small ceremony. They were going on a journey to Luang Prabang, two days’ travelling to the south, and as I was also on a journey the family wanted to include me in their good wishes.

The family turned out to live in another large house, though much less lavish than those I’d seen in Ban Mom. Some 30 aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins were seated in the garden under a large tree. Soon we all went indoors and sat cross-legged at an exquisite flower arrangement, round which had been placed candles and offerings of food. The flowers were bedecked with string, of which each member of the family now took a length, divided it into six, and tied one piece round each wrist of us three travellers. The relatives muttered their wishes mysteriously as they passed from one of us to another. In the case of the couple I suspected they were asking the spirits to bring them babies, so I could only hope they weren’t doing the same for me.

This ceremony is known as a ‘baci’ (pronounced ‘barsy’), and for the string bracelets to bring maximum good luck you must continue to wear them for at least three days. They seemed to have already started working, because the next morning I had no trouble hitch-hiking all the way to Ban Houei Xai, the town where I had arrived three weeks previously from Luang Prabang. Why was I back there? It’s a long story, but when I originally crossed from Thailand I found with some dismay that my Lao visa was for 15 days instead of the 30 that I’d expected. It could only be renewed in Vientiane, several days’ journey to the south. I dithered on the riverbank and eventually, having failed to bribe the immigration officer to give me two visas running consecutively, decided to make a circular journey back to Houei Xai, cross the river to Thailand, then cross back again and buy myself a second 15-day visa. I only just made it, arriving on the Thai side late in the afternoon. The following evening I returned and strolled up to a wat on top of the hill, intending to take a sunset photograph across the Mekong. But my plans were thwarted. The monks spotted my baci bracelets and immediately invited me to watch another baci that they were just about to perform. An elderly man from the town was going to Vientiane and they wanted to give him a good send-off. We all went into the wat and I recorded some of their extraordinary chanting. When they listened to the recording through the headphones the monks burst out laughing. “Was that really us?” they asked.

From Ban Houei Xai I found a place in a motorised canoe heading up a tributary of the Mekong called the Nam Tha. It had a specially shallow draught for this river, but was heavily laden with sacks of rice, and despite the boatman’s skilled manoeuvring we scraped the bottom several times. I spent the night in a riverside village built almost entirely of bamboo and thatch. After a supper of rice and grilled fish I quickly fell asleep on a straw mattress, but was rudely awoken at midnight by a ferocious thunderstorm which continued on and off for the rest of the night. By the time dawn broke the valley side was awash with mud and the whole village was out with spades and brooms.

It was a late start but a lighter load for this second day on the Nam Tha, and the boatman and I set off in high spirits. Then, just before midday, disaster struck. As we were passing through a particularly narrow stretch of rapids there was a loud bang. The engine roared wildly and the boat lurched to the right. With lightning reactions the boatman leaped into the water and heaved and shoved the canoe into the shallows. We’d hit a rock. A quick inspection showed the rudder had been bent and the propeller had broken clean off. Our upstream journey was at an end.

Luckily for me a road was nearby. The boatman decided to float back downstream, so wishing him luck I scrambled up to it. For three hours nothing came, but finally an old songtheaw hove into view. It was empty except for a pig, so the driver happily accepted my fare to the town of Luang Namtha.

From here I took a slightly newer songtheaw to Laos’s northernmost town, Phongsali, which lies on a 5,000-foot ridge and resembles an Indian hill station. Lao New Year was imminent and the streets were busy with preparations. Awnings were being put up, tables and chairs set out; musicians were tuning their instruments and a bamboo scaffold had been erected for the home-made rocket competition. Lao New Year is not for the faint-hearted. The thump-thump-thump of the bands echoed round the town all night and well into the next morning. And then came the rockets! From spindly fizzbangs to stately giants, each brightly decorated with a bamboo pole for its tail. To much cheering and drum-beating, they were carried one by one to the launching platform and the fuse lit. Some went woosh into the clouds, others went phut into the ground; but each performance was greeted with good-humoured applause and at the end of the day the winner received a splendid gold cup.

Next morning the town was still sleeping as I took a songtheaw yet further north to the village of Hat Xa on the Nam Ou, the final tributary that I hoped to explore. The boats had stopped for New Year, and the villagers lost no time in persuading me to join them in getting plastered on their indescribably horrible moonshine known as ‘lau-lao’. For a place with no electricity they certainly managed to make a lot of noise, which once again continued all night. At least I think it did – I passed out sometime after dark.

On the second morning I was up early and on the riverbank in good time for the promised 9am boat. A Swiss couple joined me and we enjoyed the cool morning air, unaware of the arrangements that were being made for us. At about 9.30 the boatman approached us to say that we were the only passengers so unfortunately there would be no boat today. However, for a small consideration he’d be willing to take us on a charter arrangement. The amount he wanted was astronomical, but Hat Xa is the cul-de-sac to end them all and in the end we settled on a slightly less outrageous sum. Sitting in his canoe, we handed over the money and within seconds the other passengers appeared from nowhere and jumped in for a free ride!

In truth we didn’t really mind subsidising our fellow-travellers. They were a companionable bunch and the journey downriver was simply breathtaking. We spent the night at the engaging river-port of Muang Khua, then passed between thickly-forested limestone pinnacles to the twin bamboo villages of Muang Ngoi and Nong Khiaw. Below here river transport had given way to road, but there was still some dramatic terrain to be crossed until, exactly a month after leaving Luang Prabang, I stepped down from the songtheaw and strolled along the river into the town.

I was still wearing the string bracelets from the baci in Ton Peung, and now they began working in earnest. I decided on a whim to spend a second day in Luang Prabang, and it was only three days later that I heard about a bus attack on the road I was about to follow. Twelve passengers had died and a further 31 were injured when bandits opened fire on the overnight bus from Phongsali to Vientiane. The incident had happened on the day when I was originally going to travel. This was the second such ambush in less than three months. It took place on a remote section of mountain road, and even 24 hours later, as my own bus was setting out, no one on board seemed aware of it. We gazed in horror as we passed the burnt-out bus, assuming it to be the wreckage of some terrible accident. I wouldn’t have been on that particular bus, but mine would have been following not far behind.

So I carried on wearing the bracelets till 26th April, when I arrived back in Winchester at the end of the first part of my trip. In late June I’ll be returning to Bangkok to start the second leg through China’s Yunnan province, towards the source of the Mekong on Mount Guosongmucha north of Tibet.

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