Laos: Huay Xai and down the Mekong to Luang Prabang
Jan 29, 2006
|It was early, misty start in Huauy Xai to get down to the boat port to catch the "Nagi of the Mekong" - a boat which turned out to be not only my transport to Luang Prabang but also a provider of an amazing day overall. A little background to the transport systems provided down the Mekong is necessary to appreciate just how wonderful the nagi turned out to be.
The boats are primarily split into two categories: slow-boats and speed-boats. Both are pretty accurate descriptions of what each is about. A slow-boat is a long wooden boat with wooden benches to seat the 40-50 passengers (almost always travelers) and takes 2 days to get between Luang Prabang and Huauy Xai - an overnight stop at rat-infested little town is not really seen as the highlight of the trip. This trip is the cheapest and would probably be okay were it not for the fact that 110 people are packed in like goats - some without seats, no food or drink provided and generally, with break-downs along the way takes 10hrs of traveling a day for 2 days.....
The speedboats on the other hand are little wooden boat, with benches to seat about 9 people (cosily) and a motorbike engine of sorts strapped to the back of it-the whole trip takes only 6 hours though! For me the flashing beacon saying "don't take this transport" is the provision of helmets for protection! These boats travel at high speed through the rapids of the Mekong and fatalities along the way are not unheard of. I can't begin to describe the noise that these boats make either - think jumbo taking off whilst standing right next to the engine! So somehow the thought of sitting packed in like sardines, wearing a helmet to protect myself with no provision for pit stops and the sound of a jumbo engine blasting in my ear....for 6 hours, was not the most appealing option.
My little bit of research was my saving grace and I found the Nagi - a boat with the best of both these above. It was the size of a normal slow-boat but had 20 reclining seats and had an engine that could fly it down the Mekong in one 9hr stretch! It was of course a tad more expensive but from what I heard after the trip - people would have sold their souls to have taken this instead of the alternatives.
At exactly 8.30am the SIX passengers were all aboard and we set out for a day on the Mekong. We were served tea and coffee and welcomed like royalty.....there were 6 crew members so the ratios were very much in our favour! It apparently takes 5 years to train as a slow-boat driver knocking socks of the London "knowledge" skill! It takes this amount of time due to the number of different tides and levels of the river that have to be experienced in training. They have to know the rocks, the levels of the bed and general movement of the water that can be anything at anytime. Later on during the trip when shooting through some of the rocky rapids and around twisting corners of the river I was quite pleased to know that these guys knew how to manouvere these huge boats relatively safely.
The first hour of the trip passed by quite serenely, it was chilly but the sun was out and all in all quite comfortable. This soon passed though when we moved into the hazy, misty part of the river with the sun nowhere to be seen. I never anticipated being so cold on this trip; the temperature with the wind chill factor (the boat was moving at a fair pace) plummeted - but luckily the Nagi was ready and blankets and duvets were brought out. I could not have wrapped myself up more if I tried and even put my hat on to keep warm - I did try brave one had been outside the sleeping bag to hold my book but it soon froze so decided to simply enjoy the view.
This mist in the surrounding jungle and on the river was quite magical in its own eery way. How the drivers navigated through this I don't really understand. After about another 1.5 hours the mist finally lifted and the sun came out again - it was quite beautiful (and the thawing out also felt rather pleasant).
I cruised down the Mekong watching the world go by -the life of villagers on the banks was fascinating - I tried to capture a picture of a group of youths playing football (with well set up goals) but it was a bit too far in the distance. It may not seem that out of the ordinary but knowing how remote these villages are it becomes a little more out of the ordinary. I can't imagine they would begin to know who david beckham is though! The most jaw-dropping moment though (which I also failed to capture due to the unexpectedness of it) was a house-boat cruising by with 4 full grown elephants on deck! It was unbelievable.....how this boat moved, never mind just staying afloat, with what must have been tens of tons of passengers, I don't know. This sight though sort of wraps ups what the whole trip was like.....a serene, beautiful trip down and exceptional river that has a life of it's own in more than just one sense of the phrase.
After seeing so much on just a 9hr trip I tried to imagine just how many different elements of life would be found on this river that is 4350km long stretching from the Tibetan Plateau out to the South China sea. It's too much to even contemplate.
I spent a lot of the trip sitting on the "banister" of the boat with one foot dragging in the Mekong waters with the wind blowing in my face and the sun beating down keeping me warm....the sense of freedom and tranquility I felt at this moment can't be described.
Throughout the day we were supplied with food, beer, coffee, tea and an endless amount of fascinating information about life on the Mekong. My fellow passengers were also great and there was just the right amount of socializing, chatting and enjoying each others company - but we all took a lot of time on our own wallowing in the peacefulness of the trip. There were literally smiles all round all day.
A little giggle was provided by coming across a speedboat that had earlier whizzed past - floating aimlessly down the river. The engine had blown and the "captain" was trying desperately to paddle in some direction with a plank of wood. The Nagi came to the rescue and through them a lifeline literally - they grabbed a rope thrown to them and we pulled them in to give them a spare battery /engine or something. A few pics captured this really funny site. Needless to say a few hours later the sound of the jumbo came flying past again .....oh how thankful I was not to be on that flying piece of wood!
The rest of the day went by far too quickly; at sunset we arrived in Luang Prabang - another little piece of heaven I'll try capture in the next tale.
I know I haven't been able to capture the day in words but everything about it was pure joy - a day cruising down one of the world's largest rivers is a part of this trip that will be etched in my brain and heart for a very long time......