To Hongsa via the mighty Mekong
Sep 4, 2005
|Wanting to explore a bit of Northern Laos before heading south towards Cambodia, we decided to take a little side trip from Luang Prabang and catch the slow boat up the Mekong to a little village called Hongsa. This slowboat is used frequently by travelers who are taking the river all they way to the border of Thailand, where many along the backpacker trail head to ChaingMai from there. There were many foreigners, then, on the boat, but we quickly realized that we were most likely the only two who would deboard 8 hours up river in Tha Suang (where we would then catch a tuk-tuk to Hongsa). So, at 8 AM on Monday morning, we simply set out for a little adventure, in search of village life in northern Laos, perhaps a ride on an elephant, and an experience off of the very beaten backpacker trail.
We got what we set out for.
The boat ride, despite the fold-up wooden seats we were sitting in, was really quite pleasant. We read books and didn't get car sick, we enjoyed the warm rays of the sun and didn't feel the sweltering heat of a stuffy bus. The wind was great air conditioning, and the scenery was excellent. We sat amongst lovely Laos families, and shared many smiles with the cute 7 year old girl who made a little nest with her stuffed animals and herself, atop our backpack. We made a few stops along the way, at the tiniest and most remote of villages and single hut houses, either dropping off some goods, delivering a message, perhaps, or picking up a family to take them further up river. It never ceases to amaze us how people live- what little they live with, and how far away, seemingly, from "civilization" they are, and yet they still manage. Up the Mekong, these villages appear hundreds of miles from nowhere.
And Tha Suang was no different. The boat pulled up to the banks of this village in the most amazing light I have seen. The village children, all naked, were playing and swimming in the river, their dark skin just glistening in this nearly sunset light. It was so surreal. We were the only white people to get off the boat, and we hopped on to the sandbar, taking a zillion photos of the images that were happening all around us, and were for some reason not the slightest bit worried about how to get from this sandbar, across the waist-high water to the shore. The locals that got off with us had so much stuff, it was unbelievable. Because Luang Prabang is the nearest town of any size, the people from Hongsa and other small villages travel this 8 hour ride to get their goods, and then bring them back. They stock their small stores, or get food for their restaurants, or in the case of one woman, furnish their homes. This woman had a brought a huge dresser/armoir/vanity on board, that was tied to the roof of the boat the entire time. It was then taken off, and simply placed in the middle of this sandbar, along with all the other passangers and luggage. (photo soon, to show how out of place this thing was!)
We got ourselves a "ride" the 10 feet across to the shore by the little boys in the river, who pushed a tiny wooden boat out and back from the sand bar, loading passengers and luggage alike. We walked the small hill up into the center of the village, and realized (although we didn't speak it to one another) that we had probably yet to find ourselves in such a remote place. I remember saying to Jon, after we waited nearly 2 hours in the village for the truck to come from Hongsa to pick us up, that if this had been somewhere in Vietnam, or Thailand, and we found ourselves stranded, perhaps we would have been worried. But the people are sooo incredibly kind, warm, and gentle here in Laos, that we felt none of this angst or worry. A nice woman had approached us as we got off the boat and said that she owned a guesthouse in Hongsa, and that her brother was driving a pickup from there to come pick her and some others up, to take them home, and would we like to ride with them. So, we entrusted in this 8 months pregnant woman and her husband, and opted not to try and wriggle ourselves on to the extremely overcrowded pickups that were awaiting the passengers off the boat. instead we waited with this woman and her husband, and it was nearly 2 hours before her brother came to pick us up. By that time darkness had set in, and after waiting another 20 minutes or so for all the goods to be loaded onto the back of the pickup (armoir was discussed, but later set aside to be picked up the next day, thank goodness), we finally hopped on to our fine ride, atop 20 40kilo bags of mushrooms and braced ourselves for the bumpy ride to a faraway village we knew very little about. The ride was fantastic, however. Jon and I were the only foreigners, and as we continued to shimmy ourselves into a comfortable position on top of all the goods, we realized we were riding in a pickup, through the woods of Laos, under a beautiful star-lit sky, and that life was good.
It was 24k to Hongsa, but the road prevents anyone from getting there in anything short of 2 hours. Now that's a bumpy road. My full bladder didn't help matters.
Arriving in a desolate town at 10:00 pm is never appealing, and especially not in Hongsa. It was so quiet, and so dark, and we would have had no idea where to go to find a place to lay our heads. so we didn't hesitate to stay at the guesthouse of the nice people who had given us a ride. (a 5 dollar ride, of course). By that time, we were ready for any bed one could give us. Except the one we got. It was one of the worst rooms we have stayed in to date- $5 worth about 1 or 2. But, we had no choice. Luckily it came equipped with a mosquito net. We had a brief dinner at the guesthouse (steamed bamboo- yuck. bamboo and duck soup- yuck. and some fried eggs. And a shot of Laos Whisikey, which we were told by our gracious hosts, would help us sleep. yuck.)
We met another traveler, somewhat surprisingly, enjoying a beer laos at the guesthouse when we arrived. He kindly informed us that there was nothing to do in Hongsa. its nice, but, nothing to do...except to ride an elephant. Ok- that's great, we think. That's what I had wanted to do. There are many elephants in this region as it is a big logging area, and the elephants are used for this work. we also chose this place to have our elephant experience because we knew that in Hongsa there was an internationally-funded elephant clinic where the elephants are treated and cared for. Therfore, we knew that we would not be supporting any sort of ill-treatment of the animals, as is so often heard of.
when we awoke the next morning, the elderly man at the guesthouse was quite eager to set us up with a 2 hour elephant ride. Quite eager.
We don't know if we have enough money with us to ride his elephant, but he speaks literally no English, and we were unable to get him to understand our predicament. We surprisingly find a small bank that will take a 20 $ travelers check to pay for the 15$ ride (a bit much, we think, but, we had decided to spend one less day in Hongsa, and go back to Luang Prabang earlier). Only a brief walk to find a place to eat and we had quickly decided that Hongsa didn't necessarily demand 2 full days of our time. Cows. Chickens. Dust. Sleeping store clerks. Not much to see or do.
The Elephant ride, needless to say, was the highlight. We sat atop the most gorgeous lady elephant- Muncon. A 30 year-old lady who was anything but lady-like. She and our "driver" took us for a magnificent ride around the small town, and then into the bush and villages. So lovely.
What a moment- to climb a top such a wondrous beast. I was all smiles, and still couldn't believe what I was getting the opportunity to do. Muncon had a mind of her own, as she should, and we were delightfully sprayed with water and mud, (she would snort it out on us as she tried to cool herself down), and made several stops to tear down some palm and other trees for some snacks.
It was slow goings, and the ride was anything but comfortable. But it was quite exhilerating, and such a rush to be so close to such a magnificent being.
The rest of our time in Hongsa is not all that worth writing about. A siesta at midday to take a break from the relentless heat, then Suky Lucky for dinner. Suky Lucky is a traditional Laos/Korean Barbecue style meal, sort of like fondu, sort of like at-the-table do-it-yourself barbecue. very fun. We were thrilled to find something other than bamboo.
The morning of our departure was pissing down rain. We were worried that the road back to Tha Suang and the boat would be unpassable. (quite common in the rainy season). We piled, squished and mashed ourselves into the back of a pickup with 8 other people and luggage, and somebody's pet rat. (I know, it wasn't a pet, it was dinner for that night, but I like to think it was a pet). (and yes, they eat rat quite frequently here. Dip the rat in the fryolater, and Voila! dinner. My appetite was ruined for quite a while a few days back when I witness our bus driver at our lunch stop crunch down on a rats head.) YUCK.
(Jon already wrote about this "muddy escape from Hongsa..")
So the ride back was treacherous and hilarious, simply because it was so insane that we were actually driving on this road. Mudslides everywhere, huge ditches, sliding rock. 2 hours of nerves and an extremely sore bum, and we found ourselves breathing a huge sigh of relief for surviving that ride.
Hopped back on the slowboat, this time Down the Mekong river. Boat was not as nice, but the ride was still lovely. Arrived Luang Prabang just as the sun was setting. ahh. Luang Prabang. Banana shakes, decent food and a bathroom with plumbing.