The Banks of the Mekong River – Day 1
The Mekong River, Laos
The loud slowboat engine drummed away as we sat there watching the fog lift off the Mekong River revealing both the shores of Thailand and Laos. We were set on our two day cruise down the Mekong from Chiang Khong, Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos and had decided to do it in comfort. From the moment we got onto the boat, I think in the back of all our minds we knew this splurge for the Nagi of Mekong was worth it. We had essentially taken over the last two rows of bucket seats (the cool kids in the back of the bus) and were able to do our thing without disturbing the ‘older’ crowd. As our guide, Pheng, stood explaining what to expect over the next two days, I sat there with my feet up on the seat in front of me, sipping on a 3-in-1 coffee, and just basking in the landscape on either side of the river.
As the morning got later, I tried to relax in the seat, but just couldn’t – I found myself just pacing back and forth from starboard to port (gotta be nautical on a boat) firing away with my camera – jagged limestone peaks growing higher and higher, small bamboo villages popping along the shore, the tops of golden temples rising above the trees of the thick jungle, and the people going about their simple, everyday life along the shores. It was all pretty captivating to witness from afar.
About two hours (maybe?) into the ride, Pheng began to talk about the cultural ‘rules’ of the village we were about to stop at – ask the people to take their pictures, don’t touch anyone, no displays of affection, don’t put your feet up on anything (I don’t even know how that would come about?), ect. He went on to explain that these tours that stop by the villages are welcomed by the locals because it stimulates their economy when the tourists buy goods/souvenirs and “donate” money to the children in exchange for taking their pictures. When we pulled up to the banks and got off the boat, the local children of the village ran around the beach with giant smiles ear-to-ear, but as we walked through the hot sand up the hill to the sign for “Ban Houy Pwa Lam” Village, we began to feel the complete opposite – The adult villagers essentially shunned away from us with scowls on their faces and it felt like anything but a welcome to us. This was nothing short of a total exploitation of the locals. In my opinion, the one black mark on the Nagi of Mekong operation that was made even worse by the giant buffet lunch we were served when we got back on the boat (just poor timing).
And as the guilt of our tourist parade around the village faded, we just sat back and relaxed for another five hours. The big Beer Laos began to flow (at 12,000 kip ($1.26) each) as the sun receded behind the hills and I continued to do my dance from side-to-side snapping pictures.
We were staying in Pak Beng for the night, the first decently-sized town we had seen all day. The sun was momentarily blocked by some puffy clouds and it became apparent that it was shaping up to be a gorgeous sunset. Me and Rob bolted off the boat past a bunch of locals either offloading other boats or just hanging out with their kids along the shore. Three kids wandered over to us and with huge smiles and the look in their eyes made it obvious they were wondering what we were doing as we threw our tripods up real quick. I offered them up some Pringles I had sticking out of my pack and the kids just hung out playing and studying us with an unknown curiosity – they were completely captivated by the Gorilla Pod I had with me.
After I got them to stay still for a quick portrait, night began to set in and we made our way back up the piers past their parents, who all gave us big smiles and nods of approval as we passed by.