Laos

Pak Beng gets a second chance 

Pak Beng, a small town on the banks of the Mekong, in Northern Western Laos, did not make a good first impression. We traveled there from Luang Namtha, via Oudamxay, to catch the slow boat down the Mekong to Luang Prabang. It marked the beginning of our return home.

In the back of the tuk tuk, on our way from the bus station to our guest house, I looked across at John. His face was still very pale. What on earth are we doing here, I wondered to myself.

As we drove through the town there was nothing that appealed to me. Nothing. This place is a hole, I thought. And that thought is as uncharacteristic as my husband’s pale face. Right then a helicopter to whisk me to Luang Prabang and our flight to Bangkok seemed the only logical, if unattainable, next step. I’d had more than enough of travelling the adventurous way.

What went wrong, you might be wondering. You’ll know from my other posts that by now we’d worked out how the local bus system works. We were used to the cramped conditions, the lack of toilet facilities, roads more pot-holed than paved, taking an hour to travel thirty kilometres. And I’d come to enjoy, even love, the boat trips on the Nam Ou. Believe it or not, I’d been looking forward to our proposed trip down the Mekong.

When we left Oudamxay that morning things were unremarkable in a local, cramped bus kind of way. And they continued in that manner for the first three hours. But after two monks disembarked at a road side temple our driver suddenly had enough of taking his responsibilities seriously.

He cranked up the radio and wound up the speed. All good, I told myself, only a tad worried. At a stop approximately 45 minutes from our destination he accepted a large glass of beer, skulled it sitting in his seat, and handed the glass back through the window. It’s only one beer, I reasoned. Thirsty work, driving a bus, said John. And it was only the one glass. The driver drove faster.

At the next stop, he hopped out of the bus, joined a party in the local bar and skulled two more glasses of beer Laos.

John checked his GPS, it was 15 kilometres to Pak Beng. Not that far.

As any drinker will know, it takes a few minutes for alcohol to have its effect. And have its effect it did. As we passed the site of a new dam our driver played chicken with a concrete mixer. Believe it or not the concrete mixer moved to the side of the road. Then it was skittles with pedestrians – they scattered in every direction. Our driver was a man in a very big hurry. Now, at each village, instead of slowing down, he sat on his horn warning every one else to stay out of the way. They did.

My intrepid husband’s face turned white with a greenish tinge beneath his eyes. More than anything else this confirmed we were in trouble. Big trouble.

I prayed the prayer of the truly desperate: Jesus help me! When I wasn’t praying I reminded myself I signed up for adventure. If the worst happened I was, at least, out and about exploring the world and living life. Funnily enough, at the time, this notion wasn’t much comfort.

I think we should get off, John said. I wondered how and when. It didn’t seem sensible to announce to a crazed driver, a driver who was driving as if he had nothing left to lose, that we wanted to disembark.

Our bags were on the roof of the bus. It’ll mean leaving them behind, I thought. Worth it, I thought.

We’ll have to walk, said John. Unappealing in the heat of the day. But a lot more appealing than the visions that were flashing in front of my eyes.

I checked out our fellow passengers. We were the only foreigners. No-one spoke English and we don’t speak Laos. They were quiet. None of them met my eye

Suddenly, the bus lurched onto two wheels, bounced off the road, over some large potholes and came to a halt.

The small dirt clearing was in fact the bus stop. A tuk tuk was waiting. The young driver looked as shocked as we felt. There was quite a discussion between him and the bus driver. Money changed hands. A regular payment? Perhaps, but I doubt it. We paid the usual fare into town.

As we drove into Pak Beng, I saw nothing to redeem the place. The road seemed steep, the tuk tuk lurched slightly and I clutched on to the railing, expecting the worst. The restaurants looked dingy and shabby, the shops uninviting, or so I thought. Even my first glimpse of the Mekong in several weeks didn’t appeal. Dirty, I reckoned. And worse, our tuk tuk driver had never heard of our guest house. The promises from Agoda.com of a large bed, crisp linen, a spacious ensuite, free wifi, and a balcony view of the mighty Mekong, now seemed unreliable at best.

But sometimes, sometimes, after the terrors that occur in life, the God’s do smile, prayers are answered. We spotted our guest house, alerted our driver, and he pulled the tuk tuk over to the side of the road in a very calm and steady manner.

The guest house was indeed over looking the river.

The Mekong Riverview Guesthouse, Pak Beng

The Mekong Riverview Guesthouse, Pak Beng

It was comfortable, smart, even flash, and very, very clean. The garrulous owner showed us to our room, made us a curry, served us endless cups of tea. Funnily enough neither of us wanted a beer Laos. Soon enough the horrors of that last half hour on the bus faded.

Later, we sat on the balcony, looked out at the river, watched the boats begin to arrive. and decided then and there to stay another night.

View of the Mekong from our guest house in Pak Beng

View of the Mekong from our guest house in Pak Beng

Everything is carried off the boats by hand, including those mororbikes.

Time to Unload

Time to Unload

By sunset there were at least double this number.

The slow boats at Pak Beng

The slow boats at Pak Beng

Sunset over the Mekong at Pak Beng

Sunset over the Mekong at Pak Beng

What a great decision staying another night  proved to be.

Pak Beng is not the horrid hole that, in my adrenalin fueled reaction, I’d thought. It’s beautiful. Quiet. The people friendly. The food good, very good. There were plenty of restaurants and bars to choose from. And during the day we had the place  pretty much to ourselves. We whiled away a couple of hours in this family owned bakery.

The best bakery in Pak Beng

The best bakery in Pak Beng

Their pastries were delicious! And the pineapple fruit shake hit the spot. That’s the grandfather sitting at the front of the shop. He’s watching over his grandchild who was sleeping near the counter. We went back, twice.

Most tourists arrive in Pak Beng by boat in the evening and leave early the next morning. (We still haven’t met any who caught the local bus!)

They get the impression there isn’t much to Pak Beng other than a strip of bars and restaurants. They take an even dimmer view if the power fails which it did on our second night. The more fortunate restaurants have generators and for them business carries on. The smaller places simply have to wait until the supply is re-established.

The longer we stayed the more entranced we both became.

The main street of Pak Beng

The main street of Pak Beng

View of the Mekong over the roof of the Wat in Pak Beng

View of the Mekong over the roof of a Wat in Pak Beng

The Wat in Pak Beng

A Wat in Pak Beng

Pak Beng morning market

Pak Beng morning market

John wandered further afield than I did and came across this incredible scene.

I was more than a little bit jealous because I hadn’t seen any elephants on our trip so far. The truck blocked the road until the elephants were loaded. (John kindly allowed me to use his photos for the blog.)

We would have stayed in Pak Beng a third night very happily but unfortunately our guest house was booked out. It was time to catch one of the slow boats to Luang Prabang. The bus trip was a distant memory and I was ready for another adventure.

For any worried travellers out there, we used local transport for nearly all our travel around Northern Laos and this was the only risky situation we encountered. All other drivers were focussed, attentive, and concerned for their passengers.

37 replies »

  1. What an amazing adventure! I have come across to your blog from Pauline’s and I’m enjoying your posts. That bus ride was certainly not something to repeat, but it will be part of an incredible set of future nostalgias! I am a tad envious too, because I would love to see Laos…but as I hav e MS, don’t do heat well these days, and my immune system is shot to bits, I have decided I need to have my adventures nearer home!!

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  2. Wow, what a bus ride that was Jill, but it sounds like it became a distant memory after a few hours of relaxation in that lovely hotel. Stunning views anyone would would to see for themselves, and the town looks so pretty in your pictures.

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    • You are so right, Hugh. Pa Beng is very beautiful. It’s sad that most tourists don’t stay longer than maybe 12 or 14 hours. But then again, having the place pretty much to ourselves was part of the charm.

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      • I quite agree. I don’t really like places where there are huge crowds so that you are not able to see what you came to see and you end up queueing up for hours to get into a place, or even to get some light refreshments. I’ve really enjoyed reading you posts about your trip, Jill, and that’s why I’ve been reblogging them over at Covey View, so others can also read the posts and see all your amazing photos.

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    • and not sure if you will be back over to see my reply to your comment – so just in case…. here is a shot of the hand warmers… these are similar to what we had in the mid 1990’s- you open the pack – and they start working… here is from wiki:

      “Air activated hand warmers contain cellulose, iron, water, activated carbon (evenly distributes heat), vermiculite (water reservoir) and salt (catalyst) and produce heat from the exothermic oxidation of iron when exposed to air. They typically emit heat for 1 to 10 hours…”

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    • Hi there “Y”, That Wat is particularly beautiful. And I love how the kids were playing in the grounds. They seemed like kids at home, busy taking it for granted; more concerned about who had the ball, as they should be.

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  3. That is Adventure with a capital A Jill. Scary, white knuckle moments. I’m so pleased you have lived to tell the tale. You will dine out on that story for years to come, you had me on the edge of my seat. But what a lovely ending and those elephants… I’d be spitting tacks that I had missed that photo op…

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  4. What a great reminder of how our emotions can color our experiences. We are taking our son on international travel this summer and I will have to remember this to help him when he gets overwhelmed.

    So glad things turned out to be enchanting instead of disappointing!

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  5. Hi Jill. Quick message to say awesome work on your blog posts! I’ve become a regular subscriber to your blog, it’s fun, and great to read. Hope John and you are both well and thanks for the updates on your travels.

    Btw, I’m hoping to try catch up in person with that son of yours one day soon 🙂

    Jordan

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