After our arrival in Laos, it was a short trip upriver to meet our boat, but we very nearly didn’t make it when our songthaew stalled on a hill and wouldn’t get going again.
Somehow, the driver managed to restart it, and we got over the crest of the hill and rolled into a spot sort of in the vicinity of where we needed to go. I suspect the brakes didn’t work, either, and the driver was avoiding going down the hill. Whatever. We got our luggage down the hill and down the bank and onto the waiting boat, and at last we were done with all the schlepping and paperwork and transactions for the morning.
We were on a “slow boat.” These are long, low riverboats that carry passengers and cargo up and down the river. The captain and his family live aboard. Our group of 14 (12 tourists, plus tour director, plus Laotian guide) had the main cabin all to ourselves for the duration of our two-day cruise.
The Mekong is a wide, flat river that flows through China, along the border between Thailand and Laos, into Laos, then back out to the Thai border and into Vietnam. Our speed was no more than about 25 knots, I think, so the rural, hilly scenery flowed by at a nice pace. Because of the terrain and the yearly flooding during the rainy season, there was very little development along the banks. Instead, we saw simple farm plots, water buffalo, goats, and fishing nets. Once we saw an elephant that had been brought down to the river for a drink; another time we saw a huge boar walking down a beach. Occasionally we glimpsed a temple on a hilltop.
Our group pulled some tables together and a bunch of us passed the time playing card and dice games. It’s a fun, easy-going group. There were also many hours for working on the blog and the photos, reading, and relaxing. Shane, our tour director, arranged for us to have delicious, home-cooked lunches aboard the boat.
We stopped for the night at a small village on the river. There were many other slow boats there, and the village was full of tourists. When we walked along the main street, there were stark, jarring contrasts between the old Laos and the new (widescale tourism is a recent phenomenon here).
Karel and I agreed that we love traveling by boat. All too soon, our slow boat pulled up at Luang Prabang. This was once a capital of Laos. It was also important during the “French Era” (pre-WWII) and still shows a strong French influence in the architecture and signage. There are many Buddhist temples, some of which are ancient. The city is now a UN World Heritage site. We would have three nights here.
For dinner that night we all went to a place that specialized in lau lau, which is a strong (50-60% alcohol), sweet liquor made from sticky rice. The restaurant was owned by westerners but offered local foods in the local style, including a Laotian BBQ, in which they place a red-hot brazier in the center of your table and you cook your own dinner. On the back of the menu were some very interesting FAQs for clueless falangs (the Laotian word for foreigners), which finally cleared up some of the puzzles that had been bugging us since the trip started.
For example, whenever we ordered a meal with our fellow tourists, the plates would appear one at a time, at long intervals, so that it could be as long as an hour between the first person being served and the last. We had made it our official protocol that you could start eating as soon as your food arrived; otherwise most people would be eating a cold dinner. The FAQs helped explain this practice. The culture of Lao is communal, and the practice there is to share every dish with everyone at the table. So, everyone digs in when the first dish arrives, then the next, etc. The Western practice of each person getting their own plate is just plain rude, in their eyes. Restaurants have adjusted to Western expectations by serving individual plates, but the kitchen staff is still operating in the Laotian mode. Mystery solved, inconvenience a non-issue, and we even begin trying things the Laotian way. It’s interesting how a practice can seem so senseless and annoying when you don’t understand it, and so charming and beautiful when you do.This entry was posted in Honeymoon 2013