I had chosen the two day ride up-river for three reasons: It was cheap; its slow boat smacked of relaxation; and it would take me directly to Thailand.
What I hadn’t bargained for was a journey so memorable that I’d drift back to it years after my actual destination faded into a blur. I had a prime seat on the world famous Mekong: a local lifeline through the mountainous north of Laos.
Luang Prabang’s early morning melody dissipated not long before we passed Pak Ou’s sacred caves. The dangling cliffs guarded the steps towards Buddhist treasures like teeth ready to snap shut at any moment. I only got a hint of what lay beyond before the landscape sloughed away from the banks and the waters widened.
Early morning mist draped itself like freshly spun white candy floss around the hills as we chugged against the Mekong’s muddy flow. It was definitely Earth but from the jurassic era, surely. I scoured the shoreline half expecting to spy a family of velociraptors lurching forwards for a drink. Our low-slung vessel was a colourful little toy in its massive surroundings.
We stopped a few times on the first day.
Not at anything that denoted a dwelling, just rocky outcrops that signalled arrival for families and their many boxes. How were they possibly going to carry everything to their destinations? As we left them, determined expressions crossed their faces and moments later they had gone. Sucked into the dense foliage of the rolling hills like toes disappearing into wet sand.
An overnight stop in tiny Pak Beng was part of the ticket price. In the town – nothing more than a strip of buildings set just back from the shoreline – I was surprised to find a bar, let alone one that doubled as the local karaoke joint. Fellow passengers and I, with literally nowhere else to be, sung and sunk beers like best friends until it was late enough to justify bed.
Nature flourished in exactly the same way on day two. Mountain mist gradually gave way to bright sunlight and blue skies.
Although as we travelled further north, I saw more life along the river. Farmers let their cows slurp messily at the water, children splashed in the shallows and groups of women used the river water for everything from clothes washing to food preparation. The Mekong had become a necessity for all the communities along its banks long before providing a novel route through the country for visitors like me.
The sun was already low behind the hills as we arrived at Huay Xai, a nondescript border town where customs control was a hotel check out desk on a rickety veranda. Though for me it felt significant: Less than fifty meters away on the other side of the river, northern Thailand beckoned. Its landscapes just a simple silohuette against a coral sky.
I had almost come full circle. From that moment I would only be travelling south towards Singapore from Chang Mai.