Two Backpacks

Buddhist monks Luang Prabang

Chapter 24 - Monks and the Mekong - Luang Prabang, Laos

            As with our bus journey to Vang Vieng, the trip to Luang Prabang is equally breathtaking.

            We arrive mid-afternoon after another long six hours on the road. Our bus drops us outside town at a small bus terminal, from where we catch a tuk-tuk to the JoMa bakery. However, once we’ve hauled our bags onto the side of the road, we find the hostel I’d booked online and located a stone’s throw from the bakery is closed, and there’s no one around.

            ‘What do you think we should do?’ I ask, turning to Ron.

            ‘I’m not sure. Maybe someone at the cafe knows where the owner is.’ At the café opposite, elderly men sit in the shade, sipping clear liquid from tiny glass tumblers.

            I’m about to go over to them when a young man approaches.

            ‘Hostel not open till five,’ he states before adding a half smile. ‘You got booking?’

            I explain that I’ve got a reservation through the Hostelworld website.

            ‘I can show you room,’ the young man offers. ‘But you come back at five for check-in.’

            The room isn’t what I’d booked; there’s no bathroom or air-conditioning. Back outside, I relay the news to Ron.

            ‘I think we should look elsewhere; we’ve got time. What do you think?’

            Ron agrees. I advise the young man we won’t be staying. He shrugs and walks away.

            I flick through the pages of our Lonely Planet, looking for an alternative hostel for the night and find one two blocks away.

            ‘This one doesn’t look too bad, Ron. Maybe we could stay the night and look for something else tomorrow?’

            ‘Sounds like a plan,’ agrees Ron, shouldering his pack before turning to help me on with mine.

            We walk towards town, passing small cafes and shops on the way. On arrival at the hostel, an elderly woman welcomes us. Her snow-white hair is tied in a tight bun, and she’s wearing a beautiful green sarong. She smiles and confirms she has a room available.

            The house is beautiful, with teak walls and flooring adding to its charm. We have a room with three large windows overlooking an alley. The downside is that building work is two doors down, the passage is busy with tuk-tuks, and the main road is a few steps away.

            We have a noisy wake-up call early the following morning.

            ‘I don’t think I can do this,’ I complain once Ron’s awake. ‘I was up at five this morning once the tuk-tuks began driving up and down the alleyway. It’s convenient here, but I’d like to find something quieter. Do you mind?’

            ‘No, of course not. I can sleep through anything, but you’re a light sleeper. Let’s get breakfast and see what we can find,’ suggests Ron.

            We decide to visit JoMa for breakfast and are not disappointed – bacon and eggs for my man and a tomato, cream cheese bagel for me, delicious!

            After a second cup of tea, we make a move. Strolling through the town, we pass the Royal Museum and find ourselves on a street which appears a little more upmarket than those we’d walked along previously. Ron and I stroll along the quiet tree-lined road, trying to decide which hotel to choose. We come to a crossroads.

            ‘Did you fancy any of them,’ asks Ron, who’s had enough walking.

            ‘They all looked nice, but I think I like this one the best.’

            We’re standing outside the Villa Champa hotel.

            ‘Let’s ask to see a room,’ I suggest.

            The old property has teak walls and floors similar to the hotel we stayed in last night.

            A middle-aged woman smiles a welcome as we enter. I ask to see a room. She leads us up a sturdy wooden staircase to a room at the front of the building, unlocks the door and waves us in.

            The spacious room has a modern bathroom and a small balcony overlooking the quiet, tree-lined street below. If I lean out far enough, I can see the waters of the Mekong River through the tree branches.

            ‘It’s perfect,’ I declare. ‘We’ll take it. Is it available for the week?’

            Downstairs, we pay a deposit and promise to return to check in at three o’clock that afternoon.

            We explore the streets nearby and find several small restaurants and cafes. Choosing one serving pizza, we enter and find that the English couple we travelled with from Phonsavanh is also eating there.

            We spend an entertaining couple of hours with them before returning to our hotel via the night market in the town square. Hundreds of street sellers are setting out their wares under giant plastic sheets, the stalls laden with beautifully crafted items, including clothes, trinkets, silver, handbags and blankets.

            ‘I wish I had more room in my backpack,’ I moan, stopping at a stall selling hand-woven scarves. ‘Maybe we can come back another evening and buy something.’

            Ron takes my hand and leads me away. ‘If you think you’ve got space, buy something, only don’t expect me to carry it for you!’ he adds.

            Our days are relaxed and lazy, in contrast to the time spent in Vang Vieng and Phonsavanh

            One evening, we climb to That Chom Si stupa, perched on Phou Si hill. We join hundreds of tourists and locals climbing the three hundred steps. By the time we reach the top, my heart is thumping with the effort.

            Ron and I perch on the wall that rings the monument and watch the sun set over distant, dusky, orange-tinged hills.

            On the way back, we stop at the Bodhi Tree and gaze at shrines and statues, occasionally stopping to say ‘hello’ to the monastery’s many cats that laze in the grass.

            The last few mornings, I’ve woken to the deep, rhythmical beating of distant drums. Unable to rise from sleep’s slumber, I’d turned over and pulled the bedcover about my ears.

            Today, for some reason, I’m wide awake when the drum beat begins.

            I quietly slip from the bed and peek through the curtains.

            Below, in the misty, early morning light, a single row of monks are walking slowly down the hill towards the corner on which our hotel stands. Dressed in golden yellow lengths of cloth wrapped tightly around their bodies, they walk barefoot, their metal food bowls glinting in the first of the sun’s rays.

            They draw closer, man and boy, each with their head shaved, silent. I watch, mesmerised by their grace, touched by the spirituality of the scene.

            At the street corner below sit four women, each with a woven basket in front of them. As the monks pass, the women spoon a portion of cooked rice from their containers into each monk’s proffered bowl. No one speaks, and no acknowledgement is made.

            A young girl dressed in a white and blue striped T-shirt, jeans and beige knitted cardigan walks towards one of the younger monks. She’s carrying a basket of lotus flowers. As she approaches, she pulls a flower from her basket and offers it to one of the young men. He silently accepts her gift and continues on his way.

            The daily ritual, beautiful in its simplicity, seems to touch my soul. I shall remember this moment for the rest of my days.


            It’s early November 2009. Today we’re taking a two-day boat trip on the Mekong upriver to the port of Houie Xie.     

            Yesterday Ron and I visited a few travel agencies in town to check on boat times and charges. After two hours, we were no further forward in deciding what to do as prices differed widely from one agency to another.

            In desperation, we’d walked to the boat jetty. There we found it was possible to purchase cheap tickets on the day of travel.

            ‘I think we should just rock up tomorrow and get our tickets. At least we know the price and can check out the boat before we buy,’ suggested Ron.

            It made sense. So, we were up early this morning. We grab breakfast at the café across the street from our hotel. From our research, we know two boats are leaving this morning. We’ll be on the river for at least eight hours, so I’ve already stocked up on snacks and water for the trip.

            At the jetty, we purchase two tickets for the day’s trip to Pakbeng (eight Australian dollars for today’s trip and another eight dollars for the trip tomorrow) and chose the more modern-looking boat besides the hardwood benches, which has a few comfy seats installed. We pay our fares and are the first to board.

            I sit near the bow to get the best view, but Ron guides me to a couple of comfy seats beneath a shade sail towards the rear of the boat.

            ‘It’ll get hot once the sun’s up. Best to sit in the shade,’ he suggests.

            He’s right. Again.

            Settled in our seats, we watch as two other travellers arrive and take the bow seats, followed by locals who prefer seats under the sail, like Ron and I.

            We set off on time at eight-thirty and begin our journey upriver. Early morning mist clings to the hillsides while the sky is a vibrant pale blue overhead with only a few white, fluffy clouds drifting in the light breeze.

            Our progress is slow as we’re moving against the river’s flow; the boat’s engine, a V8 Ron tells me, roars as it powers our shallow hulled boat through the Mekong’s strong murky waters.

            By ten thirty, the clouds have disappeared, revealing a mountainous landscape of verdant green and bronze hues.

            The scenery changes with every turn in the river, green hillsides and sandy banks replaced by craggy rocks that extend skyward and boulders standing high in the river, the water bubbling and racing over those hidden below the muddy water; dangerous if the boatman misjudges our boat’s course.

            We arrive at the village of Pakbeng at six o’clock. It’s been a long day. Lights twinkle in the evening as our boat pulls up at a mooring point on the bank. Above us, we can see small hotels and cafes on the hillside.

            ‘Which one do you fancy?’ I ask, turning to Ron.

            ‘Let’s get ashore first and then make up our minds,’ he replies, shouldering his pack. We’ve been sitting most of the journey; my legs and back are stiff.

            It’s when I go to disembark that I realise I have to climb a muddy, slippery slope to reach the road into the village.

            ‘I’m not sure I’ll make it,’ I mutter as I gaze upward.

            ‘You go first. I’ll follow,’ Ron instructs.

            Stepping from the plank that connects our boat to the shore, I set off with Ron behind me. The weight of my pack means that to make any progress; I have to lean forward to scrabble my way upward. Twice I nearly tumbled backwards; twice Ron is there to catch me and prevent a disastrous unplanned swim in the Mekong.

            Gasping from the exertion, I finally make it to the road.

            ‘I don’t think I can walk any farther, Ron,’ I splutter, trying to force air into my lungs.

            ‘That hotel doesn’t look too bad. Let’s take a look,’ suggests Ron, pointing to a building across the road.

            We walk to the brightly lit hotel and ask to see one of the rooms. It’s clean and tidy, fine for one night’s stay.

            Ron leaves me to go and finalise the paperwork and pay for the room. I struggle from my pack’s harness and collapse on the bed. I’m so out of condition. I know I need to lose a few pounds, but with Christmas approaching, I know it’ll be impossible until January.

            Unable to discover when our boat sails in the morning, we’re up at five-thirty, ready to go. We don’t want to miss our boat.

            We breakfast at a small café two doors down from our hotel, purchase some rolls and snacks for the journey and then walk down to the jetty. It’s much easier walking down to the boats.

            Our boat for the day is modern and equipped with comfortable seats. We’re first to arrive, and once we’ve paid our fare, we make our way onboard.

            ‘Let’s take seats away from the engine and to the left,’ I suggest. ‘The noise on the boat yesterday was deafening.’

            Having learned from yesterday’s experience, we pick our seats and make ourselves comfy. Other passengers soon join us, many of who travelled with us from Luang Prabang; it makes for a more friendly atmosphere as we smile and say good morning to one another.

            We set sail at eight-thirty. There’s a chill to the air, and thick clouds shroud the mountains that encircle the village.

            Rolling hills quickly replace Rocky crags and rugged cliffs. The forest gives way to agricultural development; rice and corn grow in the hoed fields.

            The river changes, too; the vast boulders with white, rushing water are gone. The river’s banks have a gentle slope now; the waters flow more freely through rice-growing plains.

            Houie Xie comes into view as the sun begins to set. We disembark again, and I’m grateful there’s no steep bank to climb.

            We walk to the main street and, after several unsuccessful attempts at finding a room, find the Sawbadee Guest House.

            We’re only here for the night. Tomorrow we leave Laos, cross the Mekong and enter Thailand.