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...two travellers in search of the world's wildlife

24 November 2018

Cruising down the Mekong

On the mighty Mekong

On the mighty Mekong

19 November 2018

All of the big boats that cruise the Mekong are family homes. I really like this. Whether it’s the public passenger boats that take locals and dedicated backpackers up and down, or the tourist boats like ours that provide a more informative and comfortable journey, or the freight boats loaded with all the goods that need to go places, each one is operated by a family that lives in the little house-like section at the rear of the boat. They live on the Mekong, literally.

The Mekong is a spectacular river. It is immense and the colour of white coffee, winding its way through jungle-clad hills and mountains. In places it is enormously wide and placid. In places it is narrower, and the boiling ripples and swirling whirlpools on the surface are the only clue to the huge force of deep water surging between the rocky banks and the dangerous rocky topology of its bed. Occasionally huge rocks actually rear up out of the water, even in mid-stream, just to emphasise how important your boatman’s intricate navigational knowledge of the river really is.

Visiting a village

Visiting a village

No wildlife to watch, though. Not only a lack of mammals, but we’ve seen absolutely no waterfowl on what is a huge river. Downright odd. It’s also fair to say that the landscape we’re travelling through is less wild than it seems. We’ll be churning along, and I would swear we are in the middle of a huge wilderness of pristine rainforest… and then five cows will emerge from the trees onto the bankside. Or a little village will pop into view around a bend.

We stopped to visit one of the Khemu villages this afternoon, as part of our tour. Even corrugated steel hasn’t reached here yet, and the houses are rebuilt every 3 years or so as the termites always get them otherwise.

View from our balcony

View from our balcony

At about 4pm we reached our halfway point: Pakbeng. We made a quirky accommodation choice here. By all accounts Pakbeng is a wierd place. It was just a village, not much more than the one we visited earlier. But it’s half-way between Chiang Khong and Luang Prabang. So now it has guesthouses and restaurants. All of which are pretty much entirely catering for people that arrive one afternoon and leave first thing the next morning. So it’s a case of choosing your price point and getting it over with.

We decided to choose the brand new Le Grand resort, up on the hills above Pakbeng, spending about double the cost of a typical place in town but maybe – just maybe – actually having something to show for it.

And yeah, it was worth it. For the view alone – they upgraded us to one of their Signature Rooms and we had floor to ceiling windows gazing out over the mighty Mekong valley. Heck, our shower had floor to ceiling windows gazing out over the river!

Dinner at Le Grand

Dinner at Le Grand

Funny place though. It was mostly empty; just us and a French tour group of some kind. Most of the staff were charmingly and smilingly inept. The one sharp cookie was the restaurant manager. Our smiling waitress asked if we wanted buffet or a la carte, so we said a la carte. She looked a bit confused then wandered off. The manager popped over a minute later to offer us a free glass of wine and a special romantic four course dinner, while he deftly removed the menu from my hands. They then proceeded to serve us the various buffet dishes to our table as four separate courses. I’m just imagining the conversation backstage where he says to the waitress “please don’t offer them a la carte, how many times must I tell you we don’t actually have any of the dishes on the a la carte menu!”

Still, free glass of wine! It’s the only wine likely to pass our lips this trip. Handy hint: even if you’re a habitual wine drinker back home, just don’t even bother when you’re in SE Asia. It’s always bad, it’s always overpriced, and most wine (especially the slim pickings you’ll be offered) really doesn’t go with the style of food anyway.

Back on the Mekong tomorrow.


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