The blessing must have worked for we all arrived safely in Pak Beng. It was the most amazing three-quarters of an hour blast down river, being carried through a surreal land and water-scape, hills wreathed in mist, bouncing along the surface of the mighty Mekong. Mother of Waters was calmer now, and we were looking forward to breakfast.
Walking up the road at Pak Beng it suddenly seemed we were in a bar scene in a Star Wars movie, or in part of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Connected to China by a narrow winding road, it was thought to be the centre of smuggling operations, and had a lawless wild-west feel when we there in 1995. Ugly slow boats were moored along the bank, and houseboats for river people. There was one road and an awful muddy market place, but our breakfast of noodle soup was excellent.
This was my first experience of Lao soup, often to be the only food available when we were on the road. We had a plethora of condiments and sauces to season the chicken stock and noodles, but most delicious was the plate of fresh herbs … just add some mint or basil, some lime juice or chill, bean sprouts lettuce, or coriander.
Some of our group went wandering up the road and discovered the market …
…. where we also ate breakfast rolls of soft dough with green gooey filling, possibly green papaya jelly, that we found amongst the stalls …
These fried rolls were a bit too greasy when we ate them later. Pak Beng was a little town when we were there, sparse but growing rapidly as Lao began to open up to the West. When I google it now I am astonished at what it has become twenty years later, a busy centre for river travel and development.
While waiting for our new transport, we lingered on the river bank, no doubt listening to our knowledgeable guide explain about all the ethnic minorities and their way of life.
Finally we discovered what we would be travelling in next … it looked sturdy but was the most uncomfortable hot and noisy experience of our lives … we could choose to roast in the sun or be deafened by the diesel motor and suffocated by the fumes beneath the deck … and it was incredibly slow, making the longboat of the previous day look like a speedboat!
Next instalment: Luang Prabang.