Arriving at Thai immigration at 8 am, I get my exit stamp and pay 40 baht for the ferry to Laos. It’s a tiny, unstable, overloaded little boat that is almost submerged in the silted brown waters of the Mekong, but a few minutes later we’re across and still dry. Border formalities on the Laos side are equally simple – they’re obviously only interested in the $35 fee.
The Mekong cruise company deliver us to our boat, and we’re away. It’s a sunny day, the views of jungle and mountains are expansive and photogenic, the boat is quiet and spacious, there is locally grown coffee and beer, and I settle into a very relaxing day with ease.
An early lunch is the best food I’ve had for weeks, with star of the show being fresh Mekong catfish with fragrant lemongrass and a delicate pinch of chilli, baked to perfection wrapped in some kind of leaf. It smells superb and melts in the mouth with a taste that is both delicate and powerful. I go back for seconds, and enjoy it with a cold glass of Beer Lao.
After lunch we stop to visit a village. There’s no pier, the captain just rams the boat into the sandy river bank. The village is just as you would expect, apart from the giant satellite dishes adorning each hut.
Children of all ages gather beneath the stilt huts and watch us, the older ones motionless, the youngest chasing chickens and trying to pick up piglets. The older ones exchange words with each other and laugh, eyes still on us. Some cling to the wooden stilts supporting the huts, others march forward to press faces into camera lenses. They laugh and joke with each other while a dozen cameras are pointed their way, tourists captivated by these impossibly cute Asian kids with their big eyes and beaming smiles. The biggest smiles and loudest laughs come when the kids see themselves displayed on a camera screen, the older ones seemingly making fun of each other and pulling silly faces, as if they’re saying “ha ha, you look like such a dork in that one!”
It feels slightly odd just wandering around watching the village residents, but they are obviously used to it and the adults take little notice.
Back on the boat I take another cup of Lao coffee, relax with Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, and scattered conversation with the other passengers – two brits, two dutch, two Germans, an American family of 6, a Singapore-based aussie girl and her mother, and two backpacking German girls.
The afternoon drifts by along with the views of wooden huts, water buffalo, jungle, palm trees, hills, mountains and fishing boats. Then we arrive at the wonderful Luang Say lodge, a delight perched above a bend in the river. The cabin brings to mind Robinson Crusoe from the outside, Bertie Wooster on the inside.
A glass of wine on the terrace is the perfect accompaniment to the slowly darkening sky, but sadly it’s too cloudy for a good sunset. Dinner is a buffet of Lao minced pork salad (the “salad” element being chilli), red chicken curry, spring rolls, sticky rice, beef skewers, and stir-fry vegetables, enjoyed in the company of English couple Ashley and Wendy, and the two German girls Sonja and Christina. The wine is good, the food is great. The jokes are bad, but the laughter doesn’t stop, everyone having had a great day.
Sleep comes easily despite the deafening insect chorus of chirping crickets, gargling frogs and screaming cicadas.