After two weeks it was time to move on from the relaxed city of Luang Prabang. This city ticked all of our boxes, allowed us to give back by teaching conversational English, experience the culture and diversity of this often forgotten country and learn about its sad and damaged history as the most bombed nation on earth (per capita). In the last couple of days, I completed a bottle top snake that I made for the nephew of our previous guest house host. The children have little to play with and I had the luxury of time. I dropped it off one morning and his face was one of sheer delight, something so simple.
One last walk back through the morning market, seeing the fish still gasping, the freshly killed meat still being chopped up by ladies with big cleavers and the freshly harvested fruit and vegetables. Ah, we do love a wet market, it is one of our favourite things about Asian travel!
I bought some Lao green tea, some Lao coffee and a new apron for when I try my new Lao and Cambodian recipes. This apron is the same one that all the food vendors wear, so I will be 'transported back to Laos' whenever I cook at home. It is also the best designed apron, with crossover straps at the back, no tying.
We paid our guest house bill, said our farewells to Ming and his family and after dinner we packed our bags and called it a night, ready for an early start in the morning.
Our new host for the next 2 days, Say pronounced Si, arrived right on time at 6.30am, by tuk tuk, to pick us up and transport us to the Nagi of Mekong in readiness for our river trip back to Northern Thailand. At this point we discovered that Mrs Wombat and I are the only two passengers on this trip. Really? The whole boat to ourselves?
We arrived at the pier, loaded our bags and climbed aboard. The boat is a family owned and run river boat, mum, dad, daughter and nephew - the boat skipper.
Before long we are motoring up the river, we were advised that a light breakfast was provided, so being unsure what that meant, I stocked up with a hand of bananas from the market and picked up a couple of baguettes. We thought if breakfast was a bit light on, and we needed a snack, a baguette and banana would fill the gap but I need not have worried.
Within the first half an hour, Mrs Boat lady had served us some fried eggs and fried rice, along with fresh bread and jam, add some tea and coffee and we were off to a good start!!
One of the best parts of doing this trip, was the opportunity to visit the Pak Ou Caves, very early and before the hordes of tourists arrive. These caves are one of the most respected holy sites in Laos, with a history dating back thousands of years. It is packed with over 4000 Buddha images and the caves are a shrine to the River Spirit. The caves are set in a dramatic limestone cliff and positioned about 17 metres above the River. Buddha statues are hidden everywhere even in the dark and local people have been leaving them for hundreds of years.
The caves offer places of worship and we were transfixed at their beauty, we were able to climb right up as high as we dare and gaze in awe at the thousands of statues placed in every conceivable spot.
This was such a beautiful and significant place for Mr Wombat to light a candle, place an offering and pray for his Mum, who sadly passed away at the beginning of our trip. It doesn't matter that we are not Buddhist, we believe spirituality transcends all religions and beliefs.
Our morning was so chilled and relaxed as we wandered up and down the boat, having a coffee or a piece of fruit, (they supplied bananas and we had bananas, so bananas it was). We moved seats because we could, lay on the day beds, rocking with the motion of the boat. We watched the fishermen, the freight boats with buffalo and goats on board, saw a few speed boats fly past us - they take 8 hours to make the same journey compared to our 2 days, water buffalo and hills planted with fruit and rice for sticky rice.
Meanwhile, Mrs Wombat had already succumbed to the effects from an early start and the gentle rocking of the boat and had fallen asleep.
Before long it was lunch time, Mrs Boat lady served a delicious meal. Soup with tasty long green vegetables and pork, stir fried pork and vegetables with rice and for dessert, pineapple. The meal was local Laos food and so tasty.
We sailed along the river past villages where fishermen were mending nets, pulling in their catch, women were tending fields of rice and corn. The hum of the boat had a mesmerising effect and combined with the gentle rocking motion of the boat, I was now having trouble staying awake. Deciding to listen to some music, I too, was out for the count.
The Mekong river flows 4800 km from Tibet through China, Myanmar, Lao PDR, Thailand, Cambodia, the Vietnam Delta, and into the South China Sea, draining an area of 795,000 sq. km. It is currently one of the least modified large rivers and the second most bio-diverse river in the world, after the Amazon.
The river supports the world's largest freshwater fishery and the livelihood of 65 million people are dependent on its flows.
With this in mind it should come as no surprise to learn, that China (in partnership with countries adjoining the Mekong), has already begun building dams, one of which was evident as we passed by. These dams are part of a hydro power scheme, and will affect everything about the Mekong River.
It was difficult not to feel sad for the people, who have called the Mekong home for generations. Fishing and crop growing using the Mekong, has been their lifeblood, what will become of them once dams have been built and fish supplies have dwindled??
Time to wake and have a read of a book then start my leather craft hobby. When our journey began in June in Chiang Mai, I bought some scrap pieces of leather, some thread and needles etc, and having done some Pinterest searches, I had found a couple of projects that will enable me to learn stitching techniques. So I began designing a pencil case, cutting out a pattern and eventually cutting the leather and learning how to stitch, a couple of hours later, hey presto, a pencil case.
Our afternoon continued, snacking, drinking coffee or Lao green tea, mesmerised by the scenery-lush dense jungles, towering cliffs and village life. I was reading a book, when all of a sudden, DRAMA ON THE MEKONG.!!!
With much yelling (all in Lao of course), our boat comes to a stop and we drift into the bank, looks like something has gone wrong. Our guide tells us that water is not coming out of the motor. This I work out, is that the cooling system for the motor is not working. Oh oh!, We tied the boat up to a tree, while we watch other boats go past; fishing boats, public river boats etc. Our Mr Boat man and the other boat skippers exchange words and Mrs Wombat and I contemplate how we may be spending the night on the Mekong with the Boat family, instead of our lovely prebooked accommodation that awaits us in the next town. If we have to stay onboard for the night, I told Mrs Wombat that at least we knew the food would be good and I have reserved my day bed!!!
Mr Boat man is in the engine room and there is some banging of tools and before long the signal comes up to start the engine, (or however it is said in Lao). We start up and all seems ok, water now coming out, so far so good. A few minutes later we are tied up again and the process is repeated, however this time "the water stays coming out", we are told, so away we go again, a little cautious for the next half an hour but now well on the way to a good nights sleep. In reality, the water intake pipe for the cooling system had blocked and once cleaned we were ok.
Our afternoon also consisted of passing through rain storms, when this happens, we all run and roll down the flaps on the side of the boat. A short time later, we are rolling up the flaps again until the next storm.
Afternoon coffee time rolls around and then eventually Beer Lao time, then we dock for the night at Pak Beng. We are late arriving, so we pull along side all the other river boats, make our way across the front of a couple of other boats and down a gang plank that is sitting precariously above the water, and onto dry land. Mrs Wombat almost faints in fear at this process, she is not a seaman. It is a short walk up a fairly steep hill and we are settled into the beautiful Mekhong River Lodge for the night. Mrs Wombat especially selected this place for its unique bamboo and timber cottages that overlook the river, certainly the most unique experience since Bangkok, where we stayed on the river.
Whilst we have eaten and snacked all day, now was a good opportunity to walk into town, and maybe grab something to eat. Someone on our travels had recommended to Mrs Wombat, that we needed to find a place that has a sign out the front that says, (amongst other things), "my wife is a very good cook".
We found this little local eating place, (can't call it a restaurant), sit down with a hand written menu on recycled paper and are waiting to order a small Beer Lao, and some food.
We both agreed that this little place looked dubious at best, however there were plenty of tourists trooping in and out. We have now been sitting for ages, nobody has come near us. The people beside us finish and leave, the plates and uneaten food left sitting there. Next minute, 3 cats have jumped up onto the table and have begun eating the leftovers! Mrs Wombat leaps up and chases them away, 3 times before giving up. Other diners look on in amusement and she decides to ignore the hungry cats.
We sit and chat whilst looking for someone to serve us and pretend the cats are not eating right beside us. This is a family owned and run cafe and we then notice the family sitting and having dinner, whilst nonchalantly watching the cats and us! What the?????
Mrs Wombat packs up and declares it's time to look for new eats, we start walking out and run into the owner who has just arrived. We explained that we have been here for a long time, no one has served us and so we were leaving. 'No, no, I will fix', he said. We decided to stay and glad we did.
Mrs Wombat is still playing the safe card with a vegetable curry and I went with a buffalo curry, to say that they were good is an understatement. They were probably the best curries we have ever eaten!!.
Time to pay the bill and we wandered home singing, 'cats on the table ' (cats in the cradle), and laughing hysterically. We connected to the wifi to check what is happening in the world, called it a day as we have a 6.30am start again tomorrow.