The border is threefold and imposes multiple customs procedures on us.
Even so, we got dispatched from the Thai side sooner than we expected. When crossing to the Laos bank, we go back a few kilometers on the river.
In Huay Xai, an anxious crowd of opportunistic agents and sellers awaits us. We ignore the pressure as much as we can.
We were thus able to be among the first to arrive at the local authorities' offices and obtain stamps in our passports. Upon exit, the agents return to the load.
They know by heart what semi-accidental tourists come for. Only two reasons could bring Europeans, Americans and Australians to these dubious corners of Southeast Asia.
The Golden Triangle extends into the surrounding mountains and is one of the most active opium and heroin producing regions in the world. Leaving aside that any of the teenagers would come to close illicit and risky deals, only one hypothesis made sense: that Luang Prabang had become an unavoidable scale.
The river trip, which lasted almost two days and was a little tiring, did not even prove to be the only option. Airplanes depart regularly Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, to Luang Prabang.
Even so, the price difference and the epic delight of traveling down the Mekong through deep valleys and tribal villages was reason enough for all of us to take the slow boat. The journey, however, had its own setbacks.
“This is dangerous. Go much faster and safer in our boats, I guarantee you!” guarantees the representative of a small family business in speed boats with powerboat visuals, while all the others make similar promises.
Travelers might as well leaf through their Lonely Planets, Rough Guides and Routards full of advice, post-it notes and doodles. But they are not prepared either for the real situation or for deciding under the threat of so many lobbies.
Down the Mekong and Laos Below
As if that were not enough, only apparently minor issues disturb us. “Cushions, cushions” proclaim women protected from the tropical sun. The suggestion generates a new wave of indecision. To have or not to have bought those paraphernalia Made in China will come to have enormous significance.
That same morning we embarked on a sort of floating green-yellow parallelepiped. Like an international game of chairs, passengers compete fiercely for seats.
Those who wake up too late for the pastime immediately begin distilling next to the furnace fed by the old two-stroke engine and go crazy with their tuk tuk tuk deafening.
Over the course of two days, the winding route takes place at ridiculous speed, with repeated stops to collect peasants who appear out of nowhere.
The new passengers bring on board inevitable rural cargo: large bunches of vegetables, sacks and sacks of who knows what, chickens, rabbits and even goats.
Outsiders scrutinize newcomers from top to bottom. With the exception of one or another victim of excessive inconvenience, they are excited about their departure. Everyone travels in discovery mode.
And any novelty combats the growing monotony of navigation in an already diminished Mekong that the dry season continued to shrink.
Pakbeng's Providential Scale
Night creeps in. It becomes increasingly difficult for the helmsman and his assistants to identify the rocks and shallows.
Without warning, we saw a village built on stilts at the top of a rocky slope. Shortly afterwards, the vessel we are on joins a long sequence of replicas already anchored at the riverside of the village.
We had arrived at Pakbeng. It was said on board that this was the middle of the journey.
Most foreigners were already thinking of the reward of a hot meal and a refreshing sleep. As with the initial boarding, they also had to put up with the dispute between the owners of small local inns for the profit of their stays.
The night passed in three strokes, shortened by an early departure that the dense fog ended up postponing. Late, still a little sleepy, we returned to the same seats as the day before, ready for another day on the Mekong.
Eight hours and many overtaking speed boats afterwards, we are all eager again to return to earth.
Finally, Landing in Luang Prabang
Approaching the city on the high banks of the Mekong appears like a mirage. With just 16.000 inhabitants, Luang Prabang is, to the detriment of the capital Vientiane, the must-see destination in Laos.
The surrounding mountain scenery, the approximately thirty-two Buddhist temples that, despite the various wars that ravaged the country, remain standing and the omnipresent French colonial architecture conferred, in 1995, the status of UNESCO World Heritage.
They justify the presence and permanent work of French, Japanese and Lao architects.
Isolated from the capitalist frenzy of its Southeast Asian neighbors, Luang Prabang breathes pure air.
It radiates calm and spirituality, agitated only by visitors who, depending on the rainy season of the year, arrive one after the other.
The Francophone Legacy of Luang Prabang
Arranged along a peninsula at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, the historic and cultural heart of the city boasts, even today, the refinement of the houses Lao wood and bamboo and French colonial brick and stucco buildings.
On the main street, Thanon Sisavangvong, almost all of the ground floors have given way to cafes, restaurants, bars and other small businesses, tastefully decorated and, here and there, anachronistic French-speaking influences, like the embarrassed Little Prince with which we found ourselves in a picturesque creperie.
In addition to the introduction of electricity and the growing number of cars and other vehicles, rush hour continues to occur when students leave schools and the streets are filled with kids in white and blue uniforms, on foot and on bicycles.
During the remaining hours of the day, it is the orange tone of the monks' clothing that stands out the most and embodies the strongest brand image of Buddhism.
Wherever we go, we pass by temples and sanctuaries, some true complexes that group together elegant and grandiose buildings adorned with noble materials.
Hundreds of religious apprentices inhabit them in community, receiving sacred teachings and subjecting themselves to the shared obligation of earthly tasks: taking care of temples and surrounding gardens, washing clothes and dishes, preparing ceremonies.
We find the same passengers on the Mekong boat again at Talat Dala, the city's market where dozens of Hmong, Mien and Tai women gather every day, skilled sellers of blankets, rugs and other distinctive artifacts of their tribes.
From Thanon Sisavangvong Avenue to the Mekong's Tropical Rim
Lunch time arrives and the heat hits like never before. We join the visitors from the four corners of the world who exchange adventures from their last trips on Thanon Sisavangvong avenue and we share two traditional dishes accompanied by the emblematic Bear Lao.
An hour later, a few meters down, we return to the precious shade of the coconut trees on the waterfront street.
From there, we watch the Lao kids play on old inflated inner tubes and the colorful boats that dock and set sail. Until the sluggish flow of the river unsettles us and we are on our way again.
We move in the opposite direction and come across the hill of Phu Si, which is also full of temples. Hundreds of steps up, Wat Tham Phu Si appears.
This is, of all, the most panoramic spot in Luang Prabang and countless sunset worshipers gather here every afternoon.
While recovering from the climb, the first to arrive go around the temple, and enjoy the surrounding landscape. Then, they take their place at a mini-stand and divide themselves between contemplating the star and commenting on the fatigue of the next ones to conquer the long staircase to the mount.
The sunset turns out to be impressive and elicits a collective round of applause. Gradually, those lucky ones on vacation or on a sabbatical return to the bustle of the central streets that are already waiting to serve them dinner.
Once again at the table, we heard from other backpackers good-natured remarks about accumulated fatigue and expressions of admiration for the mystical beauty of Laos.
One Australian, in particular, shows great difficulty in conforming: “Well, you're right. But how is it possible for a country like this to have had its back turned to the world? "