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Wednesday 26 Jun 2013
Pak Beng, Laos

Oh, the guilt!

We had an early start the next morning, beginning with a short walk down to the immigration office by the jetty. Here we were stamped out of Thailand and borded a narrow boat to cross the Mekong to Huay Xay and the Laos immigration office. Three of us had to get our visas. Thankfully we had crossed early so there was only one person in front of us in the queue, a very odd Egyptian who kept doing all the things you shouldn't do at border crossings - chat with the officials, ask to take their photo, try and make jokes. I think they gave him the visa just to get rid of him! We just kept our distance and waited til he'd gone. By the time we got our passports back there were a good 30 backpackers crammed into the small space trying to work out which forms to complete and which queue to stand in. I'm glad we had a guide with us.  We also met up with our local guide, Lit.  It is illegal for foreign tour guides to work in Laos so we had to have a local guide with us at all times.  Mike had to pretend not to be guiding us through immigration and claimed he just enjoyed travelling a lot - his passport is packed full of Laos, Thailand and Cambodian visas from the last 6 months! 

We stocked up on beer and snacks and bought a couple of polystyrene ice chests, then piled into a tuktuk for the short trip down to the jetty where our private boat was waiting. Going on the public boat would have meant meeting more people - most of those backpackers in immigration for a start - but having a private boat meant we could spread out and relax. There were just the five of us in a 60m barge, plus the boat crew who cooked us an impressive lunch each day. They also had a 9 month old boy with them who whizzed up and down the boat in his walker and loved watching what we were doing. We passed the days getting to know each other, playing cards and dice, listening to music on their big speaker (and watched the little boy dancing happily in his bouncer) and watching the green hills and rocky crags of Laos slip past as we drifted down the mighty Mekong river.

Our first night on the river was spent at Pak Beng. Before we'd even fully docked a gang of small kids leapt on and fought over our rucksacks, carrying them up the steep shingle river bank and up the hill to our guest house. It was painfully embarrassing to allow tiny 10 year olds to break their backs under our 18kg rucksacks, but they would not be helped and refused to allow us to have our bags back. One kid kept flexing his biceps to show me how strong he was, despite being bent double under the weight of my rucksack. We felt so guilty that we paid them double the usual rate, which is no doubt what they wanted anyway. Kye accidentely gave one kid a 50,000 kip note instead of a 5,000 kip note (they are very similar colours). The boy was gone in a flash and the others clamoured around Kye for their share. They are certainly hard working and deserved every penny.

Our boat captain, Mr Wan Dee, and our Laos guide, Lit, invited us to try some barbecued goat with them before dinner.  We sat on a balcony over looking the river.  The food was delicious - grilled slices of juicy meat served with a bowl of washed herbs and some spicy chili dip.  I tucked in and had several helpings.  Krysia was less convinced about eating goat but knew she had to at least try it to be polite.  She put one piece in her mouth and exactly on cue we heard a goat start bleating just below us.  Her face was an absolute picture!  There was a goat tied up just below our balcony and it proceeded to bleat everytime she tried to eat.  The Laos tradition is for one person to buy a bottle of drink and then pour a small glass to pass around.  Each person drinks the glass dry and gives it back for the next person's drink to be poured. We got through several bottles of Beer Lao and several plates of bbq goat before we moved on up the hill for our dinner.  I tried a traditional Lao dish called Laap - minced meat fried with onions, chilli and lots of herbs, eaten with handfuls of sticky rice.  It was delicious and I managed to eat most of it despite the goat I'd already eaten.

We were joined by some more backpackers from the public boat.  Lit challenged them to try one of the small green chillis he was eating with his dinner.  I recognised them from my experience in Chiang Mai so I wasn't going to be fooled twice.  Natalie on the other hand wanted to try them.  I thought she was trying to challenge me, so I just pretended to eat mine while she bit into hers and chewed it up...  There was a short pause before she reacted.  Even though she was red-faced and gasping, she was still handling it a lot better than the guys at the other end of the table - until she wiped her eyes. Ouch! I got the blame even though she was the one who had challenged me in the first place and Mike nicknamed us the Chilli Sisters for the rest of the trip.



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