There was a short taxi ride to the port where our slowboat was docked, in the driving rain that literally appeared overnight. Taxis in Laos were nothing more than open backed vans, so they did next to nothing in terms of keeping us dry, and this wasn’t the usual Asian rain. This was cold rain. It was like winter had arrived overnight. I’d just escaped the British weather, but this felt like a November morning. Of course it was very early and the sun hadn’t quite come up yet, but a quick check of the temperature told us we were in the throes of a storm at about 8oC. My non-water-proof jacket was doing a fine job of getting me wet, and the strategically placed planks of wood on the wet and slippery riverbank were not helpful for me and my wheelie bag. I ended up having one of the guys helping me, and then as soon as we got on the boat, we had to take our shoes off. There were fleecy blankets on board, so we all got out of our wet outer layers, grabbed a blanket to curl up with to get a few hours more sleep. As I’m only little, and I managed to get a double seat all to myself, I was able to lie down and have a decent kip.
It took a really long time for my hoodie to dry, and my newly purchased scarf and hat came in very handy to keep me warm. The temperature did not increase as the day went on, and in the open water, there was an uncomfortable breeze. When I wasn’t sleeping, I watched one of the guys drawing landscapes from our trip to date – Ba Ho waterfalls, Halong Bay, Sihanoukville and Vang Vieng. We cracked out the playing cards and tried to keep our minds off of the cold, to be honest, it wasn’t a bad way to spend a few hours.
By the time we got to our village homestay in Pakbeng for the evening, the rain had gotten worse. I felt like I’d literally just dried out, but I’d also learned from the morning and stuffed my hoodie into my bag, layered up, tied my hair up and suitable packed my little bag so I didn’t have to manoeuvre my wheelie bag on and off the boat. The walk from the riverbank to the village was maybe 10 minutes, and we got drenched again. Half of the group just took sanctuary in the Chief’s house all wrapped up in their layers whilst the other half of us (including the injured one and the new Guy) embraced the thought of a rainy tour of the Pakbeng, which is likely the first village of its kind. By this, I mean that the three main ethnic groups – Khmu, Hmong and Laos, tend to live in villages with only their own kind, speaking their own dialects and maintaining their own traditions, but Pakbeng has all three living together happily. It was nice to see the different types of houses all next to each other, even if it was through rivulets of rain running down the umbrella I’d nicked from one of the girls who decided to skip the tour.
There were pigs and chickens everywhere, I spotted a couple of goats too. We saw the school and asked our local guide about schooling in such a remote village. They had a programme with a little bit of English tuition thrown in, and some of the kids manage to go to the city to study at university, so they’re doing pretty well. The fact that G Adventures supports the village by allowing us to visit, and donating school supplies has clearly helped them no end.
When we arrived back with the rest of the group, we could feel that tensions were running quite high. Though most of us were from Europe or Canada where temperatures often fall below 0oC, this was a very different kind of cold that neither we nor the villagers were prepared for. It was a freak storm, there was snow in Sa Pa, which is in North Vietnam, where cattle were dying, and there is no such thing as central heating in this part of the world. We knew it was going to be a really cold night, and another freezing day on the slowboat the following day, so everyone tried their best to mentally prepare and keep smiling. It was also another birthday the next day, the poor dude who took a severe tumble in Luang Prabang the night before, so we wanted to make it as special as the other birthdays on the trip.
The meal at the homestay didn’t disappoint, just as all of the traditional meals on the trip. With an abundance of steamed rice, curries, vegetables and soups, we were not left hungry, and the warmth we got from eating all together was very much welcome! After we finished eating, our local guide produced a massive bucket, not dissimilar to a 5 litre emulsion paint bucket with three bamboo sticks poking out of it. They were straws. The contents of the bucket were rather pungent – a sludgy mess of beer and fermented rice. We were told it was local whisky, and a little bit of research later I found this was the local moonshine called Lao-Lao. We were told this liquid was a little on the strong side, and the smell told us the same, but it was a really good drink. It was super sweet, a little fizzy, which I guess comes from the lager, but it was also a little woody – a bit more like sherry than whisky. It kind of warmed you up a little bit, or maybe that was just a placebo effect. Stories began coming out from groups in the past who had drank maybe a little more than was sensible, and so we were all good, and kept it to a minimum. I managed to get some of the guys to pose with Mr Minion too… I’m not going to lie, he’s had a brilliant trip, and he’s a lump of plastic.
We divided ourselves up dutifully into same-sex groups, the irony there being that we had a gay guy on the trip with us, so there were many spooning, forking and knifing jokes being bandied around which were wholly entertaining. We were due to leave the homestay at 5:30am in order to get to the Thai border at Chiang Kong at a reasonable hour.