Within a couple of hours, we arrived at the village of Ban Houy Pha Lam – the first stop on our Mekong River slow boat trip. We followed Choy up a muddy slope into the quiet community of wooden, stilted houses and roaming chickens. As Choy dictated a brief history of the town – a town that just two years ago had no electricity – a group of teenage boys passed us by, ignoring our presence.
We moved further into the village, where pigs, dogs and goats wandered freely and curious children peered at us intently through dark doorways and from behind trees. Villagers bathed in the clean – but not potable – water that is piped into small platforms; the new source of water creating public squares of sorts. Houses in the village don’t have running water, yet – quite perplexingly – satellite dishes and mobile phones were prevalent.
Similar to small villages around the world, there was a school, a community gathering building and a rustic mini-market that was housed in a wooden shack and sold basic individiual necessities – like toilet paper, flour, sugar, oil and soap – that were broken out from larger economy packs.
We arrived in Pakbeng, Laos – the halfway point in our journey – with plenty of light left in the day. We scattered to our hotels, as none of us booked at the same one, and rejoined Choy a half hour later. He showed us around the city that seemed to exist solely for the purpose of accommodating travelers taking the Huay Xai to Luang Prabang slow boat.
The main road is a cluster of simple guesthouses and restaurants. Kids, dogs and chickens played in the streets and couples stood in the late afternoon shade playing badminton. At the top of the street, Choy guided us through the local produce market, where women sold fresh vegetables, herbs and rat-on-a-stick from blankets spread in a row on the ground.
We walked to the town’s small temple, which was slightly faded, but still striking in detail. Choy shared more about Buddhism, telling us about when he was a novice monk and how all males are expected to don the saffron robes for a period of their lives. Two young novice monks, probably not yet teenagers, watched us from the temple window but disappeared when it was time to begin chanting.
On our own, we wandered through Pekbang to the riverside Peace Bar that has the reputation of being the only bar in the city. Before we had even descended the steps, the bartender was handing us shots of local Lao Lao whiskey, which we would later learn is a custom in Laos. We were the only patrons in the outdoor bar, perhaps due to it being shoulder season or maybe because of the early hour. We chased our shots with a round of beers and bobbed our heads to the cliché Bob Marley soundtrack and then retraced our steps to one of Choy’s recommended restaurants on the main street for dinner. Greeted with another round of Lao Lao, we sipped this one slowly while waiting for our traditional Laos meal of chicken and bamboo shoots.