Wonders await as Pakbeng transforms itself from a stopover to a destination in its own right.
Forested mountains in wilderness proved highlighted of my eight-hour ride aboard a Shompoo Cruise to “Destination Pakbeng”. Some describe Pakbeng as little more tham an overnight stop on the Thailand-Luang Prabang Mekong cruise. But I was getting a treasure map from Jai at the newly opened Le Grand Pakbeng Resort. It revealed tourism gems and real gold.
“We just introduced The Khmu Trail to tourists,” he said. “Mr Pheng, a local Khmu, will guide us.”
The Khmu Trail
Morning began with coffee in silence on the villa’s terrace. The Mekong flowed below. Mountaintops peaked above a rim of fog. Passengers hurried to catch cruises. I relaxed until 10:00.
Our truck turned onto the Khmu Trail just outside town. The rough mountain road followed the Sengkham River past wandering livestock: goats, cows, chickens, ducks, and an albino buffalo.
We arrived at Houay Sengkham Village to find a stuck truck blocking the road. Never mind. The steep riverbanks presented green swaths of mountain rice awaiting harvest.
We joined a woman stripping rice from stems that Pheng modified into flutes. He then challenged me to husk rice with a foot-powered wooden contraption.
Pheng explained “These folks grow enough rice for the village, and harvest in September. In November, when the river is low, they pan for gold.”
He said that lorry had come from a jungle mine. We walked past it to Souksay Village, and ate noodle soup. One man fished in the river. Soon, they’d all be here with pans.
Mekong Elephant Park
We put the Khmu Trail on hold. I moved to the Sanctuary Pakbeng Lodge, and watched a Mekong sunset from my terrace.
After dinner, I joined Ben, the general manager, at the Moonlight restaurant’s lounge. The boat to Sanctuary’s Mekong Elephant Park would leave at 10:00 a.m.
A distant trumpeting elephant interrupted my morning coffee by the Mekong. Attention turned to the pachyderms bathing across the river.
The boat brought me to Wendy, the park manager, waiting at the sandy bank. She led the way to Meiping and adopted mother, Meikhram. Meiping nudged us with her trunk for attention. We locked eyes; I melted. She was a giant cuddly dog.
We trekked with Meiping to a village blacksmith and textile shop, and up a mountain path. She was a pet, who constantly stopped to eat flora. Walking with elephants easily beats riding. We were starting to bond.
Back to the Khmu
Pheng telephoned during lunch. “Can you ride on my motorcycle?” Sure! We went straight to Ban Kham to complete the trail. “This is how people in Luang Prabang lived 20 years ago.”
We walked over chat to an old topless woman smoking a cigar. A gang of 17 children followed us. One rolled a tyre with a stick. We watched girls pounding massive pestles into mortars of rice, before continuing to a burial site marking the trail’s end.
A night at the Luang Say Lodge maintained the yesteryear atmosphere. A giant wooden veranda served as reception, restaurant, bar, and lounge. The comfortable bungalows sat on the riverside.
I relaxed with my final morning coffee at Destination Pakbeng. Just an overnight on a cruise? You could call it an oasis on the Mekong.
Pakbeng is an 8 hour slow boat cruise from Luang Prabang
or from Houay Xay. Lao Airlines also has daily flights to
Oudomxay, and then it is only a 3-4 hour drive to Pakbeng.
Text by BERNIE ROSENBLOOM
Photograph by PHOONSAB THEVONGSA & BERNIE ROSENBLOOM