Our first stop in Laos was Huay Xai, a small town on the Thailand-Laos border. We stayed here for one night to break up the journey. Huay Xai is what I would describe as quite a sleepy town, with not much happening, except for a few hostels and restaurants filled with other tourists with the same idea as us. There was (of course) a temple on top of a hill looking down over the town and the Mekong River. On the other side of the river we could see the coast of Thailand. The Mekong River forms the border between Laos and Thailand from north to southwest Laos where it runs into Cambodia. The Mekong river is actually the twelfth longest river in the world and seventh longest in Asia- Fun fact of the day!
The following morning we hopped on a slow boat which would be our home for the next two days as we would be travelling along the Mekong River from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang. We would be spending 8-9 hours a board the slow boat on day one, staying overnight in a homestay in a small Laos village and then a further 5 hours on day 2 before arriving in Luang Prabang. The boat was much bigger than we expected it to be. It could accommodate at least 30 people, and there was only 5 of us so loads of room for activites!
We had lunch and dinner aboard the boat. Both meals were buffet style local Laos food, so lots sticky rice and coconut curries. (They eat sticky rice in Laos for breakfast, lunch and dinner!) We passed the time playing cards, reading and taking in the incredible views of the Laos country side.
At 6 pm we arrived at the village where we would be spending the night. The village consisted of about 20-30 small houses raised up from the ground by wooden stilts and lots of smaller huts for the livestock. Electricity has just recently been introduced into the village, and they get their water from a well in the middle of the village. We were warmly welcomed by the village children and women who were waiting for the men to come in from the rice fields for their dinner.
After the men had eaten we were brought into the village hall for a welcoming ceremony. We had no idea what to expect and could never of been prepared for what was about to happen! The whole village population was sitting around the hall waiting eagerly. We were invited to sit around a small round table in the centre of the room. On this table there was a banana and sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf for each of us and a stupa of flowers in the centre of the table. We were told to place both our hands on the table and the village chief would bless us. We did as we were told and the chief started chanting. Before we knew it, all the villagers started chanting at the same time. It sounded like they were all saying different things at different times. To be honest it was very difficult for us to keep a straight face.
When the blessing was finished we were offered some of their locally brewed rice wine, which is the Laos version of Poitín. Of course we did a shot of this, we didn’t want to be rude. However, one was not enough for the locals, apparently they have a rule that if you do one you have to do two; ‘one for each leg’. It burned the whole way down. We devoured the banana and sticky rice in an attempt to cool our poor stomachs down.
The next part of the ceremony was definitely the most bizarre. The village chief told us to turn around so that we are facing the villagers and hold but our arms out so the villagers could bless us. Next thing ya know the villagers start walking around the circle tying pieces of strings on both our wrists. As they did they were chanting and shaking our hands. At one stage we had 3 or 4 people around each of us. It was hilarious! When they had all finished we had about 20 strings on each arm. We looked ridiculous to be very honest. Thankfully to get the full impact of the blessing we just had to keep these all on for one night and then we could remove most of them, leaving just one string on for the rest of our travels.
To finish the ceremony they locals sang some traditional songs and then we had to get up and dance to the last song with them. It was definitely one of the strangest experiences that we have had so far, but also one of our highlights. After the ceremony we were shown to where we wold be spending the night. The local families take it in turn hosting foreigners in their home. The house where we would be sleeping had set up some beds in their living room with a mosquito net over them. It was very basic, but would do the job for one night.
The following morning we set off early for Luang Prabang. We had breakfast and lunch on the boat and sat back and enjoyed the last of the country side views before getting to our first big city in Laos.
On the way we stopped at the Pak Ou Caves, which is two caves filled with Buddha statues. Some of these statues are believed to have been in this cave for hundreds of years. After exploring these we continued the final 25 kms of our boat trip to Luang Prabang.
Róisin & Bernard