Two days ago I caught a bus from Chiang Mai, Thailand, to the north-eastern border town of Chiang Khong. The next day, I exited Thailand and crossed the Mekong River (the same Mekong that comes out a couple thousand kilometers later in the south of Vietnam) to Huay Xai, Laos, where entry was much easier than I had expected. I'm now in a country that occasionally flies the hammer and sickle. I then spent two days taking the slow boat down the Mekong River from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang. This is a very popular route, as the alternatives are apparently very poor - bus travel is nearly impossible, and if you wanted to fly you wouldn't enter at Huay Xai. The other alternative is speed boats, which do the trip in six hours instead of two days, but they cost more and have a bit of a reputation for high speed impact with stationary underwater objects leading to injury or death. Besides, it's hard to take a picture when you're going that fast and wearing a life jacket and helmet.
The Mekong is a shallow (at this time of year, anyway) fast-flowing river in a narrow and steep valley. There are rocks as you see above pretty much the entire way, and above them is what a fellow passenger and I declared to be "machete territory," ie. nearly impenetrable jungle. It's beautiful.
We stayed the night in the very small town of Pak Beng, which probably derives 99% of its income from the daily tourist influx from the slow boats. The Bounmy Guest House was ... interesting. If it's what Lonely Planet considers to be one of the better guest houses, I would have hated to see the worst. I slept okay under my mosquito net, but the cold water shower in the dark the next morning (electrical power is by generators only in Pak Beng, at the whim of the management) was more than I could handle - northern Laos is cooler than anywhere I've been so far. It's a wonderful change of pace, but in this case it was a bit difficult. On the other hand, several of us convened at Hasan's for dinner. Why Hasan puts so much effort into food for people who will never come to his restaurant again, I don't know. The food was superb - I had Baigan Barta and Butter Naan (it's an Indian restaurant). We also had our first taste of the national beverage, Beer Lao. Beer Lao has a reputation across Asia - a light and refreshing beer that's cheap, very popular, and very good.
Several people have told me that what I'm doing is "the trip of a lifetime" or "you're living my dream, man" as one guy put it. How many people can say that they've taken a two day slow boat down the Mekong? (My analytic answer to that is "about 100 foreigners a day in the high season," but it was a rhetorical question ...) It was fantastic, I'm very glad I did it. And now I'm in Luang Prabang, which appears to be another foreigner hub like Chiang Mai, very quiet and laid-back. I think I'll enjoy it here.