Pak Beng (aka pakbeng), Laos, to Luang Prabang and another day on the rather crappy slowboat down the Mekong – 50yr Backpacker Pt 31

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After the Mekong Elephant Park we spent another day in Pak Beng. The smoke from the many fires burning around the country were just as terrible in the morning, so bad we again discussed trying to get out of Laos and into neighbouring Vietnam sooner than we had planned. The new Vietnamese e-visa application had still not been approved so we were going to have to spend at least another week in Laos, until the existing visa date. I had trouble trying to change the hotel booking in Pak Beng as well as I’d booked on one platform but I couldn’t change the booking on the same platform and the hotel owner couldn’t do anything unless we had first done something on the other platform, which didn’t work. So in the end we figured we could survive another night in the smokey haze, not waste money on another night’s accommodation, and head to Luang Prabang for the second part of our slow boat journey down the Mekong. I had initially so been looking forward to the slow boat. So far, my romantic notions had been dashed and mired by smoke, intense heat, the very uncomfortable seating and disappointment at the wanton dumping of rubbish in the river.

I’ve been reading Peter Frankopan’s The Earth Transformed. It goes into graphic and terrifying detail of how us humans are changing the Earth. As a tourist I can complain about the heat and smoke and do my ‘Karen’ thing, but for millions, probably billions,in the world it’s not about visiting a place for a few days, taking the photos in front of stuff and moving on the next day. While we were experiencing the devastating effects of climate change, we had the opulence to just jump on a boat (slow or fast), plane, train or bus to get out of the place. Billions will suffer with the heat, the fires, the smokes, the droughts, the floods, the pollution, and the waste when us tourists have been through. Our little trip is just a glimpse into that world. The average Laotian will have to live with this, mostly un-air conditioned, reality with no option to escape. As Frankopan illustrates, the world Earth doesn’t give preference to any one species it’s outlived lots of pioneering tiny little bacteria types, long stretches of huge T-rexs, brontosauruses, pteranodons, sabre tooth tigers, mammoths, Tasmanian tigers, dodos and all our ancestors like the neanderthals and all the other homos. The death of the homo sapiens through our own stupidity will go barely noticed in the universe. At least all the other species had an excuse, they didn’t have the ability to do anything about their own demise.

Of much less importance, though as a travel blogger I will of course mention it, is the impact on tourists like us carelessly venturing into countries suffering from the effects of climate change, and while complaining about it, and ironically contributing to it through our flights and consumption patterns back home, I fear climate change could be the literal death of many of us humans, perhaps taking much of the flora and fauna with us- though probably leaving a gap for something new to take over – perhaps the dinosaurs mark II! Apocalyptic I know for a travel blog, but travel opens your eyes to the issues the world is having and perhaps can lead us to doing something meaningful about it. If not, and we are all faced with the prospect of annihilation, I have been reading another book which I just finished called No Death, No Fear by Thich Nhat Hanh which I saw a Vietnamese guy reading. He ran a very small café on the opposite side of a little courtyard to our hotel in Ho Chi Minh, which was  down an alleyway, rather cool. He looked super chilled so I took a photo of his book and bought it on Amazon when I got back to Australia. Which in the chronology of this blog is still a few months away. So No Death, No Fear could offer the insight we need to accept the impermanence of the world and perhaps the dire situation we are all facing with climate change, plus waste and general non-Co2 equivalent related pollution and sustainability. I won’t quote it directly as I’m too lazy to get up and get it out of the bedroom – oh now I’m making myself feel bad so I will get up and get it! 

Animals, plants and animals all suffer because of the greed of human beings. The earth, the water and the air are suffering because we have polluted them. The trees suffer because we destroy the forest for our own profit. Some species have become extinct because of the destruction of the natural environment. Humans also destroy and exploit one another.

According to the teachings of Buddhism, all beings have the capacity of awakened nature. How can we stop ourselves from collapsing in despair? It is because Buddhas and bodhisattvas are present in the world. They are not somewhere else in a faraway paradise. Whether we are living or dying, they are here with us.


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Such insights might also help us address the issues that contribute to climate change and other environmental issues though with insights into greed, consumption, vanity, and lying to ourselves – such as “we’re doing our ‘bit’ to tackle climate change” which is code for we’re only doing enough to make ourselves feel good when in reality we’re all doing very little and are really just on a slow boat, down the Mekong, bags of rubbish floating past, smoke filling our eyes and lungs, and heat frying our brains.

The guy at the small café down the alleyway in Ho Chi Minh was what I’d imagine a bodhisattva to be. Quiet, focussed, humble. I took a look at TikTok recently and that’s the shit that makes me despair. Why do we need that stuff?

But I digress, back to our touristy trip down the Mekong River!

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It was way too hot to do anything while there in Pak Beng so in the morning I just did some blogging, at the stage where I thought I could actually keep it up while travelling! It’s almost exactly a year now since we were in Laos, and I only finished off the bits about my travels to Ireland, Europe, India and Thailand (well there’s still a little to go of that) from 1995, so this latest 50 year backpacker trip may still take a while to finish writing about. It will happen at some point though! Perhaps before the next trips we have planned: Mexico with my son Oskarito, and a 30 year plus anniversary (of my 1995 trip) to Ireland, Spain, Bruges, Germany, and maybe Tallinn, Estonia, plus Japan for the cherry blossoms which my kids and mum did back a few years ago now, and which I wrote about here. Though my wife thinks perhaps we should get ‘ a house’ before spending more money on travel. 😉

Back in Pak Beng, though it was way too hot to do anything, our new Canadian friend – new to being a friend rather than being a Canadian, which I think she had been all her life – decided to hire some guide to take her up to some Laotian village. We were like, good luck and we hope you don’t die along the way! After some blogging in the morning out in the breakfast area I decided to go for a walk as i was hungry and didn’t want to pay the hotel’s exorbitant prices, preferring the value of the one and only Indian place in town, which was at least a tenth of the price of the hotel. I made it as far as the Indian place on the main street, about a kilometre or two away.  When I got there the owner was shocked that I’d even gone that far warning that I should have basically avoided any activity during the day. My wife was sensible and stayed in the room with the aircon going full blast. This managed to just take the most extreme of the heat off of the room as the aircon unit was way too small for the space. Also the doors didn’t quite shut properly which meant not only did some of the heat escape but the smoke, particularly in the mornings and evenings made its way in. They were helping out the elephants across the river in the park though so they can be forgiven.

So the last day in Pak Beng was really totally uneventful. We did go down to the pool once the sun went down a bit. We could catch a glimpse of the Mekong from there which was nice. When the sun had disappeared we ventured down to Happy Bar where they offered us a free starter whiskey, that we politely tipped out onto the ground after realising from one sip it could probably fuel a moped, and then buying a few Beerlaos, a very tasty brew that is nowhere near as toxic as the free Laotioan whiskey (there may be classier/ safer ones about, dunno). The Beerlaos IPAs are especially tasty though not available everywhere. Buddhism and alcohol, I know, rather contradictory. We stayed a while at Happy’s, it was the low season and not many people had found the place. There were a few overnighters who had come on the slow boat from Huay Xie (or perhaps Luang Prabang) a few hours ago who we were likely to see again on the boat in the morning again.

The next morning we got up early and had our breaky. Another plate of papaya, dragonfruit, weak coffee and ever so slightly toasted toast with locally made jam that was rather nice. We let the hotel know that we were leaving an empty suitcase behind. My wife deciding she couldn’t watch me struggle up the slopes of the riverbanks another day risking dislocating my shoulders. We had had to economise our clothes a bit, to fit it the remaining bags. I had finally drunk all of my Capital Brewery beer (from  Canberra)  which I’d lugged around the world thus far – it was just a four pack. I also had to say goodbye to my koala mariachi shirt which was irretrievably soiled from the day trip to the Mekong Elephant Park, along with a backpack cover – which I thought the airlines would have made me use to cover my yellow backpack, which in the end they didn’t seem to care about. I think a pair of shoes and some other random items may have also been jettisoned as well. We had managed to get the contents of the large empty suitcase into my yellow backpack, some mochilas (small backpacks) and one smaller suitcase as well as some green bags we usually used for our supermarket and market shopping back in Australia.

We hugged our new-found Canadian friend and exchanged Insta details. As she was going against the flow of the river up towards Huay Xie, we wouldn’t have the pleasure of her company for another day. And then we got on the back of the hotel truck and headed down the hill to the boat area. As we still had 30 minutes before departing I quickly ran into town and grabbed a few bottles of water, some soft drink and snacks for the journey. Then we headed down another steep slope down the stairs to the river and the boats, thankfully without dislocating my shoulders.

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I feel the second day on the boat was not nearly as bad as the first. Firstly I think our romantic expectations had already been dashed, mine especially. I think my wife never held high hopes for the 2-day boat trip so she was about the same. The seats were marginally less uncomfortable and I didn’t notice any kids chucking empty plastic noodles containers overboard this time. I must say, all us foreign tourists kept all of their rubbish for later disposal, so we were good in that respect! There were still plenty of bits of plastic floating about from others and caught in the branches the dry season had exposed, but nowhere near as much as up Huay Xai way. The riverbanks, when not burning, were also a bit more interesting, more buffalo, more villages, more kids running about and swarming onto the edges of the boat selling bracelets when we stopped at villagers. We were also a bit better prepared, with more fluids to get through the day so we didn’t have to buy anything on the boat. I resisted buying a Beerlaos as it cost twice the price on the boat and stuck with what we had. We had a monk onboard who hopped on at one of the small villages which added a bit of tranquillity and colour to the boat. Our fellow travellers were all pretty chilled, also resigned to, or perhaps even excited for, another slow day on the river. 

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We went through signs of Laos’ modernisation with high bridges crossing the river at points. Perhaps it was just ‘A’ bridge but it was pretty impressive. There were also land reclamation projects on the side of the river with machines pilling up sand to build some sorts of buildings on. All financed by the Chinese I believe.

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In the afternoon the river got bendier. The hills became slightly greener and less on fire. We spotted a cave temple which was not far from Luang Prabang which was beautiful and which we should have probably visited when we were in Luang Prabang but couldn’t as my wife vowed to never set foot on a slow boat down the Mekong ever again. And eventually we made it. Two, almost, whole days on the river and we had made it. To lovely Luang Prabang. Well almost to lovely Luang Prabang. The ‘wharf’ which I put in quotation marks as it’s just really a very basic collection of wooden walkways with enough space for maybe a dozen boats – maybe double or triple that in the peak season. Maybe the ‘boat landing’ place is a better description. The boat landing place was, again due to the dry season lack of water, about 10-12 metres below the road. It felt more like 300 metres as I again struggled up the hill, even with the consolidated luggage which was only a couple of less kilos lighter than when we arrived in Pak Beng.

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On top, the lovely Luang Prabang was still nowhere in sight. Apparently they could take the boats all the way to lovely Luang Prabang itself, but instead they dock them about 30 minutes drive away to support the local, low level organised crime, taxi industry. I paid for a ticket on a collective taxi that was going into town. We were unlucky as they were still waiting for the taxi to fill up before heading off, so we had to sit around for a few minutes while everyone boarded. The collective taxi was one of those trucks with two of those long bench seats on either side and the luggage of all 12 occupants piled almost to the roof in the middle. So more of a back of a truck than a taxi.

‘I don’t think we’re all going to fit’, I’d said before getting on. To which a young backpacker  replied, ‘oh we’ve fit more than this in before!’ Bless the hearts of those young backpackers, for despite having a yellow backpack myself, I now realised I preferred a little bit more comfort in my 50s! Which my wife would probably have said ‘te lo dige’ – or I told you so in Spanish!

Once we were all stacked in and unable to move, we were told, or perhaps not so much told as it was it became evident, that we still weren’t going anywhere for a bit as we didn’t have a driver, so we all sat there for maybe 20-30 minutes waiting for a driver to show up. I mean perhaps they could have figured that out before they shoved us all in ike sardines, but het, that’s just me and my 50-year backpacker ways. The younger backpackers all seemed down with it and unperturbed. If I was their age I’d probably be fairly stoned by now and also lacking stress about the situation. We did get a chance to talk to a few of the young people, they’d been travelling here, there and everywhere. That’s the life. In fact the life we were living ourselves at that moment! And then suddenly a driver appeared, and we were off to lovely Luang Prabang. Though at that stage we were still unaware at just how lovely it was going to be.

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That’s for the next blog post. I’ve had enough today.

Oh, after bagging TikTok, I’ve started an account, it’s literally better than 95% of the shit I’ve seen on the platform so far: Get your laptops out and check it out!

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50-Year-Old Jovencito con mochilla, la Historia de Juanito’s Travels. Gotta get outta London BlogPt5

Have you ever had lettuce soup? I had it in Dublin. My friend Agatha Julia, from Barcelona, made it. I might get back to that at another time.


I was still in London. April may have started by then. It was certainly getting close to Easter.

I hadn’t slept in a bed for more than 3 hours since Bangkok, three or four nights ago now by my sleep deprived calculations. Last night I’d roughed it like a homeless person on the front lawn of my, well I was about to write friends but in the end they were just some people I knew in Australia who I thought might be home in London and whom I thought might have put me up for the night under a roof. In a bed. Not on the lawn in front of their flat on a freezing cold spring night in London.

Well, screw them. I now at least had $250 and my sister was going to put a further $500 AUD into my account some time today. You could pretty much halve that and get the value in British pounds. So maybe £375 give or take. That wasn’t going to get me far if I was going to stay in the UK.

It certainly wasn’t going to get me as far as Switzerland, where I imagine a hamburger cost $25 or something. It could possibly get me as far as Ireland though. I could find a job there. I had one contact I could try there whole lived on a farm in County Wexford.

I had just been back to the Irish embassy in London and was sitting again in Hyde Park, not far from Buckingham Palace. I’m pretty sure the Queen and Prince Phillip didn’t have to try and work out how to make £375 stretch 12 months, which was the original time I intended to spend in Ireland, or elsewhere in Europe. The whole being ripped off in Bangkok through a sapphire scam had kind of thrown a spanner in the works. Long term planning was off the cards at the moment. It was like I only had 32 cards anyway. Which might be enough for certain versions of euchre I think. Metaphors aside, and the reality of only having £375 meant I could only think of the immediate days ahead.

Before I finished this day though, I wanted a proper fucking bed, and a shower. I made my way to the backpacking area of Earls Court and used some of my £375 to get a room. A little room. But a room all to myself. Not in a dorm, I wasn’t sharing with other smelly hippies tonight.

It cost a bit extra. I was extremely low on cash. But fuck it, I’d spent the last night sleeping on a lawn in from of Newcastle Chick and British Guy’s flat – the same British Guy who’d fucking slept on my cozy floor, with my cozy extra bedding, eating my cozy rolled outs and vegetarian food in Fitzroy, Melbourne.

I’d spent the night before that sleeping on the floor of Heathrow Airport – for all of 3 hours after almost getting deported, and the night before that I managed just 3 hours sleep at a hotel in Bangkok after getting off a plane which engines had blown up, not once, but twice, up in the sky, where I could literally die.

So tonight I was going to have a room to my fucking self. I checked in, chucked my backpack on the ground, got out some fresh clothes, went and had a quick shower, pulling bits of grass and twigs from my hair due to my previous night of homelessness. I hadn’t had the opportunity for a shower for the last 3 days. What a simple indulgent pleasure to feel warm water running down your naked body. I hung my towel to dry outside the Earls Court window. I got out one of my Thai cigarettes and puffed out the window while I contemplated my next move. And reviewing what had gone wrong so far.

It’s all started to go pear shaped when I bought those fucking sapphires in Bangkok, so number 1 things was to get rid of them. They were bad luck. If I couldn’t sell them I’d just give them away. I was starting afresh so the sapphires had to go. Number 2, I had to get to Ireland, Ireland was the only place I couldn’t possibly survive for more than a few days at the moment. But my Irish passport was still in transit from Australia to the London Embassy so I needed to wait a few more days to collect it.

I couldn’t stay in this backpackers in Earls Court, especially in my fancy single room, that I thoroughly deserved after my ordeal, waiting for my passport though, especially in a private room, so I had to find somewhere that wasn’t going to cost me anything. I ruled out further attempts to contact Newcastle Chick and British Guy. I ran through my other options. Then it popped into my head. A Vipassana Meditation centre! Vipassana centres were run on donations. While I really liked to pay I could always do that later when I had more money.

I could try and go to the Vipassana Meditation centre and wait in the UK until my Irish passport arrived. After that I had Irish woman’s address. Her name was Nora. I’d never met her but she did used to live down the road from Christophe’s mum’s place in Tugun and that was a close enough link at this stage. I’m not sure why I had the meditation centre’s address, I think I’d planned to do a course somewhere along the way, perhaps in India. But, they also had a centre in the UK, in Herefordshire.

So I finished my fag, grabbed my sapphires and went out the door to find a pay phone. On the way I saw a church. I’m catholic – well more a catholic buddhist are thinking hippy – and I suspect this one was one of those protestant types where Anglicans go. It didn’t matter anyway, a protestant in hand is worth two Catholic Buddhists in the bush. I found whatever protestants called priests and I handed him a bunch of sapphires and I said: ‘Look these sapphires are real, they are just not worth that much, maybe you could sell them and give it to poor people or something.’ Or words to that effect. The protestant priest guy looked at the gems, looked at me with the stunned look of someone who’s just been handed 5 sapphires, and before he could say much more than a muttered ‘thanks’ I’d made my way out of the church and into a pay phone booth.

I called the UK Vipassana Centre’s number.

‘Hello’, I said, ‘I would like to do a course, I really need to do a course as soon as possible’. It was a meditation emergency!

‘Well, we have a 3-day course starting the day after tomorrow, but we usually only use that as an introductory course. Old students like yourself, who have done a course before would be better off doing a full 10 day course. We have a 10-day course starting in a week’.

‘Can I do the 3-day course and then the next 10-day course and volunteer in between time?’ The more meditation I did the better I thought, plus I’d never volunteered at a centre and that was kind of like paying them while I couldn’t afford to donate anything else.

They agreed to that and gave me some basic details on how to get there from London and said they’d see me there the day after tomorrow. So at least I had the next few weeks sorted out. I went back to the backpackers. As I entered the building one of the backpackers staff asked me whether I was the one who’d hung his towel out the window. I said yes. They said I couldn’t do that anymore. I said fine, whatever. I went up to my room, took my towel in and just sat on the bed and read a book for a while before going out and finding some cheap vegetarian food to eat, which I can’t recall at all and then going to sleep. It was one of the top ten sleeps I’d ever had in my life. A new level of deepness.

The next day I rose and had breakfast. There was an abundance of toast, tea, coffee, and bits of fruit. It was like paradise. My journey had kind of begun, a born again journey to replace the one I’d started a week or so ago which I now wanted to relegate to history. I guess Nietzsche said whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I preferred Buddha to Nietzsche nowadays, he’d said the source of all our misery is attachment. It was time to detach. It reminds me of a quote from cartoonist Michael Leunig : Let it go. Let it out. Let it all unravel. Let it free and it can be a path on which to travel. Leunig had been there at my first Vipassana meditation course about a year earlier.

I felt stronger after my fill of toast, Jam, margarine, more toast, tea, a few cups of tea, fruit and the such. I went into London again and did some touristy things, walking a bit along the Thames, looking at a few pigeons on statues and things, then it was back to my very own room again and more delightful sleep, in a bed and not in the garden outside of some supposed ‘friends’ flat who were now ghosting me.

The very own room bit really invigorated me. I should have been budgeting more and going for a dorm room but the spiritual lift it gave me was worth every extra penny or pounds. And I was still hardly spending much on anything else as you could find a bit of vegetarian pizza pretty cheap.

The next day I made my way to Herefordshire to begin meditating again. I took the train, it felt like going off to Hogwarts before I knew what Hogwarts was. We passed Oxford and I got to chatting a little with a professor who asked whether I was a student. No, just an Aussie on the way to a Buddhist retreat in Herefordshire.

The little pockets of forest along the way looked like the type Robin Hood might frequent. I went to school with someone who claimed to be related to Robin Hood. They might have been told the story by some Thai gem dealer as it turns out that even if Robin Hood existed (which he didn’t) he wasn’t exactly the sort of person one could relate their lineage to. I’m related to the Surtees family, they have some claim to the Tees river up in Durham. Here I was, just a few days in the United Kingdom and I was already being sucked in by their class wars, trying to prove I had some connection to a river I’d never been to to make myself think I’m all posh and fancy. I say the French Revolution didn’t go far enough and should have jumped the channel. But not to be. We do have the Queen’s bodiless head on our Australian coins though. And to be honest, if someone offered me a free castle on the Tees River at this stage it would be hard to refuse it.

I got off somewhere and got off and took a bus to a place which seemed to have a lot of constants in its name, which was surrounded by juicy pink pigs in muddy paddocks, where I was picked up in the vipassana minibus by one of the meditation centre’s volunteers.

The meditation phase of my journey had begun. The rest could wait. I needed to be in the moment now. To realise the impermanence of things. Both good things and bad things.