Seeing Laos like a native . . .from its rivers

Everybody told us the same thing: There might not be a more exotic, interesting, beautiful, and relaxing -not to mention inexpensive - river trip in the world than in northern Laos.

So one November, my wife, Carrie, and I cashed in some frequent-flier miles, bought a Lonely Planet guidebook, and left New York. And after five flights that spanned 13,000 nautical miles, we and a friend were on a dock in Louangphrabang, a charming Laotian village that looks like southeast Asia but feels like Florence, Italy.

That's when we got our first look at the vessel for the first leg of our two-day jaunt into the Laotian jungle. It was an 18-foot canoe shaped like a cigarette racing boat and equipped with a monstrous 600-horsepower engine. The boat looked like a James Bond special to us, but for Laotians it was just a taxi.

Cushioned helmets with plastic face shields lay on the seats. Chan, the guide we had hired through Sodetour, a travel company in Louangphrabang, said the helmets weren't, as we assumed, for protection from the dangers posed by cruising sinewy rivers at 60 m.p.h.

Rather, the helmets would shield our heads from the wind and our ears from the engine's deafening roar.

Laos has limited airplane service and the world's lowest highway density, so rivers are the main channels of transportation. We were the only non-Laotians on every waterway except the Mekong River.

Seconds after our speedboat left Louangphrabang, we were at full throttle, rocketing up the Mekong. I felt like Evel Knievel and Marco Polo wrapped into one.

Whenever we passed another boat, I waved, and, amazingly, every time somebody waved back with a smile.

After speeding along for 20 minutes, we stopped at a tiny beach. I saw a few straw huts nestled amid the towering banyan and bamboo trees. "Let's go say hello," says Chan.

After crossing the beach and climbing a short path, we were in Ban Xang Hai, a village with 25 small houses. All handmade, the homes stood on stilts and had bamboo walls and straw roofs, a typical Laotian design.

In the 10 feet between the floor and the dusty ground were looms on which women crafted radiant silk scarves, table-runners, and area rugs.

Puppies, chickens, turkeys, and a few pigs roamed among the children who had come out of their homes to see us.

The Laotian government didn't open the country to tourism until 1989, and today the few people who visit usually stick to Vientiane and Louangphrabang. So Americans walking through places like Ban Xang Hai are viewed with wonderment, especially by children.

Our next stop was the Pak Ou caves, 30 minutes upriver. Here, in a towering limestone cliff, were two huge caves, each filled with hundreds of Buddha carvings - some as small as your finger, some the size of a human. The caves have been a revered Buddhist shrine for more than 300 years.

After Pak Ou, we turned right onto the much narrower Ou River, which heads due north. On the Mekong, I had thought we were in the middle of nowhere. The Ou, however, made the Mekong feel like Times Square on New Year's Eve.

The scenery was breathtaking. The Ou is surrounded by steep, lush mountains with trees as tall as New York City apartment buildings.

At 12:30 p.m. we glided to a stop under a bridge. "Lunchtime," announces Chan. We sat down in front of a small guest house by the bridge. The chicken and beef with ginger, accompanied by fried eggs, sauteed vegetables, and sticky rice, was sumptuous.

Toward the end of lunch, a rickety blue bus pulled up. It was as long as a Good Humor truck and open in back with passenger benches on both sides.

The bumpy three-hour bus ride took us through the mountains, which are speckled with tiny roadside villages.

Around 4 p.m., the bus stopped in front of a small house. As the five Laotian passengers calmly exited the bus, Chan announced that this was our home for the night. We were in Pakxeng, at a residence that doubles as a guest house/restaurant/bus stop/minimart.

It was a couple of hours before dinner, so I ventured down the main (and only) road. Soon I was surrounded by a pack of kids, who led me to a dirt field where some boys were kicking a little soccer ball made from dried leaves. I saw a bamboo stick on the ground. "Baseball," I thought. "They'll love it."

They did.

Following my instructions, one boy, pitching, hurled his left leg skyward like Dwight Gooden. Another boy cocked his left elbow like Joe Morgan. When one boy smashed a home run, I yelled, "Sammy. Sammy." The kids didn't speak English, and definitely hadn't heard of Sammy Sosa, but they nonetheless laughed along with me.

We spent the next three hours with Mr. and Mrs. Sayathe and their four children. We all enjoyed a delicious dinner of pho (flat rice-noodle soup) with fresh chicken and sauteed vegetables. After dinner, we helped the kids with their school lessons in French and English . They taught us Lao and we taught them tick-tack-toe.

At 11 p.m., Chan showed us to our resting area for the night, a large room adjacent to the kitchen/living room/dining room. Our beds, slim mattresses, were covered with bug netting (even though there were no bugs).

The Sayathes slept in the same room, behind a wall of patched-together blankets. I was awed by the fact that all six of them slept together, side by side, in what, to us, looked like such meager accommodations. But they seemed at peace, joyous, and satisfied.

On our trip back to Louangphrabang, our vessel wasn't a speedboat, but one of the larger and much slower ferries. On board with us were several parcels shaped like potato sacks, and two elderly Laotian passengers.

Several times we stopped for men waving us over to the side of the river. Each time our driver would exchange some money for a parcel or two.

"The men are from the hill tribes," Chan explains. "They walk two, three days, down to the river. Then they wait for a boat to sell their goods, including sticky rice, crafts, chicken, and scarves."

Our most interesting stop of the day came after lunch in Ban Sop Gec. Amid the primitive homes in this tiny village were two charming Buddhist temples. Close by were ruins of brick buildings, charred and pock-marked. "Bullet holes," Chan says. "This area was hit bad in the war."

Late in the afternoon, with the sun setting over the Mekong, we pulled back into the boat dock in Louangphrabang. We had been gone only two days, but it seemed like a lifetime. Our only wish was that we had taken a longer trip. Next time we'll spend at least four or five fascinating days cruising Laos's rivers.

*For more information: Sodetour travel agency. Phone 011-856-71212092 from the US.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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