Saturday, March 26, 2016

Through the Xayaboury dam: Luang Prabang to Pak Lai

This “bikes on boat” trip was the prolongation of a first cruise from Houai Xai to Luang Prabang. As there are no scheduled tourist services along this stretch, it is by far less travelled. Arguably, this itinerary is more scenic, of historical importance and loaded with mystery and controversy.

After Luang Prabang, Pak Lai, our sailing destination, was a full day downriver, and the boat had to leave in the early morning hours. 

The Mekong river downstream from Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang, the Laos’ former Royal capital dominates the river’s history along this sector. It was greeted with Henri Mouhot’s visit, the first western adventurer to call in this region (see trip report) and by stopovers of most others Mekong explorers.

The Henri Mouhot shrine near Luang Prabang

Morning alma round "tak bat" in Luang Prabang
Every day, early birds are rewarded with the colorful sight of the monks’ “tak bat”; controversial when it is pushed to commercial absurdity, but serene and genuine at remote spots, where locals sincerely perpetuate a timeless tradition.

France wrote important pages of it’s Indochina history along this tumultuous Mekong stretch, when August Pavie saved the Laos King’s life. Later on, mystery was added when the “La Gandière” gunboat sank in profound abysses in the Thong Soum rapids, probably loaded with a valuable treasure. As the wreckage is trapped in a Mekong fault, covered with sand layers,  protected by swirling waters and, possibly, powerful spirits, it will bury its secrets for some more time.

Turbulent Mekong river

Deadly rapids

About six hundred French river markers still punctuate the Middle Mekong waterscape. They help the boatmen, even so, if submerged, at high water levels, they are also hazards.

French river marker

The new Pak Khone - Thea Deua bridge is an essential link along Laos national highway #4, it replaces the intermittent ferry-boat operation with a permanent connection between Luang Prabang and Xayaboury. Financed with a South Korean loan, it was opened to the traffic on October 12th, 2013

(See also GT-Rider trip report: 

Dangerous rapids before the new bridge
The new Pak Khone - Thea Deua bridge
Passing the Pak Khone - Thea Deua bridge

As for the controversy along this sector, headlines are made by the nearly completed Xayaboury dam. It is not only opposed by ecologic resentments against heavy human environmental interventions, it also has a political litigation; its construction breaches a moratorium signed by the riparian countries.

Rapids before the dam constructin site

Xayaboury dam construction
Cranes on the Xayaboury dam construction site

The boat had to manœuvre around the construction site and be moored for a while. As we got stuck on the rocky rim,  volunteers jumped in the muddy flow to push the barge away; no harm, just drenched trousers.

Drenched trousers to push the boat away from the rim

Watching the river from the boat’s stern, while cruising through narrow paths, along dark jutting boulders, menacing cutting rocks and through powerful whirlpools, we got a good impression of the river’s power and the explorers’ fear along these waters.

Taking pictures from the boat's stern

Nowadays, there is only few navigation along this river area; scheduled touristic traffic is nonexistent, the large commercial shipping projects have been frozen and only small local barges and fishermen pirogues are still sailing in these waters.

Local mekong transportation

All in the same boat

Braving the jagged rocks and the swirling waters, riparian are busy to catch their meal out of a strong flow. The Mekong river is a generous source of proteins and the largest inland fishery in the World. A vast majority of the population rely directly of its largess for their livelihood,

Fishing on jagged rocks

“Running for more than 2,600 miles, the Mekong River produces fish when it flows free and clean electricity when it’s dammed. Therein lies Southeast Asia’s dilemma”.
(From: “Harnessing the Mekong or Killing It?” ­ National Geographic Magazine, June 2015)

Our skilled boatman, and his reliable slender barge, instill a sense of security while cruising down to Pak Lai, an interesting itinerary along one of the most challenging Middle Mekong stretches. 

Our attentive captain

The remaining itinerary toward Pak Lai is laid-back and less eventful; passing a couple of hamlets, crossing impressive karst boulders and rocks crowned with the ubiquitous trapped logs, it is a relaxing cruise, conducive to daydreaming and drowsiness.

Calm Mekong

Ubiquitous logs trapped on boulders 

Karst boulder in the afternoon light

The Mekong tinted by the warm afternoon hues

The arrival at Pal Lai, the day's destination was after a thirteen hours cruise; time for men and bikes to go back to solid ground.

The Pak Lai pier in the afternoon

Mooring the boat in Pak Lai

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