The Main Street
We stayed in Pakbeng for one night. A very small town situated on the Mekong river in Laos, its main tourist trade are the overnight stops of those travelling on the slow boat. On the main street – only recently paved – we found stray dogs laying in the middle of the road, groups of backpackers, and motorbikes that passed a little too close for comfort. It had a variety of guesthouses, restaurants and shops that catered to both locals and tourists.
The shops were a mass of clothes, food and tools. They littered the shelves, hung from the ceiling, or were still packed in boxes and baskets. The locals were happy to spend time sifting for what they needed as it meant paying less. On the other side of the road were Western delis serving ready-made sandwiches, croissants, Pringles and Oreos.
The Restaurants and Bars
We ate at Sabaidee, a family restaurant, everyone pitching in, including their young son. The tables were at the back, through their frontroom where they were cheering over Thai boxing. Their menus were hand-written with spelling mistakes, pictures, and varying prices for the same dish. Our first time in Laos, I tried a traditional Laotian curry. Much like a Thai curry with vegetables, tofu, and a thin sauce, it was far less spicy, almost sweet.
In the quiet town there is one place open late, the Happy Bar, with neon lights and loud, top-chart music. Catering for the tourists, they had free shots of Lao Lao Whisky, strong cocktails, and offered “happy smoking” experiences – not only weed, but also opium.
Our guesthouse was one of the nicer ones with complimentary drinks on arrival and breakfast included, but it was still basic. The walls were a thin weave with many small cracks, the shower was a cold dribble, and the electricity was intermittent. We were woken at around 4am by the sounds of work at the river nearby, fixing boats and loading cargo.
We got ready in the dark and at 6am visited the local market. I’m glad I didn’t go alone; the only foreigners there, we attracted some attention.
The market was set in a square up a little hill from the main road. A metal roof covered stone slabs on which locals displayed their wares. There were a few garages where regulars had set up shop and smaller stalls along the side of the road. With people crowding everywhere it wasn’t easy to tell who was buying and who was selling. There were bundles of fruit and vegetables, some I’d never seen before, all organic and covered in dirt. There were baskets of chillis and bunches of herbs. There were sheets of dried seaweed and buckets of live catfish, both from the Mekong. Live frogs had been bagged up, a stick of bamboo in the knot providing them with an airway.
Young children manned a barbeque where they were turning the meat by hand. The meat turned out to be rats that they were cooking whole, the shrivelled result laying next to them.
The busiest stall was the butcher. Hacking away with his meat cleaver, I feared for his fingers. He’d spread some old newspaper over a stone slab on which he had his chunks of meat. Locals would inspect them by hand and throw them back into the pile. Hanging from the front of his stall was a tail (and anus), the only part of the animal he wasn’t going to use. It looked like monkey to us. We guessed it showed the locals the type of meat and how fresh it was. Although what he was chopping up could have been anything.
I was tired the rest of the day, but getting up that early was definitely worth it. I’d got a better insight into how they actually lived. It was one small aspect that was completely unaffected by the tourists. However, in this short amount of time I feel I saw everything there was to see in Pakbeng. Although it was a lovely town, I was ready to move on.