Destination Pakbeng: Back to the Khmu

Destination Pakbeng: Back to the Khmu

Bernie Rosenbloom

Part 3. A shorter version appears in Champa Meuanglao magazine.

Back to the Khmu 

Pheng telephoned during lunch. “Can you ride on my motorcycle?” Why? Lorry still stuck? “No, it’s gone, but there are landslides.”

The ride on the back of Pheng’s scooter was slightly bumpy at first, but soon he had to slow down and pick a line through endless potholes. We passed Huay Sengkham, and the holes turned into water-filled craters. Pheng zigzagged, but when the hazards proved too much, I walked.     

The landslides started after Ban Souksay, but they left us enough room to pass. We reached Ban Lai, where homes had shrunk into smaller bamboo-and rattan huts on shorter logs. We pressed on to Ban Kham.

The going remained slow, and we paused on the approach. A group of young men were beating khao lam - picked-over rice stems - to get the last grains.

Stepping into Ban Kham slingshot us back decades, though we were just an hour from Pakbeng. At the village gate, a young woman slammed a metre-long pestle into a tree-stump mortar. They didn’t have a leg-powered lever like Huay Sengkham. A hand-driven village water pump was their only convenience.

The architecture also slid back a few years from Huay Sengkham. Thatch replaced corrugated tin roofs. Ban Kham relied less on wood and more on bamboo. With no nails, they used notched joints for lumber and logs.

Rice grains, some kind of pea, and “tobacco” were drying on rattan tarps. A shirtless old woman smoked a cigar. Behind her, a chicken rummaged through khao lam leftovers.

We returned to the road, and walked a bit further. “This is the end of the line,” I thought Pheng said. He pointed into the jungle, where a rectangle of bamboo spears surrounded a horizontal pole with dangling red flags. “The end of life,” he clarified. A grave.

But it was also the terminus for the Khmu Trail. “No motorcycles go beyond here,” Pheng said. “The next village is Ban Chom. A day’s walk. The people in these villages moved from there about 20 years ago.”

It was time to backpedal towards the 21st century. We stopped at Ban Lai’s elementary schoolhouse with fresh chalk on the board. School was out, but tomorrow, a roadside gong would call them to class.

This village was swarming with kids. I counted a gang of 17, who followed us around. My favourite was the youngster rolling a small wheel and tire with a bamboo axel. It was the only toy in town.

The Final Night in the Mekong Oasis

It was getting late in the afternoon, and I had to move to the venerable Luang Say Lodge, which started with four bungalows some 20 years ago. It maintained that yesteryear atmosphere with a giant wooden veranda serving as reception, restaurant, bar, and lounge.

The 20-bungalow lodge is the Pakbeng component of a pioneering effort to establish the Thailand-Luang Prabang voyage with its sister hotels and Mekong Cruises. It had been “just an overnight” for two decades, but Luang Say joined Le Grand, Sanctuary, and Shompoo in the effort to establish Pakbeng as a multi-day destination.  

A Khmu woman and long-time staff member smilingly insisted on taking my bags to the bungalow during check in. The Manager Mr Kop said she wants to ensure a guest’s stay is perfect. After a welcome drink, we strolled along a plank walkway, past their organic garden and other bungalows, to mine.  

Neo-Khmu architecture launched the riverside bungalows into the modern era. They stood on a more solid foundation of lumber posts set in concrete and brick. A king-size bed draped by a mosquito net dominated the well-furnished, varnished interior, while a new bath spanned the room’s width. Wooden shingles replaced Ban Kham’s thatched roofs.    

The chef went a bit overboard at dinner, covering two tables with enough Khmu dishes for four. Local sticky rice and ingredients, including some from the lodge’s garden, filled the baskets and bowls. I made a small dent in the meal that was just spicy enough.

The next morning, I tried to relax over a final morning Mekong coffee at Destination Pakbeng during a massive breakfast, but the Shompoo Cruise launch-clock was ticking. Soon it was time to go.

I decided not to jump into the floating office’s tables and chairs. The cushions on the rear deck summoned, a place to transform from the Mekong Oasis into my world via Luang Prabang.

Destination Pakbeng came up in chats with fellow passengers during the buffet lunch. “But, the itinerary describes it as just an overnight,” said a middle-age woman, whose husband nodded in stern agreement as if he’d been misled.

“It has been for some 20 years,” I answered, shrugging my shoulders to her husband. “But, I think that is about to change.”

Meet Destination Pakbeng

Shompoo Cruises

Le Grand Pakbeng Resort

Sanctuary Pakbeng Lodge

Luang Say Lodge

 

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