Destination Pakbeng: A Mekong Oasis

Part 1. A shorter version appears in Champa Meuanglao magazine. 

Our program differed from the others on the Shompoo Cruise. They were sailing on the two-day classic Mekong voyage from Luang Prabang to the Thai border. We were jumping ship at Pakbeng.  

A table and chair on the comfortable 40-passenger vessel presented a utopian workplace. Christopher Lau, a video blogger, was bouncing his eyes between editing and the wilderness. My attention shifted from words to forested slopes.   

Chats with fellow passengers revealed our intention to stay in Pakbeng. “But, the itinerary describes it as just an overnight,” said a woman at the on-board buffet. That was about to change.

The eight-hour cruise, with stops at Pak Ou Caves and a hidden riverside village, reached a huddle of hotels, restaurants, and shops on a hillside. Pakbeng…civilization in the middle of nowhere…a Mekong oasis.

The Shompoo staff connected passengers with hotel transfers, and reminded them of the early departure. Not Chris and I. He was off to the Sanctuary Pakbeng Lodge. I hopped in a van to the newly opened Le Grand Pakbeng Resort further up the hill.

Easy Access to the Remote…The Khmu Trail

Travellers dream of being among the first to see or do something, and Jai, behind Le Grand’s front desk, had my ticket. He placed a map on the counter. “We want to introduce The Khmu Trail to tourists.”  

Four Khmu ethnic villages dotted the route along the Sengkham River into the mountains. “They live like Luang Prabang 30 years ago,” Jai said. “Pheng, a local Khmu, will guide us.”

Jai walked me from the spacious stand-alone lobby down a few tiers to my villa. On the way, we passed the infinity pool. “Pheng works at the Pool Bar tonight.” We reached the villa, and the glass shower with a Mekong view beckoned. Then came the terrace and a Beer Lao.

As the moon came out, I visited Pheng, who taught me Khmu. “Le means ‘good’,” he said, “and Grand means ‘stay a long time’.” Had anyone else been on the Khmu Trail? “Just one group. They were on the cruise, but wanted to stay.”  

The next morning began with coffee on the villa’s panoramic terrace. The Mekong flowed below. Mountaintops peaked above the fog. Guests hurried to catch cruises. I relaxed in silence until 10:00, when Jai called. Our transportation had arrived, a pickup truck with benches.  

Just outside town, we turned onto the Khmu Trail, a rutted road carved into the mountainside. We passed wandering livestock: goats, cows, ducks, and an albino buffalo.

Within 10 minutes, we arrived at Huay Sengkham Village to find a stuck lorry blocking the road. Pheng found out it had come from a jungle gold mine.

“In January and February, when the river is low, the villagers pan for gold,” he answered. “They get a few ounces every year.” That was four months away. Never mind. The steep Sengkham riverbanks presented swaths of mountain rice, and it was harvest time.

A short path led to the village’s cluster of wood-and-bamboo houses on stilts. Chickens wandered around, and a pig grunted from a small sty. But few people were around. Three kids watched an old lady chop bamboo. She pointed to the vertical slope across the river. “They’re all out picking rice,” Pheng said.

The path exited into a patch, where an elderly woman was stripping mountain rice from stems. She said it took an hour to fill her basket. I stroked a few twigs, and the rice fell right into my hand. Jai and Pheng modified the stalks into flutes and played.

Pheng then fetched some paddy rice from an adjacent field. “They don’t harvest this until November. See how much smoother the mountain rice is, and it smells nicer.” Do they sell it? “No. They just grow enough for the village, and harvest it in September.”

Pheng challenged me to husk some with a foot-powered log lever attached to a giant pestle. Under it sat a mortar of rice. I rhythmically stood on the plank and released it more than a dozen times. Pheng sifted through the rice, and shook his head. “Needs more work.”

Back on the road, the desperate lorry crew was still digging out. They’d be here awhile, so we decided to walk to Souksay Village. A 15-minute hike reached a shortcut through a school yard to the riverside village.

A man fished and a woman washed clothes. Soon, they’d be panning for gold. We found a shop with packets of shampoo, toothpaste and other sundries. “These people don’t have much cash,” Pheng said. “They usually trade.”

“Somebody must have money.” I pointed to a pair of lone motorcycles. The shopkeeper said the village traded a buffalo to a Pakbeng man for the scooters. Pheng did the math and reckoned the guy netted about $600.

Lunchtime took us to a one-table noodle shop. Ducklings quacked at our feet as the hostess prepared bowls of fish broth, vegetables and noodles. “A bowl is only 3,000 kip,” Jai discovered. “It’s 10-15,000 in Pakbeng.”   

It was now past 1:00. Ban Lai and Ban Kham at the trail’s end were out of reach. But that was the goal. We headed back while pondering our next move. I was shifting to the Sanctuary Lodge that night, and going with Chris to the Mekong Elephant Park the next day.

The lorry hadn’t budged. So, we put the Khmu Trail on hold, traded phone numbers, and headed to Wat Kok Kor, the 100-year-old Temple of Luck. A steep staircase led to “the luck box” at the temple’s doors. It held numbered slips of paper with Lao script telling fortunes.

The golden Buddha inside watched silently as I chose “5”. It had once worked at a horse track, but…Lao people have difficulties delivering bad news, and Pheng’s silence spoke volumes. “Not good, but it will get better.”

The Mekong Elephant Park is the next stop in Part 2 of “Destination Pakbeng: A Mekong Oasis”.

Meet Destination Pakbeng

Shompoo Cruises

Le Grand Pakbeng Resort

Sanctuary Pakbeng Lodge

Luang Say Lodge


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