Pakbeng, a dusty, tawdry town overlooking the Mekong River, is the halfway point for the 2-day slowboat cruise to Luang Prabang from Huay Xai (and vice versa). All passengers have a forced overnight in Pakbeng; as there’s really nothing of any redeeming value about this town, very few travelers stay more than 1 night before continuing their journey.
When the slowboat pulls into the pier, waiting onshore will be a ragged bunch of young men (touts) who are representatives of the guesthouses in the village. Somehow I liken this scene to a pack of ravenous wolves circling their prey - as soon as you get on land, one or more guys will grab your bags and hustle you to their sponsor’s guesthouse. Almost all the passengers on the slowboat do not have any reservations in the village, so where you stay for the night really depends on whoever hustles you first. The touts get a small commission from the guesthouse for bringing new guests and they also pocket some fairly substantial tips from the tired travelers. As there are usually 3-4 tourist crammed boats stopping every day during the season in Pakbeng, the economy of this one trick- pony town revolves around the slowboats.
When I did this slowboat journey last December, our boat did not arrive in Pakbeng until about an hour or so after sunset. As soon as I got off the boat, three young guys corralled my luggage and hustled me off in the dark to a guesthouse about Â½ mile away from the dock. One of the blokes tried to hustle me, offering a lady for the night, opium and marijuana in that order. Of course I refused, saying that all I wanted was a good night sleep. Not willing to take no for an answer, he still continued to pester me about buying opium. I wonder why…
After depositing me at their sponsor’s guesthouse, I tipped them handsomely and proceeded to check-in. Fortunately, the room was OK - barren but clean, a decent bed and a private bathroom with shower tap. The cost was about 10USD. In the morning, the owner and his wife set up an impromptu streetside café in front of the guesthouse, soliciting backpackers passing by as well as their guests to patronize their cafe. While having breakfast - hot Laotian coffee with a warm baguette and jam and some freshly squeezed orange juice - I watched as a constant stream of backpackers passed me by as they slowly made their way to the to the boat dock for their onward journey. Needless to say, I was relieved to depart Pakbeng. Sort of reminded me of the Wild, Wild West…..