Two rashers of richly flavoured, melt-in-the-mouth bacon and two fried eggs, layered between warm, soft toast, thickly spread with butter. Freshly squeezed orange juice, ice cold. Steaming hot coffee made from locally grown beans. Clouds hanging in the west between the steep hills either side of the river, sun rising above the palm trees to the east, fishermen casting nets on the opposite bank. Blue skies brightening, fellow travellers murmuring contentment in the comfortable warmth and stillness of early morning.
It’s a shame to have to leave.
We cruise on past the slowly paralaxing hills and mountains, impenetrable forests of trees, palms, vines and creepers overhanging the river, reaching back in an unbroken carpet to the distant peaks and hilltops. Brown Mekong water is the only opening, signs of human life are scarce.
We stop at a village, where there are plenty of people but the life signs are weak. No smiles, no laughter, the children are silent. Women sit with their woven silk scarves for sale, standard greetings delivered in a monotone, gaze directed at the floor, expressions flat. The village is almost silent, there aren’t even animal noises. The only activity seems to be the man distilling rice whiskey. Even the chickens seem subdued, as solemn as the cruise passengers who exchange glances and whisper discomfort.
There’s a swiss tourist pointing a 200mm zoom lens in the face of a glum looking villager. The camera must be worth more than the entire village earns in a year.
A girl of perhaps 13 or 14, apparently with mental and physical disabilities and seemingly on her own, holds out a hand for money, fingers twisted by deformity. She has red scrapes and bruises on her left cheek, long black hair partly hiding it. Her right hand is black and red, badly burned and swollen, held awkwardly in obvious pain. It isn’t dressed, it probably hasn’t even been cleaned. The nearest doctor is probably a hundred miles away, and this girl is on her own.
It’s deeply upsetting, and it feels completely wrong for people to be walking around this village as if it’s there for our entertainment, snapping photos to compare over lunch on the boat. It’s a depressing place, but perhaps the most notable observation is that for all the apparent poverty and glumness, the villagers are happy enough to keep churning out more children.
I and a few others leave the group and return quietly to the boat, wondering what on earth you’re meant to do in a situation like that.
Lunch seems a guilty pleasure. There’s yellow curry of tender chicken with big chunks of buttery carrot and soft potato. There’s more of the silky smooth stir-fried vegetables. There are bite-size chunks of rubber, battered in concrete and fried in garlic. Perhaps it’s pork. I’m being sarcastic about it but certainly not complaining, sitting here with such ample provisions after seeing how the locals live.
We cruise on in our luxury.
When you read about an ancient cave filled with thousands of Buddha statues, you imagine something quite impressive. It isn’t, but the line painted on the cave wall at least 20 feet above the river’s surface showing the high water mark of 2008 is hard to believe. To fill such a wide river valley to that level would take an immense amount of water.
Arriving in Luang Prabang I am greeted by a squadron of staff and driven to the hotel. My suite is the entire top floor of a building straight out of a Merchant Ivory movie. It has every imaginable amenity, the staff are impeccable in their dress and service, the pool is superb and the bar perfectly creates the colonial atmosphere. The surrounding palm foliage and mountain vista completes the scene.
I remember the poor little girl back in the village and feel both lucky and guilty. I vow to find an appropriate organisation providing medical services in Laos and make a donation, wishing I could do more.