All boats that cruise down the Mekong River in Northern Laos between Luang Prabang and Huay Xai seem to stop at the tiny town of Pakbeng, but we really didn’t know what to expect when we arrived. Travel guides and other travelers describe it everywhere from being a scruffy little place without much going on to charming and picturesque so after we got settled in our lovely bungalow at Luang Say Lodge, we decided to go on a little explore and find out for ourselves. We didn’t really expect what was going to happen.
We had been in Laos less than a day and hadn’t had a chance to do much interaction with locals. We hadn’t walked more than five minutes from the lodge when we heard the most excruciating sound, obviously coming from a sound system somewhere ahead. As we rounded a corner we saw that some people had set up a huge tent, right in the middle of the road, and were taking turns performing karaoke. We attempted to walk around the periphery of the tent but the host, a man whose wife had just had a baby, stopped us and said that they would be honored if we could join in their celebration. Naturally, we agreed and before we knew what had happened we were dancing!
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After a few minutes we were directed to a couple of plastic seats near the makeshift karaoke stage and before we were finished being introduced around, a couple of bottles of Beer Lao were placed in our hands and plates of homemade food started arriving. Because we were only a few meters from the karaoke machine, and the rock concert sized amplifiers, we had to yell to be heard but it was probably just as well because neither Sarah nor I speak Lao and most of the guests didn’t speak English. A lot of smiles and sa-bai-dees (hello), sábaidee baws (how are you) and khàwp jai lai lais (thank you very much) were exchanged and we just enjoyed the scene.
We were relieved to find some of the karaoke turned out to actually be pretty good. It was especially fun listening to some familiar western tunes being sung in Lao. We tried to be good guests and not eat more than our share but we soon learned emptying a plate or glass results in more food or drink being brought. We met the family including the children, mother, new baby and various aunts, uncles and cousins. It was only about 5:30 PM on day one and we were already being made to be welcome.
Eventually, stuffed and only slightly lubricated, we wandered a little further into Pakbeng. It really was picturesque. It really was scruffy. In spite of the party, it really was sleepy. We spent less than an hour in town and started walking back to the hotel. By the time we arrived again at the party tent the festivities were over, the tent was being taken down and the amplifiers were being loaded onto trucks. There was evidence of the aftermath but that too was rapidly being cleaned up. What an introduction to a new country!