This rustic town-village at the junction of the Mekong River and the smaller Nam Beng (Pakbeng means Mouth of the Beng) lies about halfway between Luang Prabang and Huay Xai (Bokeo Province). The Mekong here forms the border between Udornxai and Sainyabuli provinces; Pakbeng is on the northern bank and so belongs to the former.
Basically a market town and transit point for travel to Udomxai, Huay Xai and Luang Nam Tha, Pakbeng's mostly wooden houses sit along a steep hillside. Close to the ferry and speedboat piers is a collection of makeshift shops and cafes that get more interesting the farther away from the river you go. Hmong and tribal Thais are frequently seen on the main street. A few vendors along the street sell local textiles and handicrafts.
Two wats of mild interest can be visited in town, both of which are off the left side of the road north, overlooking the Nani Beng. Wat Khok Kho is the newer of the two, with a sim of rather recent construction and a wooden monks quarters.
Farther up the road, a series of stairs on the right-hand side lead past a small school to Wat Sin Jong Jaeng, an older temple that dates to the early French colonial period or possibly earlier. On the front exterior wall of the small but classic Lao sim is a mural that includes figures with moustaches and big noses - presumably early Dutch or French visitors. Inside there are a number of Buddha images or varying ages. A new Lao-style thaat on the premises was constructed in 1991; it's gilded at the top, and the base is said to contain a cache of (sacred) material (probably small Buddha images of crystal or silver, prayer cloths and rosaries from revered monks).
Nearby villages might be worth visiting if you can find a guide - ask at any of the guesthouses. Electricity in Pakbeng generally runs from 6pm until 6am.
Places to Stay
Sarika Guest House Rooms U5$3.40. The first lodging to open in Pakbeng and the first place you come to from the boat landing' was once the atmospheric all-wood Soukchareun Sarika Hotel overlooking the river. After it burned down a few years ago, it was replaced by a characterless concrete building, although the views from parts of the guesthouse are still wonderful. All rooms have attached toilet and cold shower.
Continuing up the main sloped street leading away from the boat landing, you'll come to a long string of small, inexpensive wooden guesthouses. Most offer small rooms with one or two beds with hard mat- tresses and mosquito nets, and shared facilities around the back or downstairs.
Nang Phet Guest House Rooms US$1. 70. First on the left coming from the landing, the row of bamboo-thatch cubicles has nothing much to recommend it except that it's easy to find and is fronted by a pleasant terrace restaurant.
Monsavan Guest House Rooms US$.70. Next on the left is still the nicest guesthouse in town, a two-storey place with bamboo walls, friendly proprietors and a very clean toilet and bathing area.
Phanh Thavong Guest House Rooms US$2.25. The rooms in this tin-roofed, two- storey wooden building are OK, but the shared bathroom facilities look like they haven't been cleaned in ages. An upstairs terrace is a nice spot for viewing passing road life while nursing a Beerlao.
Done Vilasak Guest House Rooms US$1. 70. This is another two-storey wooden place with typical two-bed rooms and shared bucket bath facilities.
Bounmy Guest House Rooms US$1.70. To find this one, walk a short distance down a road that branches off the main street not far from the boat landing. Since it's off the main drag, Bounmy offers a slightly quieter alternative, although the bamboo-and-wood rooms are very similar to those at most other guesthouses.
Luang Say Lodge (in Luong Prabang 071-7252400) Rooms US$40. If you continue along the road past Bounmy Guest House, you'll come to this eco-lodge built mainly for the use of passengers cruising between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang aboard the Pak Ou. Built in traditional Lao style of solid wood, this new lodge features 13 pavilions with a total of 15 rooms, all with fan and private hot-water shower. A terrace restaurant overlooks the Mekong.
Places to Eat
There are several simple restaurants along the street leading from the pier, most serving foe and a few basic Chinese dishes.
Bounmy Restaurant Dishes US$1Â·2, Open 7am-lOpm daily. This terrace restaurant overlooking the street near Nang Phet Guest House features a large English- language menu and fairly good food,
Kham Niaw Restaurant US$1-2, Open 7am-10pm daily. Very similar to Bounmy in scope. Locals often buy takeaway food here, which is usually a good sign,
Pine Kham Restaurant Dishes US$1Â·2, Open 7am-10pm daily. The kitchen does justice to a wide range of Thai, Chinese and Lao dishes, plus Western breakfasts.
A day market in the centre of town has a few vendors with prepared Lao food. It's usually open from 6.30am until around4pm or 5pm.
Getting There & Away
Bus & Sawngthaew The bus/ sawngthaew station (the signs reads 'taxi service') is 1.5km from the boat landing. If you don't want to walk, you may be able to hire a jumbo from near the landing for US$0.35 to US$0.50 depending on how you bargain.
Two sawngthnew a day ply Rte 2 between Pakbeng and Udomxai for US$2.50 per person - around 8am and 9am are the most sure departure times in either direction. The trip takes seven hours by public transport. You can usually charter a truck for around US$25 - with no stops along the way a light vehicle can cover the distance in about five hours. Some travelers have chartered jumbos along this road, but because of the lack of any decent suspension or shock absorbers on these machines, doing it by jumbo is only for masochists.
If you miss one of the direct sawngthllew , to Pakbeng from Udomxai you can catch one of the more frequent sawngthllew to Muang Houn, 92km south-west of Udomxai on the way to Pakbeng. These leave about 10 times a day between dawn and dusk, cost US$I.50 and take about four hours. In Muang Houn it's easy to pick up another sawngthaew on to Pakbeng, two hours away, for about US$1. The same is true in reverse; you can take a bus from Pakbeng to
Muang Houn, then pick up a Udornxai-bound vehicle fairly easily. There are two or three basic guesthouses in Muang Houn if you get stuck.
At the moment Rte 2 is in deplorable condition - more pothole than road - but a World Bank-funded road upgrading project claims it will reseal the entire road.
Boat The slow boat from either Luang Prabang or Huay Xai costs around US$5.50 per person. The trip takes eight to 10 hours downriver, 11 to 14 hours upriver.
Speedboats from Luang Prabang or Huay Xai take around three hours upriver, 21/2hours downriver and cost US$13.80 per person' to either Huay Xai or Luang Prabang. These powerful craft can take up to six passengers; if you want to share one you'll have to wait at the pier until five other passengers turn up. Sometimes when only five passengers show up one of the more affluent passengers will chip in an extra fare - which should buy a little extra sitting space. Or you can charter a speedboat for the Luang Prabang to Pakbeng or Huay Xai to Pakbeng routes for four to six times the per person fare. For all fares, kip, Thai baht or US dollars are acceptable.
Depending on your perspective, the speedboat ride can be either thrilling or frightening as the shallow craft skip along sections of rapids at 80km/h or more. There have been an uncounted number of injuries and deaths caused by speedboat crashes along the Mekong; see Dangers & Annoyances in the Facts for the Visitor chapter for warnings on speedboat travel.