Slow Boat on the Mekong

Trip Start Nov 08, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Thursday, January 11, 2007

We had crossed over to Huay Xai a day early so we would have time to explore the town before taking the slow boat to the former capital of Luang Prabang.  The exploration took half an hour and we spent the rest of the evening making plans for our trip the next day.  The first thing we discovered is that there is no ATM in the town.  That didn't surprise me.  What did surprise me is finding out there aren't any in Luang Prabang either.  In fact, the only cash machines in the country are in the modern capital of Ventianne.  We wouldn't be there for 3 weeks.  This wasn't a tragedy because I had taken out a fair amount of cash before leaving Thailand, and we still had some American money we had been holding onto for travel visas.  Also, you can always get cash from a credit card, but it's rarely cheap.  So we wouldn't starve to death.  Now we just had to figure out the cheapest way to travel on the slow boat.
Our guidebook says the slow boat is the most authentic way to travel down the Mekong.  It makes sense.  These people have been doing it for thousands of years and it's an easy form of mass transit.  Word is there are even flights, but who has that kind of money?  There are now roads from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, but they are treacherous and miserable.  So I was actually looking forward to the two-day slow boat ride to the former capital.  What I wasn't thrilled about was the ticket price.  The travel agencies on the Thai side were selling tickets for around $25 U.S.  That was a hell of a lot of money to be crammed on a boat with 100 other people.  But I chalked it up to commissions.  It couldn't possibly cost that much on the Lao side.  Well, it didn't.  It was only $24.  But that was through an agent as well.  I walked down to the slow boat dock and found the ticket office.  Tickets were 95,000 kip ($10) to Pakbeng, the half-way point, and then another 95,000 to Luang Prabang.  The trip was still going to cost $20 a person.  Again, I realize that doesn't sound like a lot of money.  But Laos was supposed to be cheaper than Thailand, perhaps the most inexpensive country in SE Asia.  It is not.  Prices have doubled in the last two years.  Tourism is booming, and they know they can charge $20 for the trip, because very few people will suffer through the bus ride.  So they had us by the proverbial testes (do you know that proverb?  It's lovely and profound).  The next day we changed some baht into kip (I had a wad of 540,000 kip in my pocket which would last me 3 days) and headed to the slow boat.  The boat was relatively full when we arrived.  However, we did manage to find a seat together and the ride looked like it might be comfortable.  But over the next hour, 100 more people showed up to fill every seat, every bit of floor space, and then line the center isle with plastic chairs.  I'd say it was authentic, but it was a sea of white - people so white Lindsey looked tan.  But it was still interesting.  The crowd was very international.  We heard as much French and German as we did English.  And even the English was often incomprehensible.  Several of the passengers were from such a remote part of Britain that they made the Scots look like elocutionists.

So while it wasn't authentic in the way I had imagined, it was still a meandering ride down the river, with life on the Mekong floating by us, scenes of local life drifting slowly along our sides like a lifesize reel of film from the not so distant past.  The Mekong was not as I had pictured it.  Instead of jungle fighting its way all the way to the banks, it was a long series of beaches and large, jagged rocks lining the water.  It was genuinely stunning scenery.  I was glad I was experiencing it from the river instead of watching it fly by below me.  The river was slow, but a plane would have been entirely too impersonal.
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