Row, row, row your boat...

Trip Start Dec 14, 2004
Trip End May 25, 2005

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Tuesday, March 8, 2005

there is no easy or short way to sum up our experiences of the past week. we wrote to you last from chiang mai, and shortly thereafter hopped on a "mini-bus" with 12 people and all of our belongings. we quickly made friends with the guy who was lucky enough to be assigned the backseat with us. a 6 hour ride landed us in chiang khong, where we spent a night at an adorable guesthouse on the mekong river. our room had bamboo walls, and the communal porch sat high above the river. we spent the better part of the evening there, playing cards with other travelers...
the events that followed over the course of the next 48 hours were nothing short of film-worthy-- in fact, it's unclear whether we can even convey the extreme nature of this trip- the absolute hilarity, and sheer "differentness" of traveling to Luang Prabang.

7:30am: receive Laotian visas while eating a quick breakfast.
8:30am: arrive "on time" to find out we're "late". special drop off for just the two of us down to the Thai border, where we pass through immigration, and then, the "Gate to Indo China"
8:45am: load selves, 20kg packs, and assorted junk onto skinny little boats. sitting on the wooden slat benches, we hope that this isn't our boat for the rest of the trip. nervous laughter ensues.
9am: schlep selves, 20kg packs, and assorted junk up a steep hill, now on the other side of the river, we have officially entered Laos.
9:30am: having passed through Laos Immigration, we are given a sticker marked "SLOW". Yup. That's us. Slow. Apparently this signifies our mode of transport for the following 2 days. proceed to squeeze selves, 20kg packs, and assorted junk into a glorified mini-van with 10 others for our short ride to the boat launching "dock".
9:45am: run into our friends Anthony and Louise- who were on our trip at Fraser Island in Australia. Yay! We have friends! Yay!
9:50am: Laotian scare tactics convince us to book a room for the night before boarding the boat. Cool. Apparently our destination, Pakbeng, has no electricity.
10am: schlep selves, 20kg packs, and assorted junk, down a steep, sandy, slippery hill to board the slow boat. Our gangway is an 8-inch wide plank, precariously connecting shore to boat. Scary. But we make it.
10:02am: Uh oh. No seats.
10:03am: Um. Should we really leave our stuff sitting there? Looks like it might fall into the water.
10:04am: Hmm. Sounds like that man in the next boat over is signalling that we should move to his nice, empty boat with nice looking, cushioned seats. Sounds good. How do we get there? Oh, look- we can just climb through the window. Rachel goes first. Jodie helps pass luggage. This causes a mini-mutiny, a near exodus, if you will, as people in the first boat realize that we have the right idea. We locate our friends Louise and Anthony and help them pass their stuff through the window, as we secure ourselves seats. all the while, laughing and taking in the chaotic mess that we helped create.

In the course of less than three hours, we had left one country, entered another, and become accomplished tight-rope walkers, tranporting our shaky selves, laden with luggage onto the Slow Boat.

And somehow, the best was yet to come...

After a 7 hour ride on the Slow Boat, we arrived in Pakbeng around 6:00... again, we shlepped ourselves, 20kg packs, and assorted stuff up another steep hill and into the town where we would spend a mere 14 hours. our room was complete with mosquito net and a window with a prime view into the only street in town. we took a quick stroll through the village with our friends, and then sat in an elevated wooden restaurant, dining by candlelit. not because it was romantic, but because it was the only choice we had if we wanted to see anything. it turned out to be one of the better evenings we've had, dining with two "old" friends, and two more people we met, the six of us were content to eat and drink beer lao until the town went to sleep around 10:00. so, we did too. (rachel woke up around 1 am, staring at the light that came through the six inches of space between the door and the floor. she's pretty sure she saw a rat go by, and then she got scared the rat was going to scamper away with her glasses. these are the things that keep one awake in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere.)

SLOW BOAT DAY 2 (friday):
6:30am: wake up, pack the few items that have escaped our packs
7:00am: order breakfast at the little place across the street. we have all heard that the boat is leaving at 8:30, so we figure we will be there by 8:00 to get seats again.
7:45am: eat quickly, grab some bread and cheese for the boat ride, head down to the baot launch to search for our friends, who have already grabbed seats for us.
8:00am: two staircases that head to two different boats. are the boats going to the same place? where are our friends?
8:01am: "ANTHONY! LOUISE! WHERE ARE YOU?" craning our necks to see if we can see them in one boat, heaven forbid we should have to walk all the way down with all of our stuff, only to find out we have to go back up and to the other staircase.
8:02am: we don't see them... start heading for the other boat.
8:03am: they see us and call our names, we head back to the first boat and climb on, the "gangway" being just as precarious as the previous day, if not more.
8:05am: grab a couple of the slim wooden benchlike seats, hoping we won't have to share with anyone.
8:15am: hmm, people just seem to keep getting on the boat, well, i guess we'll just move to the back and sit with our friends.
8:30am: cool, we're supposed to leave now, right? is everyone on? it's getting pretty crowded. oh well, guess we have no choice but to wait and feel uncomfortable.
8:45am: still sitting, waiting, have been told that today, instead of having two boats, there will only be one. that's right, everyone who was on two boats yesterday will now magically fit into one boat, folks! watch the magic unfold.
9:30am: some magic... the boat has left with probably 25 more people than it can or should be carrying, but who's really counting? we are sardines, squished into the back of the boat with only a wooden door separating the deafening noise of the motor, six feet away from us. oh, and the bathroom is 2 feet away, and the "bar" is next to us. you can imagine how many times we were stepped on and kicked over the course of our 8 hour journey to luang prabang. oh, and another funny surprise, the weather decided that it would be cold and windy, and who was really prepared for that? well, nobody, because each person took their turn at climbing through the boat to where the mass pile of luggage was to attempt to find something warm from their own bag. yay for them. we were just cold.

so. we just told you a lot.
Suffice it to say, the destination has been well worth the journey... despite the cramped and cold conditions (at one point, we were pretty sure we knew what our ancestors felt like as they arrived at Ellis Island), we have been LOVING Laos :) A lot of our family has mentioned that it's hard for them to get their heads around the fact that we are here, as they associate it with the Vietnam War... well, for a country that remains on the UN's "Least Developed Country" list, we have found Laos to be thoroughly wonderful... quiet, cozy, beautiful and friendly. The vibe in Luang Prabang has a distinct European flavor, due to the French colonial influence. We've been here for five days now, and if we didn't have to, we probably wouldn't leave just yet. We've been hiking at the Kuong Si Waterfalls, walking the markets, exploring, and generally just slowing down after our chunk of fast-paced travel days. we have also met more americans here than anywhere we've been in the past three months... kind of shocking in its own strange way, but we guess it's nice to communicate with some of the people who are wandering around like us. tomorrow we head south, to a city called vang vien-- it's also supposed to be a great place. this country, in general, is just great, and you all should jump on the opportunity to visit while its sense of "untouchedness" lasts.

we'll be in touch again soon.
love to all,
r and j
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