Slow boat on the Mekong

Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
Trip End Jun 08, 2006

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Wednesday, November 16, 2005

From Louang Prahbang, its possible to travel to Thailand by taking a boat upstream along the Mekong River. From other travellers we hear that the boat trip is a highlight of their time in Laos, so we buy a couple of tickets for 170,000 Kip (GBP 9.00) each from the Navigation Office, and board the 0800 leaving for Houayxai. The trip will take us 2 days by slow boat, and we have to overnight in the town of Pakbeng en route.

The boat is a long narrow wooden construction, about as wide as a bus, but twice as long. Most of it is kitted out with non-ergonomic wooden benches which have tatty undersized cushions of a thickness that would best be measured in millimetres. There's a roof over the seating area, which we are given strict instructions not to go on. Towards the back of the boat there is a toilet, which is ankle depth in water (at least we think its water but can't be sure) and then right at the back is the engine room. In there I can see a mighty looking 6 cylinder Isuzu diesel engine that drives the propellor via a long prop shaft. In the engine room the sound is deafening, and the leaky exhaust system fills it with acrid smoke. Staff comprise half a dozen skinny and sprightly Laos lads who spend most of the journey sleeping on some rice sacks at the back, and then spring into life as soon as we approach a stop. The captain is up-front at the helm and has to concentrate carefully to avoid the odd tree trunk floating down the river.

We set off nearly an hour later than scheduled, but fortunately the boat is not too full and there's enough space to take a double bench each. Most of the passengers are Westerners, and everyone is fidgeting trying to get comfortable on the seats. Eventually one enterprising chap discovers that lying on his back on the bench with his feet hanging over the edge is comfortable, and within a few minutes half the people on the boat are doing likewise.

We see Mad Max is on board, and we wonder if there will be any fights with the boat staff. I meet Victoria Branton, a midwife on career break, originally from Girvan, who's cousin Brian Oxenham I used to go to School with in Newton Stewart. It is strange to bump into people with these connections in such strange places, and I enjoy the chance to talk to a Scot from the South West. Victoria is travelling with three friends from Oxford (where she last worked) and is heading down to Australia after touring in South East Asia.

The boat moves at a pretty sedate pace along the river, barely overcoming the fast current in the opposite direction, and we have plenty of time to gaze out on the countryside as we move gently on. Most of the scenery is dense mountainous jungle and there's little sign of human habitation, except the odd village of thatched houses that we pull into to let locals on and off.

With plenty of fellow travellers, books to read, good views to look at, and a light breeze moving through, time passes very quickly. There is no food for sale on board, and we snack on rice wrapped in banana leaves and coconut deserts which Rachel bought in Louang Prahbang.

After about two or three hours, the engine note changes disconcertingly, and theres some excited shouting between the now wide awake staff. Soon the engine is dead, and we are floating backwards down the river. With no means of communicating to the Lao staff, we all cross our fingers and hope that we dont end up back in Louang Prahbang. It turns out to be a temporary glitch - we reckon something caught in the propellor - and soon we're off again, allowing the staff to resume their intensive napping.

Occasionally we hear a loud roar and we all gaze in amazement as one of the fast boats zooms past. These tiny boats are made from a streamlined carbon fibre chassis, with an enormous unsilenced petrol engine mounted on the back. They take six crash helmetted and lifejacketed passengers down the river in a quarter of the time, and for twice the price of us on the slow boat. A fellow traveller tells us these boats crash regularly and its awesome fun for about an hour until your ears can stand the noise no more, and your backside is bruised from the continuous buffeting.

Due to the late start, and floating a couple of kilometers back down the river, night falls and we have not yet reached our overnight stopping point, Pakbeng. Our boat has no lights and we hope that the driver can see where he is going in the moonlight.

We hear that there isn't much accomodation available in Pakbeng, so we decide that Rachel will jump off quickly in search of a room, while I stay behind to retrieve our bags from the huge pile at the front of the boat.

About 7.00pm we finally arrive, and we have to disembark into a muddy spot on the riverside, since all the other mooring points are already full of boats. As Rachel has no bags, she scrambles through a couple of other tethered boats and gets safely to the riverbank to search for accomodation. I am dissapointed to see that the steep, 25 cm wide gangplank on our boat doesnt meet the equally steep river bank; one end is in the water requiring a step of over a metre to get to dry land. I estimate that falling in is a high probabilty due to the darkness, movement of the boat, narrowness and length of gangplank, and jumping skill required. I grab my rucksack, Rachel's rucksack, and my day pack, and watch in trepidation as everyone else gets off. Then suddenly, one girl succumbs and falls into water, rolling over silently in the cold brown waves at the edge of the steep bank. Hands go out to her and pull her onto the muddy egde, but she and her belongings, are completely soaked. I step gingerly on to the plank and make my way over to the end, summoning all my powers of concentration to walk along the part of the plank beneath the water. I get to the end of the plank succesfully but the ground is too slippery and my load is too heavy to climb up the bank. Helpful hands in the dark grab me and pull me up the bank - I've made it.

Rachel re-appears and tells us she's got a room for 200 B (about GBP3.00). We walk up through the little town and I point out the wet girl to Rachel, and describe my little ordeal. At our guesthouse we find Mad Max having an argument with the landlady; she is trying to put another paying guest in a room that he's just paid for. I suggest to Max that he should go into the room for ten minutes, lock the door, and take a shower, which he does, and the problem goes away. I doubt as an honourable French gentleman he would get into a fisticuffs with a woman, but he does seem to enjoy a brisk argument.

We join a few other travellers and eat in one of the non-descript restaurants in Pakbeng that evening. We retire early knowing that the morning boat leaves at 0800.

In the morning we take a quick look round the little market in Pakbeng and stock up on snacks for the trip: sticky rice in banana leaves; coconut rice in bamboo tubes; and french baguettes with tomato and cucumber filling. Rachel spots some peanuts and I point out the dead squirrel next to them; she says that she prefers to take the nuts. I also see lots of little brightly coloured birds for sale, most of them killed predumably using live fly traps.

The second half of the journey proves to be a pleasant one, and we arrive just after 5.30pm in Houayxai, conveniently missing the last opportunity to get to Thailand that night. A local tout offers us a room for 100 B (about GBP 1.30) per night, so we take him up on his offer, and he whisks us through town in a tuk tuk to his meagre little guesthouse. Mad Max also joins us but, after a loud argument about the room with the landlord, decides not to stay.

At night we wander a short distance through the town to find the border post for the next morning. We eat Kao Soi, a delicious hot noodle dish, for 6,000 Kip (GBP 0.30) each and start to think about retiring for the evening.

After breakfast next day we walk down to Laos Immigration and get an exit stamp in our passports before jumping on a little boat (20 B or GBP 0.25 each) which takes us across the mighty Mekong to Chiang Khong in Thailand. As we leave the quaint backwater of Laos I feel like I am re-entering civilisation again as the modern buidlings, traffic, and dress start to become visible. We pass through the most relaxed border post I've seen in a while, the Thai officials smiling and joking through the whole procedure. The guy processing me helpfully jumps out from his desk and arranges a Songthaew to take us to the main bus station in town (again 20 B or GBP 0.25 each).

We are just in time for the 9am luxury coach to take us Chiang Mai, so we throw our bags on board, kick back, mentally prepared for another day on the road.
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