Slow Boat Down The Mekong

Trip Start Aug 06, 2011
Trip End Oct 06, 2013

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Where I stayed
Phetsokxai Hotel

Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  , Oudômxai,
Friday, December 16, 2011

Time for another boat trip. After the floating prison experience in Papua New Guinea, I didn't think I'd get DH back on a boat in Asia but time heals all wounds (or aging clears the memory a little quicker?), and we arranged for a 2 day trip down the mighty Mekong River to the heart of Laos, Luang Prabang (impossible to say three times fast), using a contact given to us by a couple of Canucks we met in our hotel in Bangkok. "Mighty" may soon be an overstatement as China is building a series of dams (up to 15 of them) and a navigation channel further upstream that is threatening to devastate this very complex ecosystem. As a fellow communist one-party state, Laos has traditionally had a very non-critical relationship with China, but hopefully this changes- the economic boom in China is sweeping Laos along in a much less dramatic fashion (ok thing)  and China is in Laos in a big way developing some much needed infrastructure (good thing) using primarily Chinese labour (bad thing)  and stripping the land of resources- particularly timber (very bad thing).

We wobbled our way on to the small canoe which took us from the Thai side of the Mekong to the Laos side where we quickly obtained our visas (Cdn visas are apparently the most expensive to obtain because we charge so much for people from Laos to visit Canada- not sure that's a fair trade!!). After losing another page and a half in our passports we found the floating slow boat parking lot and piled aboard along with 6 Aussies, 4 Dutch, and 4 Americans. The boat was less of a boat and more of a series of trailers (AT: after tornado) glued together with cut out sides and removable seating- when you pay a little more, you get seating that looks to have had a former happy life in the back of a Chevy minivan- if you're a cheapie, the comfortable seating is stored on the roof and benches are installed (there were 16 passengers on our boat but with the wooden benches 120 people could be squeezed in!!). True to form, I was more than happy to throw thousands of Kips (Lao money) at the problem to make sure DH traveled in style.

People went to great lengths to distinguish the slow boats from the fast boats (those speed demons could do our 2 day adventure in 6 hours apparently). The designated guide on our boat was on one of the rocket ships once and lost two teeth for his trouble- first and last time for that. With rocks just below the surface, rapids, and swirling water, I can't imagine why anyone would be in that big a hurry- we did see one helmet floating in the river sans the head it was protecting.

Our trip was one of those slow, meandering trips that gives you plenty of time to daydream (oops- did I say "daydream"-  I meant to say "listen intently to the storytelling of DH"). We also got to know our fellow passengers including honeymooners from Chicago, a couple from Florida that seemed to be, unknowingly, living in Bangkok illegally, and a couple from a place near Sydney, Australia who foolishly offered us a place to stay when we were in the area. By the time we made Pak Beng  (boat travel at night is inadvisable), we had bonded sufficiently to include a drinking game in our dining experience. I'm not sure I've done the drinking game thing since some best-forgotten evenings of Passout back in University days but the Lao version of Passout was something altogether different. Apparently we were drinking some local Snake Whiskey (which I think/hope is regular whiskey with a snake, among other things, marinating inside the bottle), and instead of dice, a recently decapitated chicken head was shaken between two plates and the direction of the beak determined the shot glass victim. DH was happy to play but I had to drink her portions as well as my own- needless to say I had enough SW to start seeing two chicken heads- both pointing their little beaks at me.

The next day was more of the same meandering with the breathtaking scenery of the Mekong all around us. We did stop at a couple of villages which made for a nice break- the locals were very used to drop-ins but made us feel very welcome nonetheless. If all Lao people have a similar demeanor, we going to have a great time here. We also stopped at the Pak Ou Cave which was filled with Budda statues of all shapes and description and was still an active place of worship. The cave and villages were nice distractions and a good opportunity to stretch the legs, but the star of the show was the Mekong River itself (even if we didn't see any of the legendary/endangered Giant Catfish- up to 9 ft long and over 400 lbs). I really hope that this river doesn't turn into another of our many lost treasures of the world but I fear that it is already well down that path.
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