Death-boats down the Mekong

Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
Trip End Nov 30, 2009

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Flag of Thailand  , Chiang Rai,
Monday, November 7, 2005

I wouldn't usually write an entry for a border crossing unless I was summing a place up, but entering Lao at the crossing at Chiang Kong/Houy Xia is worth a short mention for its natural beauty and its interesting modes of river transportation.

After a 5.5 hour mini bus ride, in which the driver alternated between breakneck speed and plodding slowness (the cynic in me would say that the driver was making commission if we stayed on the Thai side overnight), we reached the banks of the Mekong 30 minutes before the border closed.

Some passengers raced off to cross and the rest of us found accommodation. Fortunately I stumbled on a cool little place called Bamboo Guesthouse.

Loft bed, Bamboo Guesthouse Gnarly flower in the garden Another cool flower

The view across the river was fantastic, the loft room cheap and cute, the garden full of funky local flowers, and the company of a handful of continental travellers much appreciated. We ate and drank into the evening and watched the stars pass by in their heavenly circuit. The only quibble one could have was the excellent Mexican food (what else would you expect on the Thai/Lao border?), which was more than a little over-priced. Still, the conversation was as sparkling as the river in the moonlight and an enjoyable evening was had by all.

Early next morning a pall of mist over the Mekong shrouded my mysterious destination. It dissipated during the hike to Thai Immigration and not long after I was on a boat to Laos. A 15 day Visa on Arrival, perfect for my needs and timeframes, was issued promptly, and then the fun really began...

Mist shrouding the destination Lao border in view

There are three ways of getting to Luang Prabang, the main northern centre in Lao. First is by indirect bus, which conveniently departs at the exact time Immigration opens, meaning another night's stay at the border. Second is the slow boat, two solid and sedate days of travel on a crate with up to 100 other passengers, including a night in an over-priced rat-hole called Pak Beng. Third is by Speed Boat - not some Miami Vice style cruiser as one would imagine but more a cross between a sardine tin and an arrow, all powered by a turbine sounding engine that cranks up to 9 people with luggage at a blistering 35 knots. I lack time so I took the third option.

We're travelling 200km in that? Rainbow in the bow wash Random village on the shore, slow boat in foreground

It was uncomfortably dangerous and dangerously uncomfortable, jammed into this thing as we careened down the river. We travelled so fast that somehow the boat displaced water forwards, like a maniacal fun-ride that defies the laws of gravity and physics. Floating logs, standing waves, currents, vortices and submerged rocks were all hazards that had to be reckoned with and it was hard to imagine that the cowboy driving would be able to dodge them all for six straight hours as we hurtled downstream. And when a stupid Italian fellow passenger goaded the driver to race an overtaking boat, I really thought we were going to die. The thin helmets and pitiful life jackets provided would have done nothing in the case of high speed impact at full throttle, which we came close to more than once. A small video in the photo gallery will give you some idea of what it was like for many an hour...

Spectacular Mekong scenery Chunky shoreline Clouds over the Mekong

Still, the landscape and scenery along the Mekong was spectacular and I somehow managed to take a few photos as we whizzed on by. The river itself averaged about 200 metres across along this stretch, with dramatic hills, dense jungle and the occasional stilt-hut village lining the shore. Although not pristine, the environment was very clean with little litter in evidence despite the constant river traffic. Herds of water buffalo are a regular sight, roaming the shoreline and wallowing in the shallows.

We made Luang Prabang just before dusk which was fortunate as you wouldn't want to be travelling at speed in the dark. Another of my nine lives is gone because of this leg and seeing as though I don't really know how many I've used, it might just be best to take the slower, safer options next time. Recent reports that the other two methods were probably no safer do little to reassure me, but a couple of Lao massages since then have eased the post-traumatic stress.

Next entry -> Luang Prabang

Great Brands of the World - Thailand

It's hard to overlook an original product and the original tonic formulation of the Red Bull family of energy drink products is a one of a kind. I believe it was this concoction that inspired the Europeans to carbonate and mass produce the canned beverage familiar to so many westerners today, and that has inspired so many imitations.

Redbull - this stuff gives you wings

No longer manufactured by some Heavy Industries corporation in Japan (nor containing the amphetamine mixture it reportedly used to), Red Bull tonic is still a popular 'pick me up' in Asia and it in turn has inspired a host of tonic-based imitators such M-150 and Shark. So, whilst others have propelled the Red Bull brand on global scale, you can thank this unassuming originator for starting it all.

I had to include this one too - a single blade Gillette Razor with 'super thin' replacement blade, available for 25 baht on Phi Phi island. There are a number of possible explanations:

1) the Gillette in Thailand has gone it alone and is marketing products about 25 generations behind Gillette's current range of three to four blade razors.

2) some moron decided to hijack the brand and then make copies of a product that is 25 generations behind the current range of three to four blade razors.

3) Gillette or the shopkeeper is dumping really old stock on a market that is a bit more sophisticated than it expects.

4) it's a joke despite the shopkeeper looking very serious about selling it.

Oldschool shave technology - the best a man can get

I should have bought it in the end but probably would have hurt myself trying to use it, so maybe leaving it was for the best.
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CraigT on

4 ways to travell the Mekong

I was lucky,,, to get a boat with a Thai tour party,, 1 day to Luang Prabang ,,10 hours. Everthing orginized,, through border crossing like a breeze,,,
Travelling with 10 Thais,,, they played a game like roulette but with 3 dice ,, lots of cards and whiskey.....

Most enjoyable trip

The Mekong is majestic....

Good work Ross

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