The Mighty Mekong River (Day 1)

Trip Start Sep 01, 2010
Trip End Jun 18, 2011

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  , Oudômxai,
Monday, April 18, 2011

So after our final night's sleep in Thailand we were up with lark this morning to pack our bags ready for our crossing into Laos and journey down the Mekong River. The guesthouse which we were staying in offered us breakfast and a little lunch box (and when I say little, I mean little) and drove us down to the border crossing once everyone was ready. There were about 40 people on our tour and after a little bit of hassle trying to reunite everyone with their luggage we went down to the Thai Immigration office to officially get stamped out of Thailand. Laos and Thailand are separated by the Mekong River so the way the border crossing works is that you get stamped out of Thailand on one side and then take a small boat across the river into Laos and get processed by Laos Immigration on the other side. It was a blisteringly hot day and everyone was getting stressed at the Laos Immigration point; however that was mostly because we were travelling with a bunch of 18 year old hungover idiots who didn’t understand what a visa was and why they had to fill in paperwork to enter a new country. The night before we had got chatting to a sweet couple from Stoke, they were cute and made us giggle but after a while they started to get on my nerves because they were treating us like their bloody parents and were constantly asking us: "where do I go now, what form do I have to fill in, do I have to pay money, I haven’t got any American money, is it always this hot, what does immigration mean?". And after a while I wanted to strangle them both, it’s difficult enough looking after ourselves without having two other people clinging onto us. Once all 40 of us had got through immigration we were met by our next tour guide who would escort us to the slow boat which would take us down the Mekong. To get to the slow boat we first had to walk to the tour guides office so that he could check all our names against his register. Once this was done they started to transfer us to the boat dock, the tour guide and his assistant did this shuttling us all to and fro in an extended tuk-tuk and with only about 8 seats in it and (40 people to shuttle) we fought our way to the front of the queue and got on the first trip to the boat dock. And this is where our day started to go very, very badly.

With all our luggage safely stowed in the back of the tuk-tuk us and about 6 other people started the short drive to the dock. However when the tuk-tuk stopped we weren’t at the dock we were at a café in the middle of nowhere. The guide told us that the dock was just a short walk away and once he had transferred everyone over he would give us our boat tickets and we would all walk to the dock together. Just as he was getting back into the tuk-tuk to go and collect the next group of people he casually said “Can you all please leave your passports on the table so that I can buy your boat tickets? I will collect them all later”. Urrmm, what did he just say? I think you can guess what our reactions were. We wanted to know why the hell he needed our passports to buy our boat tickets and he seemed very offended that we would even question him. He said he would talk to everyone once we were all back together and within about half an hour all 40 of us were sitting in the café having a colossal barney with the tour guide. Apparently he needed to take all of our passports down to the dock where they would get checked by a police-officer; from here the ticket booth would issue us all with our boat tickets. Now some of the idiots in our tour group couldn’t see the problem with this and gladly dropped their passports into the carrier bag he was holding open. However there were about 10 of us, Tom and I included, who were trying to lead some kind of group rebellion against this guy. He was getting really angry at us because we wouldn’t give him our passports and he kept saying how hurt and upset he was that we didn’t trust him. At this point another tour group also turned up at the café and started having exactly the same problems as us: things turned nasty between them very quickly and there was lots of swearing and shouting. Everyone was getting angrier and angrier with each other; some people from the tour group were getting angry at the 10 of us because they thought we were holding the group up, we were getting pissed off because he couldn’t give us a good reason why he actually needed our passports and the guide was starting to get very angry at everyone. In the end the guide just snapped at us and told us that if we didn’t give him our passports then we would be forfeiting our tickets, would be removed from the tour group and left to find our own way to Luang Prabang. Not a very nice prospect considering we didn’t even know where we were.

Things were starting to turn ugly and I had visions of the whole thing turning into a giant fist-fight. Now if there is one thing I have taken onboard from our guidebooks it is that you should never ever get into a violent situation with a local person; you never know what you are letting yourself into, they could have weapons, be some sort of ninja or call the entire village to beat the crap out of you. So Tom and I talked to some of the other people who were upset and offered a solution: we offered that a group of us could accompany the tour guide to the police check and take charge of protecting our passports. After a good half hour of peace-talks we managed to come to a conclusion: the tour guide would wait at the café and his assistant would escort a small group of us to the police check, we would oversee that our passports weren’t being nicked, copied or tampered with and then bring our passports back to the rest of the group at the café. The tour guide agreed to this but wouldn’t stop blabbering on about how upset he was that we didn’t trust him with our passports. We tried to tell him that it was nothing personal but that we just weren’t comfortable handing over our most valuable possession to him, to be honest though he was a complete and utter arsehole and I can’t actually remember the last time I was so furious with anyone. He was so aggressive and condescending, never gave us a reasonable explanation for why he needed to take our passports and never even bothered to tell us his name (I won’t tell you the names we decided to give him). It made me feel slightly better knowing that he was going to stay at the café because if something did happen to our passports there were enough of us to pin him down and wait for the police to show up. So we randomly picked a group of people to take care of everyone’s passports and pretty soon they were down at the police-check. At the café the tour guide was busy telling us how he hoped that this situation wouldn’t have a negative impact on our first impressions of Laos and asked us not to say bad things about Laos or his travel agency on the internet…well I’m sorry mate but that’s exactly what I’m going to do…. Laos is a beautiful country but if anyone reading this ever intends to visit then DO NOT book anything with the LaoLuang Travel Company. About 20 minutes later the smaller group returned with our passports and boat tickets and I could have cried I was so relieved. The people who had gone to the police-check told us what had happened and re-assured us that they never took their eyes off our passports. It was a small consolation but it was the best we could do in the circumstances.  

As soon as we had our passports back in our hands and had double-checked our boat tickets we picked up our bags and started walking towards the dock. We were still so furious we didn’t even wait for the tour guide to show us the way, we just walked in the general direction and pretty soon we found the dock. We never saw the tour guide again because he didn’t even bother to come to the dock with us or even say goodbye. When we got to the dock we managed to find our way to the boat by sign-language with the locals and just wandering around…the sight of 40 very red and stressed backpackers must have been quite a sight! There was a slow boat waiting next to the platform but as we got closer we saw that it was already full and the people on it were looking pretty unhappy; by this time it was almost 1 o’clock and it turns out that these people had been sitting in the boat waiting to go since 9am! We were all hanging around waiting to see if another boat was going to turn up for us when we got directed to board a boat which was tethered to the dock slightly further down. We all started to clamber on when suddenly we heard a bit of a commotion inside the boat. Tom and I were at the back of the queue of people getting on the boat and we could hear whisperings coming along the queue that there were no seats on the boats. We didn’t believe that there were no seats left, how could there be no seats left the boat had only just turned up a second ago? However when we got on the boat we suddenly understood. It wasn’t that there were no seats left on the boat…it was that there were no seats on the boat full stop. The boat was just an empty shell with no seats, no aisles and nowhere to put our bags. By this point we had all descended into hysteria and, having lost the will to live, Tom and I parked our bums on the floor and proceeded to laugh out of pure desperation and frustration. With 40 of us to fit in the boat everyone ended up lying top-and-tail across the floor of the boat with our big backpacks piled up in the corner. The funny thing was that we had especially bought some soft cushions to sit on because we had heard that the seats can be quite hard…now that we didn’t even have a seat our cushions seemed kind of stupid! We were all sure that our nob-head tour guide had told the boat staff to give us the worst boat possible and I have never heard so many different ways to curse someone and in so many different languages as I did that day!

Considering that we were all lying on a hard wooden floor which was covered in dirt and muck we were just starting to get comfortable when another tour group came wandering into the dock. We wondered what the hell was going on when suddenly they were told to get on our boat! Where the hell were another 40 people going to fit?! We were already lying on the floor in a big heap, we couldn’t possibly fit another 40 people in! All I could do was laugh because I think if I hadn’t of laughed I would have cried my heart out. There was nowhere to move and the boat staff were telling us all to make more room but there was just nowhere to go. The second tour group were starting to lose their tempers when the boat staff told everyone that our boat was the last one of the day and that if people didn’t get on this one then they would have to find a place to stay the night and come back tomorrow. Well that was the final nail in the coffin. All of the second tour group pushed their way into the boat and proceeded to lie and sit in any tiny space they could find. In the end there were about 80 people crammed onto the floor of the boat and we were all lying on top of each other, using other people’s bags as pillows and stretching our legs out over each other. One guy said that we looked like we were on a slave ship. We were all trying to make the best of it but it had already been such an emotionally difficult day that most people either went straight to sleep or got drunk on Laos beer (it was quite funny when after half an hour and 3 cans of larger they realized there was no toilet on the boat and we were stuck on here for the next 7 hours).

Once we got moving the boat trip was actually really beautiful. The Mekong River is one of the world’s most iconic rivers, it is up there with the Nile and the Amazon so we were honoured to be spending the next two days sailing along it. The scenery was stunning: as the different layers of mountains faded into the haze they looked like a watercolour painting. We both napped during the 7 hour journey: at one point I woke up and had stretched my legs out across the girl next to me and she was fast asleep with her arm across my stomach. It was a very unusual experience. Thankfully we arrived at our stop-over point at about 8pm. Tom and I checked into a grotty guesthouse for the night and went out for some food. Now since we have been traveling we have been offered a huge variety of drugs by street-side dealers, however our first night in Laos marked us being offered the most hardcore drug so far….a little old granny tried to sell us opium! What a crazy way to start our time in Laos! Considering what a difficult day it had been we decided to splash out and have a really nice meal for our tea, so we ended up getting very tipsy on delicious Laos beer and I had curry and rice while Tom had a buffalo steak and chips. I think it is safe to say that today has been our most unusual first day in any country we have visited so far, hopefully tomorrow will be much better and we will be able to form more positive opinions of Laos….after all it is such a beautiful country!                    
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rach on

after the day that you two had im finding it very hard to believe that you didnt take the old dear up on her offer ! lol xx

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