SE Asia — III: The slowboat

I got a pickup truck ride to the bus station. Pickups are another popular form of public transportation here, besides the tuk-tuk. They have two rows of seats in the back, much like the limos at Crowduck, and you just tell the driver where you’re going before you get on. I got a bus to Chiang Khong, a town on the Thai–Lao border. It seemed like a short distance on the map, but the ride took seven hours. The time passed unremarkably. I heard a lot of Thai music. The singers were earnest enough, but the instrumental part of it sounded like it was recorded on a keyboard by a man named Sven who recently read a book called Thai Music: Theory and Practice. Once we got away from Chiang Mai, we started passing through places that looked much more authentic, where all the houses were made out of bamboo and thatch, and there were country markets and towns free of Westerners. I wished I were on a motorbike so I could stop at these places and have a look around, maybe get a lunch and try to chat with someone working at the restaurant. Oh well.

An efficient, quick-talking Thai woman was waiting for us at the bus stop with flyers about her guesthouse and a pickup (without seats in the back) that we could ride to it. It looked good so all the Westerners on the bus got in the truckbed and went there. It turned out to be outstanding. They have a restaurant looking out over the Mekong River, which was how I saw it for the first time. The food was delicious and I played cards and talked about travel with the other Westerners. Among them were an English guy and two very attractive French girls; the English guy was traveling with them and talked about his luck to have found “two French wives”. It was totally quiet and calm aside from the karaoke that drifted in softly from a bar across the river in Laos. I regretted that I’d be leaving so soon, because I’d clearly found the perfect place to stay. Later the proprietor’s boyfriend-husband-guy came out to the deck to talk to us. He’s from Florida but speaks in a down-home Omaha drawl. (Which the French girls could only understand about half of.) He told us things about Laos that we didn’t know. Only ten years ago or so, it was impossible to go into the country at all. Now it still hangs onto its communism, but is clearly going capitalist, so they don’t want to let it show. The result is silliness like the bus situation. Private bus companies are allowed to start in Laos, but they can’t use the government bus station because that would ruin the communist image. So they have to leave from some other place in town. If they get prosperous they can start running another bus to a second destination, but that bus has to leave from somewhere else. It’s hard to figure out where to catch your bus in Laos. Tourism has barely started in Laos, and though they’re really embracing it, it’s in its infancy and they’re still figuring lots of things out. That appealed to me a lot.

In the morning, everyone interested got a free ride to the border post. This was a little modular building near a dock. Once I filled out the appropriate forms to say I was leaving Thailand, I paid a man 5 baht to ferry me across the river on a boat as narrow as a canoe but shallower and at least twice as long. This enabled me to walk up to Lao immigration, a collection of three little modular buildings surrounding a small square at the top of steep steps and covered with dozens of people all waiting for their passports to be suitably examined and processed. There was no line, just a crowd. It took an hour, but I got mine done and hurried off to get a ticket for the slowboat.

To get to Luang Prabang, you can take a bus, sure, but the Mekong has been taking people from one place to another much longer than any highway has, and it’s a lot prettier to boot. The Mekong is the region’s big river, the tenth largest in the world, draining part of China and most of the countries of Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia. It’s old and wild and mysterious and full of fish big enough to swallow you that live nowhere else in the world. So with my ticket I boarded a boat a little wider than a bus but probably as long as three. It had a roof but instead of having windows it was open-air.

As I got on I discovered with some dismay that the boat was completely full of Westerners. Evidently the Lao people stopped using boats to get to Luang Prabang in two days when the bus started being able to do it in one. Now the only people still traveling by the old impractical method are people who have nothing to do and like scenery: tourists. But I wrote it off to fate or modernization, and sat down on a repurposed car seat next to a guy named Mark and waited for the journey to begin.

The boat was running on Lao time. My guidebook was quick to stress that Laos is a supremely unhurried country. I sat on the boat for a long time, chatting with Mark a little, and people slowly started speculating on when it might actually leave. A guy had lost his bag, so we figured once that was cleared up we’d get going. But then he found it and we were still docked, so we had to figure that the reason was more obscure or mystical. The engine might be misbehaving—though we hadn’t heard anyone even try to start it yet. Many suspected that the driver was just waiting until the time was right: at the moment, the river wasn’t properly auspicious. After a while the engine abruptly chugged to life, a cheer arose from the passengers, and we nosed out into the river.

The Mekong is not, like the Mississippi, a broad, slow, stately river. It’s narrow and fast and lined with big, jagged, black rocks. The banks are rarely sandy and flat, and nowhere do they flatten out to a big plain or anything of the sort. Instead they jump directly out of the water and continue toward the sky to become mountains. Each mountain is covered in forest that grows with the special vigor that you only find in the tropics. There’s nothing to make plants calm down once a year here, take a rest and wait until next spring, so they grow non-stop, ever bigger, and on every patch of soil that isn’t constantly hacked back to zero. Sometimes they grow in other plants, or even around them. I saw trees during my trip that had been embraced and then strangled by vines that had now replaced the tree, in the same shape but hollow inside. The tropics are a restless place. I stared out of the boat and watched mountain after restless mountain go by. Any one of them would be amazing, but now I had an unbroken chain of them.

I took a look at the boat’s engine and it looked like it had been pulled from a semi truck. Whatever the case, it made conversation impossible, so I had nothing to do but watch what was happening along the banks. Just a few minutes down from the launch, I saw a group of kids skinny-dipping near some beached canoes. A little later cows started appearing, grazing along the banks, drinking some water, flipping their ears around. This gave me a peaceful feeling. Sometimes there would be a person leading the cows from one place to another. Once, we stopped at a place where there was no apparent dock and let someone on or off, and a bunch of kids crowded up to the boat trying to sell us beers (these are the kids in the picture). They didn’t sell very many because the boat didn’t stay long, but they seemed pretty cheerful about it nonetheless. On almost every mountain, it seemed, we would pass a little hut made of wood and thatch, nearly invisible against the enormity of the hill behind it, like a fly on a mammoth’s back. Later, in the afternoon, we passed through some narrow spots with rapids that were at least a little bit worrying. But the pilot seemed to have waited for just the right moment and the river let us pass unharmed.

I was enjoying the scenery, but it wasn’t changing much, so I thought I’d go up front away from the engine noise and see if there was anyone interesting on the boat. But alas, there wasn’t. The front had become a gathering of people who were playing drinking games with Beerlao from the store at the back and talking about parties past and future. Others had taken out their iPhones and were playing games. I didn’t understand why they bothered to get on the boat at all. They clearly weren’t getting much out of the scenery.

We stopped for the night at a place called Pakbeng, which used to be a real village but now serves only as a place for tourists to sleep and eat until the boat starts up again the next morning. Waiting for us at the dock were guys saying furtively, “Pst. Hey. S’mohk wíd? O·pee·um? You got girlfriend, you want big room, boom-boom?” I avoided them, but they still made me depressed. I found a restaurant and had làap, a quintessentially Lao dish made of minced meat mixed with various shredded leaves, including lots of cilantro. Delicious. Then I sought out places to sit quietly with people and a beer and talk, which led me to discover fun facts like the fact that working in Australia, especially in mines, can be extremely profitable. But soon I’d had enough and I just slept.

We had a similar delay getting started the next morning, but eventually we did start moving, and I sat closer to the front to get away from the engine, a decision that worked out really well for me. It turned out there actually were people on the boat who weren’t completely vapid, and I got to know an 18-year-old who’s fished off the coast of Alaska for the last four summers, a guy who climbed on top of the boat yesterday, and a girl who likes canoeing. She and I got along pretty well, but over the next few days we repeatedly failed to ever meet each other when we were trying to meet each other—we’d just pass each other on the street and exchange quick words and then go where we’d been going. It was actually funny.

Along the banks were more cows, and more huts, but also more interesting stuff. We saw a man go up alongside a cow and get on it, then lead the other cows along behind it. The rapids got more intense, barely wide enough for the boat. The black rocks were threatening to dash us asunder from either side. On top of them, here and there, I could see little concrete towers about four feet high. I couldn’t figure it out, but discussed it with my neighbors, and we decided the Mekong must do some serious flooding in the rainy season and those are markers to keep extremely intrepid boats from scraping bottom during the floods. The tops of these markers were at least eight feet above current surface. Around the middle of the day, the most amazing thing happened: two guys came into view escorting an elephant along the crumbly steep banks. It looked like an amazing and absolutely terrifying job.

People were starting to make comments like “I’m ready to be off this boat” when Pak Ou Cave appeared, telling us that Luang Prabang was close. It’s a crevice in a solid vertical wall of limestone right along the riverbank. If I had been kayaking I could’ve paddled to the wall and touched it. Inside the crevice are hundreds and thousands of old Buddha images. Apparently when you no longer need a Buddha image in Luang Prabang, you take it to Pak Ou to get rid of it. We got only a meager glimpse at the cave but were able to fully enjoy the rock wall. Within a half hour or so, we had reached the boat dock at Luang Prabang. Everyone got their stuff and cleared off the boat. I guess I was a little less anxious than most, though.

File under: adventure · Places: Thailand, Laos

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I would loved to be on the boat ride. My kind of thing. Another exciting day in the life. One adventure after another. So did you see the area in Laos called the killing fields. Probably a bit gruesome but also a period in that area that was real. I can't tell you how much I love these stories. Yes I can . I love these stories G.Pa.

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I have my map of southeast Asia out so I can follow your trip better. Loving thinking about your trip up the Mekong. Sounds like you were really getting into it by then. Makes me want to go there, too. Oh oh, I feel another trip coming on. Ha. Grandma

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