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The slow boat to Luang Phabang

LAOS | Sunday, 19 April 2009 | Views [1138]

Songkran was finally over so we could walk the streets without fear of iced water attacks. We were going to Laos and just had time to drop off our boxes to be sent home before the bus was due to pick us up. The trip to Laos was booked through Mr Pooh and the arrangement was to be picked up there at 12. Waiting we caught up with Mr Tee, hungover after 6 days of partying and the other guys we had met on the trek. They were replacing the tourist recommendations and I saw they had put mine up. One of the guys was very chatty but I had not met him before. I asked Mr Tee when Mr Pooh last trekked. The chatty fellow said he hadn't been for a few months but wanted to soon. So this was the legendary Mr Pooh! I shook his hand and complimented what he was doing and we had a good conversation about ecotrekking and sustainability The bus was late and it was the first day of the Thai year 2552 so we were asked to join them for a traditional jackfruit curry lunch with a beer. What nice people.

When the minibus did come along it was nearly full and quiet – I imagine most people had been partying for a few days and wanted the peace and quiet. I got a lot of reading in, finally finishing Kenealy's excellent “Victim of the Aurora” which I had started in Patagonia and unsuccessfully tried again in Christchurch. I guess I need to be in the Northern Hemisphere to read about the South Pole. Claire slept. Lunch was fried rice, the only option apart from 57 varieties of macadamia nut. (It was a macadamia factory).

We arrived at Chiang Kong in the evening and was surprised to see a beautifully decorated modern teak guesthouse awaiting us. Usually these package deals including accommodation are a bit flaky but this one was fine. We had a wander around the one horse town with Louisa, a Bavarian girl who was in the minibus with us. We bought some cushions in preparation for the boat and had our last meal in Thailand for a while.

Cocks crowing woke us early and after breakfast the entire contents of the guest house was ferried to the river to complete the simple Thai exit procedures. Not much in the way of information had been forthcoming from anyone – so not sure what to do next we (2 Canadians, Katie and Melissa had joined us queuing to get our passports stamped) walked down to the river and paid 10 baht for the small crossing, accompanied by a family, the matriarch dressed in traditional Lao costume.

The chaos only started once we had stepped on Lao soil. A throng of confused falang looked at the unclear visa application forms handed out by a smiley chap in military gear. No-one really knew what was going on but it seems the process was to fill out the forms (some people had 1, others 2 some poor people had 3 to complete), and hand them in along with a photo and your passport. No cash though. Then the wait for the passports to come back but they don't read the names out (or couldn't pronounce them) so it's a bit of a game. Although my instinct was to suggest a little customer-centric business process re-engineering I wholeheartedly enjoyed the total lack of organisation, especially most people's reactions to it. When we spotted our passports coming up in the stack we approached and paid the $35US fee. Then over to another counter for 10 (ten!) separate stamps clearing us for entry, our haul of passport stamps doubling in seconds. Then, unbelievably 2 more stamps to verify the other 10 and we'd made it into Huay Xai in the People's Democratic Republic of Laos.

The carnage continued, first we had to put our names down for the slow boat, although we had already paid. We added our own to a monstrous pile of rucksacks left by equally confused waiting travellers. Then a jampacked tuk tuk to a place further up the river. Seemed like a good time to have a street sandwich - baguettes the first sign of French colonial past. Then for no apparent reason everyone was asked for passports. They were handed over, bundled up and once red tape complete, left on a table for collection. I had a good choice of potential nationalities but decided to stick with my faded harp as I collected mine.

The group was sheep-like as we were ushered to the boats. The handwritten ticket said boat 74 but when we got there it was full so we boarded another, lined with little wooden benches not disimilar to ones you would find in a primary school. At the back was an empty area of floor in front of a table (the bar) and a few car seats put side by side. We had found our spot and a lot comfier than the benches it looked too.

The engine started yammering noisily a few minutes later but we were not off quite yet. The captain sauntered down to the engine room and stopped the yammering. A local in broken English explained that 3 people had not paid – anyone who was not travelling with an agency had to pay (or something to that effect). An English chap, Nathan who I chatted to in the queues at immigration said he paid the man where people put their names down. He was asked for his passport and it was whisked away. As we waited the boat bobbed around, banging into neighbouring houseboats , their inhabitants getting increasingly frustrated with having to fend off our boat.

Eventually the captain started her up again and we pushed off into the fabulous hazy scenery of the mighty Mekong rover. Slash and burn agriculture was evident immediately, the hills only barely visible in the background. Cushions, books and decks of cards started to appear. People sprawled out on rucksacks and started teaching each other card games. The bar had cold beer and the atmosphere was great, unexpectedly so in fact. It was a 2 day journey so might as well make some friends! The exception was a middle aged German who had moved seats and then came back to his original place and gruffly indicated the new occupant back to the floor. Louisa was mortified to share a passport with him.

I took a little time to explore the boat. It had a sit down toilet behind the bar (I had heard about a hole in the floor on others) and behind that the engine, which looked like something from a sixties Sci-Fi Movie and was adorned with sticks of incense and a few biscuits and other offerings, presumably warding off the bad spirits and keeping us on track. Towards the stern was the family's living area – I assume the lady behind the table was the captain's wife and the guy with the big bamboo stick who fended off the river bank and other boats, his son.

A few stops were made, including one where Nathan got his passport back (it had been on the other boat for no apparent reason) then promptly dropped it into the mud of the Mekong. 5 or 6 hours after leaving we arrived in Pak Beng and everyone filed off but not before the lady at the bar table asked me for my cushion – taking a shine to the elephant design. I started trying to explain that I needed it tomorrow as well but seeing the disappointment in her eyes I guiltily handed it over and made for shore. However a climb up razor sharp stone in flip flops carrying 2 rucksacks while fending off the multitude of hawkers enthusiastically peddling guesthouses is easier said than done. Ignoring them we chose the first one on the left and it was perfect.

After freshening up we joined the girls for dinner in a slightly bizarre restaurant promising happy times and free special whiskey. They seemed to be all out of special whiskey and when the lights went out at 10pm we figured it was time to head back. A group of guys who had been sitting beside us on the boat were eating at our guest house. We left the guys and gals to it and had just put down our books to go to sleep when our electricity went off and we heard the giggles and fumbles below as people tried to find their way without torches. No electricity means no fan though, so it was a sticky night.

Equipped with a packed lunch we got back on the same boat, and thankfully the same spot, but there were more people on the second day so it was a bit more cramped. Claire did manage a good 2 hour nap sprawled out in front of the bar underneath an animated conversation between 3 loud English guys. Fair play to her! I asked the bar lady for a loan of my cushion back and she obliged. More of the same on the second day – crude fishing nets hanging from craggy limestone rocks, kids playing naked in the soupy river underneath the rolling mostly blackened hills. Played a few games of shithead with the guys from the previous night – 3 tall dutch gap yearers, Vincent, Vincent and Paul and Wallace from Canada. The group had grown to nine.

An hour or so before arriving in Louang Phabang we passed the Pak Ou caves where a large number of no longer wanted Buddha images are stored. It was a bit of a surprise when we got to the city itself. I had been expecting just that, a city – cars, mopeds, crowds and buildings both banks of the river, maybe a few bridges. Nope – palm trees fraying in the evening sun, not a bridge in sight and only a few buildings visible on the northern bank. I gave the bar lady back the cushion and possibly made her day by giving her Claire's too.

As the slow boat people made their way up the slope to town I could visualise the hawkers preparing their onslaught. We were the last two off. “Stairs instead?”

Tags: boat, border crossing, visa


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