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Anywhere but the UK Almost three years of saving and hard work since graduation have culminated in this trip. My inspiration has come from reading inumerable atlas's and watching the quality output of the BBC ever since I was a kid. My route has changed in it's scope and length since my orignial ideas. The theme however,remains the same: to get beyond the shores of our tiny island and to experience and explore the world beyond. Oh and to have a good time and not work for six months!

Slow Boating The Mekong

LAOS | Sunday, 3 June 2007 | Views [961]

It was time for a detour.  For most of the last three months we had been following a fairly rigid plan which we had predetermined before leaving home.  A change and some adventure was in order, to this end we booked onto the slow boat to Luang Prabang in Laos.  Having spoken with many other travelers we had been informed that this former bastion of Communism was a paradise, similar in many ways to Thailand before it became tourism central.

Our journey began early with a scam.  We were overcharged by $18 for the Laos visa by a sleazy tourism agent in Chiang Mai who appeared to be halfway through his sex change into a lady-boy.  Mark and I, both realising this was a scam became rather irate.  Unfortunately we had already paid this bastard to take us to the border so we didn’t want to ruffle his feathers too much and quietly resigned ourselves to the rip off.

A fairly uneventful bus journey brought us to Chiang Khong in northeastern Thailand to a Guesthouse staring down the town of Huay Xai in Laos over the Mekong River.  This, relatively, narrow strip of water was all that condemned 5.8 million people to surviving on a mere $440 a year while living to an average age of 54, 13 years less than their Thai counterparts. 

The journey the following morning began early. Numerous transfers were involved, firstly to the immigration office on the back of a pick up truck and then secondly across the Mekong on a boat which looked about ready to capsize!  Throughout this we were getting reacquainted with the three Irish lads we had met in Kuala Lumpur.  Since we had last spoken to them they had spent a month of solid drinking in Chiang Mai and had arrived late last night for the crossing to Laos.

Upon reaching Laos things seemed much the same, but different.  The language was similar to northern Thai and the people were, like the Thais, welcoming and friendly.  The first hint that we were in a one party, communist, partially police state came when upon leaving the immigration office our passports were seized for a ‘police check’.  However, thirty minutes later they were returned and we were crammed like cattle into our tiny berths on the slow boat to Luang Prabang.

The term slow boat was no exaggeration.  For six and a half hours the boat chugged its way down the Mekong.  All the time negotiating jagged bedrock which jutted up at acute angles and, given the chance, would have torn the boat into tiny pieces should the helmsman have decided to have a momentary lapse in concentration.  For an hour or more we passed nothing but mountains and trees. The only sign of habitation being occasional small huts with attached slashed and burnt clearings where a sole farmer was now raising a crop of rice.  If I ignored the speakers, brought on board by some young English lads, churning out the latest Arctic Monkeys album I could have sworn I had been transported back in time!

Seven hours later and we arrived in Pak Beng the halfway point of our journey.  Quickly, everyone disembarked fanning out to find the nearest available guesthouse before showering and heading back out for an Indian meal at a restaurant near the waterfront.  Following the meal Mark and I shared some beers and guitar with the Irish lads, a couple of French fellas and a Japanese guy, who spoke as much English as I do Japanese.  Promptly at 10pm the power was cut and the candles were lit we carried on for another hour until 11 when Mark and I headed back to our hotel.

An early rise the next morning saw us capture the ‘comfortable’ seats on the boat and we felt pretty smug.  That is until we were promptly evicted and informed that these seats had been reserved for government officials and were ushered to the best seats in the house.  In the Engine Room!

The boatmen arranged us some couch like chairs which covered three bums, but the remaining four of us were condemned, or so we thought, to sitting on the backpacks.  All this time more backpacks were being passed back to us and it felt as though we should be drawing a wage for our efforts.  So many bags came through that Mikey, one of the Irish lads, had been trapped in the rear of the boat and couldn’t be seen for the wall of bags.  Something needed to be done.  Within minutes of the engine starting we had rearranged to bags to make possibly the most comfortable seats/beds on the boat!

This time the first half of the journey passed like a dream.  I was able to sleep for a good two hours of the journey and awoke to find that another five or more people had been drawn to the back of the boat.  No doubt drawn to the smoky aromas which were gently wafting into the front part of the boat courtesy of Pier and Hoke, our French and Japanese friends of the night before.

The remaining six hours were a great craic.  Beers were passed around and the guitars came out.  There was a bit of a sing-along and all the while we drifted past ever more spectacular scenery.  Upon reaching Luang Prabang at around 5pm it seemed sad to break up the party, but it will no doubt continue over the next couple of days.  Even if pubs do close at 11:30 in Laos! 

Tags: On the Road

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