Slow boat into Laos


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Asia » Laos » West » Pakbeng
December 10th 2008
Published: December 11th 2008EDIT THIS ENTRY

From Chiang Khong in Thailand I got a boat to Laos down the Mekong River. This was a really good way to see the country side and the Mekong river valley, as well as make some new friends. The trip was to be 2 days on a boat not designed for comfort. I was going to say that the benches that you sit on were like church pews but that would be an insult to church pews. They did tell us to get pillows (which they were selling) before we got on the boat, as 2 days on a bench is not for the faint of heart or the skinny behind.
I should start from the beginning here. I had bought a ticket from a travel agency in Chiang Khong that included a ferry to the other side of the Mekong to Laos, a guided Lao visa processing, a packed lunch for the first day's journey, and the actual slow boat itself. In the morning they picked me up from my guesthouse on time, brought me to the river and we crossed over to Laos in a little dingy with a motor on it. No problems so far. Here is where it just went nuts. We had to get our Lao visa here as well as get our passports stamped. Now there were about 70 people doing the same thing and we totally overwhelmed this little towns' immigration office. It was a complete cluster F---. No lines, no one to tell you you needed this form or that form, different forms for different countries of origin, so once you waited 20 minutes in a line you would often have to go back and start all over again b/c you didn't have the right form. It looked like a scene from the floor of the stock market - people waving pieces of paper and shouting their demands at anyone who would listen. Our "guide" was nowhere to be seen.
Anyway, after that was all sorted out and everyone got their visa into Laos, they gave us our lunches and sent us off waving like parents on the first day of school. A truck then took us to the boat landing where we all gathered for the big launch. There was a good group of us- about 70 or so people. The guy who seemed to be in charge here, who's affiliations were very unclear, gave us a speech about how rotten this boat trip was going to be. He said it was slow, uncomfortable, and sometimes people would steal your luggage when you got to a port. Then he promptly gave us an alternative. "There is still time to take the bus" he said, this is after people had paid for their ticket on the slow boat. He did get about 16 people to pay extra for a bus ticket with his little talk. Good, the more room for me. I just grabbed a beer from a local market and started to consume. I figured if this boat trip was as bad as this guy made it out to be, I was going to have to self medicate.
With 16 less people, the boat wasn't so bad. We piled on and a few of the folks who had the same idea as I did sat in the front of the boat, beers in hand. (So it was only 10:30 in the am, but it had been a fairly stressful morning!) Besides myself, this crew was mostly Australian with a South African guy and a Dutch girl thrown in. One of the enterprising Australians had bought a case of Beerlao from one of the markets near the boat landing and had planned on selling it to people on the boat. At some point early in the journey, he decided that we were becoming such fast friends and that it would be quite un-Australian to sell to your mates. Needless to say, we had plenty of beers. And Australians know how to drink. There was Tom- a 21 y/o Aussie who played guitar in his band back home; Ace - a free spirited hippie originally from South Africa but currently living on Ko Tao ( a Thai island); Tammy- the Aussie mom-type of the group; Ester- a dutch girl who didn't speak too much English but laughed a whole lot; and Low and Anka, also now Australian by way of S. Africa. They were 22 and so in love they couldn't keep their hands off each other.
I have to tell you this particular drinking story. I know my mom is just shaking her head, but I thought this was interesting if not a little funny. That first day on the boat we got pretty schnokered. The time flew by and we all had a good time, at least those of us drinking at the front of the boat did. There was a monk at the front of the boat though, who thought we were being too rowdy. At one point in the trip he came over and told us so. Something about you need to be quiet. Despite it sounding a lot like an order from this monk, we did honestly try to quiet down. But as I was told by others outside our group the next day, that "quiet time" lasted for about 10 minutes before we were making a ruckus again. It is hard to keep a group of drunks quiet. Just ask any bartender or ER physician.
So the next time I see the monk he is sitting in his seat pointing his fist at us. What?!? Yeah, he is staring at our group with his fist projected directly at us (it was like he was giving us the thumbs up sign WITHOUT the actual thumb up). He didn't say a word, but he didn't have to. His evil eye said it all. I tried to ask him what that was all about, but he didn't say anything. Apparently the time for words was over. Well, we didn't take much stock in this gesture/warning either and continued to have our little party at the front of the boat.
We landed that night at Pak Beng, Laos. Day number one on the slow boat in the tank. No one was robbed, no one fell overboard and no one in our group had any hemorrhoids (that they admitted to). All in all, a success not foretold by our lovely head guy back at the landing. But the party continued. We spilled out of the boat and continued the madness in Pak Beng. Now this town a few years ago was nothing. This slow boat trip has apparently put the town on the map because it is a good (and pretty much the only) stopping point for the trip. The town had a plenty of guesthouses, but the electricity shut down at 10 pm and sometimes when they didn't expect it too. I was going to get some breakfast the next morning before heading onto the boat because one of the restaurant owners next to my guesthouse was waving me in with the enticing chant of "you want breakfast?" Sure I did. But just as I was about to sit down, he said, "oh, no breakfast".
"what do you mean no breakfast? You just got me to come over here for breakfast."
His reply was simply "no more electricity". Except they said "electric city" instead of electricity. Not kidding.
Oh well. That is why God invented granola bars.
But I digress from the rest of this story. As I was saying before I so rudely interrupted myself, was that we all ate dinner together that night, my boat crew and I. Somehow, somewhere, some Lao Lao whiskey appeared on the table and this was quickly imbibed as well. Long story short, before I know it, we are singing songs at this restaurant and one of the Australian guys, Tom, is falling all over himself (see the pic, Tom is the one with his arm around me). We leave the restaurant, but not before Tom managed to kick over a chair or two. Unfortunately, I had to hear about the rest of the night via testimonials from others as I was indisposed for the rest of the night. Ahem.
But apparently Tom wasn't done. He tried to pick a fight with some Lao guys that night. This was broken up by Low and Ace who wisely decided to take him back to his guesthouse to sleep it off. Tom was having none of this and tried to pick a fight with Ace and Low, who had just saved his bacon from the Lao guys. Things got a little out of hand at the guesthouse, as the owner woke up and asked them to be quiet, Tom punched a wall and Ace punched Tom in the head. Now, I'm not sure of the sequences of events here or even what caused what, but piecing the story together the next day, Ace told me that there seemed to be no other way to quiet Tom down than to knock him out. This was from the hippie in the group. Classic.

The next day, Tom has no recollection of the events that transpired the prior night, but everyone else did. Including the owner of the guesthouse who showed up with some supposed police demanding $200 for monks to bless the room as it now had "bad energy". No joke. No one ever did see a proper badge from the alleged policeman. But he paid the $200 just to get out of there. There was no physical damage to the room by the way. The only damage done was to Tom's right hand and left eye. You've never seen an Aussie with a worse hangover than this kid had the next day. Not just a hangover but a black eye, a swollen hand and $200 less in his wallet. There was much speculation as to the origin of this incredible bad luck and we all had to agree that Tom must have taken the brunt of the Monk curse the previous day. That or the two jugs of Lao Lao whiskey that he drank. Being the romantics that we were, we liked to think of it as the Monk Curse.
At any rate, the next day was much more subdued. Mostly we just tried to sleep. I was able to talk to others on the boat and they did say that we were pretty loud, although not too many people seemed to really mind except the monk. The Australians tried to mount another charge at some beers but this mostly fizzled. We hit Luang Prabang in good fashion after about 8 hours on the boat that day. Aside from talking to a few others on the boat, I mostly just spent my time trying to find a comfortable position to sit in.
We got off the boat in search of a whole new guesthouse in a whole new town. And the cycle repeats...

Next stop spring break, Lao style.

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