- Featured writer: Nina
- I love boat travel, I do. I’ll take a ferry over a train any day, and even a river trip will suffice. This does not mean that I enjoy having 34 Laotians sitting in my lap, with baggage, for 8 hours straight. Yet such was my predicament a couple months ago, with the additional benefit of a seat concocted from an unecessarily narrow wooden railing. I know I wanted to see the “real” country and all, but this was ridiculous. Oh well, welcome to Laos…
On a stunningly beautiful day in January, I found myself deep on the banana pancake trail. Our fellow travellers, their suposedly adventurous sprits broken by too many Chang beers, Thai prostitutes, and dodgy bus transports, had chosen the “quick” bus to Luang Prabang from the Thai border. More adventurous types had taken the helmet-required “fast boats” that regularly kill their riders, driver included. I, however, did not want to die, and had handily talked my Aussie partner in crime into the “slow” boat down the Mekong. Actually I think it was his half-hearted idea since, despite his inability to ride any moving object without projectile vomiting (I love you, dear!), he is well aware of my boat fetish. Whatever, I’ll take a two-day ride in a slow boat that occasionally catches fire and sinks over either a speedboat that randomly crashes headlong into jagged rocks and submerged sandbars or ten hours trapped in a claustrophobic bus anyday. Or so I thought?
We boarded the “boat” at the border, as one is wont to do, and the first day was just lovely. Some locals, some tourists, some beautiful sights. Some snoozing, some reading, then a stop at Pak Beng, the halfway point, for the night. What is it I hear, I think, about this boat being a horrible, over-packed nightmare? It’s a joy!
Then morning dawned, and we found ourselves way late for our second day of boating. We’d spent the previous evening drinking Laos whiskey (which is not whiskey, by the way, but more akin to a deadly witches brew of whatever comes to hand that can be easily distilled) and wearing expressions such as mine below:
Also we were failing badly with the locals using our “please make me a sandwich, sir, I’m about to spend 6 hours on a boat?” plan. They were trying, I swear, but Pak Beng is the sort of town where the only generators shut off at 10pm and locals still operate on the assumption that fat, white tourists require no more food than tiny, starving Laotians. Clearly the sandwiches took a while longer. They were dang yummy though…
Finally arrived at the “ferry”, we found that the boat was full. And I’m talking “there’s no room at the inn, go birth your baby in a gutter” full. Well anyone could’ve guesed that; yesterday there were two boats, about 10 locals have since disembarked, and today there’s only the one boat going. It is at this point in a trip, I have found (you know the one, the first time that people are crowded and irritable and not everything’s going as the travel brochure said it would), that people’s response behavior starts to divide along national and socio-economic lines. I.e.- the older, richer, and more westerly you are, the grumpier and ruder you’re about to get. Case Number One: Old Rich and Western. An old couple (I know, they sound cute, don’t they? Actually I would greatly wish them one day to perish on a similarly overcrowded boat, preferably by crushing by suitcase) of Germanic stripe have commandered half the front row for their persons and their belongings. Cause screw the rest of us, they’re old, and they’d damned well better get a lot of elbow room for their luggage cause they PAID for this boat. And screw me too, for thinking that maybe the old people have chosen the wrong boat if they really need to travel with three suitcases apiece.
Case Number Two: Middle-Aged Rich and Western. Some rugged out-doorsy American types, with the over-priced REI outfits to match, have boycotted the entire proceedings and are standing on-shore, secure in the knowledge that logic will prevail, and the Laotian peasants will eventually have to fork over another boat.
Laotian Tactics For Enduring a 9 Hour Boat Ride
Case Number Three: Young Dirt-poor and Western. The five French backpackers (who look as if they’re on about country number 47) have settled in the prow, behind the captain, in imitation of the ten or so locals who are camped out on the floor rugs with the luggage that doesn’t fit in the back (we’ll call them Case Number Four: All Aged Poor and Decidedly Eastern). Most of the rest of the boat seemed to be in a bit of a stupor from the heat and humidity (Really, people, it’s not that hot. And stop swooning, you’re in Laos, where people move at the speed of dead rocks, so it’s not like you’re exerting yourselves much here) and were in no way going to oblige the two late-comers with seats. Damn you Australians, I could hear them all thinking, never on time, always reeking of alcohol, sit in the bloody aisle, why don’t you. Had none of these people read the Travel Bibles I could see them all desperately clutching? The first sentence any travel book has about this “slow boat” invariably includes the phrase “dang, those Laos people sure can fit 9,348,938 humans and a couple water buffalo on one small craft with ease”. To paraphrase. In a fit of non-decision making (yes, I’m occasionally susceptible to my own national stereotypes… We’ll call me Case Number Five: 30-For-Ever, Working on Being Less Poor, and Often Wishes She Weren’t Western), we squatted somewhere between the Frenchies and the quickly acumulating pile of suitcases. Who on earth brings a bloody suitcase on a bloody slow boat anyway, I’d like to know?
Remarkably, haha, the boat didn’t leave for about two more hours (why did we rush my morning coffee again?), in which time aproximately 30 more people boarded. We ‘d now been shuffled from the floor to a none-too-steady wooden railing that divided the prow of the boat from the remainder of its increasigly unhappy inhabitants. I was left straddling this rail and the side rail, feet propped on a pile of bags, watching one of the Frenchmen light his cigarette from his perch atop a clearly leaking barrel of petrol. The local Laotians had all either passed out cold or started what appeared to be a game called “We have Beer Laos and teacups. Let’s see how they go together!”. I was jealous, clearly.
Grumpy Old People had by now raised such a ruckus every time a local boarded with a bag (and yes, GOP’s were all significantly bigger, as were GOP themselves) that I and some Belgian kid started helping the locals on and depositing their bags in a dangerously swaying pile directly in front of the GOP. I’d also started leaning on the pile (that rail was seriously uncomfortable, my poor li’l butt hurt for like a week after…) in the hopes that it would bury some GOP and I would have more room. Hmm, maybe I should be reassigned to Case Number Six: Young-ish Rich-ish and Spoiled-ish… SPOILER ALERT: GOP made it out alive. This displeased me.
Most gloriously, however, we also acquired a giant pile of Beer Laos from the “canteen” in back, i.e. the Laos chick by the “toilet” who was hawking an urn of hot water and a pile of instant noodles. In defense of all the horrid people refusing to make room and causing every newcomer to be added atop the pile of humanity accumulating in the prow, you really couldn’t see how bad it was from the back. But they could certainly tell when the boat guys brought on a motorcycle (and bless them, they did at least have the decency to tie it on the roof).
Once underway, we all gave up on counting how many more people were added to the boat. The Americans (who had been reluctantly persuaded that no, there really wasn’t going to be any other boat and yes, they really should take this one if they ever wished to leave Pak Beng, which they clearly did) grumped for the first couple stops that we didn’t have close to enough life jackets (this is not Titanic, guys, and maybe if you weren’t wearing so much Hiker Chic gear, you wouldn’t sink when we capsize), but gave up in disgust when our capacity surpassed even the higher estimates suggested in the great Travel Bible. About 6 hours in (wasn’t this supposed to be a 6 hour tour??), I think I counted 95 people onboard, but I’m not really sure, what with the piling on top of more piles of people and, well, all that Beer Laos. Also I might coulda maybe’ve downed a soda bottle of left-over SangSom whiskey and coke in addition… My favorite part of the whole ride though? Oh, let’s see. Yup, definitely when the Laotian drinking circle up front placed an order for food, and an enormous cooking pot of something amazing smelling was brought down off the roof for them. How did that get there? Who can say. I can say that they inhaled the whole entire thing and then drank the comissary out of Beer Laos. No worries though, the captain just pulled over at a random spot in the jungle, sent a boat boy off into the bush, and welcomed him back with a couple cases of the good stuff. Thank god too, cause no one knew when that boat was going to land…
After my butt numbed over, though, the ride was stunningly gorgeous. We passed elephants and water buffalo, traditional villages and scampering children who waved and danced at the boat, and waterfalls that trickled out of the jungle into the dry-season Mekong River. None of the passengers in the back seemed to notice that their picture-perfect travel brochure was floating by just above their heads, while we Reckless Rail Riders seemed to have secured the best view in the house. I’d say the Frenchmen and the Laotians had it right fromt he beginning, every miserable, horrifying, failure of a trip can turn into an absolute joy if you just let it. Call me an optimist (although I’d rather blame the eight Beer Laos I ended up consuming before we disembarked), but this ended up being one of my favorite boat rides ever. I mean, stuck in an office somewhere back home or clapping along on the Mekong with a grinning circle of Loatian travellers? Tough choice.
- Elephants! Laos elephants!
- Read more from this author at: http://offatthewrongstop.com/