The International Writers Magazine: Thailand

Floating Down the Mekong
Libby and Justin Furry

Our Thai visa on the verge of expiration, we were forced to make a run for the border. After ironically getting sick from the motion sickness medicine, we missed the third-class bus out of Chiang Mai and had to spring for first-class seats – a mere $3 and well worth the bump. Able to stretch out our legs in air-conditioned comfort, the six-hour ride to Chiang Khong on the Thailand/Laos border was a breeze.

The bus dropped us off on the far south side of town, and the ferry to Laos is on the far north side. There might be a bus-tuk tuk conspiracy surrounding that one. Once at the river crossing, we got our exit stamp on the Thai side, hopped in a long and narrow, rickety wooden “ferry” boat, and two minutes later, we were across the Mekong River and into a whole new country.

In contrast to the travel agencies selling Laos visas in Thailand who told us getting the visa at the Huay Xai border would take all day, we had our visas in hand five minutes after getting off the boat. The border town didn’t impress us. The mentality didn’t seem to be one of welcoming tourists, but rather one of how to pry tourists’ money right out of their hands as quickly as possible. After purchasing our boat tickets for the following day, we retired in at one of the many guesthouses along the main road.

The next morning we boarded the slowboat for a two-day trip to Luang Prabang via the Mekong. Arriving at the launch at 9:30 a.m. as instructed, we soon realized the “slow” in slowboat must be in reference to the time it takes to leave the dock. More than three hours later, our vessel was finally headed down the Mekong.

Once we got going, the scenery was breathtaking and well worth the boat ride’s $23 price tag. The background was filled with knotty, mountainous hills covered by trees dripping on trees. In the foreground, sandbars and outcroppings reminiscent of icebergs hopscotched along the banks. Villages of bamboo and grass huts sprinkled throughout, while children in bathing and birthday suits splashed on the shore, waving to the passersby. We were met by small fishing boats and fastboats, a mode of transport involving crash helmets that is not for the weak of heart. The occasional rapids also made for occasional rushes of exhilaration.

The wooden slowboat fits 80 passengers snugly, but with wide open windows and plenty of fresh air, the trip was relatively comfortable (extra cushion could come in handy, though). A couple of hours into the trip, we anchored in front of a village, where a family was waiting with baskets of snacks and drinks to sell. They rushed aboard the boat, the 5-year-old girl shouting, “Beer Lao, real cheap!” As quickly as they boarded, they were back on shore counting their kip and we were back on the river motoring toward our next destination.

We arrived in Pakbeng, the halfway point, to great fanfare. It seemed the entire town came to the port to help us with our bags find us a room for the night. We chose a guesthouse at the end of the street, then went foraging for food. Restaurant after restaurant, we were bombarded with invitations from the owners to dine at their eating place. We finally settled on the one place that didn’t invite us in – a dark, candlelit establishment with no menus, no drinks, and apparently no electricity. It dawned on us after we made ourselves at home that we might have just walked into an unsuspecting family’s dining room. They fed us a delectable meal of spicy pork and sticky rice, with an appetizer of fish jerky followed by a shot of Lao whisky. We found out later it is both bad manners and bad luck to decline a whisky shot offered by the hosts.

Our guesthouse posted a sign that read, “Lights out at 10 p.m.”  They meant this literally. As the clock struck 10, the generator was turned off and most of the street went pitch black. At 4 a.m., the town was awoken by very persistent roosters, each seeming to one-up the next with its crooning abilities.
We headed down to the pier to embark upon yet another boat. What a luxury, we initially thought, with the extra room and comfortable seating. As we voyaged down the river, we soon found out why we started the day with more room. Every half-hour or so, the captain was waved to shore by villagers wanting to go downstream with all of their cargo (50-kg. bags of rice, textiles, live chickens, pet dogs and other miscellaneous wares). Just when we thought we were filled to the brim, we were headed to shore to make another pickup, whole families coming aboard. Somehow, we always made room; it was almost biblical.
Fourteen hours on a hard wooden bench and slowly, the cramps in our rears began to intrude on the pleasure of the ride. Just as we reached our limit, we also reached our destination. Sailing into port, the spell of the Mekong serenade was unbroken.
© The Furries December 2006

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