International Writers Magazine: Thailand
Down the Mekong
and Justin Furry
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 didnt impress us. The mentality didnt 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
rides $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 didnt 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 familys 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.
Furries December 2006
of Pai in
The Flurries Its
a place whose merits one is reluctant to broadcast.
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