So for about the past five hours, I’ve been floating along the Mekong River. We’re supposed to ‘land’ in about an hour and a half in Pakbeng, find somewhere to sleep for the night and then come back for another day along the river tomorrow.
It’s been okay… not too sure what I was expecting. The boat is bigger than I thought and more comfortable. While eating breakfast this morning, our host gave us information about the day’s proceedings and what to do, where to go. He told us that the boat was a 100-seater, but our group was only 21 – it was low season. Before Songkran, the group sizes were usually about 60+. He led us to believe that we’d be the only ones on the boat. This of course makes no sense – the boat is full – full of other groups, of locals, of other travellers. They wouldn’t send a quarter full boat down the river. But we were told that the boats have improved over the past couple of years. Instead of having wooden benches, resembling church pews, they are now car seats.
Yes, we are sitting on seats removed from vans – nailed to wooden posts, but not nailed into the flooring of the boat. Some recline, some don’t. Some are in sets of two or three, some recline individually, others recline in pairs, and others don’t recline at all.
Some reading I’d done had said to get to the boat early to get a ‘better’ seat – we were all assigned seats and my ticket has ‘60’ on it. Thankfully, it’s an aisle seat, located in the rear of the middle section. All seats are forward facing, though as they aren’t nailed down, all could easily be moved around. I wonder what it would actually look like if it were high season! And how the numbering would have been had they still been wooden benches.
The weather has cooled down today. My room last night only had a ceiling fan, and my two roommates were in there first, so claimed the beds under the fan. I’m so glad that it did cool down – so the only things keeping me awake last night were my wondering mind and the loud, annoying crowing of the rooster outside.
Even with the crowing, I missed out on sunrise this morning – I set my alarm for 5.20am after Google informed me that the sunrise was 5.44am. I did a snooze, then perhaps another snooze, thinking I’d have some time. But no – as I emerged upstairs, it was completely light. I’ve told myself that as it was quite cloudy I may not have seen much anyway – the landscape looked much the same as the night before. Perhaps I’ll try tomorrow, but no pressure.
After we’d crossed the border and were outside and officially in Laos, the air had thickened, the humidity had increased and I wasn’t sure what I’d got myself in for. Thankfully, it has been quite cool with a strong breeze coming through the open plan boat and the sun hidden behind the clouds all day. We’ll see how this continues – the weather forecast for Luang Prabang is storms today and tomorrow and clouds for the weekend, but still low to mid thirties.
I tried to have a little nap earlier – I’d just finished a book and decided to tuck my head down. As much as the girls I’d been sitting next to have gathered at the front of the boat to drink and play cards had allowed me a full row, I couldn’t get into the groove and wasn’t able to get at all comfortable. I opened my eyes and allowed myself to relish the surreal-ness of the moment.
I’m currently in Laos, in a slow boat, travelling along the Mekong River – one of the longest rivers in the world. I’m in a brand new country and am surrounded by hills covered in jungle – startlingly green, leafy trees and grassy roots covering the ground. It certainly is an experience. It does remind me a little of the Amazon, yet much less wildlife. I wonder that is hiding within those tree branches and leafy roots?
The boat is long with quite a high ceiling – it’s quite steady and comfortable to walk around. There’s a small concession stand at the back, with a further back area for the smokers and presumably locals to hang their washing. The toilet on board of course leaves a little to be desired, but at least there is a toilet. That being said, there is no way I’d touch it with my bare skin, so it may as well be a squat or hole. And of course it doesn’t flush, so you need to plop a bucket of water in there. But hey, we’re in Laos, floating along the Mekong River.
We’ve had two brief stops along the way – the first had a policeman there which garnered some attention and curiosity from us foreigners, but the locals and staff seemed to joke with him and then some packages were placed on board. Perhaps rice or other food items – they appeared to be hessian bags. Perhaps some locals got on board, or got off. This is so far a great view into the Laotian way of life. Things are simpler; houses are barely wooden huts, perched on stilts, buried within the trees. There are a couple of houses with iron rooves, but most are thatched. So far I haven’t seen any satellites – quite the difference from Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand.
Perhaps priorities are different here.
The border crossing was interesting. We were sitting in limbo for over half an hour. We were taken by truck to the Thai border, stamped out of the country and left to wait for the shuttle to take us to the Laos border. On arrival, we were provided with paperwork for our visa on arrival. I’d already completed mine due to the pre-planning with my Vietnamese tour guide. So, I handed it in with my passport photo and $30USD. Being an Australian is great here – UK and US passport holders have to pay $35USD and Canadians are required to pay $42USD. I won’t question, I’m just happy to finally be out in front!
Of the 21 of us from the guesthouse, I’m the only Australian – the majority seem to be from the UK or Canada. I’m hearing stories of people meeting other Australians, yet I’ve not met many at all. I heard quite a few Aussie accents in the streets of Chiang Mai, however never specifically met any.
So, money and passport handed over, I walked to the second window and waited for my name to be called with visa provided. I was nervous letting my passport out of my sight and also having given over $50USD – we’d been warned that change may not be provided unless pushed for, I’d also read to ensure that my passport was stamped with 30 days and not just 15. I needn’t have worried – I was given a receipt for my visa payment, $20USD change and the full visa validity. The visa was even a proper visa sticker with details printed on it. All quite professional, even if the immigration workers were paying more attention to their phones than the foreigners waiting.
For the most part, it’s all been quite straightforward. There was confusion as we left the immigration and entered Laos – we were expecting a short woman, however an average height man gathered us all into a truck / bus and took us to the pier. We were all encouraged to buy food at the café stop and told that there wouldn’t be food on the boat. We’d been previously informed that there is food on the boat, but pricey due to no competition. Any chance for the locals to make a few extra dollars. Many went up the street to stock up on drinks; I elected to enjoy some peaceful standing while I had the chance.
I’m not sure how I’ll go meeting people here. Many are enjoying themselves with beer and local whiskey, content with turning this into a booze cruise. I get that – but perhaps this comes with an average of 10 years age over them all – but this is quite possibly a once in a lifetime experience. Two days on a slow boat in Laos along the Mekong River. Surely it’s best to be sober and remember the experience for the sites, the locals, and the people? The genuine look into their way of life rather than the taste of beer and whiskey?
Again, likely due to being a little bit older, but I don’t know… who’s to say I wouldn’t have been up there joining them 10 years ago? So long as they’re enjoying themselves.
We’re pulling into another stop now – kids and adults are all watching from above, peering over their fences, from their homes or simply from a small field. The boat staff are hovering on the front with bamboo sticks ready to help dock the boat, then push us off again. A young girl runs down the hill to help someone carry up a loaded bag – it’s a real community effort. As well as being a means for transportation, the slow boat is also a method of communication and delivery. Everything is used here for multiple purposes.
We may cringe at the amount of plastic and rubbish that lines the streets and many riverbanks, keep the numerous convenience stores in business, but everyone does what they need to survive. There are many places that use glass coke bottles – they are genuinely reused and recycled. And a tourist boat isn’t just a tourist boat – it’s used for deliveries as well. There is so much more to the eye than what you initially see or think when you travel throughout South East Asia.
The sky is clearing a little now – there are more blue patches than there are clouds. Perhaps a sign for things to come?
Right now, I’m floating along the Mekong River on a slow boat. Life sure does seem pretty relaxed right about now.