Nina’s Travel Rule #19: A Laos Slow-boat Might Be Rough, But It Sure Beats the Whiskey

My seat on the rail, behind Old Frenchy. And yes, that woman did sleep the entire way there.

I love boat travel, I do.  I prefer ferrys usually, but a river trip will suffice.  This does not mean that I likewise enjoy having approximately 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.  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 (I love you, Chris!) 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 still love you, Chris!), 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?

Our boat on the Mekong...

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 this shit 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 the second day of boating.  We’d spent the previous evening drinking Laos whiskey (which is not whiskey, btw, but more akin to death) and wearing expressions such as mine below:

"whiskey" my ass.

Also we were failing badly on the “please make me a sandwich, sir, I’m about to spend 6 hours on a boat?” thing with the locals.  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 only need as much food as starving Laotians.  Clearly the sandwiches took a while longer.  They were dang yummy though…

BOP, right up front. This is before the boat stopped for more people...

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 duh, 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 like 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 bitchier you’re about to get.  Case Numero Uno: 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 fuck us, they’re old, and they’d damned well better get a lot of elbow room for their luggage cause they PAID for this fucking boat.  And fuck me for thinking that maybe the old people have chosen the wrong boat if they really need to travel with three suitcases each. Case Number Duo: 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 fork over another boat.  Case Nombre Trois: Young Dirt-ass-poor and Western.  The five French backpackers (dirty dirty hippies those) have settled in the prow, behind the captain, in imitation of the 10 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 seems to be in a bit of a stupor from the heat and humidity (Really, people, it’s not that fucking hot.  And stop swooning, you’re in Laos, where people move at the speed of a dead rock, so it’s not like you’re exerting yourselves here) and are in no way going to oblige the two late-comers with seats.  Damn you Australians, I can hear them all thinking, never on time, always reeking of alcohol, sit in the fucking aisle, why don’t you.  Have none of these people read the Travel Bibles I can see them all clutching?  The first sentence any book has about this “slow boat” invariably includes the phrase “fucking hell those Laos people sure can fit 9,348,938 humans and a couple water buffalo on one small craft with ease”.  Clearly they have not.  In a fit of non-decision making (yes, I’m occasionally susceptible to my own national stereotypes…  We’ll call me Case # Cinqo: 30-For-Ever, Working on Less Poor, and Often Wishes She Weren’t Western), we squat somewhere between the Frenchies and the quickly acumulating pile of suitcases.  Who the fuck brings a fucking SUITCASE on a SLOW BOAT anyway, I wanna know.

Remarkably, haha, the boat does not leave for about two more hours (why did we rush my morning coffee again?), in which time aproximately 30 more people board.  We have now been shuffled from the floor to a none-too-steady wooden railing that divides the prow of the boat from the remainder of its increasigly unhappy inhabitants.  I’m kinda straddling this rail and the side rail, feet propped on a pile of bags, watching one of the Frenchies light his cigarette from his perch atop a clearly leaking barrel of petrol.  The local Laotians have all either passed out or started what appears to be a game called “We have Beer Laos and teacups.  Let’s see how they go together!”.  I am jealous, clearly.  The view from my railing.  Be-aut-i-ful.Bitchy Old People have by now raised such a ruckus every time a local boards with a bag (and yes, BOP’s are all significantly bigger, as are BOP themselves) that I and some Belgian kid have started helping the locals on and depositing their bags in a dangerously swaying pile directly in front of the BOP.  Also I’m leaning on the pile (that rail is seriously uncomfortable, my poor li’l butt hurt for like a week after…) in the hopes that it will crush some BOP and I will have more room.  SPOILER ALERT: BOP make it out alive.  This displeases me.  Most gloriously, we have also acquired a giant pile of Beer Laos from the “canteen” in back, i.e. the Laos chick by the “toilet” who’s 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 can’t see how bad it is from the back.  But they fucking well could 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 gonna 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 (dude, it ain’t Titanic, 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 peoples and, well, all that Beer Laos.  Also I might coulda downed a soda bottle of left-over Sang Som 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 a ginormous 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 damn 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 knows when this boat’s gonna land…

The stop along the way where the captain ordered out for more beer. I blame the locals for our shortage, those were biiiig teacups...

After my butt numbed over, the ride was stunningly gorgeous.  There were elephants and water buffalo, adorable villages and scampering urchins, and some of the coolest rock folds I’ve seen in a while (sorry, Dork Geologist rears her nerdy head).  None of the back passengers seemed to notice that their picture-perfect travel brochure was floating by just above their heads, while we Reckless Rail Riders had the best view in the house.  I’d say the Frenchies and Laotians had it right, every trip can be a joy if you just let it.  Call me an optimist (I’d rather blame the eight 32oz Beer Laos I ended up consuming, but whichever), but this ended up being one of my favorite boat rides ever.  Right after the mighty Honduran Vomit Comet, on which my brother and I mingled sky vodka shots and our own puke.

Elephants! Laos elephants!

2 thoughts on “Nina’s Travel Rule #19: A Laos Slow-boat Might Be Rough, But It Sure Beats the Whiskey

  1. “30-For-Ever, Working on Less Poor, and Often Wishes She Weren’t Western”…I think this is the best description of you that I have ever heard (especially when you add the drunk or hungover part!

    I can’t wait to boat it in Laos…


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