Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Slow Boat to Laos - Day Two Chiang Khong to Pak Beng

On day two of the trip from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang, we woke up bright and early (or cloudy and early, actually) to cross the river to Laos... which is not to be confused with "Laos" - wherever that "is".
This was my first view of Laos from the Thai side of the border. Not the most spectacular sight, but it was reassuring to see signs of civilization.

We crossed the Mekong on these tiny little ferry boats - they fit about 6 or 7 people each. Then we were ushered through the immigration process somewhat painlessly.

After the immigration office there was a LOT of nonsense, we had to have our passports checked by our guide and by various officials a few different times. I also had my temperature scanned to make sure I didn't have H1N1. That part was actually all fine... normal border crossing annoying, but fine. But then we kept getting packed up into minivans, driven like four blocks, told to wait, then packed up into different minivans, driven four more blocks then told to wait again. If you can imagine a group of maybe 12 people and all our assorted gear, this was not a minor undertaking.

While we were waiting for the final minivan to take us to the boats our guide gave us some "information" about Laos. It was like something off of Survivor. He told us that we'd been lied to by our Thai travel agents, that the first leg of the slow boat tour would not be 6 hours, but rather more like 8 or 9. We were told there would be NO FOOD on the boat (this point had also been stressed at the restaurant where we'd had dinner the night before so we'd all ordered sandwiches to go already). He told us that when we got to Pak Beng - the half way point and our overnight stopping point, that there would be schemers trying to take our bags or overcharge us for carrying them. He said that there was no electricity in Pak Beng and that 90% of the accommodations were 'not good'. "Your door has a key, but some person can just open it and take your things." The whole time, he's telling us "I just want to give you information - you can decide for yourself. In Laos some things are good, but some things are bad - I don't want you to have a bad experience and think that everything in Laos is bad. I want you to make up your own mind, so I give you all the information."

Naturally he started talking about the other options... there is a speed boat that will take us to Luang Prabang in about 6 hours, but it was very dangerous, very uncomfortable, very expensive. There's also the government bus which may or may not brake down, or... if you decide for yourself .... a mini van service that will get to Luang Prabang by midnight. He did say that the road was not completely paved, but that it was 90% good. After give us all the "information" he told us he would leave us alone to discuss what we wanted to do, and if some people decide they want to change - we could trade our tickets (with an added cost of course) for one of the other options. "I will leave you alone for five minutes, you can think it over."

I swear, it was like being told we had to vote someone off the island! The Irish gal (who was more or less on her own but had partnered up with a Canadian guy for travel purposes) immediately announced she wanted to take the minivan option... she was well and truly freaked out. There was another German woman who was traveling alone and she hadn't realized the slow boat would take two days, so she'd decided to take the minivan as well. Lion heart that I am, I was about pissing my pants with terror at *any* of the options.

But then I walked over to the other group of people and asked what they were going to do. An Aussie gal traveling with her boyfriend said "Well, why don't we just take the boat, and stick together when we get to Pak Beng - we'll get off the boat together, make sure we all have all our stuff, and stay in the same guest house." That, to me, was like the best thing anyone had ever said, and I was like "I'm sticking with her." Her boyfriend, during this discussion made the necessary (and to be oft repeated) comment - "Yeah, let's stick together, because at the end of the day - we're all in the same boat."

We talked to the other group and basically were like "Whatever you do, it's going to be okay, but if you're not comfortable taking the boat, don't" And ultimately the three of them decided not to. I have to say, it was really nice to have a group to latch onto at this point in my trip... but the anxieties that the guy provoked were not completely assuaged. Every time the boat stopped & turned around (to drop off mail or something) I felt nauseous until we were going in the right direction again.

The boat wasn't completely full, but there were quite a lot of us in a fairly small space for a looooooong time. The benches were uncomfortable even with the cushions we purchased from our guest house. There was a small snack bar on the boat, serving chips, cookies, water, sodas and beer. So the whole "NO FOOD" admonition wasn't quite true, but still I was glad to have a packed lunch & some water.

It absolutely helped to have some travel-buddies to chat with. We passed the time playing Yahtzee- my first time!

And of course, gazing at the scenery as we went by. This is a situation where the journey really is the experience. The point was not to get to Luang Prabang in the most efficient manner... it was to see Laos.

It is an amazingly country. The river is brown but the hills on either side are green and wild. There were a few isolated villages where locals gathered eagerly to pick up or drop off mail & cargo, but mostly it was mile after mile after mile of jungle. The only other time I'd been that surrounded by unspoiled nature was when I drove through Nevada...and frankly the desert in October wasn't much to look at.

It was cloudy and cool and rained on and off all day... but really this just added a little variety to the scenery. The mist in the hills is beautiful in it's own quiet way.

We pulled into Pak Beng after about 5 & a half hours - so just a little ahead of schedule as stated by the Thai travel agents... and well ahead of schedule as stated by the Laos guide. Our group did stick together, and got our bags from the back of the boat before we docked. One man did reach forward and offer to take my hand bag, but I said "No" firmly and he left me alone. There were guest-house touts aplenty at the dock, and this is always unsettling to me. But again, having a group there made all the difference. Someone else checked out a couple of the deals and decided on one. Rooms with fan & bathroom for 200 baht (CHEAP! ABOUT $6 US). We piled into his minivan and drove ... yes... about four blocks. To be fair, it was rainy and uphill, and none of that is fun in the rain, but it did seem a bit unnecessary. The rooms were basic but clean enough... and had electricity from about 6am - 11pm. My shower hose came out of the heater unit at one point... but I just stuck it back in and went on with things. And then there was a fairly good sized spider on the toilet, but I just asked one of the Australian guys to get it for me.

At the end of the day we had dinner & a few Beer Laos at the guest house restaurant.

We all complained about the Laos guide trying to scare us out of taking the slow boat (and succeeding in the case of the three who took the minivan), but we also agreed that having set our expectations so incredibly low, everything that actually happened seemed just great!
She's not flipping off the camera, she's showing off the bruise she got when her finger got slammed in the bathroom door - on the boat.

I turned in pretty early because the boat was leaving - with us or without us at 9 the next morning and I wanted to make sure I got some breakfast first. So day two... and my first day on the Mekong went just fine.


Exuberant Color said...

All I can say is What an adventure you will have to talk about for years. I would have caught the quickest flight home after that "final information before the boats".

Michael5000 said...

Isn't Yahtzee a terrific game?

Oh, and your travels in Laos are interesting too.

; )

Incidentally, your friend in the last photo there? She is totally flipping off the camera. We're not falling for your sad disclaimer.

Rebel said...

Exuberant... i've had that thought on several occasions when traveling, but i'm still alive!

m5k - yahtzee is a terrific game, but only if someone else does the scoring... no math for me please!