Laos was simultaneusly the most hilarious and most frustrating place I’ve ever travelled. It’s completely not like any where else in the world. Not even in the region. Cambodia and Vietnam are like a weekends at Club Med in comparison, and Thailand is like a weekend at Club Med with a personal wait staff and a skinny table as long as the eye can see filled with spring rolls and chilli sauce. And tigers.
I travelled there from Chang Mai in Thailand with a group of friends, and was all to aware of the length of time needed for this and the level of easy-goingness, laid-backity, and other made up words, that is required. You need A LOT of pateince for trip. Travelers we met in Thailand who had recently completed the journey to or from Laos were very willing to share their experiences and tips with us when we told them our planned route. More often than not they answered with a wince and a quick shake of the head, and a comment along the lines of ‘I’m just glad it’s over’.
The plan was to travel from Chang Mai, in Thailand to Luang Prebang, in Laos, which is the main tourist destination. To do this, we were to travel by bus to the Thai border, take a little boat across the Mekong into Laos, and then get on another TWO DAY boat down the Mekong to Luang Prebang. All very straight forward.
Immigriation in Laos isn’t the same as Sydney or Heathrow. It’s a bit like waiting in line to use a portaloo at a music festival. There’s a lot of standing around waiting, a lot of heat, a lot of strange smells, a lot of water bottles, and few too many people inside your one metre radius than you are perhaps used to. After waiting around for a long time to collect our visas, we were frantically hurried along to make sure we didn’t miss our connecting two day boat. As we passed the offical border and immigration (two men on a small table under an umbrella dozing off to sleep), we were waved through without presenting any of the documents we’d just waited in line for about six months to get. Which left a hollow feeling like spending a lot of money on a fake ID and never getting asked for it.
We continued to be hurried along by various members of the Immigration department, who kept telling us that if we dont run at the speed of sound up this hill we’re going to miss our boat and have to wait for the following day. Eyes wide open and filled with panic, we reached the top of hill only to find dozens of other fellow travellers waiting for a bus to be taken to the correct wharf. All of them with similar ‘hurry up and move!’ stories as us. We ended up having to wait at that bus stop for about 45mins. Laos Immigration employees either have no concept of time whatsoever or they really get a kick out of messinng with tourists.
Finally laying eyes on the two-day boat after having a mental image of it in my head for a week was a little surreal. I hadn’t allowed myself to get too carried away with the quality of the vessel in my fantasies. If anything my brain, being all too wary of the high expectation theory, had toned it right down and presented me with images of busted up 12-foot tinnies and row boats without any oars. So when I finally saw the boat, which was a very long, skinny, wooden affair, I was slightly impressed. We scrambled on and took our positions equipped with the pillows we had been recommended to purchase to make sitting on the wooden benches bareable, and got ready for the journey.
This first day of our two day journey was relative luxury. The boat was only about three quarters full, and we were able to stretch out and play cards and really take in the beauty of the Mekong and surrounding mountains. The river itself is beautiful in the same way an approaching thunder storm is beautiful. You stand around looking at the clouds changing colour and intensifing, and its really impressive, but there is a definite sense that things could go bad very quickly. In the river, the currents swirl around with amazing verocity and don’t seem to have any rhyme or reason in their patterns. They just collide into each other and form quite intimidating whirl pools, which the captain has to avoid by criss crossing the entire width of the river at various points. The strong current also carries with it huge pieces of tree that have torn off from the bank, providing more obsticles for the driver to negotiate. In short, only the very experienced and competent would have the ability to complete the journey without serious incident. We found this out first hand on day two.
There are two choices when making this journey. As well as the two-day Slow Boat, you can choose to take on the Mekong in a speed boat, affectionately referred to as The Death Boat. This about a six hour journey verses two days. All reports of The Death Boat have been stories of true terror. True, soaking wet, terror. And to be perfectly honest, the deal breaker was the fact that you are allowed to bring beer on board the Slow Boat. So we went with the slow, relatively safe, boring-but-relaxing option. This would prove to be a mistake.
We awoke on day two in a small guest house in a little village on the edge of the river. Laos is a very poor country, and this initial trip down the river on my first ever day in the country really opened my eyes to this. As we walked from the guest house through the muddy and pothole-ridden main street, past the dozens of broken down huts and myriad of children begging for change, I realised that even compared to Thailand, Laos is exceptionally poor. The cliche that it makes you appreciate what you’ve got really rings true.
As we approached the wharf again it became apparent our mighty vessel from the previous day had been replaced by a much smaller version. This wasn’t an immediate problem, as I mentioned we had plenty of room to move on the first day, but it soon become obvious there was way more many tourists standing around than there were seats on the boat. We quickly hurried on and grabbed the nearest seat. Apparently its not uncommon for the powers that be to merge two boats into one on the second day if they feel there is ample space. The Laos definition of ‘ample space’ is one human to about 30 square centimeters.
Squashed in between the unforgiving wooden railing on the side of the boat and a slightly more forgiving but just as unpleasant large human male, with the seat in front so close that my legs were folded up to my chest like I was Kareem Abdul Jabbar, I pondered whether or not I could physically endure this day long journey. As it happened, I needn’t have worried.
Tip: bring a good book. About an hour in I was so engrossed in my book to the point where my cramped situation had become an afterthought. The pages were turning like when you leave a book open outside on a windy day. The large human male next to me was dozing off (mercifully not leaning on my shoulder but nodding forward every couple of minutes) the sun was shining, the river seemed calmer, and everything was right with the world.
That was, until the first panicked shriek erupted from the front of the boat. Being so engrossed in my book as I was, I casually looked up and looked straight down again. A girl probably saw a spider, thought I. Soon though, the shrieking and yelling from the front of the boat intensified to the point where everyone on the back half of the boat (where I was) become pretty interested. I looked up just in time to notice some tree branches protruding through the open windows of the boat as it raced along, and people ducking for cover. I was just processing the information and deciding a large tree must be growing in the middle of the river when over the yelling came instruction to ‘take cover’ in unmistakable Laos-English. I had a clear thought that if a Laos man was telling us to take cover, we best take cover. A second later there was a god almighty crash and I was thrown from my seat.
I looked up to discover we had crashed into a tree on the riverbank.
There was a brief moment of panic as everyone grabbed their belongs and scrambled off the boat onto the bank. One the way out I apologised to the large human male, who became the large human mattress when I landed on him. The bow of the boat had been squashed in like a pug’s face and was still wrapped around the tree. Nervous laughter and looks of disbelief went out around the crowd. There was some comparing of injuries. A few people had a cuts on their arms from when the branches jutted in through the window. But nothing too serious. Most of the people were staring at the captain, who was sitting in his seat with the most neutral, un-emotive expression on his face I had ever seen. He looked like he was sitting on a bus thinking absently about what he was having for lunch. It was surreal. Some more outspoken tourists began loudly questioning him, wanting to know his version of he events leading up to the present situation. Of course, no explanation was forthcoming. We soon found out from the 1st mate, who spoke English quite well, that the captain had been drinking heavily and had simply dozed off. ‘Oh!’ We all thought. ‘Of course he was drunk! No harm done. Get him a cup of coffee and let’s get back on the water.’
After standing on the bank for about 30 minutes helping separate tree from boat, and flatly refusing to re-board the boat after this was done, people started looking around asking what actually was going to happen. No one seems to have any ideas. We all realised we were basically stuck in the jungle in the middle of nowhere without any transport. Are there backup boats? Do these guys have communication with their base? Do they have a base?
There was many questions flying around when a similar boat appeared from around the bend in the river. As one we rose and began shouting and trying to flag down this vessel, which was thankfully empty, and to our immense delight it slowed down and moored against our doomed boat. This was smaller again, but you didn’t hear one word of complaint as we transferred our things and found a seat.
The rest of the afternoon was spent talking about the incident and laughing about it. In that situation each individual person really wants everyone else to know exactly what happen to them and what their thought process was, and compare emotions. It was about 30 consecutive stories of basically this: ‘Well I was just sitting there and looked up and this branch was like right there and I screamed and someone shouted and heard the crash and fell out of my chair and got up and I was like oh my god what happened and someone was bleeding and I got out and oh my god can you believe he was drunk???’ It was quite a good day. I never found out if this second boat was in any way affiliated with the first or if it was just a man, with a big long boat, motoring down the river. Neither answer would have been surprising.
The rest of my time in Laos was relatively uneventful, save for a couple of bus break downs in the middle of the night in pitch black nowhere. It’s a great country. It’s really like no where else in the world. The people and culture is amazing, and for the backpacker there is so many great activities to do. It was one of my favourite countries of the region, but I’ll always remember it for that day on the Mekong River with one drunken captain, one tree, and a group of strangers becoming allies in a matter of seconds.