Crumbled Colonialism and the Mighty Mekong

Whew! 7 bus hours and 15 slow boat hours later, here I am in Luang Prabang, Lao. The bus from Chang Mai to Chang Khong was largely uneventful, so I’ll spare you. That entire 24 hours, in fact, was only notable because of the vicious attack of something-or-other that I came down with at the guest house in Chang Khong. Sometime about halfway through my first and only beer, about 3 sips into my (very good) soup, I started to feel really odd. A few minutes later, I realized my head was roasting and my hands and feet were freezing. Five minutes after that, I apologized to my dinner companions and went to my room. It took 2 hours and 3 blankets for me to get warm, and I laid there in bed mentally going over every single thing that might have been wrong with me, from a reaction to Malarone (my antimalarial pills, which I’d started the previous day) or my mosquito repellent, to malaria or dengue fever to food poisoning to having been drugged by the Aussie on the bus. The next morning, and ever since, I’ve felt perfectly fine (although a bit tired) and have carried on taking the malarone and using the repellent with absolutely no ill effects. I suppose it was bound to happen at one time or another – the inexplicable 24 hour illness. I assure you all that I am well now, and intend to carry on eating and drinking and exploring as usual.

Now. About the slow boat.

Things slow boat travel is not:

Romantic and cozy. If you’re looking for comfortable, relaxing, kick-back and dig it travel, this is probably not what you’re on the market for. The boats are crammed full of people (mostly farang), and the seats (which basically amount to just wood benches along the sides) are, well, they’re narrow wooden benches. You get the picture. We won’t even discuss the toilet.

Boring. This morning, while pulling into our second stop of the day, we ran into a mountain. Yes, you heard me. The Mekong is lined on both sides by rainforest, which sometimes rises so steeply out of the water that you can’t imagine how the locals get down to the boats at all. This was one of those spots. We turned and began to move toward shore, as usual. But normally, when approaching shore, the motor cuts out before we actually hit the bank. This time, not so much. There was some confused shouting and much looking around among the passengers, and then we just rammed right into the thing. The prow scooped out a great big dollop of mud. It took the crew about 15 minutes, with what appeared to be nothing more than hammers and twine, to get us moving again. No further mishaps befell us. However. Our friend Cristoph, who had been moved to a different, cargo-laden boat this morning before leaving Pakbeng (our night stopover – we’ll get to that in a minute) tells us that his boat ran out of petrol at one point and just drifted along the river for several hours. He arrived roughly 2 hours after we did.

Luxurious. I’ve already mentioned about the seats and the crowds, but probably the most fun was the stopover. You see, the Mekong is a dangerous river at best, and navigating it at night would be tantamount to suicide – if the enormous whirlpools don’t get you, the rocks popping out here, there and everywhere certainly will. So, around sunset last night, we pulled in at Pakbeng, a little market town that, I’m willing to bet, has grown up out of the needs of river traffic on this route. We decided to stay at what had been heralded the ‘best guest house in town’. The rooms were indeed very clean, the mosquito nets had no unpatched holes, there was even an outlet to charge things – until the power cut out at midnight, that is. We were pretty impressed. At night, though, the adventure began. Loreto (see below) knocked on the wall between our rooms – it must have been 2:00 in the morning. “Louisa! Do you have a lighter? I can’t see anything and I think there’s something big in here!” I listened. I’d been hearing faint scrabbling noises all night and assumed the standard mix of lizards and suchlike things that you see in these towns at night. But she was right, it did sound like something bigger. “I read about these really big lizards,” she whispered. I told her I highly doubted we had Komodo Dragons in our rooms, and eventually managed to convince her to go back to sleep – I couldn’t have found my lighter in the dark, anyway. The next morning we talked to the other guests in the house, and one of them had managed to get a bead on the culprit with a flashlight. It was a big rat, going after the food in people’s packs. I silently thanked my camper’s instincts – I hadn’t had any food at all in my room – although I could have sworn I spotted something jumping off my night table when I woke up, and whatever it was took an antiseptic towelette with it.

Things slow boat travel is:

Slow. They are not kidding. The trip from Hung Xai to Luang Prabang is roughly 300 km and we managed it in just under 14 hours.

Visually Stunning. I didn’t realize that this much unspoilt, undisturbed beauty still existed in the world. Every once in a while we’d go by a little village, some huts on stilts, maybe a buffalo or two. Most of the time, the country that rolled by was gorgeous rainforest – enormous nubbly green lush hills, with snippets of clouds clinging to the highest points. Rock formations – slate and limestone – occasionally rose up out of the water, some almost 500 yards long. The river itself must be well over a mile wide at its wider points, and was never narrower than 600 yards. It was truly, breathtakingly, amazingly gorgeous.

Exciting. Did I mention about driving into the mountain? And Christoph, the lucky bastard, said that while they were going by the exact same spot where that happened, he saw an elephant hauling timber from a log boat on the river up to the village. Can you imagine?

Tranquil I did a lot of reading. I napped. I listened to entire albums for the first time since I left home. We chatted, and then we kept to ourselves. It was lovely.

Fun! I’ve been mentioning all these people for a reason – I met up with a group of 4 people traveling together (who had themselves met up earlier on in their travels and decided to join forces) and a fellow lone female. They are fabulous and fun, and actually 4 of us are sharing a room tonight (a big, beautiful room, mind you, and only us 2 girls have to share a bed, and that only because we lost a coin toss) – they are Tim (writer, UK, on the road since about August, will not be home for 2 years), Cherrie (probably spelling it wrong, UK, used to do marketing, wants to become a nutritionist, on the road until sometime next summer), Axel (German, he and Cherrie are together, studying to be a Doctor), Christoph (also German, travelling with Axel except for when he broke his arm in China and had to fly home for a few weeks), and Loreto (Chilean, PhD. student and journalist, living in Paris around the corner from the flat where I stayed that last time I was there). So now you’ve got the cast of characters. I’m sure we’ll all part ways in anothr few days, but it’s nice to hang with a group for a little bit – makes me miss the gang at home a little less…

And there you have it. My last several days, in a nutshell. And how is Lao? Well, aside from the beautiful part, the people are really friendly, and it’s much more different from Thailand (at first glance, at least) than I had expected. For one thing, it’s much quieter here. Traffic moves at a saner pace, when there’s any traffic at all. There’s not this enormous pressure to do, see, FASTER! that I felt in Bangkok particularly. Also, Luang Prabang, from what little we saw before the sun went down tonight, is going to be interesting. There’s all this crumbling French colonial architecture right up against traditional homes – intermingled with the do it yourself style (thatched or tin roofs, wood walls, on stilts) so popular in Thailand and here. I’ll have more time to explore it tomorrow, and then the Waterfalls the day after that.

Oh! one more thing: I cannot receive SMS here, so don’t try (and I’m sorry if you got no response from messages already sent). E-mail, however, I will be checking whenever I can.