...and many thanks to the Man in the Yellow Hat...
10.11.2008 - 12.11.2008 26 °C
It's the second day of my slow boat journey from Chiang Khong, Thailand, to Luang Prabang, Laos. I take one of the last available bench seats on the slow boat. Looked past rows of travllers crammed in like sardenes at rush hour I notice quite a few more of my fellow travellers sitting on the sandy beach of the Mekong wondering how exactly they were going to fit on the boat.
Day one had been on a far more pleasant boat.........
- Flash back to day one*
After a late night bus from Pai, Thailand to Chiang Khong on the Thai/Laos border, I collapst into a nice clean bed at around 4 Am, roused early, was fed some pretty nicely seasoned eggs and toast, shuffled to the Mekong River to clear immigration and then ferried across the big chocolate river (aka the MEKONG) .
Croft and some of the guys and gals I'd come from Pai with-we're in a Tuk tuk in Laos after having gotten our visas...on the way to the slow boat
Getting a visa was pretty chaotic, as the facilities were quite cramped and no one was really cueing up properly. You just kind of flung your passport at a uniformed officer; he told you to return in five minutes; then you returned and got stamped, waited again, got more stamps, moved across the street, got MORE stamps and then finally you give you passport to the tour guides who show it to some more authorities. While you worry whether or not you’re ever going to see your pass port again, a slow boat representative gives a little shpiel to the crowed.
He tells you that you can get milaria. He tells you your bag can get stolen. He tells you the boat can rock side to side and your likely to get sick. None of this will be teh fault of the tour company. After utilizing the aforementioned terror tactics he informs us that we can opt for a bus ride instead…for an additional 200B to the 1800B we’ve already paid. 15 people took the bus fare on the spot.
Like I said. Day 1 was rather pleasant after all the paper work and formalities were over with.
A steel hulled bohemoth of a boat has a flat red roof and lots and lots of rows of wooden benches. Maybe 80 or 90 of us scuffled on board. We deposited our bags in a huge mountainous pile in the back of the boat behind the engine. There is a minibar selling Lao Beer and Pringles for high prices. You can sort of move the benches and I opted to sit on the floor leaning up against the side of the boat.
Our SlowBoat: Day 1
We were underway shortly after 11 I was still really tired from just a few hours sleep the night before, so I curled up, with the cushion I bought just moments before for 40B, and slept for several hours. Once roused, I sat up and watched the scenery slip by.
One of the slowboats, much like ours, on the Mekong
Its really an incredible way to travel! The Mekong is very wide and mysterous. The surface is smooth and shiny and there is no doubt that unspeakable power surges in its voluminous depths. Churling undulations hinted at deeply hidden rocks. We frequently passed large swirling vortexes in the middle of otherwise placid water. The lush mountians became more dramatic as the day went on. Layers of mountains attained different hues of blue as they faded farther into the distance. Small villages drifted by consisting of bamboo huts with thatched roofs. Children swam in the shallows of the Mekong and women washed cloths. Life here is much as it has been for hundreds of years.
Kind of hard to see Thailand Scenery on the Western/Southern Bank of the Makong
The boat did indeed sway back and forth a bit. I felt a bit sick after a while, and really couldn’t eat my lunch. I started thinking that I was definatly not going to make it, when finally we arrived at PakBang.
Seriously, NOT my idea of a cool town to visit. The town seems to feed off the daily slowboat delivery of tourists. The restaurent and guesthouse propritors are really pushy and you’re constantly told to “buy somesing! Buy somesing!”. The guesthouses and food are all over priced. I saw too many women burning plastic to start fires in the street, their little children just inches away from the toxic fumes. A giant rat, the size of a small cow was tied up, alive and hissing, underneith a restaurent stand.
My guest house wasn’t too bad however, and after a delicious indian meal I went straight to bed. My lights didn’t’ work and the music from across the street was so loud I could only sit and read with my headlamp on and wait til the generators turned off at 11 pm. Then the town finally went to sleep.
Through out the night, rats scuttled loudly in the rafters above.
I was pretty eagar to leave this place, and determined not to let its negative impression spoil my opinioin of Laos. I had a really yummy lemon and sugar pancake and headed for the sandy shore of the mighty Mekong.
The boat, a half hour before lift off, was full. I took the last seat. Thus begins Day 2.
- flash back ends*
I looked to the shore and several of my friends were plunked down on their bags sitting on the sand. I had heard of slowboats being over croweded, and passengers having to team up and go on strike until their demands for more boats or bigger boats were met. It seemed that these measures would have to go into effect now.
I started talking to people around me. They all agreed that the circumstances were unfavorable, but no one wanted to take action. A man next to me me in a yellow hat sat passively looking straight ahead. I assumed he couldn’t understand me because he was Laotion. He was, infact, the only Lao passenger on the boat. I failed to incite any enthousiasm for mutiny amongst my neighbors. They had a spot on the boat and didn’t feel the need to cause trouble…I mean, who WOULD want to get stuck in that horrible place for another day.
This boat was half the size of yesterday’s boat. It was narrower, and a tall person couldn’t even stand up properly. The benches were so close together, that even I, a small person, was crammed right up against the seat on front of me. My resolve solidified as I saw nearly 10 people now on the sand shaking their heads. I got up and retreived my bag from the back. People stared at me incredulously. “you’re leaving?” they all kept asking me. And my response was the same “yes, and if you all do too, we’ll get a bigger boat.”
I trudged up the sandy bank and threw my bag down next to the people I had shared a bus ride and hotel with the two nights before. They seemed pleased I’d joined them, but were seriously concerned for what was going to happen to them.
There was no getting more people on that boat. It looked to be sitting really low in the water. In an effort to sit more comfortably and with more room, people had started sitting up in the window frames, making it look literally like the boat was so full of people that they were busting out the sides. Lots of faces were turned towards the Left Behinds on the shore wondering what was going to happen to them.
One or two of us started talking to the boat organizers. They kept shaking their heads and saying “NO” when we asked for a bigger boat “one boat, one boat” they said, when we pointed out 18 other boats lined up on the shore. All of them , infact were much larger than our piece of junk. They told us another boat “might” come later, but we felt that would mean waiting for a boat not likely to come, getting stuck here another night, and possibly reliving the same situation in the morning. They told us we could also take a bus, but that was outragious because we had paid quite a lot for this trip. Some of the stranded folks started getting a bit more edgy. “its not safe” some of us said. “its not what we paid for-this is a scam.” “you can’t just cram us onto a small boat the day after we had a nice one.”
The situation was getting tense. The boat driver, several employees, and the woman who ran the minibar were getting really irritated at our refusal to board the boat, as the departure time was at hand. It was time for action.
I walked down to the waters edge. I cupped my hands and shouted to the passengers. “Come on everyone, if we team up we can get another boat! There’s no reason we should all be on this little boat when there are so many other big boats. There isn’t even room for all of us! Come on ! Let’s go! Let’s go!”
My friends behind me were smiling. I guess my little high pitched voice didn’t exactly carry the tones of a people mover.
But one or two more people came off. Eighty or more remained glued to their seats, unsure of what was happening.
I called again “you don’t have to get your luggage, just get off the boat and join us and we’ll get a bigger boat!”
Not much happened….until a little yellow hat appeared and out stepped the Laosan man. Simon, a brit was at the top of the beach trying to communicate with the boat driver. The boat driver wanted 20,000B for another boat. Simon was trying to say nicely “hell no.” The Laosian man ended up speaking good english. Him and Simon began feverent nogotiations with the boat driver, aided by Yellow Hat’s translation skills.
One or two more people got off the boat, sans luggage, just to mull about, smoke a cigg and see what was going on. Then a lady came up and started yelling at Yellow Hat, assuming that he was one of THEM, saying that she was a journalist and she was going to write a letter to everyone including lonely planet etc etc and tell them how they were scamming us. Then I interjected and pulled her aside and told her that he was our translator and she needed to direct her voice and eye contact to the people we WERE trying to convince.
The boat’s engine turned on. The tension escalated. Some people were scared and got back on the boat. The prospect of staying in this town overrode thoughts of safety or fairness. But there was still too many people on the shore, some with luggage still on board. Simon then did something that changed the tide.
HE got on the boat, cupped his hands and made an announcement. His booming british accent annouced that the boatman had another bigger boat we could use, but he wanted 100/head extra. Simon didn’t think we should pay anything, but he’s nogotiating at the moment and he just wanted to let everyone know what was going on.
People really appreciated the communique. A babble of voices erupted as people considered the possibly of getting a bigger boat. Our wonderful Yellow Hatted Friend kindly helped Simon persuade the boatman into giving us a bigger boat, no charge. We succeeded!
Pandamonium broke out as people made a mad dash for the back of the boat to retreive their bags. It was lucky Briton and some others called for a fireline, and soon we were passing bags from the back and making a pile on the beach. Then people collected their bags and moved 3 boats over to our new ride.
The new boat was even nicer, bigger, more stable, and plush than the first. It had fancy little curtins around the open air windows, bigger cleaner toilets, and 2 large rooms in the back behind the engine, as well as a wide long open area in the front for people to move around in.
The Boatmen, in a sour mood, went around collecting tickets. Five tickets were unaccounted for -lost in the shuffle between boats. The boatman refused to leave until they were found. Yellow Hat Man went around saying “ticket ticket” trying to find the people who might have forgotten to turn one in. Some people started yelling at him angrily, because they had already been asked for their ticket on the other boat and turned them in. Many of my fellow passengers had no idea who Yellow Hat was and how he actually helped us tremendously. I helped him scour the boat, explaining to people that we wouldn’t leave until we found all the tickets. After a few minutes, 3 tickets manifested themselves. When the other two failed to show, and the boatman made it clear he wasn’t leaving until they were purchased, Yellow Hat Man actually paid for the tickets (400B each) out of his own pocket. I was leaning over his shoulder when this transaction happened, trying to tell him that he shouldn’t be doing this. Quickly, I went back to tell everyone what he’d done. Soon there was a line of people donating small sums of money to pay him back for his selfless genorsity. Then boat started pulling away from the shore, and Yellow Hat man got an ovation.
All through out the journey people came up to thank me for my efforts in getting us a nicer ride. We were all incredibly thankful, because the first boat that morning had been such a sardene can. It felt really good to have helped make it happen. I was the last to get on because I wanted to be sure “my flock” all had good seats. I was quite happy to sit anywhere. I ended up close to my friends, but I hardly sat still the whole trip. I spent several hours in the back, where an intimate circle of people chatted over the engine noise, blackened pots and pans hanging on the walls, and the smells of bagged spices pleasently pungent in the air. I sat in a window for a while, watching the water slide by. I spent a few blissful hours right out in the front of the boat, crammed onto the wide brimmed bow with as many travellers that would fit, dangling our legs over the edge, taking in the ample sunshine, and enjoying the everchanging and unobstructed view of the mountains on eitherside of the Mekong.
The boat was stable. I didn’t feel sick at all. It stopped at many villages to pick up local Laotians just to drop them off a little further down. Villagers carrying bags of rice, baskets of spices, and even two live ducks joined us on the 8 hour ride downstream. I have no idea how we would have managed this on the boat they’d prepared for us that morning.
Me and my new dutch friend, enjoying the sunshine on the bow of our roomie slow boat
Slow boat sunsets...damn skippy!
Luang Prabang was bathed in evening light when we approached it. We were all tired and hungry. The dramatic sunset had us all snapping photos and taking in natures awsome beauty, but now that the big orange ball was behind the mountains in the west, a crisp chill was in the air. We gratfully trudged up the steep hill to Luang Prabang City towards the inviting twinkling lights that beakonded fine french food, good music and company.
The fading sky across the Mekong, from Luang Prabang Laos
But this blog is long enough. More to come on Luang Prabang tommrrow, and also Vang Vieng, where I am now. I’ve moved five cities/villages in six days and I’m beat. Its time to enjoy Vang Vieng for a few days.
Lots of love