To my left were the hills of Laos and to my right, beyond the tall grasses, were the markets and houses of Thailand. We were surrounded by the steady brown waters of the Mekong and the incredible view of the mountains and forests in the distance.
Back in the early 2000s, Discovery Channel’s Lonely Planet was one of my favorite TV shows. In one of the episodes, Ian Wright, one of the hosts of the show and one of my favourite TV personalities, took a boat to Luang Prabang. I thought it was a pretty bad ass way to travel through Laos.
And now here I was, a decade and a half later, following his footsteps. Having travelled extensively through most of South East Asia over the last few years, taking a boat to Luang Prabang was in many ways my last bucket list thing-to-do in the region.
A lot has changed since the early 2000s. The border crossing is now done using the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge as opposed to just taking a boat to the other side of the river. The Laos authorities stamp your passport now. Earlier they used to issue an entry permit on a piece of paper.
The boats however, haven’t changed. They still have the uncomfortable seats that Ian had told us about.
The plan was to reach the village of Pakbeng by sun down, check into a decent guesthouse for the night, get back on the boat early next morning and sail for another ten hours to reach the holy city of Luang Prabang.
Pakbeng is advertised to be an eight hour trip but if discussions on various virtual travel forums are to be believed, boats never make it to the village in less than ten hours.
Many travelers take a fast boat and make the journey to Luang Prabang in eight hours, but didn’t someone say, “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.”
And we had a two day journey ahead of us.
The long tail boat on which we were travelling had five sections. First was the “cockpit”, which had the boat wheel and a bunch of levers for navigation. There was a stool beside the wheel on which the pilot was supposed to sit.
Next was the seating area. It started off with two airport chair like seats, facing each other almost like the back of a songthaew. Then, there were twelve rows of straight wooden seats, each big enough for at most two people. A keen observer would notice that the boat had only one life jacket hung under the window of every alternate row.
At the end of the seating area was the food and drinks counter, which had cups of instant noodles, packets of chips, beer and cola drinks on the menu.
This was followed by the toilet. A keen observer would again notice that there were atleast 50 of us on board. One toilet for 50 odd passengers!
If you proceed further and walk through the wooden planks that were carefully placed over the rumbling motors and rusty iron tubes and pipes, you would reach the luggage room, which I’m guessing also served as the staff quarters.
Beyond that was my favourite section of the boat, the kitchen; consisting of a stove and a couple of wooden shelves, occupied mostly by old jars and half empty (or half full) bottles of sauces. Pans and saucers hung over the stove and would rattle every time the motor or the river got a little restless.
One of the reasons why I loved this section the most was the view. Unlike in the seating area, where your view was restricted only to your side of the boat, the kitchen, being in the back, presented a much broader and prettier picture. You could see the mountains and trees on both sides of the river as well as the ripples on the water that the propellers created as the boat moved forward.
Another reason I liked the kitchen area was because of the people. Most would come down there to stretch their backs and get some respite from the hard wooden surface of the seats. They would stand for a couple of minutes, smoke a cigarette, maybe take a picture and leave.
But some, like me, stayed back longer and made some friends.
The day before, I had travelled from Chiang Mai to the Thai border town of Chiang Khong and spent the night there. Though exhausted after that 8 hour long mini bus ride, I ventured out of my resort (Yes, resort!) and explored a bit.
Chiang Khong, given its size and location, was quite busy. The evening market, along with its delicious pork sausages, and the cafes along the banks of the river were pretty impressive. But the best thing about my night stay there was the Mekong sunset. Seeing the sun slowly set over the green hills, the sky enveloped in its golden hue, palm trees swaying with the wind, was mesmerizing. As the boat rumbled on ahead, I recognized the river bank on the Thai-side where I had seen the sunset from the day before.
We were passing Chiang Khong!
As hours passed, we got jaded by the beauty around us and indulged ourselves with books, music and naps to pass time. The drinks counter was experiencing peak business hours as the whizzing sound of beer bottle opening ringed in our ears every couple of minutes. Someone was playing a guitar, rather lousily, in the front of the boat. People around him clapped and cheered him on.
The sun slowly came out from behind the clouds and it started getting warmer as the hours rolled on. The engine was rattling like mad, as the boat treaded carefully through the jagged rocks that protruded from the surface of the water.
Every now and then, we would pass through a mammoth islet or a sleepy little village and it would get us excited for a while. People would point and take pictures. And then, as the subject of attention moved out of view, they would slowly go back to whatever they were doing before.
Hours passed as clouds flew away and the hot sun moved right over our heads. I walked to the kitchen area to stretch my legs a bit, had a beer and a packet of chips for lunch with some interesting conversations with other travelers on the side.
And then, just as I was walking back to my seat, the boat stopped with a shudder. One of the crew, a teenager by the looks of it, ran to the back of the boat, took off his shirt in a hurry and jumped off; wafts of water splashed into the kitchen. Apparently, there was some issue with the propellers.
The crew assured us that everything was fine and we would start moving again soon. Few minutes passed and soon everyone went back to whatever they were doing. Some ordered beer, other went back to their books and naps. The sound of the guitar strings ringed through the air again.
A group of guys sitting in the back were knocking down beer bottles by the dozen. One of them, a burly dude with a rainbow vest, under the influence of an unhealthy amount Beer Lao decided to introduce himself to everyone on board.
“Hello. Where are you from?” He asked as he extended his beer bottle holder (arm) to one of the passengers for a hand shake and sat down beside him.
“France” He said, putting away his book, caught a bit off guard.
He slowly stood up and said “I hate the French” before moving on to the guy sitting in front of him.
“Hello. Your teeth are so…” He paused for a couple of seconds, seemingly toiling his brain, searching for that right word.. “White”
And while all this was going on, the expressions of the crew were getting grimmer by the minute. I could hear rushed footsteps on the roof of the boat, a few more splashes, and the rusted metallic sound of something being pulled up.
Turns out, the propeller (you know the fan sort of thing underneath a water vessel) had fallen off and they were trying to push it back into place.
“How can it just fall off?” Someone asked, correctly.
There were different theories about what had caused the propeller to fall off, most of which surrounded around the fact that this was a fucked up boat, piloted by a fucking teenager on a river which had a fuckload of sharp rocks.
(Sorry about the language there. Just translating the sentiments prevailing at the time.)
About an hour into the unscheduled stop, people started getting a little restless. We wanted to get a move on and reach Pakbeng where a comfortable bed, long shower and hot food awaited us. The crew assured us, repeatedly, that there was no serious damage and we would be on our way soon.
Another hour passed.
The landscape that had seemed beautiful and serene just a few hours ago, was now making us a bit nervous. There were no other boats passing by. There were no houses or huts around. Our cellphones had run out of signal bars. There was no signs of civilization anywhere close.
It was just us and the Mekong.
The music stopped. The drinking stopped. The fun boat turned into a boat full of frustrated, tired and slightly anxious people.
Another hour passed.
Our boat stood exactly where it stood three hours ago. We were officially stuck. Stranded in the middle of nowhere. Screwed royally.
And then, the unexpected happened.
The engine roared back into life. The cheers and claps from the boat shook the hills. I may have imagined this but I think I saw people hugging, kissing, opening champagne bottles.
But the happiness was short lived.
The drinks counter lady announced that because it will be dark soon, which will make it difficult to spot the sharp rocks, we will not be able to reach Pakbeng. Instead, we would be stopping near a beach and spending the night on the boat.
There were a lot of unhappy people on the boat at that moment.
The crew had also run out of beer and cola to sell. Instant noodles and chips were also on very short supply.
“It’s not the food you should be worried about…” Nick said. He was a 58 year old Australian, who had been travelling around South East Asia for the last five years. He had travelled on these boats before and was speaking out of experience. “It’s the mosquitoes. One bite and you will be seeing Laos from a hospital bed.”
He advised us to cover our arms and legs, which we did… instantly.
We sat on the kitchen floor, knowing we will not be getting even a moments sleep on those wooden seats. Thankfully the Goddess of Mekong showed us some mercy and there were not many mosquitoes around that night.
We chatted for hours as others laid down on any empty space they found and tossed and turned themselves to sleep. The curtains were rolled down to cover the windows. It got a bit chilly at night but cigarette smoke kept us warm. Some ventured out to the beach but later returned to the boat because they heard “whispers” from the forest in the back.
We found some rice in one of the jars in the kitchen which Nick’s Thai girlfriend crankily cooked for us.
“Like everyone else on this boat, I am on holiday too. Just because I speak Thai everyone thinks I am a staff on the boat. They keep asking me to do this and that…”
She rambled on as I nodded with fake sympathy, all the while wishing she would whine less and cook more.
(I know I am a jerk for thinking that but I was tired and hungry! Cut me a little slack. Please)
In the end, the rice turned out fine. The crew shared some of their fish curry with us. We lit candles and had a communal dinner under its glow.
After dinner, late into the night, we tried to counter our sleepiness with coffee. Surprisingly, it didn’t work and one by one bodies fell on the dusty floor and against the rusty metal walls of the boat.
I found some space on the kitchen floor, laid down using my bag as a pillow, tried to distract myself from the odour of the devoured fish curry with the sound of the waters of Mekong flowing on endlessly, until Sandman finally paid me a visit.
We woke up just in time to see the hills bathed with the first rays of the morning sun. The crew were already up and were busy getting the boat ready for action. Over coffee we shared stories of how and where each of us slept. Turns out a few of them braved the whispers of the forest and slept on the beach.
About an hour later we finally reached Pakbeng. We were told the boat would leave for Luang Prabang in an hour. People scampered up the hilly road to reach the village and shopped for food and water for the long day ahead. After a 15000 Kip shower in one of the guesthouses and a well-deserved footlong sandwich for breakfast, I was ready for the ten hour ride to Luang Prabang.
Some of the travelers were unhappy that the crew couldn’t sail on for another hour the day before to save us all a sleepless night. Many of them had booked accommodation in Pakbeng and now had to claim refunds. Some had backaches and others claimed they were “starved”.
Others, like me, had a different perspective.
While I agree that it was a painful night, but in hindsight I was glad that it happened. It is not every day that we get an opportunity to spend a night on a boat on the Mekong river. If it weren’t for the faulty propeller, we would have reached Pakbeng on time and missed the communal dinner and the interesting conversations. Sure, I would have slept well in my guesthouse but I would have missed the gorgeous sunrise. If everything had gone the way it was supposed to, the trip wouldn’t have been as exciting and I would not be writing about it with an ear to ear to smile on my face.
That evening we reached the holy city of Luang Prabang on time, and while I was glad to be finally stepping off the boat, a part of me was sad. My stay on the boat, though short, was full of memories that will stay with me for quite some time.