Here are some cool cars I spotted around the world.
I’ve made three border crossings by land on this trip. Actually, when I got to Europe I made several bus and train crossings, but they were all seamless, and all but one were in EU countries, so I don’t really count them. The ones that stand out are Thailand to Laos, Cambodia to Vietnam, and Canada to the United States. Guess which one was the most aggravating?
I’m used to either shuffling through the EU, where they glance at your passport, grunt, and move on; or flying into a new country and standing in a long line at border control, to have an official scan my passport through some criminal system, take my fingerprints, sometimes even snap a photo. The land crossings I made on this trip fell somewhere in-between these types.
Thailand to Laos
Crossing from the town of Chiang Khong, Thailand to Huay Xai, Laos was pretty simple. I walked up to the small hut near the bottom of the hill, filled out the card that border control had stapled to my passport when I entered the country, and turned it in to the guard, who literally did not look up from the pile of papers he was stamping. He just stamped my card and waved me away. At the bottom of the hill I bought a ticket to cross the river, waited until there were enough people for a full ride, then climbed in the skinniest boat I’d ever been on.
I suppose that technically this was a water border crossing instead of a land one, but whatever, the main thing is I hardly breathed as that tiny boat skimmed across the Mekong River. Once on the other side, I filled out a long form and helped a Japanese guy fill his out; he had a little English, but not enough to navigate the customs questions on his own. An Israeli chipped in when I had trouble explaining a concept, and then we all went up to the window to get our visas. Most Westerners owe $35 (except for Canadians, who owe $42—what did Canada ever do to Laos?). I had crisp tens and twenties, as I had read enough to know that beat-up bills might be rejected, and then you’re screwed, because they want payment in US dollars, and where are you going to find an ATM with US dollars on the western border of Laos? I had read it was good to have exact change, but not necessary. Well, for me anyway, they wanted exact change. I had two flimsy dollar bills and was wondering whether to insist they take three tens and give me five back, or just tell them to keep the five, when the Israeli next to me in line said he could help out. He gave me $3 with a smile. I peeked in the office and saw three officials standing around and two creating visas, which seems a standard ratio of layabouts to workers for government offices worldwide. Eventually, I received my visa, shiny and pink, and I was officially allowed to stay in Laos for 30 days.
Cambodia to Vietnam
My bus from Phnom Penh was mostly full of Cambodians and Vietnamese, which I think explains why some aspects of the border crossing that are infamous on internet boards were absent in my experience. No one charged me an extra dollar or three for a “health exam,” for example, and I didn’t get taken to a fake border control office. Unlike in Laos, the bus didn’t drop me off a kilometer or two from the actual border, forcing me to hire a tuk-tuk to get to my actual destination.
Instead, our bus pulled up to the Vietnamese border control office (we never did anything to say goodbye to Cambodia), and we were waved off and told to bring everything with us, including our bags from the hold below. We stood in a clump in the mercifully cool border control building and watched our driver hand over a stack of our passports to an official, who then stamped each one without a glance or a scan anywhere. The driver then called out people whose passports were ready. I grabbed my passport, walked past an empty “health exam” window, and put my bags on an x-ray belt. I picked up my bags on the other end, showed my passport with its stamp on my visa to a guard slouching in a folding chair, and walked to the bus, which had been moved to the other side of the border. Voila!
Crossing from Cambodia to Vietnam was pretty painless. Officials didn’t hassle me or anyone on my bus, and security was light. The bus was carrying goods for some small businesses, and they must have checked those while we were inside, because when I put my bag back on the bus, everything was back in there, customs approved and ready to go.
Canada to the United States of America
Here’s where it got annoying. Trying to get from friendly neighbor Canada to my home country was way harder than it should have been. They are strict! And by “they” I mean the US Border Office. The bus I was on breezed through Windsor, Ontario and took the tunnel under the Detroit River. When we popped up on the other side, the bus pulled over at the super clean border patrol office. We unloaded our gear and stood in line. Probably it would have been fine if it hadn’t been for one officer.
This guy was a total tool, almost stereotypically power tripping. He targeted me and two other people, all of whom had backpacks instead of rolling suitcases. I showed him my US passport and he waved me ahead, but the woman from New Zealand and her boyfriend from South Africa, these needed special attention. He demanded to see their visas; the Kiwi said she had the waiver that she’d filled out online. Nope, doesn’t count, he made her fill it all out again on paper. Isn’t the online form supposed to save us from wasting time like this? He grilled the South African on just why he wanted to visit America anyway—what were his intentions? He didn’t plan to stay, did he? Worse was when it was the Kiwi’s turn. She explained that they were couchsurfing in Chicago, and that they’d been traveling for nine months. Why would you want to travel for that long, and what is this “couchsurfing” you speak of, etc., etc., and all in a smarmy tone. He leered at her as he talked, and when we got back on the bus she said it felt like he was hititng on her. While making her feel small and trying to find a way to keep her out of the country. Ugh.
Even I got a bit of a hard time from the officer checking my passport. Where was I living? How long had I been gone? Why had I gone to so many countries? I just want to go home, yeesh! Then I sat in the row of hard chairs with the rest of the people from the bus (about 15 of us) while we waited for any one of the four free officers to turn on the x-ray machine and run our bags through them.
The South African and the Kiwi were camping for much of their trip, so there were pots, a tent, and a large carving knife in the guy’s bag. The officer pointed out the knife to a civilian standing next to him at the x-ray machine and said, “Huh, wonder what’s up with the knife” and waved him on. So that seemed like a secure process. Not that it had been any more secure at the Vietnamese border, but they weren’t pretending it was, and the US officers were definitely treating us like we were all smuggling in kilos of drugs and AK-47s, while not really checking to make sure we weren’t; but they still did their best to make us all—including the American citizens—feel super unwelcome.
New friends made over a big do-it-yourself hot pot meal: 3
Pick-up badminton games observed: 8
Laotian wedding karaoke performances stumbled upon: 1
Meals that made me cry from the spice level: 1
Bears seen playing in the bear rescue center: 2
Bears seen napping through the heat in the bear rescue center: 4
Monks and novices spotted: 56
Conversations with novices: 3
Boats used for transportation: 4
Buddha statues seen: 4,034
Total days spent in Laos: 10
Total money spent: $562.79
Average per day: $56.28
Total money spent, minus gifts: $341.04
Average per day, minus gifts: $34.10
Shifts volunteered at Big Brother Mouse: 3
Meals shared with students from Big Brother Mouse: 1
Total days I could easily have spent in Laos, given more time: 40
My flight from Luang Prabang to Siem Reap was uneventful, but I was a little nervous at first. It had been awhile since I flew on a propeller plane:
And the safety card seemed to indicate that in case of an emergency, you should leap out of the plane into mid-air, and try to avoid being chopped to bits by the propeller:
Finally, instead of the normal two layers of window, there was just one piece of plastic between me and some serious loss of air pressure:
In the end, though, it was just as the snack box promised, and I made it safely to Cambodia:
Following the glowing recommendation of a blogger I follow, I volunteered at a literacy organization while in Luang Prabang. Big Brother Mouse–so named for the cartoon mascot, who acts as a friendly “big brother” encouraging kids to read–says its mission is “making literacy fun,” and it looks like they’re succeeding.
It was founded by a non-Laotian, American publisher Sasha Alyson, but he now serves as an advisor, and all paid staff are Laotian. The website emphasizes the importance of Lao educational efforts being headed by Laotians, rather than foreigners coming in and doing things their way. I strongly agree with this philosophy, so I was all the happier to give my time to an organization that values this kind of empowerment.
Big Brother Mouse is a publishing and distribution outfit. There’s a lot on the website about how hard they’re working to write and publish books in the Lao language so that kids will want to learn how to read–and so they’ll take pride in the Lao language and culture, rather than learning to read only in English.
Once the books are published, the distribution part kicks in. You can sponsor a book party, which is what they call it when volunteers strap books to their backs and hike into remote parts of the country to distribute one book per child in the villages they visit. Kids who have never seen a book before, or who have only held a tattered textbook from the ’50s, now have their own book, written in their own language, about a fun topic that interests them. A lot of kids get really attached to their books, and eagerly await another book party in their village.
That’s the main purpose of the organization, and you can, of course, contribute funds to help publish and distribute the books. But there’s also volunteering, two hours twice a day, to help locals practice their conversational English. You don’t sign up or anything, you just show up and talk with whoever wants conversation. Suggestions for how to be a good conversation partner are posted on the tables inside the small store where these makeshift meetings take place: talk slower, enunciate clearly, ask simple questions but not yes/no ones, and talk slower.
When I arrived the first time, a staff member was doing calculations at the cash register and didn’t give me any advice on what to do. I saw one volunteer talking with one Buddhist novice, and a couple other white people sitting around, presumably waiting to help out if other Laotians showed up. After about 20 minutes, several people did arrive, so we all split up and ranged ourselves around the long table and started talking. The other two times I went, there were people waiting and eager to talk as soon as I got there.
I talked to just one woman, who runs a business in town and is always on the lookout for ways to improve her slang so she can be more familiar with her customers. Everyone else I spoke with was male, mostly university students and young Buddhist novices.
One guy wanted help with his workbook–should he use “his” or “her” in these instances? Another brought out a book in English and wanted to practice his pronunciation–he read a paragraph on astronomy and I corrected pronunciation in the few places he needed it, and then he read another paragraph. Several students sat there wide-eyed, pencils in hand, ready to write down any words I mentioned that they were unfamiliar with, so they could add them to their vocabulary. There was one communal Lao-English dictionary, which was passed around as needed when we came to a translating impasse. Everyone spoke heavily accented English, but their skills varied widely; some were beginners fumbling over “My name is,” and some held a conversation easily.
I had no idea what I was doing; I didn’t have a pedagogy and I’m not a trained teacher. But I tried to take to heart the “talk slower” imperative, and I smiled a lot to encourage the shy ones, and I think I was a little bit helpful. We were all happy to see one another, and I was happy to be part of an organization run so well that the local people see it as a reliable, useful resource. If you’re in Luang Prabang, I recommend making volunteering at Big Brother Mouse part of your itinerary.
After I moved out of my first guesthouse in Laos (we don’t need to get into details, but suffice it to say, always pay the extra $3 because the cheapest room is far worse than the next-to-cheapest room), I lucked into meeting up with some slow boat friends at the night market. They were planning to go to the Kuang Si Waterfalls the next day and invited me to join them, which I was happy to do.
We bounced along the mostly well-maintained road out of town, through small villages, past children in school uniform bicycling home for lunch. Our driver told us what time we had to be back by, and then he set up his hammock in the back of the songthaew for a late morning nap. I bought a sandwich and an entrance ticket, and we went inside the park.
The first thing we saw were signs to a bear sanctuary. Asiatic Black bears and Malaysian Sun bears are threatened native species in Laos, and the center shelters bears confiscated by government authorities from wildlife smugglers. Probably the bears were going to end up in cages, having bile sucked from their bodies for traditional medicines, and now they hang out on tire swings and forage for food the center’s workers hide around the enclosure to keep them stimulated.
A short walk away, we came to the first of the waterfalls. I said in the title of this post that there were four waterfalls, but really I made four stops along the path of many little and some large waterfalls. The water was the bright green of jade, and the pools were calm, stacked on layers of brown limestone, until they suddenly tumbled over steeper rocks in a rush of white foam.
We passed a swimming hole, its main attraction being the rope swing you got to by edging along a tree branch and using a pole to hook it, after which you grabbed the rope and flung yourself into space, letting go before you swung back too far toward the tree. It looked fun, and scary, and I did not do it.
The path was one of the cleanest I’d encountered in Southeast Asia; signs in Laotian and English reminded visitors to refrain from littering, and woven baskets dotting the path served as trash cans. The water also looked clean, which was gratifying. It was so clear and beautiful, I’d hate to see it polluted.
The final waterfall was huge and hugely impressive. We carefully made our way through over the slick rocks to take pictures more or less in the middle of the pool, which was cool. I wanted to linger, maybe write in my journal or read a book with the water rushing past, but other women wanted to make sure we weren’t late for our driver, which is fair, so off we went. It was a pleasant morning, and the only change I’d make if I went back is I’d stay longer.
Another popular day trip from Luang Prabang is a river cruise to the Pak Ou Caves. I bought a ticket from a travel agent in town, as did most other people on my boat. I think you can just show up the day of and get on a boat, but I didn’t want to wake up early only to find all spots taken. It was slightly organized chaos at the dock. I gave my ticket to the woman in charge, and she gave me a number. Later, she stood at the top of the stairs down to the boats and yelled out numbers, which I realized when we got down to the dock corresponded to different captains, so that each captain had roughly the same number of passengers. (Communism at work, for equal pay and equal distribution of weight!)
Unfortunately, I got The Unlucky Boat. We were the last group to leave because it took the captain ages to get his boat untangled from the others and move it around toward the floating dock we waited on. Finally, we boarded the tiny, narrow boat, only to have to shift around to accommodate the guy in the back, who was obliviously moving from side to side, apparently unaware that he could sink us if he weighed us down on one side more than the other. We got underway and stopped after only 30 minutes, at an island populated with incurious cows, so two girls on the boat could pee in the bushes. Restless dude in the back took the opportunity to share a cigarette with the captain. Finally, we arrived at our first stop, the whisky village.
Ban Xang Hai is a village specializing in the production of lao lao, a strong whisky fermented in jars. We spent an awkward 30 minutes wandering around the streets, which were lined with tables piled high with scarves for sale. I stopped near the whisky distillery and made googly eyes at a toddler learning how to feed herself. Her mother okayed me taking a picture of this beautiful baby, and everyone smiled as she shoved noodles in her face.
Now it was time to go to the caves, so we set off again… only to stop ten minutes later, beached on another small island in the middle of the Mekong. Our captain went in the back and tinkered with the engine, but after a few minutes it was apparent it wasn’t coming back to life any time soon. Another boat puttered by, and after a little conversation between the captains, all the passengers in ours shifted over to the other one. We left The Unlucky Boat behind, the captain taking a drag on his cigarette and contemplating the engine.
All these delays meant we had a much shorter time at the caves than other visitors, so I had to hoof it to get to the upper cave. The buddhas in the Pak Ou Caves are either damaged beyond repair or no longer in use, and in recent years tourists have brought their own buddhas to add, although I don’t know what the official stance is on that. The upper cave is lit by a few candles and what sunlight drifts in from outside, so I brought my headlamp in case I found myself in the dark, but enough people were up there with the same that I never did. The lower cave is well-lit, but there’s less exploring to do.
I liked poking around the upper cave, looking at the buddhas of all sizes and poses, made of different materials, ranged about the caves on long concrete shelves. During the Laotian New Year, people flock here to wash the buddhas, but the rest of the year, the statues sit under thin layers of dust, their limbs wearing away or broken off, their Mona Lisa smiles undisturbed by the dark. It must’ve been the luck of all those buddhas that followed me back to town, because the boat didn’t stop once.
UNESCO put Luang Prabang on its World Heritage Sites list because it’s a town with a well-preserved mix of Laotian and French colonial architecture. After the jumble of rowhouses and tiny shops of Chiang Mai, it is striking to see the long, broad buildings of Luang Prabang, painted a colonial yellow and set at a dignified distance from the brightly decorated Buddhist temples.
Dignified, stately, slow-moving: these are the words I kept coming up with as I wandered the streets of Luang Prabang. A little in keeping with that stately feeling (and certainly in keeping with its colonial history), there were a lot of fences and walls; more space is cordoned off in this small town than I saw walled away in all of Thailand.
Every evening, vendors set up outside those walls for the night market. In Thailand, the markets are set up on card tables, but in Laos, the goods are laid out on tarps and blankets on the ground. If you want to inspect the goods at a particular booth, you have to squat down, or use one of the tiny plastic stools the vendor whips out for you. I would gingerly lower myself onto these unstable pieces of plastic and smile genially as all the women selling quilts and table runners laughed. Just about every stall has a woman holding a baby, and some stalls are staffed by men or teenagers. I saw one little boy playing on an iPad while his parents sold handicrafts–it’s a shrinking world, indeed!
I picked out wedding presents and souvenirs from various stalls, but my favorite spot was the bombs-to-bracelets stall. The US waged a secret bombing campaign on Cambodia and Laos in the late ’60s and early ’70s, as part of its campaign against the Communist bogeyman. The villagers of Ban Napia in eastern Laos took the aluminum from the thousands of bombs dropped on their homes and, in their words, turned it from “something that kills into something that feeds,” producing spoons. They later added bracelets and charms to their collection, and the number of bombs dropped can be guessed at by the fact that they’re still making jewelry today, nearly 40 years after the bombs stopped falling. I chose to support the artisans, although there is some controversy in doing so, because villagers have to collect scrap metal to make them, and there are a lot of accidents and sometimes deaths with the UXOs (unexploded ordnances). As with so many potential purchases, it’s complicated.
Of course, there’s food. One woman sliced watermelon with a machete while another flipped sweet potatoes on a small woodfire grill. A narrow alley of food vendors included pork and fish on sticks, dumplings, grilled sticky rice, and two giant all-you-can-eat buffets. I had really good veggie and pork dumplings, and a non-spicy lemongrass sausage (a specialty of the area).
Luang Prabang has dozens of Buddhist temples, and a high concentration of monks and novices (those under age 25 are called novices). The temples, or wats, are painted in elaborate, intricate scenes, sometimes both inside and outside. The grounds are spare, with just a little greenery carefully confined to a few areas, and the rest tiled courtyards between buildings. Monks and novices move around on the edges, running errands, doing homework (many boys enter the monastery to get a good education), making adjustments in the temples.
Probably the most famous wat in Luang Prabang is Wat Xieng Thong, sometimes called The Temple of the Golden City. Since Luang Prabang is on the World Heritage list, there’s a lot of upkeep work going on at various temples, funded by various countries–and this temple is no exception. The US Embassy is supporting efforts to reinforce the structural elements of the temple, and scaffolding was set up around the buddha when I visited.
The main building was painted a maroon color inside, and then gold leaf designs were painted on top of that, on every available surface–ceiling, columns, walls. Inside, a long wooden pipe sat along one wall, and at the end of it sat a small buddha in a glass box. During a water-based festival, water blessed by monks travels through the wooden pipe and washes the buddha. My favorite part of this temple was a separate building, which housed a giant dragon boat. The back wall was red, covered in intricate, colorful mosaic scenes and accented with sparkly glitter. There was no way to get a decent picture to show just how big and full of life it was, but I tried. Exteriors of some other buildings were dotted with similar mosaics.
Mount Phousi rises above the center of town, and a small temple sits atop it, with various buddha statues and shrines scattered below it, so each step of the climb to the top takes you past a holy site. At the top, if you can balance yourself between the edge and the dozens of fellow tourists, you can see a beautiful sunset over the Mekong. On the walk up, off to the side is the Imprint of the Buddha’s Foot; it’s a large, vaguely foot-shaped indentation in the rock that someone decided was a holy sign. (In that way, it reminds me of the Virgin Mary water spot under the bridge on Fullerton in Chicago.)
The foot is just past a pavilion with a view of the Nam Khan River to the east, and on this pavilion stood a young novice. His name was Tip, and he was doing homework. He clearly stations himself here most nights in hopes of practicing English, because he was eager to ask and answer questions with me. He was 17, he’d been a novice for many years, his wat was across the river, America sounded interesting… I didn’t have time to ask for a photo or chat with him further, because a couple teenage Laotian boys entered the pavilion, and Buddhist monks aren’t supposed to be alone with women. I didn’t want him getting in trouble, so I said goodbye and he said, “I hope you have many happinesses in your travels in Laos.”
“Oh, you know they’re always trying to rip you off.” “They’re always looking for a way to scam you.” “You have to be really firm with them.” I heard variations on this theme so many times in Southeast Asia that I started to wonder what I was missing, because I didn’t feel that way. How much of this attitude comes from personal attitude, and how much from the many, many guidebook warnings on scams and ripoffs in Southeast Asia? Probably a mix. A not very pleasant mix of reality, stereotypes, and suspicion.
Guidebooks and websites list the various scams you can fall prey to–the gem scam, the tuk-tuk scam, the travel agency scam, to name just a few. I even knowingly went into one of the well-known scams, to see what it was like. There are a lot of setups to separate you from your money, and the more serious ones have legal repercussions if you don’t cooperate (see: anything involving drugs). Being wary of any deal that seems too good to be true is a smart move for avoiding scams anywhere you go, including SEA. That’s pretty straightforward.
It’s the ripoffs that are a murkier area. Traveling in SEA from a Western country means encountering new currencies, new modes of transport, new foods, and a new bar of “normal” prices for it all. I got pork satay for $1 and thought I’d got a bargain, until further up the street I saw someone selling it for 50 cents. Did I feel cheated out of those extra 50 cents? Slightly. Did it affect my budget or my mood? Not at all.
I met some women on the slow boat to Laos, and when we arrived in Luang Prabang we decided to share a tuk-tuk to the Kuang Si Waterfalls, 40 minutes outside of town. We found a couple tuk-tuks and asked how much to take us there and back. (You never have meters with tuk-tuks; you always negotiate price upfront.) The drivers wanted 50,000 kip per person, round trip. What a ripoff! That’s much more than it should be! We’re going to find someone else! And then they did start walking off to find someone else. The drivers let us get pretty far; this wasn’t a haggling technique, you could tell, they really didn’t want to drop their price. But finally they consented to 40,000 kip each, which was deemed acceptable. (I should say here that I really enjoyed hanging out with these women, as we did over the next several days, but we just disagreed on this point.)
We passed a checkpoint (all the tuk-tuks in Luang Prabang belong to a group that they report rides to and presumably pool some money for), and I saw a sign saying trips to the waterfalls are 200,000 per tuk-tuk. There were four of us, which meant the 50,000 was just basic math, not a ripoff at all. But when I mentioned this, the women said no, they’d read online that it shouldn’t be more than 40,000 per person, and it’s a matter of principle, not being ripped off. And “they” will rip you off any chance you get, I was reminded; hadn’t the price of a dress been slashed in half at the market yesterday when one of the women simply started walking away after hearing the opening figure? That proves that they’re always asking for way more than it’s worth.
But I think it’s not that simple. The dress, yes, that was a funny piece of haggling, because clearly the woman would have settled for much less than her opening price, but why shouldn’t she give it a shot? It wasn’t out of line with prices in other stalls, and it was still only $10. It’s frustrating when you’re not sure what the normal price is, but markets here are meant for bartering, so make up your own normal, or what feels comfortable for you without leaving the seller with no profit.
The tuk-tuk, though, is much easier to avoid being ripped off. They’d gone online to see what the norm was–40,000–so if the driver had said 100,000, we would have known straight away that we were being ripped off. But 50,000 isn’t unreasonable, and according to the tuk-tuk company sign, it was in fact appropriate for the size of our group.
And in the end, it’s a $1 difference. Yes, it was the difference between a $7 or an $8 ride–for 40 minutes out, waiting several hours, and 40 minutes back to town. That $1 means so much more to the driver than it does to me, so why begrudge him that slight boost in his pay for the day? It’s going to go a lot farther in his pocket than in mine. Sure, they countered, but if you keep saying, “oh it’s only one dollar” everywhere, those dollars are going to add up, and you’ll lose a lot of money that way. Yep, I replied, and I’m okay with that.
I complain about how much I’m spending on this trip more often than I should, but I’m still acutely aware of how fortunate I am. I’m far more upset about the ATM fees I pay every time just to access my own damn money than I am about the couple hundred dollars I’ve probably overpaid to people trying to send their kids to school or get dental care.
Finally, this kind of thinking can get dangerously racially based. There’s way too much “they” and “them” in the talk surrounding scams and ripoffs. If you’re always thinking that a certain group of people is always out to get you, you’re not allowing them any individuality, and you’re closing the door on opportunities for understanding each other. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t look out for ripoffs–I had to bail on a taxi in Hanoi with a super-fast meter, for example. But try not to make it the first thing you see in a person.
If you see someone as a scam artist solely based on his race, that’s racist. If you see someone as out for your money, that’s one more friend you haven’t made. That’s a lonely way to travel, and it doesn’t fit in my budget.
A lot of people assume that my year-long trip is one giant vacation, that I drift from day to day with a cocktail and no agenda. Actually, I’m doing something pretty much all the time. If I’m not sightseeing or meeting locals and other travelers, I’m writing this blog or keeping in touch with loved ones, and if I’m not doing that, I’m looking up where to go next and how to get there, or moving funds around and cursing the slow internet connection. I’ve read more books in the last nine months than I did while I had a job, but not as many as I’d hoped, and I get way behind on my journal with some regularity. So you can imagine how much I appreciated the abrupt change in pace when I got on the slow boat to Laos.
Boats used to be the main mode of travel in Laos, but in the last 20 years the country has undertaken huge road projects, and increasingly buses and cars are the way to get around. There are still a few boat routes in use, however, and one of the more popular ones for backpackers is from the Thai border at the town of Huay Xai, down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang. The journey takes two days, with about 7 hours of boat travel each day, and a night’s rest in Pakbeng.
It is literally a slow boat—a long, low houseboat with a roof overhead and a small engine room in the back. We took a different boat each day, but the setup was pretty much the same. A few two-seat wooden benches, and then rows of minivan seats lining the narrowing prow, with a “bar” in the back selling some beers and a few bags of chips. Bags are stowed below the floor, with a few in the back near the engine. As in the rest of Southeast Asia, no one makes safety announcements or points out the life jackets; you just sit and wait for the magical moment when it’s deemed time to go, and suddenly you’re moving down the Mekong.
And once we were off, that was it. There was no loud music, no group activity, nothing to demand my attention. I could take a nap, read a book, chat with my neighbors, or spend hours watching the beautiful scenery gliding by. I went for a combination of all these. It was wonderful to just sit and do nothing, in this stunning setting.
It wasn’t all sunshine and roses, of course. I almost didn’t make the boat, because the people I bought the ticket from refused to take me to the dock before 11:30—but the boat was meant to leave at 11:30. Finally, I started walking up to the main road to find my own tuk-tuk, and with an exasperated sigh the ticket seller led me to a tuk-tuk that got to the dock at 11:33, and I was literally the last person on board the boat. I’ve never been that person before, but here I was scooting down the aisle with my bags in tow, all eyes on me as I searched in vain for a seat. I ended up on a bench behind the engine room, which was big enough to stretch out in. But it was also incredibly hot back there, because we weren’t getting the same breezes they had up front, and the motor made a constant, deafening noise. On the second day, I got a seat near the front of the boat, so it was much quieter but we all basically sat on each other’s laps. The days were pretty cloudy, and we had a little rain on the first day. Getting up to go to the toilet was an exercise in acrobatics, and the toilet itself wasn’t exactly pleasant. I’d read that plenty of locals come by in their boats to sell food during the ride, but that didn’t happen once when I was there, and the bar had only a few packets of chips, so I was glad I’d bought one of the sandwiches from the many food vendors in both Huay Xai and Pakbeng.
But really, it hardly mattered. I read on a blog somewhere that the slow boat is the best trip they’ll never do again, and that about sums it up. It’s too uncomfortable to make it a regular mode of transport, but it’s too beautiful and (for us modernized Westerners) too unusual not to enjoy.
The family running the boat on the first day included two brothers several years apart (the older one tormenting the younger one, much to the younger one’s delight), and an adorable toddler with her hair up in three bouncy pigtails. They were friendly with a lot of the customers they met at the stops along the way; we picked up a few passengers at the tiny villages we passed, but mostly we loaded and unloaded goods that needed moving.
The banks of the river were hilly, covered in green grasses and trees, the occasional palm, some brown shrubs, a few patches of slash-and-burned forest, and clumps of what looked like birch trees with maybe three brown leaves each. For the most part it was pretty calm, but we did pass little whirlpools often, like the current was so overwhelmed with the size of the river that it couldn’t decide which way to go. The banks often had sand, and it was the fine white-brown sand of a lake or ocean beach, not what I’d expect to find on a river bank. Large gray rocks collected along the edge, many glittering in the sun in a way that made it seem like there must be shiny minerals in there.
We passed villages up on the hills, and depending on how big the village was (12-30 buildings), there was a dirt path up the hill or a set of stairs carved into it and bolstered by logs, or sometimes cement stairs. All the villages had houseboats looking just like ours tied up by them; many of them had orange satellite dishes on top of them. Also lots of little skiffs, the long, skinny boats no more than a butt’s width across. All the boats are painted blues and greens, no plain wood.
There were often people along the bank when we went past. Some were children, the girls in traditional long wrap skirts and t-shirts, the boys in t-shirts and shorts, or sometimes naked. Some kids waved at us, some stared. The men and women pulled in fishing nets—sometimes men dozed on the rocks, dozing next to their fishing poles, which are long bamboo poles with a line or net dipping into the water. There were plots of land fenced off with something growing inside, maybe lettuce? These little gardens ran down almost to the river.
On my second day, away from the engine, I could hear the constant rush of the water as we slid through it. I could smell the vegetation from the banks (and also, unfortunately, the cigarette smoke from the many, many Europeans lighting up around me). The uniformly brown river was pretty free of trash. Butterflies were everywhere, mostly white ones flittering around the whirlpools and off across the water. It was colder than expected on the second day. After bathing in my own sweat back by the engine (and in the tropics in general), I was surprised to find that I needed my long-sleeved shirt up front, as I might have done on a boat ride anywhere else.
On our stopover in Pakbeng, the main street had no electricity for several hours, and this was before the terrific thunderstorm that started up during my delicious Indian dinner. Candlelit dinner quickly turned into flashes of lightning dinner, and I stared out over the hill at this magnificent storm along the surging river as my beer grew warm. Luckily, the electricity came back later that night, because the A/C I’d paid extra for was definitely necessary.
If you’re headed to Luang Prabang from Thailand, or vice versa, and you have the time and the patience for it, I’d recommend the slow boat. If you need to be forced into relaxation, this is the ride for you. If you’re already lazy like me, these are the two days you’ve been looking for.
Sometimes the locals have to spell things out for the tourists so they don’t freak out about something they’ve never seen before. Squat toilets, intestines on a stick, mosquito nets–all presented without comment or explanation, just read your guidebook to figure it out (okay, except the nice vendor did steer me away from intestines toward a pork satay instead). Which works for me! You’re visiting a culture, after all, so learn a little about it. But I’m guessing the Luang Prabang airport received complaints about its bathroom air fresheners, because they’ve affixed quite the descriptive label to them.