June 14, 2004


There aren't any roads from Laung Prabang to Huay Xai, so for backpackers attempting to travel to Thailand you have two options. For the thrill seekers, there's the speed boat, 350 kilometers in 8 grueling hours. For those preferring a slower form of torture, there's the sluggish two-day boat, which cruises at walking speed and stops half way for a good night’s sleep. It wasn't a difficult decision for me.

The alarm clock went off at 5:00 am, my eyes bloodshot from a night of rice whiskey and cheap cigarettes. I gather my things and hail a motorbike. If you can fit an entire family on one, you certainly can carry a skinny Asian and his luggage. We head off for the Ban Dan boat landing, passing a slew of school kids on bicycles and trucks bulging with vegetables heading for the markets. The rush of fresh air peels my eyes open as I said goodbye to a country I had fallen in love with.

It wasn't much of a landing, just a cliff with an old staircase leading down to a muddy river bank. The hut-like ticket booth was closed, but the noodle shop across the dirt parking lot was busy with the other fools that heeded the warning of "6:00 am sharp". I skipped the coffee and had some fish ball soup. Between bites, the shop owner pestered me into buying ear plugs, a rain jacket, sunglasses and a local paper. We all waited patiently; by now, everyone understood the LLB (Laotian-Laid-Backness). About 7:00 am, a few drivers showed up and 30 minutes later, the lady that ran the boats. She promised we'd leave in 15 minutes. An hour later, they took the first eight of us, being the last picked, I felt lucky. We piled into the boat and it practically sunk -- the water was inches away from the top and as we began to move, it sloshed its way in, soaking our bags and feet. The driver shouted to the remaining people up in the ridge and a young couple happily scurried down. I'm not big, but in Laos I'd be a power forward. Two other heavies were removed and we headed back up the hill, feeling dejected.

While waiting for five more candidates to fill another boat, I began conjuring up images of the storied Mekong River; its mysterious waters, which meander from Tibet and down through China, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam to rest in the South China Sea. It has divided and united countries and peoples for centuries. Its imperceptible flow somehow makes you feel like the real story has yet to be told. All around, the ripe smells of vegetation and river life played with your senses as my thoughts somehow morphed into images of the first boat crashing against the angry cliffs that reach down to sip from the mighty river. I saw the "lighter" people clutching their belongings, drifting futilely as they slowly disappeared one by one into the silt that lay below. We just passed peacefully by, wondering, why them? Who were they? And, why had they come to Ban Don to be the first eight chosen? The “Sweet Here After” river version.

Finally, we pile into the boat fitted with helmets, life jackets and wind breakers. Our driver lights a cigarette, then fires up the Toyota engine mounted at the stern. He dips the long pipe-like propeller into the water and we’re off. It's exhilarating, but so loud my ears scream with pain. I clamor through my bag and find the earplugs. A sheet of water sprays up from the bow and I redirect it, dousing myself and my Canadian friend. At 30 miles per hour, just breathing in the slipstream of air can be difficult. The first hour was great -- the 20 feet long narrow boat sped through the water like a jet, blurring all that we passed. How our driver managed to smoke was much less perplexing as his seeming ability to navigate through the jagged rocks, some hiding just inches below the water’s surface. After an hour, my lower back begins to stiffen. I try to wiggle, but realize that any sort of repositioning is out of the question. My knees are packed up into my chest and sandwiched between the Canadian and the side walls. We're sardines, minus the oil. We weave around iceberg-shaped rocks, passing little vignettes of life: fisherman sifting through their nets, young girls gleefully washing clothes and pockets of huts resting upon slender stilts. Our engine begins to sputter, then gives way to a chug and finally silence. The driver lights a cigarette pops open the clutch and pulls a paper clip from behind his ear. I slip on my headphones to find Tool still playing from a previous trip. It seems appropriate, though I'm not sure why. For the next two hours, the boat breaks down a dozen more times; we stay amused by watching the Laotian fellas piss -- it's like hangin’ out at a pub, either they have small bladders or they’re marking uncharted territory.

We'd only traveled about 80 kilometers when the speed boats going the opposite way toward LP started passing us; from my calculations, we were about 5 hours behind schedule and probably not going to get to Huay Xai in time to cross over into Thailand. I had planned to travel all the way to Chaing Rai in hopes of venturing up into the Golden Triangle the following day. I was convinced now that just getting across the border and back into Thailand would be fine.

As the day progressed, the complete compression of my body resulted in the loss of feeling in my lower half. I tried not to think about it, but my head and back were throbbing. I imagined jumping over board, feeling the water tingling my nerves. I contemplated asking to stop to just let me off, but I figured the prolonged torture of being stuck in the middle of nowhere might be worse. I tried breathing exercises, meditating and finally acupressure: digging my thumbs deep into the apex of my jaw and holding them there as long as I could. It actually helped. Life on the river enlivened as we passed into the late afternoon. Entire villages gathered on jetties, fishing as the sun began to wane. The smell of fires filled the air and a stream of insects pelted my cheeks. The villages looked haunted under the gloomy canopy of the darkened forests.

We stopped to let a few of the guys off, but before we could spread out, two more climbed in: one hobbling on a severely wounded foot. I could smell the wound as it oozed a yellowish puss out onto the floor of the boat. His friend tried hard to keep him from passing out, as we now made our way up the river to a nearby hospital. My pain and discomfort gave way to a concern for his well being and, for a moment, I thought I might be human after all. When we arrived at the hospital, he had fallen unconscious. As his friend attempted to carry him off, the boat our driver insisted that they pay -- rules of the river.

With night descending upon the Mekong, we spent the last of our now ten hour trip guided by the lanterns along the banks. My hopes of reaching Thailand were now fully thwarted, so I quietly wished for somewhere to stretch, eat and drink. We arrived in Huay Xai, the Laos border town that lay across the river from Thailand. The eerie night was interrupted by the blaring of Thai pop music from the bar-restaurants in Chiang Khlong. It was like the country was laughing at me. We gathered our bags, which were drenched in river stink and headed up the embankment for town. Reaching the top, we're met by a throng of hopeful jumbo drivers grabbing at our bags. It's so lovely to feel wanted. Splitting the fare with the Canadian, we bounce our way over the potholed road and through the town, passing a group of kids playing basketball under a flickering streetlight. I took the first guest house I saw and tossed on my tennis shoes. As I approached, the kids seemed puzzled. Without my speaking to them, they must have thought I was a really dumb local or a Japanese tourist. We played late into the night until someone’s mom came to fetch them. I dominated the game, towering over them like Kevin Garnett. Of course, the oldest kid there was about eight. By the end, I had forgotten the day in the swish of a shot -- just feeling happy to still be in Laos. We parted ways with a couple of low-fives and I disappeared back down the road.

From my guesthouse balcony, I sat staring at Thailand across the river and wondering about how countries and people get partitioned. How we come to define one group Thai and the other Laos by the width of a river? From the balcony they look pretty similar.

Posted by runawaychef at June 14, 2004 08:46 PM

Hey Tim, bravo again , your storytelling gets better every time the trip gets harder. I am on a real armchair vacation and loving it.

Posted by: bill Yosses at June 17, 2004 08:09 AM