Monday, January 11, 2010

Slow Boat is Slow

After a cheap breakfast we headed towards the slow boat. We now had 170,000 kip and no time to go up to town to try the ATM again, so we had no way of getting money. Nervous yet? We tried to put it out of our minds so we could enjoy our boat ride. We walked down to the boats which were lined up with their noses resting on the sandy bank of the Mekong. The boat is about 30m long and about 3m wide and looks like a long hollow pencil. We found our names sitting on a piece of paper taped to a pair of car seats that had been welded to a frame and placed on one side of the boat. Comfort was a luxury on the slow boat, as most of the other passengers were sitting on wooden pews or on the floor. We were thankful we had booked direct the day before.

Cruising down the river was peaceful and beautiful. The engine of the boat roared loudly but unobtrusively, and after a while became no more than a background drone. In the morning the mist was thick and didn’t lift till nearly noon, giving the surrounding hills an eerie and mysterious quality (probably because we couldn‘t really see them). Unfortunately this also meant the sun was unable to contact us. So we were quite bloody cold. Although, as I write this blog post, sitting in a snow covered airport in Munich, the cold of the boat ride seems almost laughable compared to our 5am hike through the snow to the train this morning. By comparison, the Mekong boat trip was quite toasty, yet at the time it felt really cold to us.

Eventually the sun did break through the fog and the mists parted revealing more grand mountains covered in lush jungle rising straight from the riverbank to the skies. We trundled along past fishermen and fishing villages and it seemed that almost the entire river was used at some time as a local source of life, although the quality of life may have been something foreign to us. Arriving at a small village we unloaded a few goods and a couple of locals, a herd of local women approached our boat holding what looked like fried guinea pigs, rats and even a cat. A dog was shoved in a sack and thrown onto the front of the boat, while we listened to the yelp from the village as another dog was slaughtered for dinner. We put on our best disapproving faces and glared at the locals as our boat headed off again.

After watching what was probably our thirtieth gorgeous sunset (it’s a hard life) we drifted slowly into the tiny village of Pak Beng, our stop over point for the first night. Climbing up the steep sandy bank we dodged the usual locals holding flyers for their guesthouses and made way for the cheapest guest house listed in the Lonely Planet. Finding the guest house or first question was to ask if they had credit card facilities or if there was an ATM in town. The man laughed directly at us and explained that not only did the town not have ATMs but the power was all run by generator and there were no phone lines. We gave him 80,000 kip, which left us with 90,000 for dinner and breakfast.

Trying to arrange breakfast we were told we could also pay with Thai Baht. We actually had a little Baht left over in my backpack and we dumped the horde of coins and notes onto our bed and counted out roughly six dollars worth. I also had two American one dollar notes stashed in my wallet and with our remaining Laos Kip we had roughly US$19.00, a small fortune by South East Asian standards. We had two options, the first was to starve ourselves until we reached the border the next day so that we would at least have enough to stay somewhere if the border was closed and there were no ATMs. Our second option was to throw caution to the wind and find a restaurant for dinner and use our Baht to buy breakfast hoping that there would be an ATM in the next town.

We stuffed ourselves with 90,00 kip worth of delicious Indian food. There are lots of Indian restaurants in Laos, and finding one in a tiny little village like Pak Beng wasn’t too unusual. The town thrives on the nightly stop over of travellers riding the two day Mekong cruise. Note the word “Traveller” rather than “Tourist”, as the popular Mekong route from Thailand to Laos does not cater for tourist luxuries. Our second day, we too were without luxury, as our boat didn’t have any comfortable car chairs welded to a frame on the deck. We had wooden pews, whose back rest’s were to far forward so you had to constantly push back with your legs to stop yourself from falling forward. We pushed the pews to the side and laid on our Backpacks instead.

There are two ways to do the Mekong river tour, the option we chose was the two day “slow boat” trip, with a one night stopover and a less than certain time of arrival at the Laos border before it closes. The Laos immigration closes at 6pm and the slow boat was expected to arrive at 5:30pm giving us just enough time to get over the border to meet a bus bound for Chiang Mai on the Thai side of the border. We really wanted to get to Chiang Mai as quick as possible as we now only had a few days left until our flight to London. So needles to say we were hoping to arrive in time to cross the border and avoid spending a night at the border town of Huay Xai.

The other option was the one day “fast boat”, this is know as the kamikaze approach, several people are killed each year on these. Basically it is a speed boat, but it is more like a fat canoe with a V8 engine strapped to the back. Passengers on the boat are given mandatory life jackets and helmets to wear, then they huddle together with grimaced faces as the boat hammers down the river dodging rocks like Luke Skywalker dodges trees on his speeder bike on the Endor moon. While this may be the much faster option, the looks of horror of the faces of the victims speeding by us, or at least the ones brave enough to look up, let us know we’d made the better choice. Well at least the safer more scenic and peaceful choice.

There is probably a element of jaded conspiracy paranoia about the next part of this story. But the facts show a scam worthy of the Vietnamese. The border for Laos closes at 6pm, however the Thai side of the border is open until 8pm. Everyday the slow boat arrives full of people wanting to cross the border and yet the border closes early and at about the same time that most people would be arriving at the border. We pulled slowly up the river between Huay Xai in Laos on our right and Chiang Kong in Thailand on our left. We could see the Laos immigration on the bank, about a one minute swim from the boat, and we could see the pier for docking our boat. But we only watched the minute hand on our watches tick over.

We arrived at the pier at around 5:30pm, this left us 30 minutes to disembark, grab a Tuk-Tuk and get to the Border office, plenty of time. No, our boat shunted backwards and forward appearing to be having trouble docking. The previous night docking had been no problem as we had literally lined up a gap between two boats and rammed our way between them until we reached the shore. But when every minute counted our boat waited and did nothing. We started getting really agitated and we believed that it was because these slimy fuckers were getting a kickback from the local guesthouses. The same guesthouses who had their representatives waiting with flyers on the shore.

When it reached 6pm and it was apparent that there was no way we could cross the border and would therefore have to spend our money on a Guesthouse, the boat magically worked out how to dock, and with a simple manoeuvre we were hitched to the pier and clambering ff the boat, our blood boiling. We pushed past the guesthouse representatives and walked up the hill looking for the Tuk-Tuk that was supposed to collect us a part of our ticket price. By the time we reached the top of the hill we realised we were on our own and as we had no money we had to walk 20 minutes into town.

Thankfully in town we found an ATM that worked, and with our pockets once again lined with gold we found a guesthouse, checked on our pickup for the border crossing and bus to Chiang Mai, then headed out for dinner and a couple of drinks. In the bar we met a couple from England who it turned our had been staying in Vang Vieng at the same time as us and in the same Guesthouse as us. Even more coincidently they had partied with Beau and still owed Ollie money. But of course that wouldn’t mean anything unless you read the earlier blog. After a few drinks with some locals where one of us got very drunk and learnt a lot of swear words in the Laotian language, we crashed out for our last night in Laos.

All of the remaining photos for our South East Asian Leg are now up on Drew’s face book, we are still trying to catch up the blog and we’ll post a link to all of the photos after we finish the remaining blogs for Chiang Mai and Bangkok. We are in Austria at the moment were we celebrated a magical wedding night for Laura and Headley last night, and as we are both a bit seedy today we’ve finally had some time to stop and catch up.