Taking the slow boat to Laos is kind of like Burning Man: an amazing adventure and a once in a lifetime experience – and if I only do it once, that’s fine with me.
From Chiang Mai it takes 5 hours in a minivan to the border, a sleep over, a long slow boat ride (covered from the sun – thank a goddess), a stop over in Prabang, Laos, and then another day’s journey in a different (faster) slow boat until reaching the main port of Luang Prabang. There’s variations of this of course, but if you are a traveler with a bit of time and thinking you will save a buck, you are better off flying.
No, seriously. It was a great adventure, filled with uncertainty, new experiences, touching daily life of Laos commuters (it’s like a river taxi) briefly but deeply for myself, and I appreciate the suggestion to do so. I didn’t save much money, and it was a little touch an go for a minute there.
Let’s begin by saying:
If a significant motivation is to save money, it’s going to cost in other ways.
The ride night before the ride: I slept in a place where I got my own bungalow but it was way cheaper than what I had paid before (which was still reasonable). Well, it cost me some of my blood with those mosquitos that came for me through the walls (I could kind of see through them).
The bus ride:
5 hours in the evening. We had to talk a bit to the driver since he started to nod off…he was also real road ragey. He’s not like any Thai I’ve met so far. Maybe he’s not Thai. There was a big language barrier. But he did enjoy he Sees candy I gave him!
I had a great time chatting with a Swiss guy most of the way up. I also got to see how men and women divide themselves when we stopped for dinner. I even just wandered over to the table with the rest of the guys since I had made friends with the Simon from Switzerland. It’s fascinating to see some of the ways people divide themselves.
“sleeping”: bed bugs in this particular case. It was quite the bonding experience for me and this guy I roomed with. Sleeping in our sleeping bags on the floor after an hour of tossing on the bed. I kept trying to tell myself I was just feeling my hair move – there were no bugs on me….but alas. He woke up an switched on the light just as I had started to sleep. Something about fearing for my life at the end of the ride just got me started in my next wind, even though I only had a certain number of hours I had to get before the next stint of travel.
Immigration was a cinch after that bus ride. I started chatting up one of the men who were putting luggage under the bus (and later, taking passports, and giving us our tickets, they did loads of things). I learned a few words, and was relieved that some words are the same in Lao. Some are radically different though, “delicious” in Thai means “house fly” in Lao. So, I had to be careful once again – but it’s still not as delicate as bad luck/beautiful in Thai. I wrote some notes, but mostly I just practiced with my new friend (he was so sweet, and playful!) and the other travelers around me. I would quiz them after a few minutes and then after a longer period of time, a few times needing to go back to my luggage loading teacher for a refresher. You can bet he got some candy as well. I had to crawl under the bus for it and dig it out of my bag, but it was totally worth it.
After loading up on snacks…The boat was incredible, and frightening all at the same time. It was cool to take our shoes off – gave a more homey feel since the floor was very clean (before all the drinking), and very creative that the chairs looked to be recycled from both minivans and airliners – with a nice flair of curtains that would flap in the wind (there were practical tarp like flaps to keep the rain out when it stormed, but I quite enjoyed the rain. It only lasted about 5 minutes anyway). Certain things were enter-at-your-own-risk though.
I’d show you a video of the Mekong currents (there are several, always changing) but I have the free version of wordpress, so maybe some day. Though, you should really see it for yourself if you can.
I had a variety of experiences on that boat the first day, most memorable perhaps was watching a young traveler (not much younger than myself) ask my new friend very personal questions with no tact whatsoever. She had a morbid curiosity that made my palm smack my head with some of her questions. Kind of like a 4 year old, but then again, she had anesthetized the part of her brain that was older…and I was a bit buzzed at the time, so forgive me that I don’t remember what the questions were, but they involved asking very blunt, prying questions into this man’s near-death experience. I am sure you can relate to the sentiments.
A curious topic that came up was a young Englishman’s questions about ladyboys. It turned out to be a tricky place for me to navigate, and I made the decision not to come out to either one of them, both of which I roomed with for that night in Prabang. Lucky too, since one of them turned out to be a very violent drunk. But, we survived and I had yet another sleepless night.
Upon arrival at the port for Luang Prabang, there’s another scramble to get a ride and find a place to sleep for the night. This is not at all difficult, since every half step contains “tuk tuk? Mr, tuk tuk?” Or “come stay at my hostel…$”
The familiar feelings about being a stranger in a strange land come up…adding to that, I didn’t want to have to turn down the violent drunk (who is a very nice person and I had a fun time getting to know during the day), so I had to find a place to hide and wait for the Englishman, since he was pretty chill to room with. Plus, we kind of bonded over that experience. In any case, I was happy to get a good night’s rest for the first time in several days.
The food was good, and some of it way more expensive. The architecture was lovely indeed, as I had been warned. There is an underlying tension there that I haven’t immediately gotten in Thailand, and I’ve been here more than 2 weeks in one general province. I also didn’t really read up on Laos (except for the phenomenal waterfall) and only went with what people shared. I was happy to only spend a few days.
The highlight of my trip besides the whole thing being a huge adventure?
Tat Kuang Si
The Kuang Si Waterfall (Phonetically: Quong See) is spectacular, with the color of the water thanks to the chemistry that results from the limestone reacting with it. It is the most spectacular waterfall. I wish I could have stayed longer, but, alas. I did not bring my waterproof sack and when I reached the top after a few hours (I took my time getting there), it stormed. Thunder, lightning, rain – the whole bit. So, I ran down the mountain after seeing some large branch fall at the top (though, in retrospect, I would have stashed my bag under one of the tables and just enjoyed the storm, which lasted 20 min after the rain started). It wasn’t the wisest idea, but I enjoyed the thrill.
I had originally been talked into a tour ride, when in fact I only wanted a ride up, so I got half my money back and had a lovely picnic with myself in between bouldering and hiking around (I brought some left over rum and bought sandwiches at the base of the mountain). One of the driving motivations for my run down the mountain was to catch a tuk-tuk before they all left, as I had no way of getting back otherwise. Kuang Si Falls is about 45min in a car from Luang Prabang. It was unfortunate, but again, a lively adventure. There’s a theme developing here.
After dripping sweat and hiking for about 45min in thick jungle, I had a severe Fern Gulley moment when the trail abruptly turned to a construction site.
On my last evening, the Englishman and I discovered a drawer full of books in our guest room. This was wonderful. Big Brother Mouse is apparently a well-known reading program started by a teenager from a local village outside of the city. Its goal is to help raise literacy for both Lao and English through story telling. This short story has grown into a non profit where kids and teens can practice their English with Tourists. It was the saving grace of my trip.
I learned all about the night market and got brief histories of where certain things came from. I also got to hear (since we were doing double time) Tommie’s reading of some short stories, retold from village kids. I ended up buying a book written by a 17 year old from the Hmong Village an hour or two outside the city of Luang Prabang. I learned so much about his life, and I am so thankful to have found it. It touched me in ways that all the delicious croissants could not. But really, it was soulful, earnest, and made me want to stay longer.
My last few hours in Laos, I ran around to some historic sites (a bit sloppily, I might add), I went to get a massage (which ended up torquing my back….so from that, I would not recommend it) and stopping by the Big Brother Mouse site to experience helping some kids practice their English skills. I met an 18 year old Monk, a 17 year old who wants to be many things when he grows up, and a woman from Brazil who extended her stay a few days to do this.
I got to hear about their lives, and it was incredibly sweet. I loved the chance to talk with some locals and help them. I don’t think they can ever know (even if I were to find the right words to express) how deeply grateful I am for the chance to speak with them.
I mentioned that I read about James, a Hmong villager who shared his whole youth. I am so thankful too to the Laos government who allowed that book and many others to be published (they have final say).
Moral of this adventure: Be careful about whims, don’t have the main motivation for any decision to save money, and pack more underwear.
My new friend Dani, มาลี (Maa Lee is her Thai name) runs a company based on conversations. Besides the fact she’s a wonderful human, I think she provides a highly sought after skills training. The video is quite wonderful if you get a chance to watch it: https://glish.guru/about/
Or, if you prefer facebook: https://www.facebook.com/glishguru/
More and more, I am seeing that, even though I have mixed feelings about the context and the history of why English is a prolific language in this world, it’s practical to know it. More than that, it can create a bridge to connecting with others (though, I think we could all use some cross-language training. I think it could take us a long way in mending all kinds of issues).
“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world.” – Neil Gaiman
This trip was filled with adventure, and for that, I am happy.
This trip is over and I am back in Chiang Mai, and for that, I am happy.