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October 19, 2004

Slow Boat on the Mighty Mekong

As our friends from the jungle trekking slowly started to drift away towards their next destination we made plans for seeing Luang Prabang in Laos, properly spelled Lao - silly frenchmen! (Haw haww hawwwwn!) We left Chiang Mai and headed north to the border via mini bus. Little did we know that it was just the beginning of another overly crowded adventure. At least we had excellent scenery to entertain us once we got an hour out of Chiang Mai. Small villages met rolling hills covered with rice paddies and occasionally, limestone karst obelisks would pop up through the Earth reaching for the heavens. (Dramatic ain't it?) After 6 hours in the bus we made it to our guesthouse for the night with Laos just across the river. Rather than risk our necks on the speedboat (more on that later) we decided to book a ticket to Luang Prabang via slowboat, a two down journey down the Mekong with an overnight stop in some village (in the middle of nowhere) that isn't even on the map. I'd heard the views made up for lost time.

Early the next morning we jumped in a local longtail boat for the 5 minute journey to Laos for our immigration stamps and a ride to slow boat pier where they advertise the easiest way to enjoy your journey. After about 50 backpackers climbed across the gangplank and sat on various parts of the floor or 6 inch wide wooden planks (remember-2 day journey) we were on our way down the mighty Mekong River.

The Mekong begins in the Tibetan Himalayas and slices down from China through the heart of southeast Asia to the South China Sea. It forms the border between several countries in the region including Thailand and Laos. Since we're traveling during the dry season the flow of the river is north-south towards Luang Prabang making our journey much faster. During the wet season it reverses its flow!! I don't really understand the mechanics but this is apparently a rare feature for a river that ranks as the 10th largest in the world. Ok. Mekong lesson over.

Whoever said the views made up for lost time wasn't kidding. Excepting the lackluster brown of the river itself beautiful green mountains rose up and away with little huts or bamboo villages hiding in the overgrowth. The only time we saw any of the inhabitants was when we stopped to let kids sell us "cheps, cheps, cheps!! Pringle! Petsi!" I'm not sure if they appreciated us being there but I think they enjoyed the distraction. Except for this boy. He looked dangerous! As the boat pulled away I left Amanda and took my fro out onto the roof for a little fresh air. What a place! As the wind whipped by I couldn't help but be amazed at how people find ways to live in every corner of the planet. I used to think Buford was out in the boondocks! The Mekong makes the Mall of Georgia look like the "Capital of the World". A few more hours of weaving around the river's currents and we made it to PakBeng for the night. I never really thought sitting for 8 hours could be so utterly exhausting but once we got our room and the guesthouse turned off its generator around 7 we blew out the candle for bed.

Another early morning saw us back on a slowboat. This time the boat was twice as crowded. Floor space was a commodity and only got more valuable as we picked up locals down river. Their huge bags of rice didn't help the situation much either. Stuff was on the roof and this time the captain wasn't took keen on us hanging out up there. We had to enjoy the views from wherever we'd staked a claim. To make matters worse I was having to step over 25 people every five minutes to get to the bathroom. I think I picked up a little bug in the middle of nowhere. Unfotunately, that bug found somewhere to be my intestinal track. The thought of having taken a speedboat didn't seem so bad. Even those crash helmets and reports of several deaths didn't darken the thought - well, maybe a little. Again today my only comfort was the passing jungle, the fishermen who live on the riverbank and the view. An hour north of Luang Prabang we passed the Pak Ou caves and the whole boat gave out a muffled cheer. I knew we were almost home free. Now, if I could only wait to go to the bathroom again...

Luang Prabang is great! If I ever had any notions of what Asia would look like this is it. Too bad its a rarity. I'll post another blog before we head down to Vieng Vang and Vientiane.

Posted by Josh on October 19, 2004 08:44 AM
Category: Where are we?


Posted by: Steven Saul on October 23, 2004 07:09 PM
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