This morning Lori and I left Chiang Khong, Thailand, for Laos. This was a real adventure. The plan was to cross the Mekong River to Laos and to take a fast boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang.
Neither of us was quite clear what a fast boat was. They are maybe thirty inches wide, thirty feet long, and fifteen inches deep. And they go about 35 miles an hour for six hours. Passengers are rigged up in life jackets and motorcycle helmets for safety sake. The boats have a reputation for flipping, either because of striking rocks/logs in the water or currents or something about low hanging tree branches.
After crossing the river and clearing Laos customs, we proceeded by tuk-tuk with two other couples to the start site. Despite our expectation that we would be six to a boat, we ended up going three in each of two boats, and we agreed to change the split couple after lunch. We didn't realize, though, that we would be using two boats only until we passed a Laos checkpoint. Then the drivers brought us together and moved us all into a single boat. It was a scam for appearance sake only.
I should say a word here about the noise of these boats. They are loud. They are audible at a distance of 500 meters and they impede conversation at any lesser distance. In fact, before boarding, it was recommended that we buy pairs of foam earplugs for 100 baht ($2.50 USD) for the trip. And even then you could not really hear anything but the engine behind.
So a brief overview of the trip is as follows: a cramped ride, subjected to ear-splitting noise, all the while clutching at the gunwales as you contemplate the possibility of imminent danger as the boat strikes eddies and standing waves at about thirty-five miles per hour. For six hours.
That said, it was amazing. The Mekong is surrounded on both sides by high rolling mountains -- not fjord-style as in Chile and Norway but more gradual and set back from the river. It is green everywhere. There is practically no one else on the river for ten miles at a stretch. The river slopes away from you, as if you are in a continuous fall for miles and miles.
We happened to have been quite lucky in our choice of travel companions. John is a Canadian living and working in Thailand with a non-profit that does social work. His girlfriend Laura is a nurse doing a master's degree at Guelph University. They have lived for seven weeks and five weeks, respectively, in Thailand, and they have a great command of Thai for the purposes of asking directions and bargaining, two essential activities for travelers.
Jacques is an American who has finished an undergraduate degree in political science and economics from a school in Oregon, I think. He has ambitions to join the American foreign service, even at the cost of surrendering his French dual citizenship. His girlfriend Jessica is also American and studying to be a nurse.
The trip was made even more cramped when we were joined after lunch by a very taciturn Lao who sat in the seats in front of Lori and me. We were all very alarmed at this development because of the additional weight in the boat and the diminished manoueverability. I also noted that his pack was not well tied into the pile at the front, and I expected at any moment that he would lunge for his falling baggage, capsizing the boat.
As the light began to fade in the late afternoon, our driver picked up speed to make it to Luang Prabang before sundown. In these parts, sundown is at 18:00 and it is an abrupt transition. Being caught after dark on the river would have been more dangerous still. Fortunately, as it neared 18:00, we came upon the boat landing unexpectedly -- it was just a bunch of bamboo poles in a floating raft by the side of a steep hill with stairs leading to the water.
Once out of the boat and with our packs hiked up the stairs, we had to decide quickly on a hotel and to negotiate with the tuk-tuk drivers for a reasonable rate. John and Laura were in fine form, showing genuine astonishment at the prospect of paying 100 baht ($2.50 USD) per person for a 12 km ride. They negotiated a 100 baht savings in all, acknowledging the limits of the circumstances. Lori found a hotel in town to direct the driver to, and I provided a flashlight and moral support in this team effort. Our glum Lao friend climbed aboard for free and departed before Luang Prabang without a word.
The day was such a success that we six decided to go for dinner together after dropping our stuff at our hotels. The consensus reached on the day: "I expected it to be dangerous but I had no idea it would be uncomfortable."