Sunday, November 3, 2002

Luang Prabang 2

Friends: I am glad to report that I have regained my hearing. It wasn't all there when I awoke this morning, but after a couple of hours meandering around this quiet river town and former capital of Laos on my bike, there is no longer a hum in my head, just a perplexity at the lack of reliable information about the horror of those speed boats. Even if we hadn't been pelted by a cold rain, it would be hard to classify the speed boat option as anything but an experience to endure, not enjoy. Even the thrill-seeker crowd would have felt ten or fifteen minutes of the boat's crazed, full-throttle, hell-bent speeds was more than enough. Six hours of it, broken by one half hour break and several five minute breaks, was utter insanity.

When we stopped after 20 minutes for fuel and a chance to stretch, I was hoping the boat was burning so much fuel that we'd have to stop at least every half hour for more. My ears needed a break as much as my legs needed to stretch. But no, it had an ample fuel capacity to skim with unrelenting horror across the water for stretches of an hour or more. The captain did let up a bit from time to time, when he spotted a log or ripples from another boat or even a riffle in the water from some minor rapids ruffled the river's flat surface. He paused to glide from time to time too for no explicable reason. Maybe there was a temperature gauge on the engine and he had to let it cool. We were sitting low enough in the water that we could have reached out and scooped some up, if it had been a hot day. We could feel the vibrations of the boat when it did hit a rough spots. Our bikes were lashed one on top of the other on the bow of the boat. I was prepared to duck at any moment if they happened to come loose and fly over our heads. They survived with less damage than us, only a crack to my mirror.

The second half of our trip, after we changed boats, I had the added anxiety of whether all of our baggage had made it from one boat to the other. I alone have nine separate parcels, two front panniers, two back panniers, a handle bar bag, a saddle bag with all my tools, a tent, a sleeping bag and a backpack. I had somewhat supervised the transfer, but there were quite a few people involved in the operation an a bag or two could have innocently, or not so innocently, not made it on to our boat. I tried to decide which I could most afford to lose--my passport was in one bag, my water filter in another, my wallet in another, my camera in another, stashes of greenbacks in two others. There was only one bag with non-essentials. But fortunately everything made it. At the transfer point there were several other westerners who were headed in the opposite direction. They looked horribly frazzled. They said, with the deepest despair, "I don't want to get back in that boat." They too said they had opted on the speedboat after hearing from others how bad the slowboat was.

I need to find someone who has actually taken the slow boat and find out how that experience could possibly be worse than ours. Maybe its the duration. If it was just long and boring, that would be preferable to our high-speed torture. We certainly weren't bored by the scenery. The river twisted and curved through a continuous mountainous terrain with ridges, some almost canyon like, on either side of the river. There were occasional huge rocks protruding from the muddy brown river. The Mekong is one of the world's great rivers. It ranged from one to two football fields in width. There was minimal boat traffic and no villages of any significance, just makeshift dwellings here and there. After an hour it might have all looked the same, but it wound its way through relatively uncontaminated scenery. We wished we could have let our eyes linger on it, but we were racing past like some hopped up water bugs. The rare speed boat that passed us going up river seemed utterly incongruous. Who were they and why were they in such a hurry? The same applied to us.

All this and more Laurie and I were already able to laugh about and reminisce over as we ate dinner last night--vegetarian pizza followed by crepes at another restaurant, somewhat of a splurge. Luang Prabang is a traveler's hangout. A pleasant mix of blissed-out travelers who don't want to leave and vagabond traveler's who've been on the road for months add flavor to this relatively pristine town of 16,000. It has the ambiance of Guatemala's Panajachel in the late '70s or Kathmandu before those on package tours discovered them. People say it was like Chang Mai was 50 years ago. I shudder at the image of this quiet, nearly traffic-free oasis, morphing into a Chang Mai. Luang Prabang is already making concessions to the budget set. There is an abundance of western restaurants and a few Internet outlets, but its still mostly as it has been for decades and a most relaxing place to hang out, uninfested yet by the creature-comforts big-spending"tourists" demand. It has none of the hustle and bustle of Thailand. There are few cars and the motor bikes purr rather than buzz about. We are in the mountains. It looks like much of our 500 mile route through Laos will be amongst them, but at least on paved roads. Their quality remains to be seen. It appears as if we will have to go south to cross into Vietnam, rather than north as we had hoped. That may prevent us from making our entire circuit by bike.

We are back to riding on the right hand side of the road. We have a new currency to master, the kip. There are over 10,000 to the dollar. Change one hundred dollars and you have a million of them. The largest bill is 5,000 kips. I changed $50 and now have a wad of over one hundred bills in my pack, valued at over half a million kip. The average income here is $260 a year--$5 a week. Our $4.50 pizza last night was a real extravagance. It was twice the cost of our accommodations. Tomorrow we head south to the capital, Ventienne, 200 miles away, then east to Vietnam.

Later, George

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