Saturday, November 2, 2002

Luang Prabang, Laos

Friends: After ferrying across the Mekong River into Laos rather than penetrating into the country on our bikes, we continued on down the river on another ferry for 200 miles to Luang Prabang, accepting the general consensus that the roads in that part of Laos were virtually impassable. We had the option of going by speed boat or slow boat, six hours on the river or two days. Before leaving Chicago, as Laurie and I researched our route, one of the things we were most looking forward to was two days on the Mekong. It promised to be a pleasant break from the bicycling and a chance to socialize with some fellow travelers. But while in Chang Mai, person after person told us that anyone they knew who had taken the slow boat wished they'd taken the speed boat.

That was enough to convince us to change our plans, though these were all second-hand reports, as I kept reminding myself as I sat shoulder-to-shoulder with Laurie in a pelting rain as we skimmed along the water at close to fifty miles per hour in an uncovered boat that was no bigger than a canoe. We were cramped in one of the four slots for passengers with our chins on our knees. Laurie at 5'2" was uncomfortable. I, at six feet, much much more so. The roar of the boat's engine was so loud we had to put our lips to one another's ear and scream at the top of our lungs to be heard, and even then we couldn't be sure what the other was saying. I'm still half deaf, five-and-a-half hours after our ordeal ended from the roar of the engine in our ears.

I thought I heard Laurie scream, "This is awful," and "This sucks," but she said it with a smile and the usual cheer she has in her voice, that I wasn't positive those were her words, though they were my sentiments. It would have been difficult to take under any circumstances, but with a hard, cold downpour on top of everything else, it was easily one of the worst experiences of our lifes. But even so, I was loving it. This was going to be one of those monumental travel experiences to be proud of...if we survived it. Hypothermia was not out of the question. I was wearing shorts and sandals, but thankfully had pulled out my Gore-Tex jacket at the last moment. My shorts were soaked, and when Laurie shifted, the gathered water in the folds of her jacket streamed down my thighs.

Neither of us had bothered to accept the helmets with full face shields that the captain offered. They were battered, old relics. We assumed some federal law mandated that boat operators had to supply them. They looked stupid and silly. We scoffingly declined them. So did the other two passengers, who obviously had never taken this trip either. I was rather surprised to see the captain put one on. We had no idea how fast the boat was going to go and what the raindrops would feel like hitting us at that speed. We all sat with bowed heads hoping the rain would end, greatly regretting we hadn't been required to wear the helmets. The rain finally relented after the longest forty-five minutes of our lifes.

And to think that little more than an hour earlier we were thrilled to be getting on this boat. We had had to wait nearly an hour for enough passengers to show up before the boat would leave. Laurie and I were the first customers of the day after crossing over from Thailand on a canoe ferry that could barely accommodate our upright, fully loaded bikes. The speed-boat captain needed more than our combined fare of 4,000 baht--1,000 baht each and 1000 baht for each of our bikes--before he would leave. He repeated several times that for an extra 2000 baht, "You go now." We declined.

A little later he said, "1,000 baht more and you go now." We declined again. About 45 minutes later someone else interrupted our reading to say, "500 baht more and you go now." Again we held firm. About two minutes later he returned and said, "Okay, we go now." A husky, English-speaking Thai, who was on vacation from being a tour guide in Thailand, had come along and was the extra passenger we needed. He introduced himself as "Jumbo." He, like most Thais, are known by a nickname. His was the first multi-syllabic nickname we had come across. Others had been Oy and Boy and Eke. Our friend Esther, who teaches English in Chang Mai, said it wasn't easy to keep her students straight, as there aren't more than a couple dozen nicknames.

It was a significant adventure just loading the boat. We had to descend a steep and slippery one hundred foot cliff and walk out on a semi-submerged bamboo pier to reach the boat, a perilous journey, especially when carrying a bicycle. We had to make three trips each, up and down the treacherous path with our gear and bikes. When we tore off into the river I was hoping the captain was just show-boating, but he maintained full throttle the entire way. We were led to believe it would be a virtual non-stop trip, which had Laurie worried about her bladder. Fortunately, there were a couple stops, one at the half way point for lunch, where we switched boats, so our captain could return and wouldn't have to overnight in Luang Prabang. The bathroom on the floating restaurant was just a hole in the floor into the river.  There were other boats docked at the restaurant, including the slow boat.  We contemplated switching to that until we spoke to a couple of Germans who complained how packed and cramped it was, and that they were so miserable they wished they'd opted for the speed boat.  When we told them we felt the same, they still would have preferred the shorter misery to the longer.

Our second captain was no less merciful than the first, blasting along full throttle.  We could see floating logs and debris in the river.  We later learned that the speed boats have a high accident rate from hitting such things.  Laos had only recently started offering visas to budget travelers, previously only allowing in groups of package tourists who traveled in luxury and not by means that the locals use.  These ferries were still quite primitive and not regulated with the safety of those using them.  In retrospective we felt fortunate to experience a means of travel that would soon be obsolete.

Later, George

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