Slow Boat

Day 379 – 14 March, 2016

There are few episodes that truly make me feel like a seasoned traveler. Sometimes I feel like a novice traveler. Sometimes I feel like a tourist. And sometimes I feel like a bumbling idiot. But given the chance to spend two days on a slow boat to travel between Luang Prabang and Huayxai at the Thai border, a journey that many people wouldn’t have the time or the fortitude to take, I knew this would be one of those rare times when I would feel like a veteran.  

The distance was only about 500km on the Mekong River, but it would be two 8-hour days on an open air long boat. To cover the same distance, other options included a fast boat, which would take about 6 hours, a high level of danger, a helmet, and full rain gear to keep from getting wet with the spray, or an overnight bus journey (if you’ve been following this blog long, you know how I feel about those by now). To take the slow boat, it wasn’t necessarily less expensive than other options. In fact, at $37 I found it quite pricey for Laos. My main motivation for this mode of transport, though, was the authenticity and the adventure of it, the fact that the only travelers who sign up for this 2 day cruise are those that have the time to do it. And luckily, I have plenty of time.

The boat was a typical long tail. There was seating on wooden benches with tattered cushions for approximately 75 people, but we were only full by half. It was no surprise that not a single life vest was onboard. Those are suited to more wreckless ventures like any boat trips in the developed world. Because we weren’t full that first day, everyone had the luxury of spreading out. I had an entire bench to myself, where I shifted from a seated to a reclining position and then popped back up when there was a worthy photo opportunity. The wind in my hair, the dust and pollution at a safe enough distance where I could start to recover from respiratory distress, it was the most relaxed I had felt in ages.

The first night we stopped at a port in the town of Pakbeng. The only economy in the town seems to be sourced from fishing and the slow boat traffic. A few guesthouses lined the only road in town. Young girls or weathered old ladies greeted me on the street, beckoning me inside. I randomly picked one with the intention not to pay more than 60,000 kip (about $7.50) for the night. It was basic, but met my price and I still had my own room with king size bed, wifi, and ensuite bathroom. Score! I soon learned the downside to this joint was the fact that all-night karaoke was housed directly across the street.  

The second day went a little less smoothly. The entire lot of passengers was shifted to a different smaller boat that promptly broke down less than five minutes after leaving the port. After some repairs to the propeller and thirty minutes, we were again en route until the same mechanical failure occurred again fifteen minutes later. It turns out some plastic bags had been sucked into the propeller, causing the engine to overheat and we would lose power. We were still close enough to still see our old boat and the port. Why we didn’t just turn around is beyond me and a question better left to the powers that be. It took three repairs and a total of ninety minutes for us to finally start our second day, but thanks to some crafty passengers, a determined captain, and good luck we made it the rest of the day without any other setbacks.

Our long tail cruised just underneath Friendship Bridge, the border crossing between Laos and Thailand, as the sun began to set. I had experienced nothing negative in Laos, but knowing that I was so close to Thailand again felt a little like I had crossed the last wild frontier. I had discovered a new favorite way to travel.

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