It was Tuesday night and my throat had been burning since the moment I stepped off the bus from Vang Vieng on Sunday, so after a few short, smoke-filled days in Luang Prabang, I knew it was time to move on. It’s a great town with Colonial architecture, refined charm, and some lovely hidden gems, but the surrounding fire lit mountains that are being burned to clear farmland at the moment, keep the smoke trapped in this little valley, which casts a gray hue over everything. Additionally, I booked an off the grid kind of excursion that required me to get to Houay Xai (pronounced “Way Sigh”), a border town resting along the Mekong and facing Thailand, by 5pm on Thursday night. There were three options to get to Houay Xai: a 12-hour overnight bus ride that leaves at 7pm every evening from Luang Prabang, a 2-day slow boat ride up the Mekong that requires a stop and overnight stay in Pak Beng, or a 6-hour fast boat ride up the Mekong that departs at about 9am every morning, if there are a minimum of 6 passengers. The 2-day slow boat ride would take too long and I wanted to avoid the smoke-filled mountains so the bus ride would be my back-up plan if there weren’t enough passengers for the fast boat.
I left bright and early for the Ban Done Port since I didn’t know exactly where I was going and I was pleased that finding a tuk-tuk proved quite simple as I strolled with my backpack through the morning market. My tuk-tuk driver weaved through morning traffic and then turned down a dead end road, passed a field or two and stopped in front of a small cement building. There were 2 tables inside, a bench, and a small store next to the building that looked more like a shack, but had a half dozen or so men sitting outside it talking. This was the port office. To my surprise, I was able to immediately purchase a ticket when I walked up to one of the tables and it was the last ticket for the fast boat that morning… the boat was full! Back-up bus plan not needed. The ticket would take me to Pak Beng, and then I was told that I would have to buy another ticket there to get to Houay Xai. I still had 40 minutest to wait until the departure time so I bought some water and watched as the slow boat pulled away.
There was an overcast sky and a few raindrops as we waited and as I looked over the edge of the hill at what was called a port, there was a slight twinge of unease. There was a steep set of uneven wooden stairs built into the hillside, and then a dirt path that led to two floating platforms, one made of bamboo and the other made of some type of plastic. Next to them were two or three long, narrow boats that looked a little larger than canoes. I thought, “Are those what they call fast boats?”. I didn’t see any other boats nearby and after giving it some more thought, whenever I passed a tour office, there were always pictures of the buses and the slow boat, but never any pictures of the fast boat. I pulled out my Lao phrasebook and started chatting with a friendly worker sitting at the table. He seemed pleased that I was making an effort to speak Lao and was helping me with my pronunciations. I asked him about the boats and who our captain would be for the fast boat. He introduced me to a humble, friendly man with a tan face and wrinkles around his eyes when he smiled, no doubt from hours in the sun on a boat. The captain also seemed pleased that I was speaking Lao and said that I could buy my ticket for Houay Xai there with him instead of waiting until we got to Pak Beng. Apparently, I was the only tourist traveling with a boat full of locals and they were a little apprehensive about me until they heard I had been working in Vang Vieng and could speak some Lao. I tried not to demonstrate that I was a little apprehensive about those boats down by their so-called dock and decided to stop asking questions. When all else fails, do what the locals do.
We all started walking down to the boats, which was a little tricky on the steep stairs with my backpack. Once there, everyone started handing their bags, which were full of mostly groceries, to the captain, who was stacking them according to weight and size in the front of the over-sized canoe that I had observed earlier. I carry a smaller backpack with my large pack for when I have short outings and normally keep it with me when I travel because I keep all of my valuables in it, along with snacks and water. They whisked it away from me to place with the rest of the bags before I even knew what was happening and handed me a life jacket, as if that was going to make me feel safe in this narrow, open air, wooden box.
The boat had five wooden boards that slid upright into slats along the side to create sections and then thinly padded plastic bench-length cushions that fit into each section and took up half of the space of the section. Everyone started piling in and I watched as they situated themselves onto a cushion, legs curled up in front of them so tightly that they could wrap their arms around their bent knees… two to a section. Huh? This boat was going to carry 9 adults and a one-year old child! One of the ladies in the back section motioned for me to sit with her… more like curl up next to her, so I did. In the section in front of me sat two women, one with the one-year old child on her lap and a blanket thrown over the child’s head. Crazy! The last section where I was seated was right in front of the captain, who sat at the back on a small wooden box. With him, there was some sort of propane or butane tank, a fuel tank, extra plastic bottles full of fuel and the long arm for steering the pole that jetted out from the engine with a small propeller on the end of it. This was going to be an interesting ride.
The captain started to fire up the engine and before we even pushed away from the dock, he shut it down again and hopped out of the boat. Apparently there was something wrong with the propeller, so everyone had to get back out of the boat while they called men down from the port office to help switch the prop shaft with another one. This required another boat to bring a replacement shaft… there was a hammer, some sort of chisel, and grease that they were using to remedy the whole situation. I decided it might be best if I didn’t watch and instead set to work retrieving my small backpack to pull out a bottle of water, my camera, and a hat since it didn’t seem like I would have access to my pack at any point during the ride. About forty-five minutes later, we all piled back in the boat and were ready to go. No apologies, no frills here… all seemed perfectly normal, like sometimes sh*t just happens.
My first thought as the captain kicked the engine into high gear was, “Woohoo! This is awesome! So glad I didn’t take the bus”. Wind in my hair, gliding over the water and whizzing past other boats, the spray occasionally giving me a little mist. It was exhilarating! Rocks, fishing nets, choppy water from the wake of other boats… no problem. Our captain was at ease, effortlessly navigating us around it all, skimming from side to side as if he had memorized the depth of the water, the nooks and crannies of the shoreline, and everything in between.
As we soared along the water, we passed small villages, grazing cows, water buffalo coming to the banks to submerge
themselves in the cool, refreshing water, fisherman, children playing, and the luming grandeur of the hills and mountains.
As we were approaching hour two, the awe and exhilaration started to compete with my mildly throbbing knees and hips. It should be noted here, that despite my 5 foot, 3 inch stature, I was still taller than most of the people on this boat and my butt was definitely bigger than all of the
slender Lao women, who seemed to assume this sitting position so easily. Thankfully, about 75 minutes into our trip, we pulled up to another boat along the shore that was a floating fuel station. It gave me a chance to stand up for a moment and stretch my legs. Everyone looked at me as if I was being a little dramatic. Five minutes later, we were off again. Two hours into the ride, we stopped again to let someone off at another floating boat, which seemed to be someone’s floating house, and we all got out to use the toilet. The fast boat didn’t seem to have specific ports of debarkation… it seemed more like a river taxi and the simplest way for people to get to their remote villages. As we headed into hour three, my knees were practically numb and I had shooting pains from my hips into my lower back every time that we went over choppy, bumpy water. It turned out that the life jacket was far better utilized as a cushion for my spine against the hard wooden plank than as a life-saving device. I mean, really, was that life jacket going to save me if we hit a rock and I went flying out of the boat?? I don’t think so. Oh yeah, and the woman sitting next to me was sleeping in her seated, curled, upright position!?
When we stopped for lunch next to a floating barge, I was relieved to step out and see if my legs would still work. I had to let the pins and needles pass then find my balance to step over other boats and onto the barge. This was the place where all of the boats stopped so it was full of people. They had one lunch offering, noodle soup, which was fine by me. The half hour break was much needed. I visited the toilet again before departing and was relieved that everything I had just eaten had to be boiled after the cook touched it. At this point, we would be switching boats and captains, as each would head back to their respective starting points. I chatted with a fast boat full of tourists heading south and couldn’t believe that their boat was also carrying 9 people, all men taller than 5 foot 10 inches in stature! It gave me the mental toughness I needed to endure the final three hours of the trip.
I had negotiated a front seat on the latter half of the ride with the guy who had been sitting up front for the first half of our long haul because the passenger next to him was not going further. This meant that I could occasionally unfold my legs and stretch them over the bags in the front. As we pulled away from our barge and back onto the river, the sun was finally shining and I spotted an elephant along the banks standing amid some trees… surreal. It was one thing to see an elephant on a managed reserve safari when I was in South Africa last year, but seeing one randomly in the wild when I wasn’t expecting it was really magnificent. The rest of the afternoon was far more bearable than the morning because we stopped regularly to let passengers off and on the boat and hour by hour we
had fewer people on board, which meant far more room because we could remove boards and stretch our legs. The stunning sites of nature where dwarfed slightly by random burning hillsides and the litter that I watched my fellow Loa passengers toss into the river. These two things sadden me the most in this beautiful country. But as the afternoon ebbed into early evening, the sun was starting to set and its reflection on the river was
splendid. By the time we reached Houay Xai only the woman who originally offered me a seat next to her at the start of the trip was left with me. I exited our boat, strapped on my backpack and struggled up a set of stairs steeper than the ones I had descended in the morning.
It was about a 4-kilometer walk into the town of Houay Xai and there were plenty of tuk-tuks available but they were all quoting me Thai Baht, despite the fact that we were still in Laos, which threw me off because I had forgotten the Baht conversion numbers. Besides, my legs needed the walk, so off I went. It gave me a chance to reflect on my ride… do I regret it, no way! Would I recommend it… only if you have a sense of adventure and a fairly high level of pain tolerance. Along my walk, I chatted with the locals, who were all gearing up for the Lao New Year and thought I was crazy for not getting a ride. What a wild day…
Revelling in gratitude for the experiences that I will never forget and the stories that I will always love to tell.