Slow Boat up the Mekong
From Luang Prabang it was a two-day boat ride to the nearest border with Thailand . There was no faster overland transport, and we decided that two days on a boat would be better than two days on a bus! The boat was cramped, the seats were wooden benches with no backrest and there was no padding for our bottoms. After a few hours of misery, a nicer boat pulled alongside us and we were ordered to switch. This boat, however, had comfortable, reclining “airline seats”. The scenery was mostly forest, but it was strangely silent. There were hardly any birds and no sign of larger animals, despite the lack of human presence: a dead wilderness. The muddy Mekong flows over projections of menacing black rock, looking ready to rip open any boat foolish enough to pass over.
After sleeping a night in Pak Beng, we were ready for our second day on the river. The boat selected to carry tourists was terrible. It was smaller and more uncomfortable than the one we had taken the day before. The nice boat from the day before was docked nearby, so we sauntered over and asked if it was going to Huay Xai. We recognized a Thai from the day before, and he confirmed, so we walked up to the ticket office and requested to change boats. All we got was our money back, so we moved our stuff to the better boat and decided to wait it out. Pretty soon the boatmen and ticket-sellers were trying every trick in the book to get us to change, telling us that this boat wasn't going, that it wouldn't take tourists, that it wasn't “in the queue”, and all kinds of other rubbish. We smiled and stayed put. Two Irish ladies joined us - they also didn't want to take the other boat. Eric ran off to get some banana pancakes for breakfast and missed the fun as our stuff was almost thrown off the boat! The bad boat departed, crammed full of unhappy tourists on uncomfortable hard benches, leaving the nicer boat with no choice but to take us, so we settled on a deal and paid an extra 50 cents for the fare.
Everybody was happy, or at least the officials were relieved to get rid of us troublemaking tourists. The four of us sat in the back of our spacious, plush, wood-trimmed boat around a large table and ordered some coffee (the mate wanted to be sure we were going to pay for it!). The cooler in the back was full of beer. We spent a pleasant day on the Mekong . Towards the end of our trip we all moved to the forward cabin and drank beer and Lao whisky with the captain and crew, toasting Laos, Thailand, his boat, Ireland, America and Switzerland as Huay Xai rolled into view.