Laos Travel Photography
The Slow Boat to Luang Prabang, Laos
After our 2007 trip to South East Asia, I wrote an article for the Vail Daily entitled, "Mutiny on the Mekong". I described in lurid detail the difficulties and frustrations of our trip from Thailand to Luang Prabang upon the Mekong River.
We crossed the Mekong from Thailand into Ban Houayxay, Laos. There we’d find a boat for the two day trip downriver to the UNESCO World Heritage City of Luang Prabang.
After spending the night at a guest house, the owner arranged for the boat and the overnight at a guest house in Pak Bang. No boats sail beyond Pak Bang at night. It’s far too dangerous. Besides, after a long, tiring and uncomfortable trip, especially with the stress, frustration, anger and scramble of that first morning, a bed was imperative.
We got to the boats docked along the river early, grabbed two benches that were perhaps 8” wide and 30” long and maybe 12” from the back of the bench in front! Way too tight for western knees.
As boarding continued , the boat began to fill, then overfill. Everyone had to give up their single benches. Blue plastic chairs were placed in the aisle. Things were getting tense:
Suddenly a German guy up front starts shouting: “No more blue chairs. Get us another boat!” This spark ignited the chant which spread immediately throughout the boat. Those seemingly in charge looked like: This has never happened before. What do we do? ( I can't imagine this was the first time.)
They stopped the boarding but told us nothing. After a bit they appeared readying the boat next to us. Many of us prepared to storm it. I told Yolanda to grab whatever I couldn’t when I climb over the side into the next boat. Some word was given, those still boarding along with our cohort scrabbled onto the boat. I quickly secured two benches amidships on the northern, shaded, side.
Somewhat later, both boats shoved off downriver for a fascinating journey through the Mekong River Valley.
This little entrepreneur sold us anything and everything, including beer. His manner was always polite and happy, ever with a smile. He was a gold mine to his parents who either owned or rented the boat. This was their home as they plied their trade up and down the river, taking on passengers, cargo and animals.
It was a long uncomfortable day. We met several interesting people from across the globe. We read, I wrote, we observed and I photographed.
The day was spoiled further by a bunch of young, loud, partying, American travelers. They'd brought bottles of booze and got hammered, some throwing up over the side. It was embarrassing.
We went through several small rapids, the pilot manuevering deftly between the exposed and submerged rocks. Everyone got as low as possible for ballast as we rocked. Twice we came close to dipping the gunwale in the rapids. I don’t even want to think about what would’ve happened had we begun taking on water.
Or had we all been in that first, single over-loaded boat…
We reached Pak Bang, the mid-point, toward dusk. Generators in the tiny hamlet were beginning to power up. Our suitcases were still somewhere in the huge pile on the first boat where they’d been thrown along with everyone else's luggage and backpacks. Oh well.
Young guys, hustling accommodations, happily took us to the guest house booked that morning. We climbed the steep sandbank to the one, lone street, finally finding our two story guest house; quite new, clean, with good beds and it’s own generator.
We were up before dawn for breakfast. Yolanda and I high-tailed it for some lunch shopping before trying to find our boat amongst the fleet of identical craft in the chill, damp overcast.
It was cold and windy as we sailed downriver. The Mekong flows through wide plains, mountainous valleys and broad gorges. Along the shore, unbelievably high sandbanks protected by gnarly, river-worn rock faces have formed in the eddies during massive floods.
I cannot imagine the amount of water nor its vast power as the Mekong floods each year. Scattered villages sat above the flood line. Every few hours we'd pull into a floating wharf as we dropped off and picked up Laotians on their way to wherever.
Families and young mothers with children come on board. We pulled up alongside other boats while docking, beautiful Laotian girls lining the gunwales observed everything or perhaps were simply posing. My feeling of them though is one of innocence rather than self-awareness.