I’d been in Thailand for two weeks when I ran out of obvious backpacker locations and had to put some real thought into the question of “where are you going next?” It didn’t help that I really had no clue what countries shared a border with Thailand—in many ways I am your stereotypical American.
The owner of a café in Chiang Mai suggested I go to Laos— a country I knew nothing about other than some Vietnam War references and a line of dialogue from a TV show called Prison Break. Naturally, this made it the ideal destination. I handed over a few thousand Thai Baht and was given a hand written receipt on which I’d been instructed to write “Slow Boat” across the top. This immediately made me think of a san diego whale watching trip I went on around 20 years ago, which I remembered enjoying!
I was to wait for a van, which would take me to the river, which would lead to Laos. That was the extent of my knowledge.
“How long is the boat ride?”
“I do not know.”
“Is there food on the boat?”
“I do not know… probably no.”
“Is there a toilet?”
“I do not know… probably no.”
When the van arrived to fetch me, I was the 14th passenger in a 13 passenger van. We went on to pack in two more people before hitting the road. My eyes searched for signs of a river.
After two hours, I turned to Katie, the British girl who was sort of sitting on my lap.
“How long is it supposed to take to get to the river?”
“Six hours, I think.”
A dutch girl in the row ahead attempted to turn back toward us.
“I heard it was nine.”
Eleven hours later we arrived at a small village on the rivers edge, where we were apparently supposed to spend the night.
The next morning, I became an expert at crossing the border from Thailand to Laos:
Step One: Anticipate a van at 9am. Stand around until 10am.
Step Two: Drive for two hours in the opposite direction of the river. Join everyone in asking “Why are we going the opposite direction of the river?” When the answer is “Because there is only one road,” do not be annoyed or suspicious.
Step Three: Stop at a small mysterious building and anticipate the boat.
Step Four: Stand around for an hour.
Step Five: When another van arrives, do not be alarmed that 18 adults are expected to fit inside.
Step Six: Surrender your passport to a teenager in a torn shirt. Do not panic when he tosses it into a plastic sack and takes off on a motorcycle while texting.
Step Seven: Stand around for another hour. Join everyone in discussing all the ways this could go terribly wrong.
Step Eight: When a man shows up and says “Follow me,” take up your backpack and do so like he is Jesus. Walk a thousand miles to the riverside. Join everyone in avoiding the obvious question of why a van couldn’t drive you.
Step Nine: Shout in jubilation when you actually see the water, then try not to die while climbing down a steep and rocky hill.
Step Ten: Feel a flood of relief when the first ragged teenager reappears and shouts bad pronunciations of your names while holding your stamped passports in the air.
When we finally saw the Slow Boat, we were so eager to be on the water that we overlooked the fact that it was nothing but a long wooden barge with a roof of sheet metal. We climbed down a steep and rocky hill and tiptoed across a 2X4, overjoyed by the wooden plank floor, wooden plank benches, and wooden plank railing along the side. We piled the benches in the back and spread across the floor, lounging on cheap cushions and random articles of clothing.
The motor started noisily and the boat began slowly chugging its way down the river, a testament to the fact that they weren’t being modest when they called it a Slow Boat.
A group of guys had brought cases of Beer Laos with them and were passing the sweaty bottles around like it was Christmas.
We swapped stories and travel routes, drinking and singing and making fun of each other’s nationalities. Every few hours the driver cut the engine and a crew of 12 year old Laotians scampered to the rooftop with long poles, guiding the boat to the water’s edge. As we bumped against the shoreline a stream of barefoot and shirtless children would come running down the hillsides, carrying faded laundry baskets full of snacks.
“Beer Laos!” they’d shout, “Coca Cola, chips, cigarettes!”
At dusk we docked at a river town, where another steep and rocky hill awaited. Most of the guys were so drunk they could hardly stand. A Canadian used a half-empty bag of potato chips to bribe local children to carry his bag up the hill. Katie and I booked a room at the first available guesthouse, and were immediately offered “weed, opium, whatever-you-want-I-can-get.” We settled for clean towels and took note of a sign by the door: “No Electricity After Midnight.”
It became apparent that the “town” was really nothing but a steep street lined with restaurants, bars, and guesthouses. Every restaurant looked the same, with makeshift tables and stray dogs lounging in the doorway. A large hand-painted sign read “My Wife Is A Very Good Cook,” and was all the convincing we needed. A man called to us from inside.
“My friends, my friends, come eat!”
“Your wife, she is a very good cook?” the Canadian asked.
“Yes, my friends, yes.”
We chose a plywood table and ordered food by pointing at pictures on a handwritten menu. Thirty minutes passed before the kitchen door opened, but the food was taken to another table. An hour and a half later there was still no food. A British Guy went to peak in the kitchen.
“Sure, his wife is a very good cook, but she only has one skillet.”
Just as we were thinking of leaving, the food started to arrive—carried to the table by a five-year old with a lollipop in his mouth.
When we finished eating we left in a hurry, hoping to find our guesthouse before the whole street lost power. Along the way, the Canadian and British Guy lit a joint and stumbled along, making general fools of themselves all the way back to the hostel.
The next morning greeted us with more sun, more river. Yesterday’s enthusiasm for getting on the boat disappeared and everyone was still drunk or settling into a righteous hangover. We descended the steep and rocky hill in a dull cloud of bug spray and sunscreen.
At the bottom of the hill we passed a man gutting a hog in the shallow water where the current had trapped a foot of trash.
“Tonight’s dinner,” British Guy whispered.
Another round of pre-teens pushed the boat from the shore and we were back to lazily chugging down the river. There was no singing or joking on the second day, just a bunch of sore bodies sprawled in a tangled web.
I gazed miserably at the paradise passing on either side of the boat. The view was breathtaking, but I would’ve gladly traded it for a mattress and a fan. Untouched mountains rose steeply from the riverbank, rugged and luscious beneath the vast blue sky where elephants and naked children splashed along the shore.
“Does anyone know how long we have left?”
“Yesterday was seven, so that should mean eight more, right?”
“I heard it was eleven.”
“Lonely Planet says nine.”
“The Captain said six.”
I’m not sure if “Captain” was the most accurate description for the teenager steering our boat in a knock-off Nike jacket. In the end, it took ten hours and the hill we climbed to Luang Prabang was the steepest and rockiest yet.
When we got there, the long hours of the journey no longer mattered– the entire country seemed to exist outside of time, like some sort of mystical vortex. Once you wandered into it’s lush and secretive beauty, you were at risk of never leaving.
Have you ever made a spontaneous decision that worked out better than you planned? Where’s the most magical place you’ve ever been? Would you rather know something was going to be difficult in advance, or just figure it out along the way?
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