With the Masses on the Mekong


The two-day trip down the Mekong River, from Chiang Khong, Thailand, into the very heart of Laos at Luang Prabang, is indeed something to write home about. The greenery passes by almost interrupted, with only a handful of small thatch villages to be seen, including Pram Bek, where we spend the night in a dingy, stained room, under a torn pink mosquito net. During the days, our long wooden boat follows the main current of the khaki-colored river, swerving from bank to bank and gently rocking and creaking with the motion. The air is cool, bordering on cold in the mornings, when mists cling to the riverbanks and rising hills.


And yet, booking passage on the “slow boat,” which we did in Chiang Mai, and dealing with the rest of the logistics (immigration, visa, ferry service, etc.) is way too easy, thus ensuring a boat crowded with yahoos so busy yapping, complaining, and slamming beers that they barely notice where they are—passing through one of the most amazing wildernesses in Asia! I am just as guilty of chatting with my fellow travelers and enjoying a cold, overpriced Beer Lao as anyone, but by the second day, the floating frat party takes on new levels when a cocky Brit blasts bad American music on his radio and the volume of the voices reaches new heights.


It doesn’t help that there are 140 people, nearly all farangs, on a boat meant for 80. At one point, I make my way to the bow to take a few photos, and I note that at least half of the passengers are fiddling with iPods, cameras, or other digital gadgets. Every other person it seems, is smoking cigarettes and flinging their butts into the river; a few dozen people are reading, mostly with their noses buried deep inside their Lonely Planet instruction manuals, and a few lost in novels, oblivious to the scenery passing by: I spy two copies of the Davinci Code, one of On the Road, and one older gentlemen reading When Presidents Lie.


Again, I am the pot calling the kettle black, as I plow through Tom Robbins’ Villa Incognito for a part of the ride, telling myself it’s okay because it takes place in Laos. But why can’t we look around and realize where we are!? We take for granted just how simple it is to get on the boat in one town and get off in Luang Prabang where we are immediately coddled by the classy comforts of this ancient capital.


Sitting in the common space balcony of our guesthouse in Luang Prabang, we meet Heather and Matt, a young couple from Vermont and Massachussetts who, with similar opinions of the slow boat trip as us, decided to create their own adventure of it by disembarking in various villages not on the itinerary; they even purchased a dugout canoe for the second half of the trip, but sold it back to the family when they realize the danger and rashness of this plan. Instead, they ended up on “Noah’s Ark,” as they called it, where human passengers were outnumbered by water buffalos, goats, and chickens.

It took them five days to reach Luang Prabang. Respect. This is what is meant by “slow travel.” Matt and Heather also spent time in Darjeeling and Kalimpong, and the four of us wax nostalgic over momos, the steamed Tibetan dumplings that we all loved in northern India. After sharing our favorite momo stories, we take a few meals together, including spicy noodles and Beerlaos at a beach on the river for sunset..


Tourism is a recent phenomenon in Laos, just like in Nicaragua; but like Nicaragua, the majority of visitors stick to only a couple of relatively easy (and totally worthy, beautiful) sites. Our plan is to break from this trail, for at least a part of the 12 days remaining on our visas.

But first, calm and languid Luang Prabang.

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