Thursday, 9 August 2012

Riverboat Journey down the Mekong; Thailand to Laos

July 19 - July 21, 2012

In transit now we left Chiang Rai by bus to the Thai border town of Chiang Khong where would would check out of Thailand.  Following visa processes on the Thai side we boarded a small riverboat and crossed the Mekong some 60km east of the Golden Triangle and into new lands.  Completing immigration requirements on the Laos side and marvelling at the varying prices for each nation (US$35 for Julians UK Passport, US$42 for mine) we found accommodation for the night in preparation for an early start on our journey deeper into the country, a most anticipated two day riverboat journey down the Mekong to Luang Prabang.  

Having arranged transport from a travel agent at a small additional fee it was agreed to depart in the morning three hours early in order to secure good seats on the boat.  We were told by someone in Thailand that sitting at the bow would ensure a far more enjoyable experience than those passengers would have at the back, due to an excessive amount of engine noise.  On arrival at the boat our agent secured seats and handed over tickets with pre assigned seat numbers.  Finally boarding the bus to seat 45 & 46 we were discouraged to find that the agent did not do a very good job and the 'good seats' he promised us were wedged in the back, knees up against the seats in front.  The boat filled to full capacity to the point where I was already squirming in discomfort.  Agitated, knowing that I would have to settle in this position for two solid days I began to think that perhaps this was not as romantic an idea as previously conceived.  An hour past scheduled departure time we still sat at bay until finally the captain of our boat walked down the aisles muttering something and soon after he asked for 10 passengers to voluntarily switch to another boat.  Seeing a couple further up from gather their things and move we quickly debated whether moving would work in our favour.  Realizing things couldn't get much more uncomfortable than our current seats, we seized the opportunity.  

The second boat was far less crowded and wider across the beam by about half a metre. Some passengers were stretched out with four facing seats to themselves.  Relieved, we found a young man on his own who quickly made room for us, shaking his head with a smile as we apologized for ruining his comfortable lounging area stating he was happy to share the journey with us.  Ben Stone turned out to be a neighbour of mine; a young man from Toronto spending a couple of years living in Hong Kong working as a teacher.  Ben proved to be excellent company and we thoroughly enjoyed hours of chatter with him, punctuating those of quiet reflection as the boat slowly puttered along the brown waters of the Mekong. 

The Mekong must be the most polluted body of water I have seen.  Litter, bunches of white bubbly foam and who knows what else floated in the current alongside us.  I visibly noticed raw sewage being released and watched crew members mindlessly throw bottles, wrappers and cigarette butts over the edge.  This didn't seem to bother the local people though.  As we followed the curvaceous body of water, Thailand initially on one side and Laos on the other, small villages dotting the rivers edge.  Children playing in the sand or swimming, waved as we passed.  Women bathed at the waters edge while I pondered what unknown damage could come of skimming my feet along the surface as I sat on a window ledge watching the world pass by.  

People mingled in light hearted conversation, read a book, slept or simply sat in silence observing the life of the river people.  One woman sat with her head buried in a book the entire time hardly coming up for air.  I wonder why people come on theses fascinating journeys then pay the experience no mind at all.

At the halfway point we pulled over for the evening to a small town which appeared to exist solely for the purpose of a one night layover of the river travellers. Restaurants and hotels are eager to part the weary backpacker of as many thousand kip as they can during their 14 hour stay. 

The following day was much the same as the last in regards to scenery but somehow our boat was exchanged for a not so comfortable alternative.  Instead of the recycled benches from minivans our seat was now a wooden bench with a bit of foam.  Considerably less enthused than the previous day Julian buried his head beneath headphones and behind a book, looking up occasionally when I prodded him from my perch on the window ledge.  Massive trees, possibly first growth, with impressive root systems reminded me of the Mangrove swamps in Taiping.  Trees covered in bright purple flowers brilliance to the numerous shades of green and browns as steep sided hills rose from the waters of the Mekong.  Nearing the end of our journey limestone cliffs rose directly out of the water and late in the afternoon of the second day, we pulled into the former French protectorate town of Luang Prabang, now recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Centre.  

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