It took us a while and a few headaches but we finally managed to secure a spot on a two day boat trip down the Mekong River in Laos. Our first day we crossed the river early in the morning; leaving Thailand when we stepped into the boat and entering Laos upon stepping out. The chaos at the border was expected. Mobs of people waiting, no lines to be seen, for their visas to be accepted, approved and stamped. No one knew who was in charge, where to hand in their passport or who to pay. I'm not sure how, but we managed to stagger out of the mob, passports and visas in hand.
-Our company for two long days on the river. Notice the vendor kids that jumped on the boat at one stop doing their best to sell to penny-pinching foreigners.-
Our first glance at our boat was quite a shock. If we thought that we had it bad in Indonesia, we were sorely mistaken. A boat that was meant to support 40 people at best was over-run with the likes of over a hundred sweaty, camera-wielding foreigners. Yet, despite the terribly hard benches and general lack of leg room the trip down the river started pleasantly enough.
As we floated, adjusting our positions altogether too often so our bums wouldn't fall asleep, we gawked at the truly untouched villages high in the Laos mountains. We traded pavement for dirt, bricks for thatch, and groups of working men standing along the river for goats, cows, and on the odd occasion bathing children. We passed a few villages; no power-lines, no roads. Really, it would be a shock if they had power at all. As we'd meander past the children, they'd run to the rivers edge, faces steeped in curiosity. The men, sitting in long canoe-shaped boats tossing nets into the murky water, seemed less intrigued by our lot.
After the first couple of hours, these dense jungle mountains, the fiercely muddy Mekong and these forgotten villages became repetitive. Or perhaps the reality of two days cramped on this boat, begging for a place to rest your back and gain some leg room, were settling in.
-These boats, typical of those that roam the Mekong, were stopped at the Tham Ting caves, famous for their thousands of Buddhas.-
We arrived six hours in at our sorry destination for the night, Pak Beng. Pak Beng is a remote mountain community boasting nothing more than a generator for power, a few local run restaurants and overpriced guest-houses. The people were wonderfully friendly as you walked down the street but trying to get a second sheet for the bed, a decent breakfast and an onion free sandwich were like pulling teeth. We were happy to leave in the morning as we dreamed of reaching Luang Prabang and its variety of accommodations to choose from.
After 8 hours, cramped, sweaty and with gastric problems that one should never experience on a boat, we arrived in Luang Prabang. We happily were ushered to our clean, accommodating and reasonably priced home for the next week.
If we could do it over again, we would. If you ask our opinion, we would recommend the experience. But, it doesn't change the fact that we were happy to be on solid ground once again.