On the morning of the 17th, we crossed from Thailand in Laos. It was chaos at the border as everyone jostled to get their visas or recover their passports, but everyone was goodnatured about it; we were all in the same mess, and most of us were leaving on the same boat.
After the immigration formalities, we were herded like little children--or cattle, take your pick--into a cramped minivan where music was blaring because the driver was on the other side of the street, chatting, and apparently didn't want to miss a beat. We waited for almost ten minutes, and no one else came to get in the bus, so the driver finally deigned to take us to the slow boat dock.
He pulled up to a rickety, rundown restaurant overlooking the Mekong, where a Laotian in a white suit proceeded to tell us a truckload of lies. The list goes a little something like this:
Lie! Why in the world would the boaters NOT have food and drinks to sell when they have such a convenient "hostage" clientele?
Incidentally, the cost of the sandwiches where our driver dumped us: 100 Thai baht. Cost at the resto just 15 paces away? 50.
And yes, the boat had a toilet. What it lacked in class, it made up for it in utility...
OK, the first part of this is not a lie; it was likely we'd arrive after dark. And he *did* give the people a receipt. The problem? We didn't arrive in Pak Beng. Far from it. As in two hours far.
Around 5pm, we pulled up at a very sandy, very high bank on the Mekong and were informed that the boat was too big to go any farther. Everyone must debark and walk (100m said some, 500m said others) to the smaller boats that would take us on to Pak Beng. If we wanted, we could leave our bags and they would be taken down to the smaller vessels by speedboat.
The Mekong at sunset. Too bad none of our pics really do it justice. The light just wasn't with us, white, hazy skies all day, both days...
Well, the 100-500m turned out to be at least 1km, and Julien and I, not being very
Julien and I marched straight through the impromptu party and settled in one of the boats that was
Luckily, we still had our inflatable mattresses and silk sleeping bag liners (the bags we had already sent back to France). Others were not so lucky, having to sleep on tarps outside, or on the sandy, dirty floorboards of the boat.
Delux accomodations, non?
After a hellish night of listening to the drunken party on the beach (I did mention they were selling beer, right?) and being woken up from a light doze by the Dutch girls sleeping near my feet vomiting all over their sacks, we were only too happy to see morning and the start of the second and last day on the river. Oh, the departure? Supposed to be at 5 a.m. Time we actually left: 7:30.
The "camp" as we pulled away from the beach. Gone is the party atmosphere...
The boats did stop in Pak Beng and those who had reserved rooms were graciously allowed to go and try to get their money back. Success rate: 0.
Although the scenery on the Mekong was stunning, the boat was dangerously overcrowded--the aisle was full of people sitting on the deck--and everyone was only too happy to see the lights of Luang Prabang that night after 11 hrs of navigation. 11 hrs that was supposed to be, depending on which Laotian you asked, 6-9 hrs.
"At least it isn't a far swim to shore," our fellow travelers said stoically...
Our best moment aboard: Teaching some locals how to play Knock-Knock!
* What a crock! Don't tell me that in a town that sees 100+ tourists debarking everyday doesn't have adequate accommodation options, not when everyone with a lick of business sense has converted every spare room and chicken coop to that effect in hopes of getting their share of the tourist dollar/baht/kip...Oh, speaking of currencies, yet another lie Mr Smarmy told: Change your money here because no one will accept baht or dollars on the river. Yeah. Right.
** Some souls did trust and had their bags rifled before they arrived. The one we talked to, thankfully, didn't have anything stolen, but someone did have their backpack go missing while they slept on the beach.