A little catchup: the slow boat and beginning of Luang Prabang

Let’s see, where did my rambling last leave off…

Ahh, in Pai. Well. Let me actually finish up there. Pai is a cool place, but towards the end I had pretty much exhausted what you can do there and seen all the dreadlocks and elephant pants I needed to. There were a couple smaller things I hadn’t seen yet, but I was at the “diminishing returns” part of my stay there so it seemed like I should push on from there. To do that, there are a few options. Pai itself doesn’t have an airport (I think..? Maybe the jungle swallowed it or something..?), so if you want to make a big jump, you could go back to Chiang Mai and then fly pretty much anywhere. Otherwise, you can go by land. There are a few ways to go, but a common one is heading to Laos.

There are a few ways to get from Pai to Laos (well, the part most people want to go to), but I had heard about the “slow boat”, which is…exactly what it sounds like. It’s a boat… that is slow. I had heard very mixed reports, both from people and blogs I’d read. They seemed pretty evenly split on it being either a great ~~life changing experience~~ with cool views and a good opportunity to relax, or a 2 day hellscape of people getting crabby from cabin/boat fever and drinking a ton since there isn’t much else to do. As it happened, it was a pretty good average of those two.

Let me start at the beginning. First, Pai is actually in the northwest of Thailand, whereas Laos borders it to the east, so you’ve gotta even get to the border. The slow boat doesn’t actually get you to Laos, it takes you from the Thailand/Laos border, down the Mekong river, to a city called Luang Prabang. So the first leg of the journey is getting from Pai to this Thai border city called Chiang Khong.

I woke up for a 7AM bus going from Pai/Chiang Mai/Chiang Rai/Chiang Khong. The route from Pai/Chiang Mai is famous for having something like 700 turns, so that’s either fun or hell for you (I have an iron stomach and the views are great, so I like it). We were back in Chiang Mai only briefly to be herded to another bus to take us to Chiang Rai. As far as I can tell, Chiang Rai has exactly one reason to visit it. There’s a famous white temple that looks really cool:

Looks like some sort of Thai wonderland, right? I’m actually pretty happy it worked out this way, because I did want to see the temple, but also didn’t want to basically waste the rest of a day in Chiang Rai. They basically said “okay, you have 15 minutes”, and a friend I had made on the bus and I hurried off to the temple to check it out and grab some pictures.

Most Thai temples are pretty much gold and maybe one or two other colors, so it’s already a little cool from the novelty of it being only white. But then I looked a little closer at the entrance to the temple, which you can’t usually make out in the far away picture of it…

What the hell..?

Clearly this temple had something else going on. I wasn’t really able to get the full story because we were seriously hurrying to get back to the bus, but it seemed to be very concerned with death. In fact, on the slow boat, I met a girl who asked me if I saw the Pokemon in the white temple. I laughed and said she was fucking with me. She said seriously, no, there were Pokemon on one wall of the main inner part. And not just Pokemon, also Michael Jackson, Star Wars, etc. After asking a few people who also went there and confirmed what she was saying, I had to admit that she wasn’t insane. It wasn’t made easier by the fact that you could take pictures of the whole temple, except in that one room, so no one had pictures handy of it. Luckily, some sneakier travelers have taken photos, so they look like this:

Okay, what the fuck. Aside from the general absurdity of seeing Angry Birds in a Thai temple, it’s just such an insane hodgepodge of culture. Like, Star Wars, Alien, Angry Birds, missiles, Kung Fu Panda, and…9/11?? Freddy Kreuger and MJ? I didn’t get to see it outside of these pictures, so I can’t say much about it. One guy I met thought it was a general critique of consumerism, which would jive with a Buddhist mentality, I guess (though I’ve never heard of Buddhists being that overt/aggressive about their message). But if that’s the point, the content seems a little misguided. Someone else thought it was more along the lines of, earthly/temporal things that you shouldn’t get distracted by, because in the end death comes for all. This makes a little more sense, given the horrorshow at the beginning of the temple, but I dunno…if I’m gonna die, I want to hear Billie Jean a few times before I do.

aaaanyway, lastly we got into Chiang Khong, whose sole purpose seems to be just being the town next to the Thailand/Laos border. It’s seriously got nothing special going for it as far as I could tell. I googled “good things in Chiang Khong” and… the list drops off pretty quickly. I shared a room there with my friend Koki, and we went out with our friend Jonas and got our complementary dinner at a local bar (one of the few things still happening at 8PM). We played pool on a hilariously crappy table and I had the worst mango shake.

The next day, we crossed the border. It was somewhat of a disorganized shitshow, where at some point I gave up on trying to figure out what was happening and just allowed myself to be herded with everyone else. The first thing was that the Thai border officials wanted our Thailand departure cards, which only a few of us had (I luckily found mine crumpled up in the bottom of my bag). But it seemed like for the people that didn’t, they just gave them a new one, so I don’t even know why they originally give you one at all? After that, it was a mess of what felt like several hustlings, like making us pay a few bucks to take a bus for 10 seconds. Anyway, despite the confusion, it was all fairly inexpensive. The Laos visa (for US citizens) costs $35 and lasts a month.

On the other side of the border, we were brought by songthaew to the boat pickup/dropoff, where there was a fairly overpriced restaurant. This was the beginning of a pattern we’d see, where there were very few businesses along the boat path we were stuck on, and they were all expensive since we didn’t have much choice. It took about forever to actually get everyone there, so we had the overpriced lunch before we left, since there wasn’t going to be much opportunity for food on the bus. We also bought some Banh Mi-like sandwiches for a snack on the boat. I had read about not buying food on the boat/whatever so I had actually stocked up on snacks like a crazy prepper or something, and my bag was already bursting with them. Could I be any more American?

They finally got us on the boat. We technically had seat numbers, but those apparently didn’t matter. The boat was… pretty nice! I mean, super low tech, but spatious, good looking, and had 2 or 4 bathrooms, I forget. Pretty much everyone had a huge view. The ride itself is fun, but not mindblowing. It was more relaxing than freaking out at every new view that came with each twist and turn of the Mekong. Soon enough, (mostly young) people got their fill of the views, and started drinking. People were really putting them away, but they were being mostly decent so it wasn’t a pain for those who weren’t. Soon, the boat started making fairly frequent stops at these tiny local docks. I was a little confused at first (like, cmon, we have a ways to go still!), but realized their purpose: reupping the booze supply. The first day was pretty good, all in all. Spirits were high, there was lots of space, it wasn’t too hot, people were excited for the boat, and the whole ride wasn’t too long.

After about 5 hours or so, it was getting dark and we pulled into the town we were staying in for the night, Pakbeng. Pakbeng is… kind of a shit town. I mean, maybe I didn’t get the full Pakbeng experience. We were first brought on a veryyy rickety songthaew to our guesthouse, which was decent. However, almost immediately, a couple of the locals at the guesthouse (not sure if they worked there or not) kept trying to sell us weed and opium. I jokingly asked them “but what about the police?”, and the guy assured me, no, it’s okay! The husband of the woman running your guesthouse is the police chief, so you can do whatever. I mean…he might be right that that would protect someone, but it could also be the total opposite.

(an aside: I’ve heard that it’s a pretty common thing for a local to sell someone drugs, and then immediately turn around and inform on them to the police. The police are so badly paid here, I think it’s all but written policy that their real paycheck is from “enforcing” “laws”. So the dealer guy will sell drugs to someone, and now they know someone who definitely has them and can be shaken down, so they report them to the police and get a portion of the “fine” they have to pay (which can be pretty steep from what I’ve heard, like $1000 in Laos). I’ve even heard of police literally driving people to an ATM to get cash out for their “fine”…how thoughtful!)

Anyway, the second kind of crappy aspect of Pakbeng is that we felt pretty hustled, again. I guess the options for towns might just be slim along that stretch of the Mekong, but as soon as we checked into our one option for a hostel, a guy was already there and pretty aggressively tried herding us into his restaurant across the street, saying his was the only place and he’d give us a good deal. I think we were tired and hungry enough for a hot meal that we went. It was fairly expensive by Laos standards and the food was eh. They had a few dogs around the restaurant (pretty standard for SEA restaurants (like, I bet they have them in operating rooms here)), but this one dog bit several people who weren’t even trying to pet it. And I’m not sure what exactly the “good deal” was supposed to be; he became fairly unfriendly as soon as we were actually in his restaurant.

Then, we decided to take a brief walk through the main street of town, just to get a feel for what it was, though it was dark and mostly closed down. There wasn’t a lot going on. When we got to the end of the main road, there was a lit up ATM. A few of the other slow boat travelers told us that some locals there told them not to go farther along the road, or other locals would “rob them with knives”, because they knew people would have money from the ATM. Eeeeeeep, that got us to turn around pretty quick. It’s honestly the only time in SEA I’ve felt remotely unsafe.

The second day on the boat made me see why some people complain. Whereas we had lots of space the first day, the second day they put us on a much smaller boat. The first day, some people were sleeping in the back, the engine room area, just cause they wanted to (to be honest it seemed pretty awful, nasty fumes and REALLY loud), but the second day, there was so little space that about a dozen people had to be back there. I luckily boarded first, but I would be pretty annoyed if I were stuck back there. To make things a little worse, they were also picking up Laos locals, who appeared to be bringing huge bags of wares to the market, onto our already overpacked boat. They were mostly standing, having gotten there after us, but there were a few with newborn babies that people couldn’t not give their seat up for. It’s not their fault at all, but it’s pretty shitty of the boat company to overbook the boat like that. Additionally, the second day was both hotter and longer, about 8 hours. Tempers were rising a little and there was definitely mutiny in the air. Because there were so few seats, going to the bathroom pretty much meant giving up your seat until someone else went, like the worst version of musical chairs.

Finally we got into Luang Prabang. LP is a city with a decent amount of French influence due to their colonization; it’s a UNESCO world heritage site/city. You mostly see the influence in the form of baguette sandwiches being sold as street food and the architecture. Some of the older Laotians actually speak a little French. Like many places, I got mixed reviews from people about LP. Some told me not to spend more than 2 days there, and a few told me that a week wasn’t long enough for them. I’d lean towards the former if you’re in a hurry, but it wasn’t at all painful spending a few more days there.

LP has a lot of touristy crap, but is also a lazy little city with its own stuff going on, somewhat like Chiang Mai (but more touristy than CM). The first day, my friends Jonas and Koki and I decided we’d take it easy and just wander the city on our own, and meet up later or the next day for actual adventures. I usually like to do this anyway, since I’m usually exhausted from the journey there, and I’ve found that I can get a better “feel” for the city just by walking around the whole city, eating random street foods, and just getting ideas for the next few days. As it happened, I wandered alone down to the place where the Ou Nam river meets the Mekong, because there was a bamboo bridge crossing the Ou Nam that I’d heard about, and found Jonas sitting down at the shore with an English woman. We talked for a bit while I combed my (very tangled and greasy by that point) hair at the edge of the Mekong, and when she had to get going, Jonas and I decided to cross the bridge to see what was on the other side. It cost 10,000 LAK (~$1.25) to cross it, which was my first intro to a pattern I’d see in Laos, where you get charged for basically anything they can set a stall up next to.

The other side of the river was in pretty stark contrast to the side we came from; whereas the LP side had a fancy cafe overlooking the Mekong, the other side was basically a dirt path into a patch of trees and nothing. Following the path, we came up to a crumbling pagoda (mini temple). It was clearly out of use. One of the typical dragons that frame the stairs of it had broken off, hanging there just by the rebar that was in the center of it. I looked at it and thought it was funny that something that’s supposed to be this holy place that I naturally assumed was built long ago was actually built in the relatively recent past with modern construction techniques. I think my assumption there is actually pretty common in the more general sense that a lot of visitors to SEA think that stuff is really ideal or pure, when the actual citizens of the place are practical. Similarly, I’ve since seen many stores on the outskirts of cities that are selling little mini shrines for a local’s house or business.

Anyway, we followed the path a little more and soon came upon a bunch of teen (? I’m really bad with telling ages) Laos boys that were hanging out in this kind of shanty area that seemed like a clubhouse. We said hello in Laotian, one of the like, three words I know, and they said hi back, but I got a kind of predatory vibe from them. I mean, to them we’re basically these big, dumb, soft, walking stomachs with huge wallets (not totally inaccurate though), and they could have 100% eviscerated us. They were laughing at us a little, but luckily just left as we were arriving. Going down the steep path farther next to the weird shanty area next to the river, a really old Laos man came out and invited us into their little shack thing. When we went in, there were already a Canadian couple sitting in there. There was also a younger Laos man, and his truly ancient mother, who was towards the back, cooking. The old man (maybe the young man’s father? It wasn’t clear) immediately began pouring us shots of his homemade moonshine rice whiskey from an old wine bottle into a homemade bamboo shotglass and shoving them at us. I didn’t want to be rude, so I accepted, and lawdy, they were strong. It wasn’t unlike rubbing alcohol, so if I go blind in a few years, welp, at least we’ll know why. The younger local actually seemed to know a pretty decent amount of English, as I think he said he was a tour guide. The mother never said anything. Soon, she brought forward a tray of a few dishes she had been making (it honestly wasn’t clear to me how much this was their home; there definitely wasn’t enough in that one room to be a living place, but she also apparently had enough cooking supplies around) and we all ate. They were dishes I really hadn’t seen before or since, so it was pretty interesting. One was some sort of fish curry (the old man was a fisherman, I think), and another was this like, spicy, fiber-y eggplant salsa, I’d call it. They showed us the way Laos people would eat it, forming the sticky rice into a ball, and using that to scoop/soak up a dish. Soon a German girl arrived, carrying bags of garbage (more on that in a sec), and joined us. The old man poured us more shots and declared in his very broken English that her and I were now husband and wife, and, not to leave Jonas out, that he and Jonas were now together, which was pretty funny.

After we had eaten and sat around for a while, we decided to move on. We thanked them a ton, and briefly debated amongst ourselves about giving them some money… they absolutely hadn’t asked for any, either before or after, but it was a really neat thing and they had fed us a bunch. Our only worry was that they’d find it insulting, and we weren’t sure. We decided to timidly ask if it would be okay to give them a little bit of money, and the younger guy said sure, if we wanted to. We happily did and moved on.

The German girl left with Jonas and I, as we decided to walk farther along the path. At that point, I said “okay, I gotta ask… why do you have bags of trash?” She said that she was also just walking around the river and decided to start picking up trash, since there’s garbage truly everywhere. We discussed for a bit whether it had much to do with tourists; she seemed to think we played a large direct part of the littering and that the locals “had more respect for nature” or something, but I told her I thought that it was actually probably mostly the locals. This isn’t to try and make them look bad, it’s just that for a lot of them, littering/conservation/etc isn’t really a thing, especially outside of the cities. They’re just living their lives, and I think they’re at a point where they have a lot of space and plastics/etc are new enough to them that they haven’t seen the effect of littering everywhere. I mean, hell, even in the US, it’s pretty bad in some poorer places, where they probably just don’t care. I’d guess that there’s also a selection bias for tourists, where they’re the type of people who litter even less than the average person because they want to keep places nice or whatever.

Anyway, we helped her for a little bit anyway, holding the extra bags as she picked up anything we came across (and there was a lot). When the bags were completely stuffed, we placed them next to some other trash bags that were next to a flag pole. I didn’t want to say anything, but a few feet farther I looked over a bridge and just saw a huuuge pile of trash at the bottom, where the locals just dumped it. We talked about it a bit more. She said that she thought they just need to be educated about the long term effects of littering a bunch, but I just don’t think there’s really any great solution. They’re definitely a developing country still (compared to places that typically care more about conservation/etc), and I think at this point their main concern is producing more and increasing wealth. I think even if you “educated” them, they’d still say something like “okay…but we still can’t really afford to live that way right now.” It was an interesting conversation anyway, but made me realize that, in my opinion, a lot of travelers really mean well but have what might be an inaccurate picture of people. There are also whiffs of the “noble savage”, but again, nothing ill intentioned as far as I can tell.

Anyway, that’s all for now. Not up to the present, but more will follow shortly (really this time)!

One thought on “A little catchup: the slow boat and beginning of Luang Prabang

  1. Got any pictures of the dangling dragon? Or of yourself in this batch? Would love to see those.
    Like your ‘worst kind of musical chairs’ comment. I can well imagine it.
    Travel safe, travel far!
    love
    maternal parent

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