This post runs a little long, so if you’re just looking for information about whether or not to do it – the short version is don’t do it unless you’re the type of person who would enjoy being stuck on a floating frat party for 2 days.
This was something I’d been looking forward to for the whole trip. Upon the insistence of two separate friends, we had decided to take the slow boat from the north of Thailand across Laos, into the city of Luang Prabang. I’d heard only good things about Laos, specifically that it was as Thailand might have been 20 years ago before being overrun by tourists. We were certainly tired of feeling like so many things we had seen were like store fronts meant to showcase and collect money from passing tourists, so the further we went on our journey, the more I had anticipated our journey into Laos.
We arrived in Chiang Khong after dark, and found our accommodation a half kilometer down the road. It was nice. A wooden complex of rooms joined by a series of porches that looked out over the Mekong River. It was so dark out that it was hard to see anything, but a hotel across the river was having a party, the music wafting directly across at us. The lights of the hotel shimmered off the river, the only indication that the river was there at all.
We took care of business and finally got online for a few minutes. That is one part of travel I really enjoy. At home I am usually online most of the day in one form or another, and living a large part of my life through the interface of a computer screen. On vacation it’s great to be able to ‘get off the grid,’ so to speak, for days at a time.
We ordered some dinner (coconut-based curry again!) and were prepared to settle in when we realized something was niggling at us during the whole meal. Nearby was a table with a few other travelers, but one in particular, a young American woman, was dominating the conversation with her experiences in Thailand and abroad. At first we paid no mind; it was a generic travel conversation that you hear anywhere on the road. But then we realized she wasn’t stopping, and that the other three people she sat with didn’t speak the whole time. The more she spoke, the more Maria and I just looked at each other. Here was another 22 year old who had traveled out into the world, learned some things, then had to share it with everyone they met as though what they had done was entirely exclusive and everyone just had to hear about it.
Half bemused and half annoyed, we jotted down a quick list over dinner of all the tourist faux pas we’d witnessed while on vacation. Not just on this trip, but also from recent trips to Indonesia and India. Because we were there with time to kill, we made this entry about how not to be a terrible tourist.
The next morning we were ready to go. We’d booked the boat and all details of getting to the boat with our host, which made a few minor complicated matters of ferries and taxis very easy. I really liked the guesthouse except for the pillow, which had been too big and had messed my back up over the course of the night. The way I go on about hotels – it probably makes me sound like the princess and the pea, but I’ve got two four inch pins in my spine that pretty much keep me together. 99.9% of the time I am fine, but I have to be cautious about the kind of bed I sleep on and these kinds of things. Otherwise I face chronic, throbbing back pain for days on end, and if you’ve ever experienced that, you know it’s something to be avoided. Especially on vacation.
Unfortunately I woke up with that back pain, but otherwise I really liked that place. The view in the morning of the river was so beautiful and peaceful, I had risen before anyone else so I could get a photo of it at first light.
Soon enough everyone was up, and we had seated ourselves for breakfast when a plume of cigarette smoke wafted across my face. Ugh, not what I want to smell first thing in the morning before breakfast. We moved across the deck, and little did I know that this was to be the first of many incidences with the young woman who was enjoying her pre-breakfast cigarette.
Soon her gaggle of friends showed up, and they were all a chatter about this and that. So they were going to be on the boat with us. Ah well, it was a fairly big boat. I’m sure what they did in their seating area would have no effect on us wherever we had decided to sit.
Piling into our hosts pickup truck, Maria and I took shotgun while the clan piled into the back. They were on a mission to get some food and beer in town for the ride, which our host quite willingly obliged. Maria and I had bought packed lunches from her in the morning, so we were set to go. As we sat in the truck, we watched them flail about town like a bunch of chickens scared out of coop as they hunted down snacks, a Styrofoam beer cooler, ice, and of course, beer.
I still thought little of it.
After a short ferry ride across the river into Huay Xai, Laos and a crowded, chaotic hustle through immigration, we came away with our Laos Visas and some Kip (Laotian currency.) Based on a sticker our host had put on our shirts, a tour operator picked us out and told us to wait for our ride to the slow boat. As we waited, we noticed that our chatty, smoky travel companions all proudly sported Canadian flags at the top of their backpacks. I hadn’t realized people still did that sort of thing.
Soon we were off in another truck, and shortly came to the docking area for a slew of slow boats that traverse the Mekong River. We had been given seating assignments and realized our host had given us seating halfway down the boat from the Canadians. Bless her heart. But our seats had been occupied by a group of English guys and Canadian girls decked out in hipster summer gear, blasting over-played British pop songs from the 90’s through some ratty little ipod speakers. The boat operator asked them to move to their proper seats, but they put on their whingy faces and said “aww does it really matter?”
“It’s fine,” I said. “We’ll just sit back here [away from them.]”
The Mekong River. Snaking down between Myanmar and Laos, then bordering Laos and Thailand, dipping down through Cambodia and finally ending in Vietnam. A river of much life and history. Here we were on a slow boat cruising down the river for two days, into the heart of Laos and what I was pretending would be some kind of Shangri-La. Surely anyone who would want to sit on a slow boat for two days was thinking the same thing as me; a nice relaxing and scenic view on an idyllic riverboat ride… enjoying the sights and sounds of the countryside and villages.
But why would you want that when you can pound beers and hard liquor all day and blast shitty pop music through tinny, treble speakers that you bought at some night market? Why would anyone on the boat want to relax when there was hard partying to be done?
The boat departed at about 12:30, and by 1:00 the party contingent had begun to merge. A pocket in the back, a pocket in the middle, and the rest of front. They had the boat covered. They only made up for a third of the people on the boat, but that didn’t matter.
Perhaps you’re thinking “aw come on. You’re on a boat, on vacation, you might as well have a good time.” Sure, there’s nothing wrong with that. I love having a beer and hanging out with friends. Sometimes I even like to meet new people. But I also consider when I have fun that I shouldn’t do it at the expense of others. It’s like the right to smoke. Yes, you have the right to put that into your body if you choose. But you don’t have the right to make me breath it in too. You have the right to jump off a cliff if you want. You don’t have the right to take me with you. Your rights don’t trump mine or anyone else’s.
I wouldn’t care if they were sitting there having some drinks and talking to each other, but it wasn’t the case. The partiers converged and turned the boat into Spring Break ’12, despite two thirds of the boat doing whatever they could to ignore them at best, or glaring with overt resentment at worst. They were shouting, playing music, splashing river water up over the side of the boat at anyone sitting behind them, spilling beer all over the boat floor, leaving bottles strewn about the floor, and generally treating the whole boat as it was the wing of their dormitory. When asked several times not to sit on the edge of the boat for matters of safety, everyone looked at the boat operators and shrugged. It’s okay, if one of you falls in we’ll all come back for you. One guy who was about 60 and loosely resembled Donald Sutherland had spent the day trying his hardest to mingle and be accepted by the 20-somethings. I remembered him from immigration, pushing and fussing his way up through the line. Another woman, “old enough to be your mother,” wanted to show that she was a still a gal who could have a good time, and often led the party charge with screams of “WOOOOO HOOOOO PARTY ON!” Wow, you go, mom.
Classy party mom holds a beer between her toes while she romances a cigarette.
At one point I went to the back to use the toilet and saw a few of the revelers passed out cold, dead drunk, their bodies strewn throughout the boat operator’s family quarters amid the matriarchs and children. Classy move, guys. Party on.
I’ll make a departure from my complaint to highlight the better side of the boat ride.
She wants no part of a haggle.
Village kids from the hills try to sell scarves to boat tourists.
The OTHER slowboat.
The boat stops for the night in Pakbeng, an interesting little town that serves as a major trade route for shipping goods inland. A few touts lined the bank, as I had hoped, and we took the first room that seemed reasonable. Actually, we just took the first room available.
After dinner and a very short walk around the corner to the end of the town, we headed to bed and prepared for an early rise. With a sore back after such a long day, and knowing tomorrow would be another long day as well, I was so ready for a nice deep sleep.
Rooster call right outside of our room. I checked my watch. Mother@#_&!. Usually they don’t start until at least 4 or 5. Not to worry. I’ll try to get back to sleep.
Two roosters calls, again outside of the room.
Welcome to rooster town, population you and 10 roosters from near to far.
Well, that chicken you eat has to come from somewhere. It comes from right next door.
When I finally got up for breakfast and saw a big, ugly rooster strutting up the road, I had half a mind to grab it by the neck and strangle it to death. Small river towns are going to have chickens and roosters, it completely makes sense, but it didn’t make me want to spare that rooster any less. And so this trip has taught me that I am not a vegetarian because I have to help save the world from these obnoxious fuckers by eating them.
The next plan was simple; get on the boat as early as possible because there was NO WAY that any of yesterday’s partiers were going to haul their hungover asses out of bed in time for the first boat. That’s right, I forgot to mention that there were two slowboats. The other had been passed and then passed us yesterday when we had broken down. Both times we saw the boat, we saw how sedate and relaxed everyone on the other boat had been, just enjoying the ride and watching the scenery. At breakfast we had talked to a group of young Brits who laughed when they heard we had been on that ‘other’ boat.
“Was that the boat with the Canadians?”
“Yes. You heard about the Canadians?”
“Ahahaha yes, we heard all about the Canadians.”
My nationalistic pride flared red like a giant flag sewn onto a backpack.
“I want to be on your boat.”
“No problem mate, it’s not assigned seating, it’s just first come first serve.”
Oh how I longed to be on that other boat. Today I would make that happen.
We got ourselves down to the river bank and were the first people on the first boat. No messing around. We could see everyone else winding their way down the hill towards the boat, and would have had first glimpse and alert of any one of yesterday’s Spring Breakers.
The boat was filling up fast with old people. It was looking really good.
“HEY JO DO YOU HAVE THE ROOM KEYS?”
“NO I NEVER HAD ONE.”
Here came the Canadians. They crept modestly onto the boat and sat at the front again. We were sitting only a few rows back from the front to avoid the noise of the engine room and the stink of the toilet. Surely if they were going to be on our boat again, today they would be hungover and mostly silent. Victory would be mine. Oh yes.
The boat filled up more. We were totally winning.
Here came ‘the Austalian.’ Okay, he was only one more. No problem.
Next came the second group of Canadians that had been with the British guys the day before. They weren’t together anymore. Uh oh, maybe some drama there from last night.
“One of those girls totally slept with one of the guys and now it’s just awkward” Maria said.
But they too, were clearly hungover and would not get out of hand.
We were still kind of winning. And the boat was mostly full. I could feel the glee approaching as I noticed people starting to load the other boat.
Party mom and her companion wound down the hill and onto our boat. Surely party mom was partied out.
Finally the British guys who had been with the Canadians yesterday wound their way down the hill. They looked the most hungover of all (they had drank two bottles of hard liquor on the boat the day before,) and went onto the other boat. Then they came onto our boat, avoided the girls, and went straight to the back.
We had totally lost. ALL of the idiots from yesterday’s boat were on our boat again. Even creepy old Donald Sutherland guy had slunk aboard somehow. I stayed optimistic. It was 9am. They were all hungover. The full coolers that everyone had brought the day before were emptied and gone. Today was going to be a good day.
The Canadians had gone to the back and bought their first round of beers from the boat staff. Ten AM! By noon everyone was well on their way to Spring Break Part 2, Party Mom included. By one o’clock, all of the scattered partiers had reassembled in power formation, all at the front of the boat, all 2 meters in front of us. We hadn’t just lost, we were set adrift on a river of loss, en route to Loserville.
Two of the Canadian Superstars were girls named Annie and Willow. Annie was a ‘CSR’ (A customer service rep – a waitress) from Vancouver, and Willow was a freshly-single late starter who was tied down in a relationship since she was 19 and now she was 29, also from Vancouver. (“My ex is totally hot, I would totally do him anytime anywhere except it would mess with his head.”) She’d been tied down for her entire twenties, and now had a lot of catching up to do. How do I know so many things (and more) about them? Because they were telegraphing all of their personal information over the boat for two days and I had nowhere else to run.
You know what else Willow was telegraphing all over the boat that day? Her disgusting pimply ass. Maria, considerate as she is, even told her “your dress! Your butt is hanging out of your [too short] dress!” To which her friend Annie shrugged and says “that’s what she does.”
That’s what she does. Hey your pimply ass and unwashed, brown bathing suit are on display for the whole disgusted boat to see. But that’s just what she does.
What more can I say about it that I haven’t yet explained in unnecessary detail? Nothing. I suspect that the two friends who so heavily recommended this boat ride to me had taken it in the off-season when there are less tourists. I really had enjoyed the ride for the few minutes that I could depart myself from Spring Break Boat Party ’12, but I could not recommend it to anyone who might end up in the same predicament. If you ever do take the slow boat to Luang Prabang, try to avoid these types of tourists if at all possible. Your trip will be much more relaxing and enjoyable.
We arrived in Luang Prabang that evening just before sunset, and I was so thoroughly delighted to be there. It could be nothing short of my own personal Shangri-La after getting off that boat and away from everyone. I was soon to find out that two long days of nonsense were about to pay off beautifully.
Next: Thailand / Laos Part VI – Luang Prabang