Mondo Weirdo: Slow boat to Thailand

A Wanderlust reader describes the temptations and tribulations of a boat journey to Thailand on the Mekong River in Laos.

Published June 8, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

From Luang Prabang in central Laos, I opted to take the river route up the Mekong back to Thailand. There are only two ways to make the river trip, and these are known simply as "fast boat" and "slow boat." Slow boat is patronized principally by villagers, hauling goods to and from market in the main towns. Slow boat has, at first blush, a leisurely charm, an opportunity to drift lazily up the Mekong and to slowly absorb its scenery and atmosphere. There is something slightly guilty about slow boat. It evoked for me images of afternoon doubleheaders and of bubble baths, pastimes that are made slightly better because you know you should be doing something more productive.

Fast boat is transport, a roaring speedboat crammed with people with too little time and too much money. I had seen fast boat on the river, shattering its quiet calm, kicking up waves that disrupted the fishermen and the idle boaters. Fast boat immediately reminded me of all the times that I have sat by the side of a peaceful lake, preoccupied only with the physics of rock-skipping, when some guy, his stomach carved by far too many beers, came roaring through at the helm of his speedboat, a water skier shrieking from the rear. At such times all you want to do is grab the nearest rock, wing it at him, and yell, "Hey, fatboy, have you ever heard of Bud Lite?" -- but you don't. A shame.

I chose slow boat. I turned up early, at 7, eager and full of promise for the 8 o'clock departure time. My enthusiasm for slow boat lasted exactly three hours and 15 minutes, three hours waiting for its delayed departure, and about 15 minutes to gaze in despair at my home for the next two days.

Slow boat was a small, coffin-shaped boat, the interior of the coffin hollowed out for the passengers. It had only one compartment, home to the engine, the bathroom and all the passengers and crew. For our traveling comfort, the compartment was conveniently divided into smoking and nonsmoking areas: The area I physically occupied was the nonsmoking area; every other inch of space was the smoking area.

The only observable access to the outside was a handful of slit windows, just wide enough so I could hang my head out like a car-bound dog. Within a few minutes of castoff, I could see that the boat was quiet and tranquil only to the outside. On the inside, the engine drummed and roared and threw off heat throughout the compartment -- heat that only added to the already sweltering day. Since the cabin was only about four feet high, passengers could lie down, if they could battle for the space, or drop down into a catcher's crouch, but there was no way to sit comfortably, perhaps because someone had neglected to put in any chairs. It was about this time that I remembered that baseball bores me and bubble baths make me break out.

The interior of the coffin was plastered with signs forbidding passengers from climbing onto the tin-clad roof of the boat. The signs were all in English, obviously intended for the tourists too delicate to handle the interior of slow boat. When I travel, I am always conscious of, and resentful of, the many travelers who think that their transient nature exempts them from local regulations. It's a constant source of friction between tourists and locals, to everyone's long-term detriment.

After an hour in the sweatbox, though, I couldn't have cared less, and I scrambled up to the roof. It was, at least briefly, a blessed relief. The engines throbbed distantly, and the sweeping breeze made it cool in comparison to the coffin room below. I had an unimpeded view of the river valley, of the villagers and the farm animals bathing in the Mekong. The trees lining the river at first seemed an undifferentiated green, but they soon emerged as a serene and calming rainbow of greens. It was lovely and relaxing up top, and it seemed I might enjoy slow boat to Thailand after all.

Nothing on slow boat, however, is that simple. Up top, I found myself totally exposed. It was a cloudless day, as days tend to be in Laos, and the sun beat down mercilessly, its rays rebounding exponentially off the tin roof. I was -- I gotta say it -- Ken on a hot tin roof. It was hot enough to cook meat on that roof. I mean that literally: The crew members were slow-cooking their lunch next to me. When I turned medium-rare, I sought refuge back in the coffin.

I had expected to make Pakbeng, the halfway point, by that evening. Alas, there is no real timetable for slow boat. It travels at the whim of the water level and the enthusiasm of the river pilot. He must have been feeling a little sluggish that day, since we stopped for the night in a small village several hours south of Pakbeng. It was Everyvillage, a handful of thatched huts, a few barnyard animals in perpetual search of their yard, a collection of villagers faintly curious about the outlanders.

We stayed at the village guest house, its three beds reserved for the foreigners from slow boat. You won't find the place in Fodor's, but it had one feature that puts the Four Seasons to shame: Instead of a chocolate mint on the pillow, our host offered each of us a bag of marijuana, and he seemed a little perplexed when I tried to explain to him that I didn't want to take it across Thai customs. Such is life on the edge of the Golden Triangle.

We reached Pakbeng in the late afternoon of the next day. By this time, I was well behind schedule and very ready for fast boat, and I grabbed a spot on the next boat for the three-hour ride to Huay Xai. Fast boat, as promised, was loud, uncomfortable and intrusive. We roared northward, the wind whipping my face, the scenery flashing by in a blur. I could hear nothing, see nothing, learn nothing. I enjoyed every second of it.

Or at least until we ran out of gas, a change of condition I cleverly deduced from the fact that we started drifting downriver back toward Pakbeng. We quickly beached and stood milling around, wondering what to do. Running out of gas on the Jersey Turnpike is one thing; running out of gas on the Mekong River is another. You can't put on your flashers and wait for the cops to take you and your gas can to the nearest rest stop.

It was the first time I took stock of my fellow passengers and they turned out to be a motley lot. I chatted briefly with a young Israeli who had been on slow boat with me, but he claimed to have dengue fever. I don't know the difference between dengue fever and Saturday night fever, but it sounded bad and I didn't object when he wandered off to sit miserably by the riverside.

That left me with four young soldiers from the Lao Army, as our river pilot had mysteriously disappeared. The soldiers took a sudden interest in me (for some reason they were less interested in the feverish Israeli), poking at the books in my backpack and poking at me, mostly in a curious -- not a "boy, he sure looks purty" -- way.

Still, when our pilot reappeared after about 45 minutes, I was relieved and only barely wondered where he had managed, in the middle of the Mekong, to procure a jerrycan full of gasoline. We pulled out into the river, roared back toward Huay Xia, eased around a bend about a kilometer north of where we had run out of gas and pulled up to the Lao equivalent of the Joyce Kilmer rest stop.

On the edge of the Mekong, some enterprising soul had built a motor-up facility, pumping gas (from a converted Mobil Oil pump, no less), dispensing food and drink. There was a pig or two rooting around in back, which may or may not distinguish it from turnpike rest stops, but it certainly suggested to me that civilization, such as it is, could not be too far away.

Refreshed, fast boat revved up and headed back toward home.

By Ken Stern


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