Luang Thong, Laos

“A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.”  – Lao Tzu, The Way of Life

 

The most difficult decisions on this trip have been related to transportation:  what’s the best way to get from Point A to Point B? Most recently Luang Prabang played the role of Point A and Huay Xai delivered a memorable performance as Point B.  Huay Xai (also spelled Houei Sai, Houayxay, etc.) is a small town that earned some infamy during the old-school drug smuggling days, when the area – where the borders of Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar converge – became known as the Golden Triangle.  Most travelers cross into Huay Xai after taking a bus from Chang Mai (in Thailand) and only use the town as a short-stop transit point before heading down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang.  But I needed to approach from the opposite direction.

My first transportation option was a bus.  The roads in Laos are in notoriously poor condition and the road to Huay Xai has to cross rugged terrain, so – despite a relatively short distance – the so-called “VIP” bus takes at least eight to ten hours.  It breaks down frequently, only runs at night, and doesn’t have sleeper compartments.

My second option was a plane.  The flight is relatively expensive, and, thanks to the need to connect in Vientiane, not much faster than the VIP bus.

And my third option was a boat.  Basically there are two types of boats that take tourists up the river:  slow boats and speedboats.  The slow boat takes two days but is much more popular because it’s cheaper and it gives you more time to experience a very scenic stretch of the Mekong River.  The speedboat only takes six hours, but it has a downside that my guidebook summarizes in four words:  “Deaths are not uncommon.”

I definitely wanted to see the river, but the idea of puttering along in a slow boat for two days wasn’t particularly appealing.  Flying up the river at high speeds, on the other hand, sounded like fun, and I suspected the err-on-the-side-of-caution guidebook was overstating the danger.  So I booked my speedboat ticket and caught a ride out to the pier on Monday morning (8/30).

The facility at the pier didn’t inspire confidence.  It consisted of a hut next to some concrete stairs leading down to a mud-covered riverbank.  The word “speedboat” may conjure up visions of Crockett and Tubbs behind the wheel of a sleek high-performance machine, but in Laos we’re talking about a wooden canoe with a modified automobile engine strapped to the back.  There’s a place next to the engine for the driver to sit, a small cargo area in the front, and four little passenger compartments, each intended to hold two people who are forced to sit side-by-side with their knees pressed to their chest.

 

Speedboat Headquarters

 

My boat was scheduled to leave at 8:30 that morning, so when 9:00 rolled around I asked if we’d be leaving soon.  “We leave 9:30,” someone told me.  At that point there was only one other tourist around, a quiet young Japanese guy named Kiichi, so the boat must have been waiting for more customers.  At 10:00 a couple of Australians showed up, which apparently pushed us over the edge.  Deciding that four Falangs (the word they use for foreigners) would be enough, they herded us into the boat with the driver and a few locals who were also heading upriver.  In a move that probably should have concerned us more than it did, the driver and the locals all donned motorcycle helmets as they boarded the boat.

 

Mark and Kane Boarding the Speedboat

 

The Australians – Mark and Kane, two friends in their early 30s who work as English teachers in Korea – were the tallest, so they sat in the front compartment and stretched their legs out over the cargo area.  I settled into the next compartment with Kiichi and immediately had a flashback to an episode of the 1980s TV show That’s Incredible, where an Indian yogi somehow contorted himself into a tiny 1’x1’x1’ Plexiglas cube for some ridiculously long period of time.  The engine started up and we prepared ourselves for six hours on the river.

Six seconds later we heard a pop and the engine died.  We’d gone such a short distance that the current immediately pushed us behind our starting point and we drifted about 50 yards downriver before our driver could paddle us back to land.  We’d heard that Laos is notorious for vehicles breaking down but this seemed a little extreme.

The driver made a cell phone call and pretty quickly some of his colleagues came to help.  Several of them produced tools and started taking parts off the engine.  Soon they pulled out the culprit:  a broken belt.  A little while later someone ran up with a replacement belt and after another round of hammering and tinkering we were back in business.  The engine roared to life and we shot forward at what we estimated to be 40 miles an hour.

 

Fixing the Engine


 

Mekong River Speedboat from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai (Video) 

 
Our botched start left us wary, but over the next three hours we gradually relaxed as mile after mile passed without incident.  It was just really fun to be out on the water moving fast.  The wind kept us cool and we passed all kinds of interesting scenes – jungle-covered mountain ranges, small communities of thatch-roofed huts connected to civilization only by the river, kids swinging into the water from tree branches, water buffalo rolling happily in the mud, individual huts perched on high hills miles away from any town.  I couldn’t help but feel a little smug as we raced past slow boats that might has well have been anchored in place.

In the early afternoon we stopped at Pak Beng, a small town about halfway to Huay Xai, for lunch at a floating riverside restaurant.  While we ate we noticed our bags being moved to a different speedboat.  We had assumed the same boat and driver would take us all the way, but at Pak Beng a driver who started at Huay Xai usually swaps passengers with a driver who started at Luang Prabang, which lets them each return to their own town that same day.  It made sense and at the time it seemed fine.

After fifteen minutes it didn’t seem so fine.  The engine in our new boat never sounded right, and it either stalled out or our driver felt like he’d better give it a rest.  The locals and driver talked through the situation but none of them spoke English well enough to bring the Falangs into the loop.  After a short break the driver started the engine and we made some progress upriver.  But before too long the engine shut off and we drifted again.  That same scene repeated itself many more times before our driver seemed willing to acknowledge that something was seriously wrong.

In the mid-afternoon our driver finally decided to try something different.  He unloaded all of us on a large, empty boat tied up at the riverbank and then continued upriver, where, we assumed, he was either going to swap boats or fix the engine.  He returned about 45 minutes later and we got on board, hopeful that the problem had been solved.

Ten minutes later we were adrift again with a dead engine.  After another few rounds of starts and stops we were still a long way from Huay Xai and the sun was low in the sky.  With no lights our boat couldn’t navigate the river in the dark, which must have convinced our driver to change strategy.  He paddled over to a completely uninhabited section of the riverbank and indicated that three of us should wait there.  I got out along with Kane and one of the locals, and from the muddy shore we watched our driver start the engine and continue upriver without us.

The local, who only spoke a few words of English, looked at us with a big smile on his face and said, “Unlucky.”  All three of us broke out laughing.  (Kane and I agreed later that the local said “Unlucky” in such a way that it seemed to transcend our current situation and embody a larger Lao worldview of acceptance in the face of adversity.)  In situations like that your fellow travelers make a huge difference.  From the start of the trip Kane and Mark found the humor in each new setback and kept us laughing with a steady stream of sarcastic but good-natured commentary, and Kiichi might not have said much but he greeted every development – good and bad – with the same serene, bemused smile.

The Australian’s ability to laugh at the situation was especially impressive, considering that the delay put them at risk of forfeiting a significant amount of money.  Mark, Kane and I were all headed to Huay Xai to do something called The Gibbon Experience, and the two of them had pre-paid for a no-refund trek that left the next morning.  With the luxury of time I’d reserved a spot for the following day to give myself a little breathing room, and I hadn’t paid yet, so for me a delay was no big deal.

After about a half hour our boat returned, picked us up, and headed upriver.  Very quickly we saw Kiichi, alone, waving to us from a small sandbar.  Later Mark told us that even after dropping off three people the boat had apparently been too heavy, so the driver had pulled over again, pointed at Kiichi, and yelled, “Get out!”  Kiichi definitely seemed happy to see us.

A short distance upriver the driver dropped us off at a very small village where we met up with the rest of the group.  With sign language and a handful of English words the locals let us know that we Falang would be staying in that village overnight while the locals went somewhere else.  They walked us up to what looked like the nicest house in the village and introduced us to the family living there, presided over by a grandmother and her son.  The son, who spoke relatively good English, confirmed that they’d be happy to act as a guest house for the night.  He said their village was called Luang Thong (my spelling may not be entirely accurate).

 

Our Host on Her Porch


 

Mark, Kane and Kiichi in front of Our Host’s House


 
We set down our bags in the family’s main room and noticed a crowd gathering outside.  Eventually we found out that travelers get stuck there several times each year, but it was rare enough that seeing Falangs up-close was still somewhat novel.   The children, especially, were really curious, and we headed out to say hello.  I didn’t waste any time busting out the camera, which entertained the kids briefly, but Kiichi was the big hit – he spent an hour playing games with them, first soccer with a little wicker ball and then some ad-hoc version of tag that had half the kids in the village chasing him around.

 

Kids in Luang Thong


 

Girl in Luang Thong


 

Kiichi Playing Tag (Video)

 

Mark and Kane discovered a mini-store in a house down the street.  There wasn’t any water, beer, or Coke, but oddly enough they stocked lots of Sprite, so we bought a few bottles at a price that demonstrated the proprietor’s enthusiastic embrace of capitalism.  We tried to find some Beer Lao but had no luck.

 

One-Armed Man

 

Smiling Girl in Luang Thong

 

Main Street in Luang Thong

 

Two Kids in Luang Thong

 

As the sun set we realized the town didn’t have electricity.  We saw a stereo and TV in our host’s house, but the son explained that those ran on a generator which – you guessed it – happened to be broken.  By this time an entrepreneur had managed to track down four warm Beer Laos, which we happily bought at some comically inflated price.  The family cooked us a great dinner that we ate by candlelight, sitting on the floor of the main room with half the village staring at us through every available window and door.  Mark provided the after-dinner entertainment by pulling a splinter out of his foot, a spectacle that riveted the kids for ten solid minutes.

 

Dinner in Luang Thong

 

Mark, Kane, Kiichi and I slept on mattresses on the floor.  Rest assured that before falling asleep we remembered to make the requisite jokes about spooning and Brokeback Luang Thong.   The roosters started crowing at 3:30am, but other than that we slept well.  In the morning one of the Australians pointed out that tour operators in Luang Prabang charge high prices for homestays with local families, and here we were getting one for almost nothing.

Our driver said he’d pick us up at 6am, but we didn’t see him until about 8:30.  We quickly paid our hosts, who balanced out the price-gougers by only charging us the equivalent of $7 each for dinner and the room.  Relieved to hear the sound of the engine approaching, we hurried down to the riverbank and squeezed ourselves into the speedboat.

Our assumption was that we either had a new boat or the engine had been fixed.  But we weren’t sure, and by then we knew enough to question our naïve assumptions.  As we built up speed every one of us listened intently to the engine, assessing the possible implications of each sputter and whine.  Our ears, finely tuned by our recent experiences, detected the same problem as yesterday.  After about ten minutes the engine stopped and we were adrift yet again.  Ugh…  We felt like we’d already paid our dues.  “Unlucky,” said Kane, managing to get a laugh from most of us.

We floated back to Luang Thong, where the villagers were entertained by the sight of us trooping back up the muddy path to our host’s house.  Our driver motored back upriver without even attempting to explain his plan.  Disheartened, we sat on the porch to wait.  I passed the time by taking more photos.

 

Luang Thong Grandmother

 

Grandmother in Luang Thong Doorway

 

Little Girl in Luang Thong

  

Man in Window in Luang Thong

 

About an hour later our driver returned and we headed towards Huay Xai again.  This time the engine actually sounded different.  We made it to another floating restaurant and ate lunch while our driver went through the now-familiar ritual of moving our bags to another speedboat.  We expected the new boat to have some kind of problem but the engine sounded perfect.  Feeling optimistic, I put on my headphones and hit “shuffle” on my iPod.  The planets must have been aligned because as we accelerated to our top speed the One Perfect Song for that moment happened to play:  Sabotage by the Beastie Boys.  We arrived, finally, in Huay Xai around 3pm on Tuesday.

I was sorry to say goodbye to Kiichi, who immediately crossed over to Thailand, but I met back up with Mark and Kane for dinner that night.  They had good news – The Gibbon Experience shifted them back a day so the three of us were set to leave in the same group the next morning.  It felt really, really good to open up a cold Beer Lao and toast to two interesting days on the Mekong.

 

The Biggest Gecko Any of Us Had Ever Seen