Entering Lao PDR

We woke up extra early this morning, as Rebecca reiterated, to secure good seats on the slow boat down the river. She had done some research in the travel guides and keyed into the tip to sit as near the front as possible: the rear of the boat houses an enormous gas motor that incredibly noisy no matter where you sit, but having to ride next to it for a day and a half is severely trying (as well as terrible for your ears).

But you know what happens to the best laid plans, of course, and the harder we fought to rush to getting our passports processed, the more there seemed to get in the way of this. We skipped breakfast, the breakfast we’d paid for, because the kitchen was taking far too long to make it. That was money down the drain (and if Ruan-Thai Guesthouse’s reputation is deserved, they were probably counting on that), but we had to hustle our bags down to the riverbank and load up on the little speedboat that would shuttle travelers across the river all morning long.

Huay Xai, Lao PDR

Struggling with luggage and the language barrier, Rebecca makes everything work out.

On the other side of the river, in the tiny Lao town called Huay Xai, we struggled against the other tourists to figure out where the line for the visa office was. The building itself was plain, in every sense: it was nothing more than a large concrete box with a single window and a door for staff. Behind this window sat a tired, middle-aged man whose job was to look deeply beleaguered; fortunately, he doubled as a government official. So, like in a dream environment, we hauled our huge and heavy bags out of the speedboat, lugged them up the concrete ramp from the river, rapidly discerned from context we would need this unassuming concrete building, climbed the stairs surrounding it and just kind of… milled into the mass of tourists, all of whom come from nations where people do not form up in line for anything. It really was a clot of people standing shoulder to shoulder. It was a brisk morning that promised to warm up once we were on the water, but for now we were a little chilly and groggy.

Eventually the office kicked into life and the severely put-upon sole employee announced that he could take all of our passports at once and approve them all at once. That certainly took the wind out of our sails, as we’d been bracing for a fight, the denser our crowd got and the more time passed. It was actually fairly easy to get our visas, and then the next step was to secure transportation to the slow boat.

Applying for visas

Other nations don’t believe in orderly lines.

I was hoping to reassure Rebecca with my casual and confident air: after all, we hadn’t met a problem we couldn’t resolve. We packed up our clothes in a hurry and hustled down to the speedboat; we got our visas after a token period of waiting for them; in the meantime, I’d located an office to reserve a tuk-tuk to the boat, so as far as I was concerned, everything was sorted.

Unfortunately, my unflappability only communicated to my dear wife that I wasn’t taking any of this seriously enough. I took pains to assure her everything was well in hand, but as the clock ticked on and the tuk-tuk hadn’t shown, she tried to find out from the girl who sold us our ticket what was going on and how far the slow boat dock was—we were hardy travelers by now and could just hike out there (eating the cost of the ticket) if it was going to be very late. The girl listened very patiently to all of Rebecca’s questions, each of which garnered the same answer: in broken English she repeatedly affirmed that the tuk-tuk was on its way. Rebecca did not find this comforting in the least and her head filled with visions of the slow boat being docked just out of sight, just around the corner, but everyone being clued into this and filling it up very rapidly, exhausting all the choice seats and reserving us an exalted position right next to whatever the noisiest part of a large combustion engine is.

Animals preserved in whiskey

Cobra Whiskey, Scorpion Wine.

We browsed the local stands to shop for snacks. After all, we’d missed breakfast and this was an all-day boat cruise down a slow-moving river. We were not going to pull over for lunch, and we would only pull into the midway point just before dark: nearly 24 hours after our strange dinner in the cowboy restaurant. I secured myself a couple sandwiches not unlike báhn mi, taking a chance on the meat staying good all day. I also picked up a couple large bottles of Beer Lao, because I had read on some travel site that it was popular to have a few beers while cruising down the river. That sounded nice to me, and who knows? After a large bottle of beer, perhaps I could sublimate my misanthropy and try to make friends of whomever was sitting around me. That’s what people did, I was sure, struck up conversations with fellow tourists whenever they were stuck together like we would be. I did find some exotic liquors that I declined to purchase: despite the seller’s insistence they imparted wonderful powers to the drinker, I was fairly confident preserving animals in a whiskey of dubious quality was a hospital trip waiting to happen. And even if I didn’t drink them, sure, they would make great souvenirs, but how on earth would I sneak them through several nations to bring them to my home nation? No, a photo was good enough for me, for all intents and purposes.

Rebecca and Christian on the slow boat

Now it’s hours of smooth, slow sailing.

But you know, the tuk-tuk did eventually arrive and we threw our bags aboard it, took on two more passengers and sped off. There was another tourist who peeked in at us as we passed, a tall Dutch woman named Anneke who we’d been running into since we left Ruan-Thai G.H. In a world full of strangers, I found it relieving to find another familiar face once in a while, even if it was just a fellow tourist heading along the same direction as we were taking. There were two slow boats loading up for the trip to Luang Prabang, maybe she could even end up on ours. (Her group, incidentally, had opted to hike out to the slow boat docks rather than reserve a tuk-tuk.) And there was one last moment of panic, as the tuk-tuk seemed to be driving, by Rebecca’s estimation, for too long of a period of time, and perhaps it was even pointed in the wrong direction. I held her hand and reassured her, and soon we were at the loading dock; in fact, we were among the first to check in, which meant we had our choice of seating. Best of all possible worlds.

Very loud boat engine

The guide books advise against sitting near this dangerously loud engine.

All the tourists filled up both slow boats and everyone got settled in. Many of them took seats by themselves—the seats were all benches strapped in place by the legs to bamboo rails that rand own the sides of the floor—I heard a young woman behind me chatting in German, so I tried to joke around with what little I’d picked up from an inadequate high school course and three weeks in (then) West Germany. “Mein Deutsch sind sehr schlecht,” I apologized in my malformed dialect, “schmeckt wie ein sheißehaus.” She found this delightful, assured me my German was intact, and then inundated me with a stream of conversation I could not possibly parse. I apologized again that I had exhausted my German, she turned her back on me to address her friend, and that was effectively the end of the conversation.

Rebecca returned to our bench: she had bought her own seat cushion and our bench happened to come with one for me, so we were set. More tourists boarded, the boat filled out, and everyone realized there was no such thing as single seats. The German girl paired up with her friend and everyone packed in. Other people, a large group of young travelers, had freed some of the benches and attempted to frame a large square area for themselves. Just as well, as there was no reason for us to walk up to the fore of the boat, though conceivably they would need to pass us on their way to the latrine. Oh well: I was camped out with my wife, my beer and sandwiches, my Kindle and iPod, and the camera in my hand that captured everything around us. But the hippies would announce themselves first, from the young man with the acoustic guitar who sat blocking the aisle, to the Janis Joplin-lookalike who laughed like “hut-hut-hut-hut-hut,” whose stories all had to do with the countries in which she’d smoked and drank too much and whose plans involved other countries in which she aimed to smoke and drink too much. …Well, good on her for getting out and seeing the world, I suppose. As for me, I used this time to test any stock I held in the Buddhist principles of patience and acceptance. Really test them.

Riverside temple on a hill

A long, tall staircase up to a temple under construction.

The slow boat stopped several times down the river. I didn’t know it would do this, but they were not major stops. The boats served as a kind of bus to shuttle local people to various destinations. Sometimes families would hop off, sometimes a young monk would climb down from the roof of the slow boat and climb up to a temple, or a young man would wade to the shore with a delivery of packages for a waiting family and then board again. It was interesting to watch. I wondered how much it cost for them to just trip down the river like that, wondered how many times a week they make this trip by these means. I really didn’t have any idea what the wilderness of Lao P.D.R. looked like. What I did know, after looking it up later, was that this nine-hour slow boat ride to Pakbeng only took three and a half hours by road, if one drove through 164 miles of Thailand roads. So the slow boat wasn’t a vehicle of convenience, it was purely meant to haul a large group of people very slowly down a winding river for the scenic value. That became clear.

Mekong River at sunset

Why does Singapore want to ruin this? Why won’t Lao PDR protect it?

And the scenery was gorgeous. I wish to impress this point quite strongly. There was plenty to look at on either side of the boat. Even during the low points of scenery, the landscape was still gorgeous: fearsome and striking banks of volcanic rock jutting up at exciting angles; feathery and beautiful groves that looked like Asian paintings; or a herd of water buffaloes lounging on a broad sandy bank. But often there was a special feature cropped up somewhere, the ruins of some ancient temple or a stunning sunset, and everyone craned their necks to take it in. I admired the grassy hills until Rebecca indicated they had been clear-cut jungle, remnants of exploitation by China and Vietnam. It is the practice of the Lao government to routinely sell out its natural resources for quick cash while so much of its population is impoverished, so many of its indigenous tribes can barely eke out their existence. More on that later, of course.

Disembarking at Pakbeng

Everyone’s anxious to get away from the noise and stretch their legs.

Just before 6 p.m. our pair of slow boats finally pulled over and docked at Pakbeng (Muang Pakbèng). There was already a crowd of men waiting for us, all representatives of various guesthouses and hostels in this riverside village. And that’s all this place was: once it was an incidental village, but it had been developed into two short roads of restaurants, guesthouses and convenience stands, strictly to serve two slow boatloads of Europeans and others who were taking this leisurely and time-consuming crawl along the meandering Mekong River. Other than the flunkies hooking up tourists with rooms, no one in town seemed particularly happy to see the influx of voyagers and their money. Old women slumped on folding chairs behind tables of fruit and candy, blinking at us slowly, their expressions (as I interpreted them) somewhere between tired obliviousness and the embers of resentment. I had no idea how many years they’d been setting out their wares in a simple bid for tourist dollars, in competition with their neighbors in this tiny little jungle village.

So yes, our slow boats pulled up, and some of the men started shouting out guesthouse names and reserving rooms, but other, younger men hopped directly aboard our boats and started grabbing bags. Two springy little guys offered to “help” us with our bags for 100 Lao kip (₭100 or LAK 100), and I almost felt sorry for them as each overstuffed bag must have weighed as much as each of these young men. They hauled them up a long concrete staircase from the riverbank up to the start of the village, at which point they insisted on LAK 100 each, which wasn’t what they agreed to on the boat. I was clear on that point but now they were hiding behind a translation error. A nearby hotel owner heard the argument and started to quarrel with the boys for their shady practice, and in that confusion Rebecca and I found an opportunity to slip away. (Later, when I understood the exchange rates, I felt embarrassed since LAK 100 was less than two cents in USD.)

Meksavanh Guesthouse

Meksavanh Guesthouse, Pakbeng, Lao PDR.

There was a group of young tourists who had clotted together in the course of a recent adventure, so I discerned, being an American hippie in dredlocks (whom we would run into several more times in this country), a clean-cut German youth, and a ragged Romanian woman, among others. One of the guesthouse pitchmen had offered them a pretty good deal on a room, so I discerned, as the hippie reported back to the young German man an astonishing price rate: “We can get a room for all of us for five bucks!” Very clearly, I can still picture the German kid leaning back on his bag, looking up at the hippie, and raising his hand in a gesture of revelation as he cried out, “Let’s have it!” It struck me as one of those almost-correct phrases whose slight oddness hooks my imagination and never lets go.

But as it happened, Rebecca and I wheeled our way into town, found a pudgy guy standing outside the Meksavanh Guesthouse who offered us a room for US$5. Now, he was not lying: this was technically a room. But it was only a room, and all you got for this price was one room. It was not a large room. There was a door, a window, a light bulb and a bed; down the hall was a communal bathroom. The bed was on the floor and it was slumped in the middle as though a succession of people had not only broken it but eroded it down. The mosquito netting around it seemed new, however, so that was good.

Sivilay Restaurant

A sign loaded with cultural markers.

We took a moment to rest in the cheapest room we ever rented in any nation and listen to an argument boiling outside our door. I heard a very angry American and young German arguing with the proprietor about a room they’d been promised, what did he mean it was taken, who’s in there, and what were they supposed to do now. Someone outside began trying our door handle, rattling it angrily, but I’d seen fit to lock the door behind us as soon as we hauled our bags inside. Rebecca looked wide-eyed at me while I simply soaked in the moment and waited it out in silence. Eventually the fracas dissipated and those involved went off to look for other accommodations.

Happy Pancake on menu

The Happy Pancake is on the adults-only menu.

We let a few more minutes go by before we went out to take in the town, such as it was. The Meksavanh had a restaurant downstairs but we skipped it in favor of another place down the street, Sivilay Restaurant, something that looked a little less dicey. There, I tried my first authentic Lao dish, being water buffalo la’ap. It was really good, and I always like a food that invites some interaction, in this case scooping ground meat into a lettuce leaf and rolling it up to eat it. That’s just fun, whatever nation you’re from. All the ingredients were fresh and the meat was prepared well, I don’t recall having any complaints about it at all. The only thing of note, in fact, was a notation in the menu (which was a blank handcrafted book someone had written all the food items in), the “happy pancake.” It seemed that this was a feature that would appear throughout Southeast Asia: our first time in seeing this was on Gili Trewangan in Indonesia and it meant the same thing: psychedelic mushrooms. I had zero curiosity about this, all things considered, and stuck to only the conventional exotic foods.

We wandered around town some more. I mentioned that Pakbeng consisted of two streets: we went down the other, which seemed to house a couple really nice mansions, if they weren’t high-end resorts. Seriously, these were very expensive-looking buildings with good infrastructure, from what I could tell, and I wondered what their story was. I hadn’t seen anyone from the boat head in this direction, so the narrative I made up in my head was that this must be the living quarters for the local baron, someone to whom all funds flowed and who held the village in subjugation. From his house, it looked like a pretty successful racket, but of course I have absolutely no idea what was going on with these buildings.

And then it was time for bed. Rebecca and I dressed for warmth, huddled together on the dilapidated mattress, and fell asleep pretty quickly. We had to, to wake up early enough to catch the slow boat first thing in the morning.

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