Friday, 13 March 2015

Slow boat to Thailand

Now don't get me wrong, I've got nothing against backpackers..... Well, maybe I have a bit. I did it when I were a lad. The last time was around SE Asia in 1996 when I was coming up 30. Quite old really for all that malarkey. I do remember vowing that I'd not do it again.  

The thing is, backpacking around these parts is so easy but somehow they all walk about with a swagger of "I'm so cool, I've been here, I've done this...."

I'm only feeling miffed today due to our rather stressy start to a Wednesday morning. We planned to get the 2 day slow boat up to the border with Thailand. A backpackers experience of this would be to stumble out of their guest house at 7.30, clamber into their pre booked tuk tuk and get driven to the boat. All quite simple.
When we asked about buying the tickets for the boat (that includes the pick up & transport to the boat itself) the bikes seemed to be causing a bit of a problem. "Lets just ride to the place Kate, the Lonely Planet says its 10km out of town towards the east at Ban Do. There's only 1 road east, how hard can it be to find?". So the next morning off we pedalled, leaving at 7am to give ourselves plenty of time. Pedal, pedal, pedal. At 5.7km there was a town (Ban Duan). Similar name but not the same and at way under the 10km mark it couldn't be it. Pedal, pedal, pedal. A bit sweaty now and at just before 8am we reached the 10km mark. There was a petrol station with 2 young attendants. "Boat station?" we asked, they giggled. One pointed one way, the other, the other. Hmm. The boat apparently sails at 8.30.
We hadn't seen any tuk tuks with whities aboard for a while so we decided to head back towards town and  try Ban Duan. We saw a dirt track running down towards the water. We followed it. It took us to a wood yard. The dog on patrol just about allowed me down to the waters edge where I hoped I might be able to see any boats moored up somewhere up or downstream. Nothing. Pedal, pedal, pedal. Another track took us steeply down to a police station where we were shooed away by a gruff guy with fandangled epaulettes. The steep climb back to the main road was tough and unwelcome.
Finally we found the correct turning (we saw a string of empty tuk tuks coming out and guessed they may have dropped off our intrepid backpacker pals). 

With 20km clocked up we rode down the slope to see a boat sailing away. It was 8.20. What?! We waved, they waved. We waited, they kept going. Bollocks!

There were some barges loading up with stuff and another boat tied up downstream that looked like the photos of the slow boat the travel agents had shown us. We pushed the bikes, squeezing between a bunch of trucks, slowly making our way along the little sandy beach, clambering under ropes and over planks that were being used to load stuff onto the cargo boats. 
Yep, there were whities on that boat, "c'mon, let this work, please" I said to myself as I panted. El Capitano gestured us forward, pointing at the bikes and then at the roof of the boat. Result! Sorted.....
"Ticket?" "No ticket" "go ticket" "where ticket" "up ticket". Kate got on board and I ran up the steep hill & steps to a small concrete building. Out came the little book, out came the date stamp, out came the pen, on went our names, out came the wallet, back came the change and hey presto, as easy as being a couple of "yeah man I'm just, you know, backpacking my way around Asia you know" we were done. All be it a little stressed, dripping with sweat, panting like a butchers dog, but.... We were done!

Off we pop popped up the river. To date we've swum in the Mekong, crossed the Mekong on various bridges and boats and we're now sailing up it. The Mekong is our friend.
Our seats were up the front with the baggage and the locals. The backpackers were all together at the other end (the stern I do believe they call these places in nautical speak).

Within half an hour 50% of the intrepid passengers were asleep, well, they'd had a hard day.......

One thing I did notice during the week we'd spent in Luang Prubang was how hairy my knees & calves have become. I've not worn long trousers for over 2 months so i guess nothing has rubbed the hairs off. I'd meant to take a photo but hadn't got around to it. talk about "if you want something done, ask a busy person".... Our 'cruise' gave me plenty of time

Finally at about 6pm we got to Pakbeng, the little town for our overnight stop. It was friendly enough but had a kind of 'money grabby' feel to it, the first we've felt on the whole trip. The town only survives because the boats pull in there and they basically have to fight their neighbours to grab business as you either look for a guesthouse or for something to eat. 

It is probably the smallest village that most of the backpackers have been to as they whisk around the country from city to city on the big buses. I must admit that if this is what I thought they were all like that I too would give them a miss.

We nabbed a seat in the correct part of the boat for day 2. It was a misty start to the day. We'd eaten breakfast with a German cyclist who was heading in the opposite direction to us. He'd opted to ride the long road loop around to Luang Prabang. Neither of us felt envious as he rode off up the steep high street. I think we're about done with hot, sweaty mountain roads for a while.

The day passed calmly and peacefully. The backpackers amused themselves playing cards,games on their phones or sleeping. I watched them and seriously, none of them were paying any attention to their surroundings at all. Steep, jungle clad hills with little workers huts, cleared land with grazing cattle, half submerged rocks or logs all rolled past as they waited to play their Joker or whatever. 

They could have been in the Maccas at Heston services for all the attention they gave their lovely environment. I guarantee though that if you asked any of them about their trip whilst in a bar in the next town the answer would be a resounding "Ah ya, ze Mekong ya, it is like so kool, you've just gotta go do it man....."

So, we'll be flying home in 2 weeks. It feels like the trip is already over but we still have as much time as most people's annual holiday. I'm not gloating, it's just a reality check on life for you and us. We're running out of time and want to squeeze in a few days doing the Mae Hong Son loop (otherwise known as the Road of 1000 bends) on motorbikes. :-)

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