Pak Beng, we hardly knew ye (misadventures in Laos)
We thought we had left the beaches behind in Thailand. We were wrong:
The 2 day slow boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang has been described as “a floating backpacker ghetto” (thank you Wikitravel, our new favorite source of pithy travel advice). It’s a pretty apt description for a boat crammed full of Europeans smoking constantly and drinking copious amounts of Beer Lao. There were a few Lao but I think it’s rare for villagers to travel that far and for shorter trips they take motor powered canoes.
It’s dry season and the river was low; running down some minor rapids we hit bottom pretty hard and bent the rudder. We docked near a small village to check out the damage to the boat. Curious children ventured over and went into paroxysms of glee when shown their images on a digital camera. The rudder was bent pretty bad and a second tourist boat flagged over. Just when we had all squeezed on, it was decided that there wasn’t enough daylight left to make it to Pak Beng, where we were supposed to stay the night.
Instead both boats ended up sleeping on the beach/on the boat (the boat was less comfortable but marginally warmer as it actually gets chilly overnight this far north). The children’s parents descended to give us succor in the form of ramen noodles and more beer Lao. Meanwhile the boatmen attempted to bang the rudder back straight over an open campfire (unsuccessfully, as it was far from hot enough; we got a replacement boat in the morning).
Needless to say it was epic. However, it did breed some traveller camraderie. I practiced my Spanish with some Spaniards and a Peruvian and sang some Serge Gainsbourgh with some French Belgians with a guitar. Mark drank some varnish-smelling Whiskey and Coke with an Irishman and a South African woman who disliked Americans (but not all of us). Plus, the scenery was nice, and as we discovered later on a twisty turny and bumpy overnight ride to Ventiane, buses are something you want to avoid in Laos. Except tonight we’ll be hopping on another one for the 24 hour ride to Hanoi! Let’s hope the Pho is worth it.