Last week we had the first slight test of travelling – when things don’t go quite as planned. We had been trying to book a slow boat on the Mekong – not just an hour or so trip, but a method of transport for two days to get us across the Thai-Laos border and down to Luang Prabang.
The boat I had read about was really quite charming, it was the one I wanted to take. I hadn’t been able to book online so I had emailed the company. Despite coming back to me quickly there was a language issue and we waited a few days between replies which ended with the line ‘We don’t have a booked [sic] yet.’ I took it to mean they didn’t have a booking from me. What I now think they meant to say was, actually, they didn’t have a boat. It is low season and they weren’t running.
So we had to change the plan. We headed into Chiang Rai, to find out about other slow boats – we had seen signs outside tour shops – or perhaps a local bus.
We went in to the first tour shop we found and signed up pretty fast – the slow boat was the very next day, as per our Plan A. But there was no detail of itinerary, no need for passport numbers, no need for contact email or phone number, just one name, the name of where we were staying and a receipt for money taken. My heart sank when I later noticed that there was no company information on the receipt – not of the slow boat operator or the tour shop itself.
And so we sat there the next day, at 6 am in the lobby of our guest house, with me expecting the worst, thinking that we had probably been scammed. If anything can go wrong, it will. I like to think of myself as an optimistic pessimist. My default setting is to fear the worst though I do try to override it.
They said they’d pick us up at 6.30 am.
A van rolled in at 6.15 am. Not only that, but there were eight other people (all of them 20-somethings). I was mighty relieved.
For the two hours it took to drive to Chiang Khong, the driver played music which would be more appreciated by our generation than our new travelmates – Boney M, Blondie, Hot Chocolate.
With a brief stop at a decent coffee shop with a decent loo (to be honest, we haven’t had any bad ones yet), it was ‘goodbye Thailand, welcome to Laos’.
The minibus driver had been as helpful as he could, warning us that we should pay no more money anywhere (apart from the visa fee).
The journey across the border was interesting butnot bureaucratic. It took us all by surprise just what it took to get as far as the boat – an uncomplicated on-the-spot visa application (and $35 each), followed by a coach, a truck, a stop to buy sandwiches and another truck to get us (finally) to the riverside. Luckily this all passed by very nicely as the other passengers were chatty, especially three Americans our age who struck up conversations with everyone over the next two days.
Once we were on the Mekong, we set off – at 11.30 am (we think we were told 10.30 by the ticket company but it didn’t matter – we had a seat on the boat! The boat was full – not like my picture here.)
Despite the welcome guy saying that it might be that the boat would have to stop in the event of heavy rain, it didn’t stop us – even though it rained pretty much non-stop the entire journey.
On the second day, the advice was to get there early to grab your seat. I am glad we did. We were there almost an hour early and we weren’t the first. It was a different boat, less comfortable than the day before. Whereas the first day saw wooden seats with thin cushions, this time we had what looked like seats that had been transplanted from an old minibus, though they were not bolted down. The ceiling was patched up (see photo) and struggling to hold back the leaks. A few buckets were strategically placed on floors and seats. The last person on board got the wet patch to sit on.
We have been warned about Lao scams, which are a shame because it’s such a beautiful country. The previously Communist country only opened up for tourism in the early 90s. We saw one potentially in action right in front of us. A retired British man, now living in Hong Kong, and his companion were asked for their ticket. They had been asked to hand theirs over the day before – the rest of us had not. Despite being told they might have to change boat AND cough up another 210,000 kip (roughly £21), they were remarkably calm about the situation (I would have been getting quite irate) and luckily they had evidence of their tickets on their phone. Despite some language barrier and shaking of heads, this was finally accepted.
We have also been warned that, because there are so many noughts on the currency, a common trick (amongst tuk-tuk drivers for example) is to short-change you by giving back a 2,000 note instead of a 20,000. (Mind you, it’s silly money. 20,000 kip is worth £1.82!)
And talking of ‘ye of little faith’…
The other day (in Thailand), sitting in a minibus at a red traffic light, a boy approached the vehicles, albeit very politely with hands together in greeting. Both of us made the assumption it was just some beggar who was going to be batted away like a fly. Our driver wound down his window and gave the boy some coins. Taking hold of a simple garland with both hands, he proceeded to pray. With limited English, he explained to us it was for good luck – a message to Buddha. It touched us both.
Next stop: Hanoi.