Previously, On Laost

By Jane Mountain | March 2, 2014

10,809 km so far.

We were so tired last night that we barely unpacked a thing. We even left a couple of panniers on our bikes, which we never do. So when the alarm went off at 7am, which was about an hour-and-a-half after the local dogs, children, and cocks had started their daily cacophony, we didn’t have much trouble getting up and getting out.

Laotian Food Is Yummy

The little town of Muang Khua, which we’d only seen in the dark thus far, turned out to be a delightful place.

man and dog in muang khua laos

Stephen and a dog on the streets of Muang Khua.

As far as we knew, this was just a small village at the base of a mountain in the middle of Northern Laos, so we were pretty shocked to see a bunch of Westerners wandering about.

Along with tourists come the tourist-oriented restaurants, which we dodged by ducking down a narrow gap between buildings into the local market.

a dirt road in muang khua laos

A “street” in Muang Khua.

It looked a lot like the Vietnamese village markets we’ve been to, with tables of raw meat gathering flies in the hot sun, noodle soup vendors bent over steaming vats of broth, and women in colorful traditional clothing waving us over to look at their fruit.

We also found a new selection of foods that were thrilling to our vegetarian eyes.

Our first stop was at a long table of large silver bowls filled with a wide selection of ingredients: stewed bananas, cooked yellow lentils, balls of clear jelly, little worm-shaped pieces of green and pink jelly, golden honey, and coconut milk. We watched as customers pointed to what they wanted and the owner scooped their choices into tiny plastic bags, tying each one off neatly with a piece of blue string.

Following the lead of the mother and daughter in line ahead of us, we took a seat at the long benches in front of the vendor, and got our breakfast in bowls instead of bags. Our lanky legs don’t really fit under any tables in Asia, so we sat with our knees scrunched up under our chins as usual.

In our bowls we got bananas and lentils. The woman then drizzled on a scoop of liquid honey and added a splash of coconut milk. So delicious that we got two more servings, this time including the green gummy worms, which we suspect are made of taro, to go.

We then visited a table where a couple of women were presiding over silver platters filled with papaya salad, fried rice with veggies, and thin brown noodles. We asked for some noodles and some fried rice, which the woman scooped up into huge pieces of banana leaf. She folded them neatly over the food and secured the bundles with bamboo toothpicks.

With this traditional packaging, we were pretty sure our food would stay cool until lunchtime.

Sit Down, You’re Rocking The Boat

Shortly after 8:30, we arrived at the ferry dock to wait amongst a flock of tourists all taking the ferry boat downstream. As Stephen took care of ticket buying, I wandered around snapping photos in the morning sun.

long boats in laos

Long boats at the Muang Khua dock.

I came back to find Stephen being regaled with tales of yesterday’s ferry trip, which a few passengers had taken from further upstream. Since we’re in the midst of dry season, the river is extremely low. As a consequence, their overloaded wooden boat had hit a rock mid-stream, and gone down rather quickly.

The only casualties were some wet backpacks and one badly bruised shinbone, but I was glad we hadn’t been there to see it firsthand. Our bikes would not have been a great additional to that catastrophe.

Bike on the back of the slow boat, Muang Khua.

Bike on the back of the slow boat, Muang Khua.

With this experience fresh in half the passengers’ minds this morning, we boarded the boat. Our bikes and panniers were flung onto the rear deck, and backpack after backpack was loaded in, until the luggage pile was a precariously balanced jumble near the stern.

People kept coming and coming until there was no legroom, armroom, or luggage room left. The boat seemsed precariously low in the water, and the passengers who’d sunk yesterday started making a stink, protesting that there were too many people on board.

“It OK, it OK,” the captain replied to every fresh protestation.

There was a little water trickling in from alarmingly high up the side of our low craft, but I felt like the captain probably knew what he was doing. I was far more worried about being stuck sitting on a six inch high bench for 6 hours with no space to even unbend my legs.

crowded boat in laos

No room to breathe, slow boat to Nong Khiaw.

And also, no toilet. I already kind of had to go.

Dharma Tribe

We cast off and zipped along suprisingly quickly for such a small craft. Not far downstream, a little more water started to seep into the boat from both sides. News from the rear of the craft was that water was coming in there, too.

All this was relayed to the captain, who said everything was OK. The passengers around us protested that it was not OK, but what could they do?

A few minutes later, a slight panic erupted from the back of the boat. What had been one inch of water on the floor suddenly became four. To his credit, the captain reacted immediately, piloting the boat to a nearby beach. It seemed like he’d done this before.

Having practiced their emergency exit procedures yesterday, today everyone was remarkably calm, hopping out one by one onto the sandy shore. We even had time to take our shoes off before stepping out into the warm river.

Leaky boat on the beach, near Muang Khua.

Leaky boat on the beach, near Muang Khua.

The captain had everyone unload their luggage as he proceeded to “fix” the problem. He did this by finding some rocks to pile under the floorboards, thereby raising the level of the floor.

Meanwhile, the passengers formed a coalition, making a pact that no one would get back on board until we had two boats to take us the rest of the way.

After about 45 minutes of arguments, discussion, and phone calls, we arrived at this: 21 tourists refused to move foward until we had a second boat, and one captain refused to get a second boat.

So here we were, 21 ill-equipped tourists stranded on a tropical beach. The inevitable Lost references ensued, with each of us doing the “if I were a character on Lost, who would I be?” thing, and everyone trying to figure out who’d be the first to fall victim to the smoke monster.

About an hour and a half into our ordeal (OK, I know lying in the sand on a tropical beach is not exactly an ordeal), a fisherman pulled his boat up onto the shore. Of course, I don’t know exactly what he said to the captain, but I imagine it was something like this:

Dude, you tried to get all those people on your boat? You’re crazy!

After a while, another round of phone calls and arguments ensued, with able leadership being given on our side by a few of the more intimidating-looking travellers in the group. Finally, the captain agreed to bring on a second boat.

The second boat roars by on the Nam Ou.

The second boat roars by on the Nam Ou.

Half of the passengers got into the new boat, but we stuck with our leaky boat, since our bikes were already onboard.

Six Hours In A Leaky Boat

Downriver we went, with room to stretch out and relax. Best of all, I had had a chance to use the nature toilet during our stranding, and I felt I could probably survive the rest of the trip.

Despite the imminent threat of sinking, we found we had no trouble relaxing. The damp heat and the sweet floral fragrance of the air lulled us into a meditative state.

Relaxing on the slow boat, near Muang Khua.

Relaxing on the slow boat, near Muang Khua.

We sat back, stretched out our legs, and watched this new world flow by.

Now that's more like it, room to stretch out on the slow boat, near Muang Khua.

Now that’s more like it, room to stretch out on the slow boat, near Muang Khua.

Water buffalo lay submerged in the shallows near the riverbanks, or slept away the afternoon on the beach.

Keeping cool on the Nam Ou.

Keeping cool on the Nam Ou.

Naked children of all ages swam and splashed along the shore, some screaming and waving wildly when they spotted us going by.

Fishing boats puttered by, the fishermen gazing lazily at us as we did the same to them.

I saw one man dive under the water only to emerge a second later with a fishing net full of some kind of fish or shellfish. I neglected to notice, since I was distracted by the firm musles of his torso, rippling in the sun.

The views became increasingly stunning as we went, the tall karst formations rising into the sky on either side of us.

boat on nam ou river laos

Slow boat on the Nam Ou.

After yesterday’s climb, I was thankful to be relaxing on this flat water route, rather than tackling the winding road through those peaks.  

1 comment

  1. Comment by Geoff Langridge

    Geoff Langridge March 7, 2014 at 3:21 am

    Another amazing day, with a skilled “raconteur” making the tale a compelling read. I’ve also remembered that I meant to praise your bicycle maintenance. They always seem so clean, even the glimpse of handlebars on the back of the boat, but I guess it’s a bit like raw recruits in the movies being told to “look after your weapon and it’ll look after you” . . .

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