Puttering Up The Mekong

By Jane Mountain | March 8, 2014

10,965 km so far.

Like The Danube, The Nile, and The Amazon, The Mekong is one of the mighty rivers of our imaginations, flowing through all we’ve read, seen, and heard about this part of the world.

Every time we stumbled upon a new view of it during our stay in Luang Prabang, we couldn’t help but exclaim:

Can you believe we rode our bikes to The Mekong?

So, despite some cynical and (quite frankly) whiny reports on the internet about the hardships of the two-day boat trip from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai, we were excited to get on board this morning.

Or at least I was. Stephen, having not slept at all last night, was just trying his best to exist.

Hassle? What Hassle?

It’s always interesting to see how other travellers deal with any situation that doesn’t quite fit into their definition of normal.

At the boat ticket desk this morning, there was no line, just a jumble of customers. The people selling tickets were desperately slow and there was no one available to answer questions. This is normal in Laos. The done thing here is to just sit back and see what happens next.

Western travellers don’t take such a casual approach to life, though, and for some, it was of the UTMOST importance that they get their ticket and get on the boat NOW.

Six months ago, I probably would have been one of those travellers. I’m sure if I go back through our journals, I could find lots of examples of my impatience.

Loading the slow boat in Luang Prabang.

Loading the slow boat in Luang Prabang.

Travelling with a bike has changed my approach to life. I have learned that if we don’t get somewhere today, we’ll surely get there tomorrow. I have become used to not being burdened by the anxiety of time, ticking away the last fleeting minutes of my leisure.

But mostly, I have accepted the fact that, with our bikes, no matter what we do, we will always be last.

We will always be last to board, since we have to find a place for our bikes while everyone else just hops on. We will always be last to get off the boat, since we have to wait for someone to unload our bikes.

Waiting for our bikes after the slow boat ride, in Pakbeng.

Waiting for our bikes after the slow boat ride, in Pakbeng.

We will always be last to arrive at the best guest house, since everyone else will just hop on a bus or tuk tuk and zip past us on the road.

So far, we’ve found absolutely no hardship or difficulty associated with being last. We still get the same kind of seats, the same views, and the same treatment as everyone else.

A 9-Hour Cruise

The Mekong in Laos is surprisingly quiet. I excepted a bustling transport route, filled with fishing boats, tourist boats, and boats running supplies up and down the river. Instead, we found a wide, slow waterway with almost no one on it.

The empty Mekong and our slow boat.

The empty Mekong and our slow boat.

As our little wooden boat puttered upstream (doing roughly 20 km/h, fact fans), some of the only signs of human life were neat rows of vegetables, planted behind low bamboo picket fences along the sandy beaches. I looked for huts or villages near these tiny farms, but mostly I saw only thick forest, towering banana trees, and long vines dangling from the tree tops.

We stopped from time to time at small beaches along the route. At these stops, our boat would pull up to the sandy shore (there are no docks in these parts) where a rabble of excited village children and a few adults stood waiting for our arrival.

Then, a couple of locals would offload bags of clothing or cases of soda and beer, and the children would help carry the loads up the sandy hillside to the village.

At one stop, a shiny new kid’s bicycle was unloaded, and three little boys hefted it up the hillside, giddily examining every spoke and bolt. We assumed it was a birthday present for one of the boys (do they celebrate birthdays in Laos?), and that they would later be seen riding around the sandy roads of their town, all three of them piled on one bike.

If you’re wondering about the hardships of the boat ride, well, there were none. Each passenger had their own old car seat, bolted to small pieces of wood that were anchored to the floor. We had a table to share with the French couple who sat across from us. There were drinks, beer, and snacks available, at about double the cost of what you’d pay in town, but what do you expect? There was even a toilet, which was cleaned regularly and restocked with toilet paper.

I spent the day as most passengers did, alternating reading a book on my iPhone with dozing off. Stephen slept. And slept. And slept.

Nine hours was plenty on the water, and by the time we got to our guesthouse (last, of course), we were ready to sleep some more.  

1 comment

  1. Comment by Scot

    Scot March 12, 2014 at 6:37 pm

    Awesome. 20 km/h for 9 hours… let’s see, that’s about 180 km. Yaaaay facts! (fact fan here).

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