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The Slow Boat Down the Mekong

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A minivan took us speeding from the sprawl of Chiang Mai towards the border of Laos. As we left the bustling city behind, the flat land gave way to craggling limestone cliffs buffered by lime saturated rice paddies. As if time itself had come to an abrupt stop the farmers plowing the fields, or walking the road moved languidly through the air, as if it had suddenly become viscous and it was all they could do to push their limbs through the medium at a staggeringly slow pace. It was clear, we were no longer in the city.

I have seen during my travels striking beauty, the sort that stops you on the spot as you stare dumbfounded. But this, this is something special. Most adjectives seem mediocre at best, to say northern Thailand, or Laos is beautiful is a great oversimplification, it is nothing less than completely arresting. As the landscape slipped by, I watched from my window as wild plants rioted against fences as if they we allowed, they would explode onto the roads and take them over. There is a sense of timelessness, as if I were watching the earth as it were long before the modern world existed.
To cross the border, after stamping out of Thailand we, along with our new travel companions boarded a long tail for which we purchased tickets at a seemingly adhoc rickety stand that issues pieces of paper to act as our tickets. It was the first time I’ve crossed a border by boat, or I should say, slowly sinking boat that might not have been able to handle much more than the three minute commute that would bring us to Laos. It was certainly an experience. Probably the most interesting border crossing to date.
The border town leaves a bit to desire, but for one night and a room that costs $3.50 a person it’s difficult to complain. We passed the evening with new friends drinking Beerlao, which is touted to be the best beer in southeast Asia. And it’s not bad at all, even better, a 22oz bottle runs just over $1. Price to quality ratio, it’s difficult to find fault.
After a night on hard, but sufficient beds under creaking, but functioning fans we made our way to the pier to board our boat for the next seven hours.
As we make our way down the Mekong, I note this is what i imagined southeast Asia to look like, though it is strikingly different than anything we’ve seen thus far. The wide, brown and rust tinged river is flanked by sandy embankments that extend upward, transitioning to rolling deep green hills, saturated with tropical trees. I’ve seen it before, in movies, but in person it is quite different. The sheer beauty is obvious, but the chance to watch small villages in the daily shuffle of existence is what makes this two day trip so fantastic. Time passes appreciably. The afternoon brings frantic dark clouds into the valley and the boat is plummeted by a sudden downpour. I lean back, close my eyes and let the deafening pounding of rain and the roar of the engine drown out all other sounds. Cool water splashes up from railings stinging my too warm skin, providing temporary respite. And then, within no time we are in Pak Beng. The half way point to Luang Prabang. In a similar fashion we find a dirt cheap, adequate room for $2.50 a person and make our way to one of the only restaurants available in the small village. Though it’s enjoyable, on occasion to opt for the more typical backpacker experience of haggling for cheap rooms as a group (and saving a ton of money) we both longed a bit for the comfort of a slightly higher standard of living. For $10/person we would have a much nicer room, hot water, wi-fi, and air conditioning. Though many a backpacker might say, who cares where you sleep? You’re only there at night anyway. And to some level this is true, we don’t need luxury. But there is a certain piece of mind, after a hot, sweaty day to open up your room to the cool rush of air conditioning and luxury of a hot shower, even if it’s positioned absurdly close the the toilet (Asia, what the heck is up with this?). We are torn though, given it is usually these backpacker digs where you meet friends. Our slightly more mid range preferences also has the tendency to limit interactions with others. Not exclusively, but to some degree. Regardless, after two nights with just a fan and only adequate levels of clean we both agree we need a bit more in Luang Prabang.
We made it, only a bit late after having to wait out a brief downpour as the boat crew anchored us under a cliff to protect the boat from the wind and rain. Though it was dark we could immediately see why this town is touted to be so charming as to seriously disrupt onward travel plans. It is very colonial, with wide quite streets stretching from the historic center, which had been declared an UNESCO world heritage site. I can already tell, I’m going to like it here.

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