Friday, March 4, 2011

From The Gates of Hell to the Garden of Eden

Sharon and I had a religious experience, not one you could research in a book of passages or quotes from shamans, priests, or other spiritual leaders. The three days of travel in the hands of tourist commanders shouting out orders and ignoring the pleas of the weakened, bewildered, and perplexed.

Our travel to Luang Prabang, Laos started with suggestions that we should take the "slow boat" to our destination is an exotic adventure and one of the most beautiful boat trips in the world. The biggest issue was getting to the Laos port of Huay Xai from Chiang Mai, Thailand where we stayed for 5 days in a nice guesthouse called Charcoa. I noticed at our front desk they had information on traveling to Laos and taking the two day boat trip on the Mekong River. So I had the hotel to arrange the passage all the way to Luang Prabang via the "slow boat" which they did for about $65.00 each. The trip included being picked up at our guest house in Chiang Mai via Mini Bus to the Thailand border, a room at the Boom Guesthouse at the border town of Chiang Khong, transportation to Thai immigration, ferry boat to Lao immigration, taxi to boat station, boat to the town of Pak Bang Village (stay the night at our expense about $15.00, the boat to Luang Prabang our destination.

The above seemed all so organized, so simple and that is why we will never trust prearranged rooms or trips again because more often than not the following will happen.

Our suite at the compound hotel

After 3 hours of sleep we're off to Thai immigration

Sharon in search of our boat number 65
The first issue we fortunately recognized was the mini van was to pick us up at our guesthouse in Chiang Mai at 8:30.  All through Europe, Asia and the rest of the world except the United States, military time is standard but in this case it was not. Our trip to the Northeast border of Thailand began at 8:30 in the evening and realized we were going to travel all night and will get to our hotel in Chiang Khong at roughly 4AM only to be awakened at 7AM to get to the included breakfast at 7:30AM then shuttled to Thai immigration, then the ferry boat at 8:30AM to arrive to Laos immigration.

Ready to board not knowing the yacht is full
A view from our seats in the luggage/engine room
Our minibus arrived at our guesthouse promptly at 9:15PM, then picked up three more Japanese passengers at another hotel. Now the minibus, an oversized Toyota minivan, modified to now hold up to 15 passengers tightly. The driver said we only had five passengers so this all night drive didn't seem like it would be too bad. That was a bad assumption on my part but we are just beginning this trip folks. After our other passengers were loaded into the van, the driver now is proving just how fast he can drive and how this minivan can handle. His method of driving was full throttle or brake, anything in between was useless to him. After stopping at the transport company's office to check our passports and paid receipts,we drove for about one hour and then pulled into our first 7-11 market to meet up with another minivan from the same company. Our driver informed us that we must now transfer into the "other bus" (same size minivan) which when I walked over with all my gear and looked in to the ten frighten faces of the passengers suffering from their drivers skills,  the thought of now riding six hours in a fully packed van was now our destiny. I suffer from a bit of claustrophobia and being shoved into this van wasn't happening except if I had the one seat by the sliding door which allowed me leg room. Fortunately the travel gods were with me and I got the only seat I could have endured this trip and I scored the end seat in front of me for Sharon. The others in our van weren't so fortunate, they were literally squeezed into the back next to the luggage. I vocalized my concern for safety and requested another van but the drivers just mimicked me, "Yea two vans sure!" and became a bit more stern with the reluctant remaining couple passengers. Within minutes a couple switches in the size of passengers in certain seats allowed us to begin the ride to hell.
Location has it's benefits such as this lovely family
This new driver now is a bit pissed and is going to show everyone in the van just how fast and fearless he is by driving unbelievably fast, diving into the curves so fast that the suspension on the van was bottoming out and squealing the tires and on top of it all, rode into oncoming traffic around blind corners. Everyone in the van was stunned until the Japanese girl who was in the far rear of vehicle had her boyfriend beside her phone their friend in the front seat to tell the driver she was ready to throw up any minute. The driver pulled off the side of the road for five minutes for the passengers to empty themselves and ordered them back in the bus for another hour until the scheduled smoke, pee, drink and eat stop at the second 7-11 around one in the morning.

Keeping my eyes closed and wishing for sleep to prevent me from a cardiac arrest I was pitched back and forth and maybe lulled to sleep for a few minutes but the van pulled to a stop at 3AM in a dirt parking lot of a concrete compound to which we were order out of the bus. "Hotel" he shouted. I asked, "Is this the Boom House?" I questioned it because I looked up the hotel on the internet before we left and this didn't resemble it at all. My question was ignored and I knew I had to act fast or Sharon and I would be sharing a room with two to four strangers for the evening or should I say for about 4 hours before having to get moving again.

Fortunately with my sleep deprivation I was very forceful with my request for a single room with a single bed. They seem to honor us old married ones a bit more than the average 20 year old backpacker. The main woman who seemed to be in charge yelled out the order to her underling to give us a separate room and we were shown to our beautiful spartan suite. I'm kinda of used to this sort of raw accommodation but Sharon whispered a subtle gasp but we had no choice and both of us just needed to get prone to capture as much sleep as possible for the long day on the boat bobbing along the Mekong River.

Full capacity and then some
Our past experiences traveling in third world countries has provided us insight as to what to pack in the way of emergency gear such as the handy silk sleep sack which I describe as a full body prophylactic in case of being faced with a bed dawning untidy linens. Within minutes we slipped into our sacks, new meaning to the term, "hit the sack," and woke up 3 hours later ready to meet the day. I was ready for breakfast at the assigned time of 7:30 and the rest of our group wondered down to the center of the compound looking for coffee and a bite to eat as promised by our tour description. There wasn't any movement anywhere that would indicate even a kitchen let alone actually getting food. About 8:AM a small pickup pulled up and a stern stocky Asian man commanded us to get into the back of the truck with all our baggage. We all looked confused but I immediately jumped into the back with Sharon and other followed suite until the truck to overflowing with bodies and gear. He yelled at the others to stay and he will return. So off we went to somewhere actually not knowing what to expect. In the back of my mind I believe he was taking us to the Boom Guesthouse for breakfast and within a couple minutes my guess was correct...he turned down a small alley towards the river and there was a sweet looking little guesthouse overlooking the Mekong River...the place where I paid to stay but...let's just leave it at that. We got out of the truck and they exchanged a breakfast of two scrambled eggs and two pieces of white toast for seeing your paid receipt. We sat outside high above the river while devouring our pittance of food enjoying the view and not wanting to think about what's to come.

The peaceful and spectacular Mekong River in Laos
The time came and the commandant order us to get into the truck again to take us to the immigration office where we will depart Thailand, then walk down a long ramp to a group of "long tail boat" water taxi's to take us directly across the river to the Laos immigration check in. Our boat had Sharon and I and two locals and with that allowed us to move out before the others. Little did we know our group was way behind many others who crossed earlier and when we arrived at immigration the single window had gathered a massive crowd around it on the verge of total chaos. The drill here was (which we didn't know or do right the first time) is to get a proper Visa Immigration Form, fill it out, insert it into your passport with a visa photo of yourself and hand it to the Visa On Arrival window. Then if everything is in order, they hand your passport with the photo stapled to the VIF and you wait around the next window for them to press your passport up against the glass. When you see it, you push your way through the crowd, give the official $35.00 American currency and he hands your passport back to you. Then you leave the concrete platform, walk 50 meters up the street to the Visa and Passport check point and then you have to figure out how to get to the "Slow Boat" dock. We walked up to the end of the steep dirt road where the...are you ready?, that's right, the Tuk-Tuk driver meets you. For about a $1.50 he took us and a family from Montreal to the dock. He dropped us and the family off. We were instructed to join up with our group waiting at a small restaurant for further instructions from our commandant. Our boat was supposed to leave at 10:30 and we didn't get to our group until near 11:AM. Everyone in our group looked pretty haggered from lack of sleep and still suffering mentally from the insane drivers the evening before. The leader gathered all our passports and inserted boat tickets inside each one and before returning them to us he gave us strict instructions on what to expect on the boat and when we arrive at our midpoint for the evening at a small town called Pak Bang Village. He also warned us there are many people traveling this time of year and the boat that usually carries on the average of 40 passengers today will have 150 passengers and we are leaving two hours later so we are going to be getting into Pak Bang near dark and the rooms will be scarce. He gave suggestions and said he could arrange rooms ahead for those wanting them. I was first in line, got a room, got our passports and off to the docks at the end of the steep road to the river Sharon and I went to find Boat 65. There were many boats but old number 65 was waiting at the end of a steep embankment. The idea of actual docks hasn't come to this part of the world yet. All boats run up gently onto the shore so you have to step up to board. When Sharon and I stepped aboard we were greeted with a 98% full boat so we continued to walk to the back of the boat and found two seats together in the cargo hold which also serves as the engine room. While the others up front enjoyed the vistas, quiet sound of the boat cutting through the water, and a constant cool breeze coming off the river, Sharon and I got to view the river through a 3' x 3' window and listened to the incredibly loud engine along with feeling the heat from its cast iron casing.  To add to the charm, a mountain of luggage was stacked in front of us for this seven hour journey to Pak Bang.

I shouted to Sharon next to me..."Toilet Paper". She pulled out the roll and I tore away a couple sheets, wadded it up and stuffed into my ears...ah...relative quiet to keep my sanity. During the trip I would get up and walk over to a larger window in hopes to snap some photo but mostly I sat and shot some images of the Lao family next to me. We were together in the cargo area living the life of the lower caste, an experience that makes real stories.

A cute side note Sharon told me over dinner later that evening was the two sheets of toilet paper she had each in her ears to deaden the sound of the boat engine had to be removed from her ears, unfolded, and used when she went to the head and discovered no toilet paper. I about busted a gut laughing because I remember her returning and sitting down. I looked over to her and she didn't have any toilet paper in her ears and I thought she must not be bothered by the extreme engine noise. She was genuinely happy to have those two sheets with her when she really needed it. You just can't get those stories traveling first class.

We beached the boat at Pak Bang at 7:30 that evening. Sharon and I disembarked and found our $15.00 a night suite at the Bon Amee Hotel. The manager was out front of the hotel sitting at a table with the keys lined up. He gave us room #2 and we entered the room only to be a small bit better than the compound the night before but the bed still required us using sleep sacks. We checked the shower and the water just trickled out. That was it...we left the room to confront the manager about the water issue. I was in a really really foul state of mind at that point and after hovering over Mr Manager vocalizing with tone just short of a threat I gave him one hour to get the water fixed while we found some dinner. He promised profusely and apologized while the two of us became shadows toward an Indian restaurant we saw on our walk up the steep road from the boats.

At dinner I promised Sharon things would be much different once we got to Luang Prabang. I researched it on the internet and knew they had lots and lots of nice hotels there but we just had to get there without losing our sanity. Our plan for the next day was to beat everyone to the boat and get a seat up front and live like humans for the journey to Luang Prabang.

Tomorrow...Part 2....Pak Bang to Luang Prabang
PS. The Luang Prabang internet has to be the slowest I've experienced in quite some time which can be a bit frustrating but I got this blog out, now I'll try to get part two up within a day. Currently we are in beautiful hotel overlooking the Mekong delta.


  1. I haven't had a drink in over 10 years, but, midway through your post, I got up from my desk and made my way to the kitchen. I rummaged through the cabinets looking for the bottle of Southern Comfort I had confiscated from Bob about a year ago. I added a single-bubble to my coffee, thought about what I had just read, then added a double-bubble. Fortunately, I made it through the rest of your "adventure" with a few good belly laughs. Oh, man!

    Oh, yeah.....cheers!

  2. It was like reliving the same trip I made down the Mekong a couple of years ago...looks like Farang's have discovered the Mekong and its getting ruined as a tourist attraction. When I went down we didn't have the luxury of 'airline' seats but wooden benches that rocked and rolled with chickens, goats, and farm goods headed for Luang Prabang. Keep up your spirits as it only gets more adventuresome with great stories to share...wouldn't be an adventure if it was comfortable!