The boat, the bus and the party
Jan 28, 2002
I'm still a bit behind in my journal. I'm now in Northern Lao and still writing about Southern Lao. I'll catch up shortly.
Cambodia wasn't quite the wild adventure I expected. For the most part it was quiet and relaxing. I crossed in Lao ready to seek out adventure. The first plan was to buy a motorbike and ride it across Lao. Riding a motorbike across Cambodia would have been a great idea. On the bad roads there will inevitably be mechanical problems. However, Everyone in Cambodia rides a motorbike and everyone in Cambodia knows how to fix them. I arrive in Lao to discover that the roads are just as bad and motorbikes are a lot less popular. A breakdown in the middle of nowhere and I could really be stranded. This doesn't kill the motorbike idea, but causes me to rethink it.
The new thought is "There's a big river here, there's a lot of boats here. I should buy one and go, 1000 miles up the Mekong, all the way across Lao by boat." I share this thought with the table and Mike agrees. "I want to buy a boat too." Mike seems to be a good potential travel companion. I felt like a bit of a travel novice listening to his tales of working on a tiny atoll off of Fiji and traveling through Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and the rest of the 'stans.
I take off for a few days to take a side trip to Attapeu leaving Mike to shop for used boats. When I return, Mike informs me that for the most part anyone with a reasonably good boat wants to keep it. Our two real options are to buy a piece of shit boat for $300 or a new boat for $500. I'm up for buying the piece of shit. "It has more character. It'll be more of an adventure. We'll see how far it gets before dying." Saner heads prevail and we decide on the new boat. We check with Mr. Kong, the local king of boat tours, and he tells us that the trip is long, but possible. He took some tourists on that very same trip back in 1968.
We're ready to go - the day of the great boat purchase is upon us and Mike informs me that he's counted his money and is way short. I don't have enough cash to buy a boat alone. Our other possible travel companions and financiers have already left the island. Mike is willing to travel to Pakse and see if he can have money wire transferred to him there, but getting there and back will take a minimum of three days. I have a choice to wait 3 days to find out if we're going or to hop on a bus towards Vientiane.
I took the road of impatience, and don't yet regret it. The boat trip would have been a grand adventure, but a month on a tiny boat would have been difficult and uncomfortable. Taking the quick route north and drinking with the backpackers in Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng may yet prove to be tons of fun. As for the boat, maybe I'll buy a barge in Egypt and float down the Nile.
We started well off the beaten path, went through the middle of nowhere and ended up at our destination far from anywhere.
The plan: Dion (New Zealand), Jo (England), Florin (France), Laura (Spain) and I are going from the island of Don Det on the Mekong River to Attapeu in Eastern Lao. There's a longer route with better roads which goes through Pakse and Sekong, but we've decided to take the shortcut - Highway 18 which runs straight across to Attapeu.
The previous day: We're dropped off at the crossroads of Highway 13 and 18 and start waiting for anyone, anything that will take us to Attapeu. Two hours later we're told definitively that there is no bus today to Attapeu. We could still try the longer, easier path but that probably wouldn't be as much fun. After some debate we decide to make another attempt at Highway 18 in the morning.
We stay in the village of Ban Pha Po. It's definitely well off the beaten bath. In the middle of the tourist high season the last tourist to stay here was an Englishman that passed through 4 days earlier. We're not the only westerners in town though. As we walk through town looking for the guesthouse a young white woman runs towards us yelling "You speak police? You speak police?" After a few moments of confusion we realize that she's Polish and is hoping that we speak Polish. She also speaks Russian and German. Our crowd speaks English, Spanish and French. Between us we've got a majority of the European languages covered, but no overlap. We do manage to learn that she's married to a Lao and in town visiting his family. Her and her husband direct us to the guesthouse.
The bus: Now it's the 2nd day and we're waiting on the side of Highway 18. The word "highway" might lead to the wrong impression. It's technically a highway, but it is just a little dusty dirt road with very little traffic.
Trying to travel off the beaten path in SE Asia you learn to live with ambiguity. Sitting at the side of the road without much else to do we stop every vehicle and ask:
A) Are you going to Attapeu?
B) Do you know if there is a bus today to Attapeu?
We receive the following answers:
1) Bus at 10am
2) Bus at 2pm
3) Bus in 3 days
4) Impossible - the bus doesn't go East, it makes a loop to the West
After 3 hours of waiting a massive 6 wheeled truck pulls up. It's overloaded with people and cargo. To our excitement and surprise they answer the question "Yes, we're going to Attapeu."
We climb on top of the truck and it's slightly less crowded up there and we're hoping to escape some of the dust. The truck heads into the jungle and we're going through the middle of nowhere. The truck proves it's worth as it fords river after river (more than 20 I think). At times the ride is better than a roller-coaster - cresting the top of a hill and being presented with a view down the muddy slope to the river below. The adrenaline high is the same as a roller-coaster. The fear of injury or death a bit more real.
Sitting on top was the right choice. Our high vantage point gave us great views of the jungle. However, overhanging vines and branches provided a constant threat. Most were not substantial enough to knock someone from the truck, but if you stopped paying attention (and ducking) for even a minute they definitely hurt.
Our journey pauses for half an hour as our truck comes across a broken down scooter. The scooter wasn't nearly so well built for forded rivers as our monstrous truck. After the engine is completely disassembled and dried and the oil changed the scooter starts up once again. Then Beer Lao is brought out and everyone including us and including the driver drinks to congratulate each other on getting the bike started.
A while later the truck stops and we're told to move inside the truck. We quickly learn that this was because the road was about to get narrower and the jungle a little bit closer. We spend the last 2 hours of our journey wedged into the back of the truck with no view at all trying to keep a large and sliding stack of soda from crushing us while listening to a constant "Thwap, Thwap, Thwap Thwap" as branches impacted with the side of the truck.
Eventually, just after sunset we make it to Attapeu which really was far from anywhere.
Laura, Florin and I rent out bicycles for the day. We take a ferry to see the village on the other side of the river. Unaccustomed to foreigners the villagers are excited to see us.
There's a game of Rattan(?) being played. It's very similar to volleyball except you kick a wicker ball over the net. We stop to watch the game and then ask to join in. We're particularly bad at the game and the local find us incredibly funny. Word quickly spreads and soon we have a crowd of 60 watching us play. At every spectacular miss the crowd shouts and laughs.
We continue down the road and hear music. As we get closer we can smell the booze. There's definitely a party going on. We stop at the house to see if we can get invited in and sure enough two old women drunkenly stagger down the steps and motion for us to come in.
There's about 30 people of all ages and with the exception of the little kids everyone is very very drunk. We join in in the singing and dancing and drinking. They are drinking Lao Lao the national beverage of choice. It's a rice whiskey, that's more or less 100 proof. It costs 50 cents a liter and usually is sold in beer bottles. Huge shots are poured and passed around to all of us. The guidebook says that it's very rude to refuse the first shot of Lao Lao offered. However, our hosts seemed determined to get us as drunk as they were. Four huge shots in less than an hour was more than enough to get all of us drunk. One more might make us sick. We're now poured a 5th shot. We try to refuse politely, but our drunken hosts are very insistent and start to get upset. We end up having to make a strategic retreat - waving goodbye we hop on our bicycles.
Drunk enough that walking is difficult we make our best attempt at cycling. We swerve all over the roads but make it back to the hotel without incident or accident.
Such a fantastic article!! This is exactly the kind of 'proper' experiences I'm looking for on my trip. Adam, you're a true travelling legend.
All the best!
But remember that Asia is changing unbelievably quickly. Places that I described 4 years ago, are likely to be completely different today. Jump forward a couple of journal entries and you'll find this.
"I was in Thailand 4 years ago. I didn't keep a journal at that time, but I remember Chang Rai well.
Chang Rai scared me - it pushed my limits as a traveler. I arrive in Chang Rai to find that no one speaks English. All the signs are in the Thai script rather than in Roman characters. I can't read anything. I can't speak to anyone. It's hot. I'm hungry and I'm tired. I can't find a restaurant or a guesthouse..."
"4 years later, I'm on the same street sitting in an air-conditioned pizza joint - and they deliver! Swenson's ice cream is next door and across the street is a Kodak Express. Chang Rai is a city of new found wealth. There is traffic and traffic lights. There are lots of tourists, tourist information signs and tour guides inviting you to go on jungle treks."
I can't imagine what Chang Rai now looks like in 2006.