11.07.2008 - 12.07.2008 28 °C
Everything was going so swimmingly. Immigration and visa entry points in Houayxai were quick to go through (despite it being a cattle market of backpackers), we even got a 30 day instead of our expected 15 day visa. Although alarmed at the number of people who had pre booked their boat trip, there was no need; we got a ticket and were even amongst the 1st van load of people to be dropped off by the river. They just needed our passports to show the officials. And then it all started to go a bit Lisab shaped (pear). Truck loads of backpackers arrived and were making their way to the boat. Meanwhile our group were plonked in a cafe to wait (over an hour) for the return of our passports. The tour agent then announced "who wants to go by bus instead? We take you in a free taxi to bus station now". Given that the 2 day sail down the Mekong had been a long awaited highlight of our one year trip away, we said "no thank you", along with the rest. His reasoning was quite novel though - "you will be in Louang Prabang tonight. It will be cheaper, no overnight accommodation , breakfast or lunch to pay tomorrow". He said this to a bunch of tourists (not locals returning home) - as if when we reached Louang Prabang we would enter the land of the free! Fatal flaw in his argument.
The passports arrived and we made our way to the boat. It's a wonder of physics that it hadn't sank under the weight of people and bags already packed into it. And people were STILL trying to board. As we're not sick of living we didn't step a foot inside, but along with 26 others decided to get into the next boat along, reasoning that if they'd sold so many tickets they would have to sail 2 boats that day. WRONG - the Laos boat operators (who appear to have missed their annual health & safety update for this year) expected over 100 people to get into the one boat. After much confusion the Laos learnt an important lesson - don't mess with the Brunton's. It was all terribly exciting as we took part in our first "sit in", until they finally agreed to sail two boats - our victory came at a cost however, as we each had to pay an extra 280 bhat. We also need to admit that we literally sat on our bottoms whilst a great young Englishman (university educated) did all the negotiating for us.
The overcrowded boat
Life inside our boat
And so we set sail. Us, in our spacious long boat, the other 80 in their much narrower, packed in like sardines, over crowded boat - the irony! It was a lovely, hot and sunny day and we were travelling in style. Reading a book, moving around the boat, sitting on an open window ledge to look out onto the Mekong, stretching out on the floor to take a nap. Andyb also gave up his cushion to the wife (hence his sore bum, though Lisa's is peachy).
We were the first to dock in Pakbeng and later heard that the other boat had made several stops to pick up extra passengers along the way. This is the halfway stop - with rudimentary accommodation - where they placed a cockroach instead of a chocolate on our pillow and the leccy went off at 10:30pm. Still, we met a fun American named Faith, who swapped a Donna Tartt for a Bill Bryson (which made the next day on the boat go by very quickly for Lisab, though left Andyb wandering the boat with no one to talk to).
View from our guest house in Pakbeng. Whilst we were sat enjoying a beer, we spotted a man high in the tree (no safety net), chopping off the leaves and branches of the trees in the foreground. We don't think this was just for our benefit, to make our beer taste better, but the guest house boasted a "room with a river view".
The next morning started off swimmingly. Our crew were waiting at the dock for us, directing us to a new (smaller) boat for our next day's trip. They fiercly guarded entry to the boat - if your name wasn't down, you weren't coming in - as several passengers from the sardine can tried to sneak on board. Then more confusion; we would have to change back to yesterday's boat for some (unexplained) reason. So, after playing musical boats for a while, we set sail again.
The second day's sail was just as lovely as the first and made more interesting when they stopped to pick up the locals. This included a young boy with a suspected leg fracture who was going to hospital. We had a whip round for his expenses and everyone had a good gawp (as you do). Travelling along the Mekong was a great experience - made all the more memorable because of the 1st day's dramatics. The water level is quite high as it's rainy season & it's mesmerising to watch the currents swirl in different directions. Although perhaps not the usual way to sail down the Mekong in our under capacity boat, we had a lovely, relaxing time and pitied the fools on the other one who would have been lucky to glimpse the Mekong in their packed out vessel.
River Mekong scenery