16 december. tuesday. chiang mai, thailand.
A few weeks back my nomadic spirit got the best of me. I booked a boat ticket to Laos on a bit of a whim. Lately that seems to be the way I do things. On Sunday the 7th, Bee brought me over to my pickup point on her motorbike. If you’ve never ridden on a motorbike before, then I suggest you do, because they are very fun. If you have ridden on a motorbike, then I suggest that you take it to the next level and haul a 20-some-odd-pound backpack with you. It makes things more interesting.
At nine pm I rode into the unknown on a rickety saungthauw. Like a rookie traveler, I had paid a guesthouse 1600 Baht for an easy package deal since I was too lazy to figure the journey out on my own. First comes a six hour windy, bumpy mini van ride to Chiang Khong, then comes three hours of sleep from four am to seven am in a random guest house with the random people that were on your mini van ride. At seven we were awoken by upbeat knocks on the door and cries of “hellooooo, hellooooo, hellooOOOO. Breaaaaakfast.” I pack up my things and shuffle downstairs. Through heavy eyelids I notice we have another new guide. It seems that every hour or so we get passed off to someone new. This particular guide is a good six-inches shorter than me, roly-poly, and going a bit gray. I hand him my ticket to check and he writes “SL LP” on my hand. Pointing to the initials, he says, “srooooow boooooat. Ruuuuang Prabaaaaang. OOOK?!” My confidence wavers as I realize that those scraggly pen marks are my ticket to Laos.
He is alarmingly jolly for the given hour, blurting “WHERE COME FROM?!” “America,” I blurt back groggily. He then dubs me Miss America, and whilst singing the pageant theme song, carries my bag everywhere we go for the next hour.
We arrive at an empty restaurant overlooking the Mekong and I notice that some of us have disappeared overnight. There were eleven of us in the mini van, and now only five of us are seated at the restaurant. I start wondering if I’m on a reality television show and I have to figure out who is making everyone disappear. I’ve almost got the suspect picked out when I’m distracted by the tiny pieces of paper the waiter hands us. Our breakfast choices, perhaps?
1. scrambled eggs
After much deliberation, I opt for the scrambled eggs and two slices of tost.
From breakfast, we’re shuttled to immigration, where Miss America says goodbye to her bellhop and climbs into a tiny wooden boat to cross the mighty Mekong and receive her crown and a 30-day visa into Laos. When I got there they had already run out of flowers, sashes, and crowns, which was fine because all I really came for was the visa.
Finally, finally, finally, after four hours of waiting and being shuttled from one place to the next, we are allowed to board the boat at eleven. Imagine a large ferry with quiet but powerful engines cruising you down the Mekong. Now completely erase this image and think of something totally opposite. The boat one travels on down the Mekong is long, rickety, and just about six-feet high. The seats are hard wooden benches, the bathroom is one small dark room covered in something wet, and the engine is loud and smokey. It was exactly how I had imagined it, and it was amazing. After another hour of waiting in our chosen seats, we departed. That makes it sound too easy. In reality, “departing” meant squeezing the boat out from between a dozen others. The whole ordeal takes at least fifteen minutes. And after that? I spent the next seven glorious hours reading Orwell’s Burmese Days, listening to music, and admiring the gorgeous scenery. Lush green mountains sprouted upwards from the rivers edge in a way I had never seen before, and I was enraptured. The only downside to the boat travel is the lack of lunch options. There is a food stand on the boat, but the prices are ridiculous. I thought ahead and bought seven small bananas. That’s right, seven four-inch long bananas. Why I thought that would suffice, I have no idea. By the time we docked in the small village of Pak Beng for the night, my stomach ached from either a potassium overdose or extreme hunger.
On day two down the Mekong, and I am more prepared. I have brought four bananas, three oranges, and a tuna sandwich. The next eight hours are perfection. On the boat, I write to myself:
“I find this trip more idealistic & romantic than I had originally thought. I tried to refrain from even thinking of the journey, for fear of depicting it wrongly as such. Now, in all of its dullness, its monotony, & its simplicity, I find it even more romantic than ever.”
We arrive in Luang Prabang, Laos as the sun sets over the hills behind the Mekong. You can’t write a movie script better than that. Everyone piles off the boat, and someone suggests making a line to pass the bags from the boat to the dock. I jump in to help, and find myself the only woman to offer a hand. I look weak in comparison to these big strong Western men, but I hold my own. A funny gentleman from Manchester, England looks at me and asks, “uuuh, do you want me to take your place?” “Why?” We’re both stumped. When my bag comes off the boat I carry it on up the ramp and he again asks if I need help. When I refuse he laughs, “man, I hate independent women.” The next day we ran into each other on the street as I was browsing a pamphlet for a cooking course and I joked,
“I might learn how to cook…like a real woman or something.”
“Oh, you mean like a proper woman?”
“Yes! I wonder what that’s like?!”
Fresh off the boat, I head towards the town to find a guest house. After walking for blocks with pangs of hunger, I find myself near the edge of town as the minutes of sunlight slip away from me and the doubt slips in. Just as I think that I’ve come to a dead end in my search, a sign from the Universe appears amongst Christmas lights and a bamboo garden. The sign reads “Guest House,” in black lettering. Who would’ve thought?