The first sign of trouble came in the form of an insurance contract. Crammed as we were into a Laotian barge piled high with backpacks, livestock and a gleaming Coke machine, the two-page form seemed rather incongruous. Was it insuring us against goat bites? Falling luggage? Warm cola?
Four hours later, however, the risks became readily apparent. Our ride started to list alarmingly as it chugged from the town of Ban Houayxay in northwestern Laos to the country's former imperial city of Luang Prabang. In late March, the end of the dry season, the 300-kilometre trip down the reef- and rapids-filled Mekong River wasn't the lazy ride we had expected.
The problem, we were told, was two-fold: low water levels and too many passengers. The latter came as no surprise: The two-by-four bench my wife Angela and I were sitting on was mercilessly close to its neighbours. It made Air Transat look like the Orient Express.
The captain steered the boat onto a sandbar and addressed the assembled backpackers, villagers and barnyard animals. "You must stay in your seats," he said. "If you stand up, we turn back." No one wanted to spend four more hours in these cramped quarters simply to end up where they started so we rooted our backsides to our two-by-fours and stared mournfully at the swirling, mocha-coloured water.
Thankfully, the boat didn't turn back, and the scenery helped to distract us from the discomfort. Lush jungle rose out of the river, cloaking mist-covered hills in a mantle of green. Boulders jutted out of the meandering river, providing more that a few close calls. Every few kilometres, the barge would pass a fishing boat or small encampment, drawing waves, smiles and calls of "Hello!" from the locals.
An amusing but less serene diversion was supplied by the speedboats that shot past. While barges take two days to make the trip, the speedboats take around six hours -- the caveat being that up to 10 passengers are crammed into the small wooden vessels, and are forced to wear bulky life vests and helmets. Worst of all, they must endure the dreadful engine noise. The captain of our barge echoed our guidebook in telling us that the speedboats are dangerous, and that his barge was "the way to go."
The barge did offer the most practical way to reach Luang Prabang from northern Thailand, but most importantly, we were able to savour a firsthand look at one of the most isolated navigable sections of the Mekong. We appreciated this all the more as we passed sections of riverbank bearing the scars of excavation. The governments of Southeast Asia and China aim to boost shipping by removing reefs and rapids, which will change the face of the river, and the region, forever.
After about seven hours, we arrived at the halfway point in the voyage: the place where we would spend the night, a small town called Muang Pakbeng. Dusk was falling, and the muddy main street was awash with touts promising cheap, clean accommodations (and opium dealers promising cheap opportunities to "chase the dragon").
Needless to say, the dozens of guesthouses in Pakbeng were cheap -- around $1 a night -- but very far from clean. Having settled on one of the less offensive properties, we had a couple of beers at the bar next door, where a pair of local lads performed a rousing rendition of Bob Marley's No Woman, No Cry on a three-stringed guitar. As it turned out, we needed a few drinks to help soften our straw-filled double bed and muffle the sound of creatures scurrying in the walls.
Determined not to miss the boat's 7 a.m. departure, we woke at the crack of dawn. Standing on the balcony of the guesthouse, we watched as a line of Buddhist monks, dressed in orange robes, walked from house to house, collecting their sustenance for the day. The leader of the group banged a small gong as the procession made its way. At each doorway, a resident greeted the group, proffered fruit, bread or rice, knelt, and bowed. With the sun rising above the hills and bird calls piercing the chilly air, it was an indelible image that helped clear our tired minds and fortify our spirits.
As we made our way down main street toward the dock, we were rewarded with a magnificent view of the Mekong snaking through the surrounding mountains. Our rejuvenation complete, we stepped back onto the barge, secure in the knowledge that Luang Prabang was only about six hours away.
Or so we thought.
We soon came to learn that in Laos, even more so than in Thailand, punctuality is not a high priority. We ended up leaving Pakbeng about 9 a.m., as several passengers had apparently succumbed to the opium dealers and shown up late. (To our chagrin, we also learned from a pair of well-rested passengers that Pakbeng does offer more refined accommodations. The Luangsay Lodge, an eco-style cluster of 16 pavilions, provides a vista of rain forest and river -- and was reportedly rodent-free.)
On Day 2, we chugged past the Pak Ou Grottoes, sacred limestone caves that are filled with hundreds of gilded and wooden Buddha statues. We stopped at Ban Sang Hae, a village that specializes in the production of Lao-Lao, a moonshine whisky made from glutinous rice. It was here that the Coke machine on board was unceremoniously deposited, presumably to dispense mix for the local brew.
Just as the sun was setting, we caught our first glimpse of the golden stupas of Luang Prabang. Hobbling off the barge a few minutes later, I pulled my copy of the insurance contract from my pocket, crumpled it into a ball with a victorious flourish -- and slipped and fell from the muddy gangplank. A group of chortling locals hauled me out of the river, no doubt mocking my disrespect for the Laotian insurance industry.
But I had the last laugh. When we returned to Toronto a few weeks later, I filed a sizable claim with Lao Insurance Co. Inc. for "emotional distress and posterior damages." I fully expect payment -- when the Mekong freezes over.
If you go
Most travellers taking barges from Houayxay to Luang Prabang cross into Laos from the Thai town of Chiang Khong. Visitors must pay $30 (U.S.) and provide two passport-size photos for a 15-day visa. Barge passage costs around $15, and most leave before 10 a.m. Alternatively, local travel agencies offer barge packages. For more information, visit .
WHERE TO STAY
Luangsay Lodge: _lodge.