Across from me, a row of young couples. Boy girl boy girl boy girl. A leg with a fish tattoo extends from some shorts. A curtain drifts over to caress the face of a sleeping man who frowns and bats it away.
We’re juddering down the Mekong, negotiating narrow, shallow channels in the endless river. The driver smokes and looks back down the boat over his shoulder whenever we’re facing a perilous pass, steering with one arm.
It’s been three hours. Only four more to go. One of the guys opposite is absorbed in The Count of Monte Cristo – the Hummer of the book world. I feel it could have been written specifically for this journey.
Life is but a dream
There’s not as much life along the Mekong as I’d expected. Occasionally we pass a fisherman in a long, brightly coloured boat. One, squatting on his haunches with netting in his hands, stops and watches us as we pass. An extended moment passes. Eventually I wave. He doesn’t wave back.
We mainly have the scenery to ourselves – forested hills sloping down to the rivers’ edge. There’s the occasional settlement – huts on stilts looking like a natural part of the forest. Every so often we’re treated to the sight of a golden temple roof nestled in the hillside. And there are beaches along the river that look white, sandy, inviting and entirely inaccessible from land. The water buffalo have managed to get to them though. We frequently pass herds of them, chewing lazily and flicking their ears in unison.
Sunset is the best. The way the light shimmers on the water as we pull into Pak Beng, our halfway stopover.
This is one of the more remote places I’ve been. There’s a single paved road skirted by shops and guest houses, virtually no vehicles. The street is quiet as if most of the locals are tucked away for the evening. But there are a number of bars and restaurants maximising on the tourist through-traffic and we end up seated in a large wood framed, bamboo roofed building with some of our fellow boat passengers beside us. These passengers are fresh-faced 19 year olds, very friendly and clearly feel obliged to initiate us into their group. There’s bottomless free shots of lao lao here! They proclaim.
The shots are served by a waiter in a bomber jacket, who takes a one-for-me, one-for-you approach. Lao lao is home-brewed rice whisky, averaging 50% alcohol. You often see it being sold at the roadside with a snake or scorpion coiled inside the bottle (see this list of the world’s weirdest drinks. Before you look, I warn you the baby mice whisky can NOT be unseen).
Next to these glowing youths I feel a little like a mouldy loaf of bread, but to save face I neck the shot. It’s surprisingly smooth and I relish that little chest glow you only get with spirits. Inevitably this leads to refills and I leave the bar feeling more like candy floss.
Cosy does it
The morning could be easier. I’m momentarily distracted from my headache by the realisation we have angry birds bedsheets. Luckily we make it down to the boat with plenty of time to spare and get a good seat. But this is when the fun begins. For some reason the slow boat operators decide (after an hour or so of deliberation) that they’re only willing to take one boat to Luang Prabang today, so the passengers from two boats end up crammed onto one.
It’s okay to begin with. There are elephants taking a morning stroll on the far side of the river. Everyone has a seat although some haggard looking backpackers who arrive late draw the short straw of having to sit in the engine room which must be a bit like journeying inside the bonnet of a 2CV.
However, we make stops at various villages along the banks of the Mekong, and the unfortunate locals coming aboard are faced with a cramped aisle to sit in, and a five hour journey ahead. I’m fully convinced the next inevitable toilet trip will involve kneeing someone in the face. I try to work through the embarrassment in advance.
It’s not until we arrive at Luang Prabang that I realise who had the worst deal on this journey. I look back at the boat to see two smallish, flimsy baskets being unloaded from its prow. Squinting, I realise these baskets are wriggling and squealing. And then it dawns on me that each one contains a pig, a pig which has spent the last several hours speeding along the Mekong on the prow of a boat.
I gulp and make a pledge to myself never to complain about travel conditions again.