Boat trouble along the Mekong
Editor’s note: Vail resident Luc Pols is on a 10-week adventure in Southeast Asia, where he plans to raft the fabled Mekong River through Laos and Cambodia into Vietnam and on to the Sea of China. Each week, he’ll file a report of his travels and send them back to us here along with photos of the journey.
“Now what to do?”
Everwhere we ask and wherever we look, we are being told that there are no boats leaving for Vientiane. Period. The manager of the hotel at last tells us that we can charter a boat as far as Pak Lai, where he thinks there is a regular boat leaving for Vientiane and the cost is only $700! Politely but firmly, we tell him that we neither are the Rockefellers, nor the Gates and keep on looking. In the end we have to admit that the only way, indeed, is to charter a boat for the eight hours to Pak Lai, and we are able to secure passage for just the two of us on a tiny little boat for a heck of a lot less.The next morning at 7:30 we are at the dock and see, to our happy surprise, that the driver’s wife is offering rice and incense sticks to their god for a safe journey. It should have told us something. After about four hours on the Mekong, with gorgeous views of mountains, jungles, tiny villages and, unfortunately, some of the worst weather we have had so far with storms and rain, the motor on the boat stopped and the driver steers us towards the shore. So much for prayer! Of course the first thing that enters our mind is: Is this a kidnapping? Are they meeting people here to overpower us and throw us to the wolves? But no, the driver and his brother start working on the fuel line, the carburator and other parts unknown to this writer and within a (very long hour), we are back on the river.
We have the distinct feeling that our drivers have never been where we are going, because they, in sign language and with the help of a watch, tell us we should be in Pak Lai between 7 and 7:30 p.m. – about 60-90 minutes after darkness sets in. Just imagine boulders the size of small bungalows, rapids and floating tree trunks – which we negotiated all day – to be steered around in the pitch dark without any lights. We are not happy campers! Fortunately – you will have surmised by now since I am still writing – we do arrive at our destination safely just after 6 p.m., just before dark. Pak Lai is not what you would call one of the highlights of this trip. The guesthouse (no hotels) is the cheapest I have ever, and I mean ever, stayed in at $4 for a single, not including breakfast, but including five or six geckos in the bathroom. To our dismay, the next morning the boat to Vientiane – which by the way is going every two days and, talk about luck, today is one of those days – is being blessed again before departure and with the same results. After about 4 hours (coincidence?), the boat – which should hold about 80 people, but at this point holds about 120 plus six motorcycles, five chairs and two couches strapped to the roof, plus various lifestock – springs a leak. This adventure takes about two hours to fix with soldering, and the boat being tilted to the other side of the leak, with the result that, of course, the water poured in on the other side. Again, not one of the most endearing, but certainly one of the more memorable moments of our trip so far.
Once again, the scheduled arrival hour is in daylight, but with the delay, it is now definitely in the dark. When we stop at a “pier,” there is no sign of a city (Vientiane has about 250,000 inhabitants), but everybody gets off. We are in a quandry: do we get off here without any idea where we are or what? We are the last ones off the boat and find tuk-tuks waiting to transport us the last 10 km to the Laos capital. I must admit that first of all it is time for a Beer Lao and then for a rest from the river for a couple of days.Next week I’ll tell you what happens in and after Vientiane.
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