“He’s lying”, I told Eva, who was sitting next to me.
We’d been waiting in the crowded boat for three hours, at the Laotian town of Huay Xai. Last night we’d crossed into Laos from Thailand, with Luang Prabang our end destination. To get there, we’d take the slow boat down the Mekong River. The journey would last two days, with an overnight stop in Pakbeng. That’s if it ever started.
Dressed in a cheap suit and black sunglasses, the man continued to speak while shaking his cell phone. “Pakbeng, it’s dark and dangerous. Tonight when you arrive, all accommodation might be full. But if you pay me $20 now, I can save you a room.” A few passengers stood up and made their way towards him. I wasn’t fooled, but he’d lured a few suckers, relying on naivety and misinformation.
Or at least this is what I hoped. After all, Pakbeng was in the Golden Triangle, one of the world’s most infamous heroin trafficking areas. It wasn’t the place you’d want to spend a night on the streets.
The slow boat down the Mekong
Miracles do happen, and after four hours of cramming travelers aboard, the boat left Huay Xai. We cut through the Mekong’s centre, avoiding the sharp rocks littering the shallows. The scenery was unspectacular, a depressing mix of farms and deforestation. It wasn’t helped by the overcast sky, which did the brown river no favours.
We made up for lost time as the boat got into its rhythm. A cold breeze blew and I regretted leaving my jacket. Conversation was hard over the loud engine. So far, I wasn’t enjoying the voyage.
But as we headed deeper into Laos, the scenery started changing. The bland farms disappeared as the land became steeper, mountains flanking us on both sides. Forest carpeted the slopes, smoke from hidden villages snaking out of its depths.
The unwelcome clouds became picturesque, swirling about the mountaintops. We passed lumbering slow boats, carrying cattle and crops to the market. Every so often we were overtaken by speedboats, the suicidal passengers wearing motorbike helmets. The Mekong was alive, with fisherman casting off into this hydro-highway.
All too soon, the sun was gone and we were docking at a tiny village, its lone street winding up the hillside. This was Pakbeng, and as I suspected, the man from Huay Xai had conned us. There were guesthouses galore, with a horde of touts waiting for our money.
I put accommodation out of my mind and looked back down the river. The wind had dropped and its surface was glassy. A small fishing boat crossed in the distance, the sputtering two-stroke engine breaking the silence.
I turned and headed into Pakbeng, following the dim streetlights. A young boy sidled up to me and whispered “opium?” The jungle was barely visible now, and I felt like I was the middle of absolute nowhere. That’s because I was.
If you enjoyed this, read part two of my trip down the Mekong here.
Have you taken the slow boat down the Mekong? Write your thoughts in the comments below