Archive for March, 2012
Our boat was due to leave Huay Xai at 11am and it was hot already. Easily over 30 celsius. Given that we were in Laos I was fairly surprised at the efficiency of the crew and the fact that we left just after 11:30. (I’m not being sarcastic, I have been to Laos before and timetables are like indecipherable hieroglyphs.) The first couple of hours you cruise down the Mekong with Laos on your left and Thailand on your right. The scenery is pretty with the occasional concrete or wooden village on each side of the low banks. Once the river turns off into Laos itself the banks rise a bit higher and eventually so do the hills behind. The riverbanks alternate between cool igneous looking rocks and white sandy beaches. Most of these beaches are deserted but occasionally you see wild buffalo lying in the sand chewing, flicking their tails and generally looking happy with their lot. At first everyone leapt up to take photos, but the novelty soon wore off.
In the hills among the jungle there are occasional villages perched on the slopes made out of wood, the houses raised up on stilts. Occasionally some of these villagers need a lift. The Mekhong river is their only way of getting around as the roads are pretty poor or non-existent. They will plant a white flag on a prominent part of beach or rock and the boat will pull in and the villagers clamber aboard and sit on plastic stools in the aisles. Usually the boat pulls into another village to let them off, but occasionally a smaller craft will pull up alongside and the passenger will transfer themselves and (usually) their tons of things into the moving boat. It’s pretty impressive.
There is a lot of talk about rivers being a ‘lifeline’ to somewhere, or that it is the ‘beating heart’ of a place. A lot of that talk is fairly valid but less so these days. In olden times the Thames for example, brought trade and wealth to London. While there is still some trade and money being made by the Thames, it is now mostly a place where Londoners can erect tourist attractions or, if you are bastard rich, even live next to. Most Londoners don’t really need it as such in their day to day lives and can go months with even seeing it.
The Mekong really feels essential to the communities that live by it. Their life exists because of it. All along the river you see villages that exist, and continue to exist, purely due to the Mekong. There are fishermen standing waist deep in tshirts and swimming trunks casting their nets by hand. There are bamboo fishing rods tied to rocks throughout its length (either the same fishermen with the nets or a really lazy guy having a nap). There are even a lot of people panning for gold, which caught me off guard and gave me a flash of avarice until I saw how clearly unsuccessful they must be given their obvious poverty. I guess they found enough gold to just about survive.
By about 3:30pm the heat was at its maximum. Even the buffalo were in the river at this point, their horned heads just visible along the water. I don’t know if the kids went to school (I doubt it), but on the beaches and rocks below each village there were scores of them playing in the Mekong. Some were starkers, some were in trunks, some in trunks and tshirts. They all seemed happy and waved, shouted and occasionally posed for photos as our boat carried on by. On one group of rocks a bunch of teenagers waved and started diving into the water. By this point, I was feeling a bit hot and cramped. I had a Lao girl on a plastic stool pressed against me on my left, Nim on my right, and a hot plastic seat welded beneath me. Even constant cans of Beerlao failed to make me feel better. I envied those kids.
From 5pm onward the temperature thankfully began to drop. It now seemed to be adult time by the river and we passed small groups of villagers having their evening bath in the river. Men in swimming trunks and women wrapped in Lao embroidered skirts were soaping up and washing their parts all along the bank. I generally tried to avert my gaze when a group of ladies were washing but when they all waved at the boat I thought, bollocks to this, and took some photos and waved back. Everyone seemed very chilled and relaxed.
By half past five everyone was pretty eager to get off. Even the pillow gang were uncomfortable and those of us in the back, full of Beerlao and stuck to our seats, were doubly keen. The sun was surprisingly low on the horizon and was gorgeous and we knew we were nearly there. Shortly after 5:30pm, we thankfully pulled into Pakbeng.
The moment our boat touched ashore, the touts were on us. It was like being boarded by overly friendly pirates. Thankfully we had booked ahead and waved them off. We wearily headed up to town and I predictably headed for a Beerlao.
Here endeth part two… In part three – we make it!
Our journey began in the mountains an hour outside of Chiang Rai, Thailand. My group consisted of myself, my wife Nim, my mother-in-law (Nim’s mum), her friend, a guide (who happened to be a student of Nim’s mum and was a local Chiang Rai businessman), and another guide who was from Laos. A lot of guides I know but they also happened to be friends, so it was pretty relaxed.
We were staying in a resort owned by another student of my mother-in-law (he was also tourist police so we felt pretty safe) called the Maenam resort and a bloody nice place it was too. Our balcony overlooked undulating jungle covered hills and fields. It was downright peaceful and relaxing. The view was hindered somewhat by the fact that half the mountain was on fire due to the annual slash and burn but It was beautiful there despite the smoky haze and falling ash. We drove two hours from here to town of Chiang Kong and had a quick breakfast of crispy pork, rice and chilli (awesome) before hitting the local market. We bought a chicken (a dead and cooked one) and some sticky rice and we were good to go.
The first stop was Thai customs which consisted of a small building by a dusty track that led to the river. It took about a minute to be allowed out of the country. Then, there before us, was the mighty river Mekong! Stretching from Tibet to Vietnam via China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. We jumped on a tiny and unnecessarily low boat that took us across the sluggish, brown (but mighty!) river. A perilous minute later and we were in Laos. I love travelling overland, it seems a lot more civilised than all the shite you get at airports. The next step was to get a visa at the Laos border office. This took about 10 minutes and for no reason at all included two queues – one to get the visa and one to pay for it. You are supposed to have a passport photo but for the unprepared, like myself, they will scan your passport for $1, which is actually cheaper than if I had gotten a passport photo in the UK. Fortunately the windows are next to each other and I didn’t actually have to move. The visa took a couple of minutes, during which time the border guards chatted to my Thai wife. It was either because they were curious about her having married a farang, or because they were chatting her up. Either way, it made the process fast and friendly.
We were now Laos, in a small town called Houie Xai, although the spelling varies (Huay Xai being another). My mum actually came here in the 60s during the war. Officially the war never visited to Laos but that, excuse my Laotian, is well known to be bollocks. In fact war did visit and it overstayed its visa and behaved pretty badly throughout its stay. My mum hitched rides all over Laos with either aid workers or CIA agents (sometimes the same person). When she was there the town was called Ban Houie Sai. It is a tiny place that now seems to exist purely for the border crossing and as a place to buy tours and Beer Lao. From here we were driven through the brown and dusty streets to the pier where our ‘luxury boat’ awaited.
I may be a soft city type but it wasn’t that luxurious. But it wasn’t too bad either. A better term would be simply ‘boat’. It was about 80 feet long and there were probably about 100 of us. There were two seats on each side separated by a narrow walkway. This averagely luxurious vessel was to be our transport for the next two days. I could smoke and they sold large chilled bottles of Beer Lao, so I was confident I could survive the trip.
First off, here is my advice if you are going to do this trip:
Arrive a bit early. Although it is supposed to be allocated seats, it isn’t. This is Laos and nothing is that organised. The boats vary, but on ours the first half of the boat had quite comfortable seats with a cloth covering and the second half had plastic.
Try and sit on the left hand side as you are facing the front. Or the ‘port’ side if you are a nautical type, you salty sea dog. This way you will avoid most of the sun. We were in plastic covered seats in the sun and it became a tad uncomfortable in the sweaty buttock region after a few hours. Sadly there are no photos of that.
Bring a pillow. A huge group of Scandinavians got on all carrying pillows. At first we mocked them (in a friendly way) and dubbed them the ‘pillow gang’ because we are so damned witty. Four hours later as my arse fused to the seat, I realised they were pretty wise. Bastards.
Bring a jacket or something warm. This may seem laughable at first when you are sitting in 35 Celsius sunshine but by the end of the first day, it can get downright chilly. The early hours of the following day are definitely brisk and bracing and other alliterative cold words like brrr (both alliterative AND onomatopoeic – woohoo). Then it gets bloody hot again.
Bring some food. You can buy pot noodles, crisps and biscuits on board but you will envy those with the foresight to bring baguettes. Or a chicken.
Wear thick sandals, shoes or preferably Wellington boots as the toilet can be a bit iffy and there are lots of bad shots on a swaying boat. The toilet on the second day was much better, so the unpleasantness seems a bit random. Good luck.
Owing to lots of photos and general waffling I have decided to split this up. Excitingly in the next installment – the actual trip…
Boohoo I’m back. Not just back in London but back at work. The first day of our return it predictably rained. To cap it all off, our heating is still broken so it was cold too. The following day was sunny – which sounds nice but actually sucked as I had to sleep due to my starting the first of five twelve hour nightshifts. To sum up the situation, it was all bollocks and might have lead to undignified self pity.
Fortunately I am a cheerful sort. Despite all the introspective, snivelling, spoilt, cry-baby-ness of my opening paragraph, I am in fact feeling refreshed and inspired! Even the teensiest bit of perspective helps me to realise what a selfish prick I would be if I wallowed in gloom – just look at what the majority of the rest of the planet put up with each day and here I am whingeing about my return after a 5 week holiday. That perspective and the fact that I have a huge TV rarely fail to provide an emotional lift when I feel a bit fed up. Nil carborundum illegitimi! Currently however, my (apparently mildly annoying) chirpyness comes from having a superb plan.
I turn 40 in a couple of months and apart from the uncontrolled and unmanly weeping I intend to do on the fateful day of the digit change, the rest of my year and those that follow will be epic. My wife said that we can go back and live in Thailand once I can prove that I can earn £1000 a year off the internet. You can live well out there for that amount and the money will only increase. I know that sounds like the opening premise of a sitcom where I go on to try whacky, yet hilarious things to hit my target but it is possible. My plan is fourfold:
1/ Write more. My eBook The Uneven Passage of Time (BUY IT IF YOU HAVEN’T ALREADY!) has had over 600 downloads and will hopefully continue to earn me money until I die or the internet does – and I intend to live until I’m 400 thanks to advances in science. So the more I write, the more money I will make. I will also write a lot more entries on my websites until they become huge and I get pissed of with the fame and pressure. (Most of these entries will be more interesting and less self absorbed than this one, I promise.) I also intend to write a fiction book before I hit 41.
2/ Keep trading. I am getting the hang of this buying and selling shares malarkey and am finally starting to make money off it. Big tip – when the stock market has a timidity spasm and drops massively, don’t shit yourself and sell everything. Hang in there.
3/ Poker. I am now consistently winning at online poker. Granted I am only taking part in games that cost $1 where most of the players are crap, but a year of constant play has honed my skills and I am now ready for the big time. The $3 game. Even if I just win £10 a day, I will be almost a third of the way toward my £1000 target. I confidently predict that within 2 years I will be able to call myself by a cool poker nickname. A decade or so after that, people may even call me by it.
4/ Write what I have just written. According to Professor Richard Wiseman in his book 59 Seconds
(great book by the way), one method to help improve your chances of hitting self imposed targets is to tell people about them. This obviously doesn’t include drunkenly telling people that you are going to quit smoking and write a book while in the pub because I have been trying that for years. I feel that if I write my plan down somewhere more permanent for others to see – like a flickering group of pixels on a screen – then I am more likely to succeed. See, it has already worked. Part four of my plan is done already.
I won’t be tracking my progress in some lame girly way such as found in Bridget Jones’s Diary either. Oh no. I have gone for the more manly option of a spreadsheet on my iPad. It looks pretty awesome.
The target I have set myself is to have all this done by the age of 42. It is my lucky number (thank you Douglas Adams) and a good age to retire from the workplace. So in just over 2 years I should be writing, trading, and playing poker on my laptop in the warm tropics. It won’t be retirement as such, but I will be very happy indeed to spend the rest of my days avoiding the office and doing the things that I love.
My next gripping entries will all be about Thailand and Laos. Tropical adventure! Uncomfortable travel! Sweat! Similarly self-absorbed waffling as above but it will be informative, interesting, and will have pretty pictures. Probably.
Dear wordofward readers,
I am now in the stunningly glorious Luang Prabang in the equally stunning and glorious country of Laos. It is astoundingly beautiful here. Luang Prabang is a World Heritage UNESCO site and rightly so. It is a town/small city located on a finger of land at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. It has a dozen old but lovely temples and a million charming cafes and bars all set in French colonial architecture.
The trip here included: flying to the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, taking a bus to the even more northern Thai city of Chiang Rai, driving from Chiang Rai to a town called Chiang Kong, taking a boat across the river to Huay Xai in Laos, then a day’s boat journey to a Lao town called Pak Beng, followed by a further day’s boat journey to Luang Prabang. If that sounds epic, I can confirm that it bloody well was. We did stop for a few days at places though.
The whole thing has been a simply superb trip and an incredible experience. I have been to Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang before but this time the trip has felt more of an adventure as we didn’t fly between the two. I danced in a traditional Thai square dance type deal, ate a few fried bugs, got drunk with a Vice Director of a Chiang Rai province two nights running, met the mayor, saw one of the coolest temples (it had plaster severed heads hanging outside), and had an incredible journey down the Mekong.
I would write more but the sun is setting over the Mekong and my Beerlao Dark (awesome but unavailable in Britain) is getting warm.
Nim and I fly back to Bangkok on the 9th and I should be able to post more blog entries WITH PICTURES soon.
Until then hang in there.
Hope you are missing me lots,
The Word of Ward