We take the slowboat to Laos. Kiss goodbye northern Thailand for a three-day boat ride along the Mekong river to the ancient town of Luang Pranbang. Our boat is wooden, flat-bottomed and flat-topped, and broad enough for two rows of hard benches to run its length. We copy the locals and buy cheap cushions at the market before the journey and soon the boat is awash with bright cartoon dogs, the motif of choice for cushion decorators here. We sit awkardly on the tiny benches, waiting. Waiting for 9am when the boat will depart. Waiting for 11 am – the new departure time. Waiting in the hot sun, penned by other boats, sucking in the same hot damp air released from the last breath, hoping for a breeze, for some movement.
We leave around 1pm at the hottest part of the day. Our calculations on which flank to stake, based on the sun’s position, are voided by our late departure – we will be in the sun for the whole journey now. We don’t care: the journey is stunning from the moment we round the first bend. We cut a winding route through hills and mountains draped in lush vegetation. Vines and creepers extend down from the canopy, cloaking the forest in a continuous verdant blanket from bank to peak. The river is interrupted by oily granite and limestone rocks that protrude from the banks and out of the water in peaks that mirror the larger green ones. From some of these rocky outcrops, bamboo canes point over the water. We see few fishermen, though. Sometimes we pass one or two, hauling in nets or wading through the water in speedos to catch something silver and fast that flashes beneath.
The mighty river is narrow and shallow here – sucked dry on its journey from the Tibetan plateau high in the Himalayas through China. The upstream extractions water China’s wheat baskets and the country is growing thirstier every year.
In some places the water appears to be boiling, bubbling up with unseen rocks. Our captain navigates the rapids with skill, steering us through tight turns of the graphite pinnacles. The bottom of our boat scrapes and rumbles but we pass over and by each churning hazard. Speedboat passangers are often not so lucky. China intends to quell these rapids, blasting them with dynamite and troughing the Mekong so that it is navigable all the way to Ho Chi Minh City. It has busted a stretch north of Thailand, but protests in Thailand have put off their project south – for now.
As the river wends its path, we on the boat slip out of our ordered benches, lounging on the floor or each other, stringing up hammocks and breaking open food parcels and beers. There are quite a few Westerners making this journey with us. A mixture of young backpackers and nervous independent travellers who are investigating beyond Thailand’s beaches for the first time. In one corner, a woman spends more than 3 hours labouriously creating dreadlocks in her boyfriend’s hair. Nearby, a young English guy, inexplicably wearing a pith helmet and carrying a ukelele, is earning Spanish from a gaggle of attractive Argentinian girls. iPods are shared, insect repellent sprayed and traveller’s stories swapped. The pith helmet’s friend, a nervous, pale chap, was so terrified of being ill on the boat that he’s taken an entire packet of Immodium diorrhoea stopper tablets, even though he is not at all unwell.
We pull up at banks occasionally, where a village is hinted at by far-off stilted houses growing out of the forest. Local people come aboard carrying baskets of fish and vegetables or live chickens. At one spot, a woman tries to board with two large monitor lizards and a big dead rodent on a string. The boat becomes uncomfortably crowded. We are offered opium, mushrooms, weed, marijuana… insessently on the boat and when we storp in the village for the night. At one place Nick is nervous to eat the pancake he ordered in case it is spiked.We toy with the idea of opium to aid our sleep, but we’re sleepy enough in the end.