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Slow Boating the Mekong River

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From Chiang Mai we would head north to the Laos border town Huay Xai enroute to Luang Prabang. Not making it to Huay Xai on time (buses only running certain times a week/day), we were left to spend a night on the Thai river bank across from Laos in a town called Chiang Khong. Vacant and dark by the time we arrived, we were lucky to find accommodations before things got even darker when the town’s power went out entirely. We sat at a local’s house chowing on morning glory and cashew chicken when, POOF!, sudden darkness. The town’s only fuse box blew. Finding our way back to the guest house was interesting. That mini travel light I had never used would really have come in handy at that moment…Waiting for your eyes to adjust wasn’t much help either; it was pitch black.
As slow boating trips up and down the Mekong River have become popular amongst travellers, the remote town of Pakbeng has developed itself into a middle ground between northern Thailand and Luang Prabang – backpackers and visitors are made to stop over and spend the night in one of many operating guesthouses after one day of boating. Pakbeng itself is merely a hill peppered by lodgings for travelling river goers. We were forewarned of the mobbing by locals advertising their homes as a place to stay once berthed.  Workers on the boat will tell you that there’s little left in the way of accommodations if you wait to find lodgings once you get there, but really, this is just one of the many ways the Laos people try and rip you off. Depending on how fussy you are, there are loads of options.
Things you can expect to see along the way: local fishermen setting up their nets; locals bathing in the garbage-filled water; nude children running down the riverbank waving at the boats like crazy; herds of water oxen wading in the shallows and rolling in the dirt.  Of all the scenes, by far the most shocking was the floating pig I saw swirling amongst some waste.
Spending two days on the boat gives you lots of time to think, read, drink, eat what have you. It’s also a great bonding time for backpackers to share tales of the road. First, come the introductions and meeting each other. As people began to trickle in, a mini Himalayan mountain of backpacks had been formed, we’d see a hard-to-miss 6 foot 5, basketball-built dude sporting the trendy “I read books and like fine art” glasses look. Heading toward us, and getting an ear full of high-volume conversation from a group sitting near us, the nerdy giant shouted out “Man, I hate Americans.” Of course The Yank’s ears perked up, but more so because the guy spoke in a very American English.  We’d pipe in with a rebuttal followed by amendments, clarification, high fives and new found friend in San Diego Brandon (an army serviceman and personal caddie to some big names like Bill Clinton) – oddly finding each other across Laos and in Cambodia.
Lao Lao whiskey is fun to drink, but more fun watching someone else drink it. A fellow boat mate Danger Dan (named on account of his hurting himself a few times, twice on the boat trip alone) took a big swig and a few minutes later spewed over the port side. Good thing the boat was only drudging along. If you visit Pakbeng you’re sure to meet the town drunk. He’s a googly eyed, stumbling, dirty Laos man, he’s not Danger Dan from Australia, although the appearance is scarily similar.
We’d make it to Luang Prabang and were ready for some Spicy Laos.
Note: It is possible to make the boat trip in eight hours in a fast boat, but that’s sitting for eight solid hours with no stopping.PS: Slow boating the Mekong has been listed amongst the top 100 things to do before you die.The Limey

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