Thursday, March 6, 2014

Scenes from a Boat

The slow boats of the Mekong in Laos.
Day 7 (Jan. 30): I'm on a boat (!) in Laos.
Here's a short and sweet account of the day I spent riding a boat down the Mekong for six hours. I arrived at the pier in Huay Xai not too long before the boat left (the lack of scheduled departure time notwithstanding, everyone "knows" you should get there before 11am), so I just took the first seat I saw available. Fortunately for me, it wasn't one of the minivan carseats crammed into rows along the length of the boat, but part of a pair of minivan carseats set facing one another. This meant more legroom for me and the three others with me, although anyone who walked down the aisle of the long and narrow boat had to step over our legs. Anyway, what made it fortunate was that I got to spend the entirety of my trip getting to know three very fun and interesting folks: Greg, Corine, and Ian.
Probably not the most flattering photo of them, but +1 for capturing personality and +1 for mangosteens!
The latter two were friends traveling together; both are from England, but Ian teaches English in Malaysia while Corine teaches English in Japan. They were extremely pleasant to talk to and joke around with. Corine in particular was one of the funniest people I've ever met. She had a tendency to say pretty much anything that came to mind, without filtering it or even subconciously judging the conversational environment for relevance. This led to quite a few hilarious non sequiturs, which I remember for their hilarity rather than their actual content. Corine and Ian had a good rapport: she would talk, and he would explain, and they played off each other quite well.

Even better, though, was the discovery that both of them loved to play word games! I was reading a book at some point in the mid-afternoon when I saw them get out paper and pens and begin playing Boggle. "Genius!" I thought. You don't need the letter cubes to play; you can simply think of random letters and write them down, et voila. Noticing my obvious interest, they invited me to play the next few rounds, and the epic Mekong Boggle Tournament was born. Well, it wasn't that epic. But it was loads of fun. I had my books and my camera, but playing word games with new friends was the absolute best way to pass the time.
A monk on a riverbank.
As for Greg, he lands squarely in the top 10 list of Most Interesting People I've Met. He's a 교포, half-Korean and half-White American, and -- surprise -- he teaches English in Korea! That was a good jumping off point, but Greg is the kind of person who probably doesn't need to have anything in common with you to engage you in some serious talk about anything. With tons of travel experience, he had a lot of great advice for the rest of us on getting around Laos. In fact, he could speak Lao and bits of Thai, because he'd been going back to the country regularly for the past ten years or so.

The more I talked to Greg, the more impressive his story got. He held very strong opinions against America, capitalism, and technology, explaining that he'd found the quiet and laid-back modus vivendi in parts of South America (Guatemala) and Southeast Asia (Thailand and Laos) to be a much more human way to live. He even told us about the family he'd sort of "adopted" since his first visit. There's a single mother with five children who lives in a tiny village perched on the banks of the Mekong; after meeting her and her family for the first time about a decade ago, he has returned a dozen times with gifts, living necessities, photographs, and a genuine offer of friendship. In turn, he has become a part of the family. I'll write more about this later, but suffice it to say that as I got to know Greg on the boat, I realized I was talking to someone quite unlike anyone I'd ever known.

So that's how I spent the boat ride: making new friends, taking photos of the pretty (if repetitive) scenery, reading, napping, and avoiding the overpriced snacks. Here are some of those photos:
It wasn't just a boat for tourists; we stopped periodically to take on more passengers and cargo.
Lovely natural scenery along the Mekong. It's dotted with villages, and more roads are being built, but for the most part, it's just brown water, green trees, and blue sky.
And this is what everyone on the boat tends to look like after six hours... ("Ugh get me off")
Me in Pakbeng in the late afternoon! Fog is already starting to roll in.
Our boat arrived in Pakbeng shortly before 5pm. I found Jesse again, who had teamed up with Chris, a guy I vaguely remembered from the hostel in Chiang Mai, and the three of us found a guesthouse in the Podunk of Laos. I have no travel recommendations for Pakbeng: every guesthouse is basically the same -- cheap and spare, but comfortable -- and the restaurant food is all overpriced, but what can you do? There's nowhere else to go. The locals here are smart. I enjoyed dinner, anyway, and we spent our evening quietly; I taught Jesse and Chris how to play Big 2, tried my first Beerlao (which is just as good as it's hyped up to be), and fought a losing battle with the "free WiFi" that is advertised in every building. As if!
I bought a sausage from this smiling lady whose grill was billowing smoke so thick it stung my eyes.
Spiderboy playing with fire, quite literally.
The next stop was supposed to be Luang Prabang, the most beautiful city in the country. Instead, my next would turn out to be a tiny village perched on the banks of the Mekong...

Translate