Dec 24, 2006

Headed back on the boat

After a dinner at the local restaurant, a good nights sleep, and a promise from the local tourism official to give me a return visit to the last village, I caught a sawngthaew to Xiengkok. As the truck pulled away from the stop I took a last look back and saw the local guide I’d nicknamed Rock Star getting on a truck headed elsewhere. In that brief instant he looked up and our glances crossed, we recognised each other but there wasn’t time even for a wave. I think he had his own reasons for wanting to take the trail we did.

I had mixed feelings about heading to Xiengkok. A young American English teacher from China disappeared there earlier this year under unknown circumstances and the place had an usettled feeling for me.

Link to home page of folks still looking for Ryan Chicovsky
Ryan Chicovsky

Chinese Freighter works it’s way upstream in fast water just below Xiengkok

The sawngthaew dropped me right splat in front of the government border or port office by the river. Immediately a swift boat pilot approached me and explained the costs and fees in detail. Assured that I understood the rates for a full boat and for an empty one he pointed me towards the government office and suggested I register with the authorities and I did. The rate was a little over a hundred dollars to rent the boat by myself which I had no intention of doing.
The alternative was to retrace my steps all the way back to where I had come. I could even catch a 20 hour bus at Luang Namtha for a marathon bus ride in the mountains to Vientiane in one push. Or I could wait for 3 more people to show up.

I then went down to the closest restaurant and ordered an omelette called Jeune Kai laced with fish sauce, cilantro, hot peppers, green onions, and MSG. I love them. The swift boat driver also came in and resumed his friendly banter with the girl working the place.

After breakfast I went for a walk down the towns main street to look for a guest house. If other people came around to take the boat I’d gladly abandon the hotel, if no one came with the first sawngthaew of the morning I’d retrace my route.

Loading up the fast boat

Each guest house I looked at seemed slightly less clean than the last, so I returned to the restaurant to get a room there. As I was checking in the boat driver came back and he didn’t seem thrilled to see me paying for a room.
“The hotel will cost you money”
“That’s ok at $3 I think it’s cheap”
“Food costs here too”
“Yes very tasty food at this restaurant”
“You don’t understand, how about 1200 baht”
I hesitated about one nano second. He was offering to take me down the river for 200 Baht over a regular single fare.
All of our conversation had been in a kind of Lao. He spoke the kind of Lao as do people from Houayxai. It is the most heavily Thai influenced Lao I’ve ever heard, almost like Isaan Lao. I assume because of Houayxai’s seeming isolation from the rest of the country and it’s close connection to Thailand that they have taken a lot of their language from across the river.
Houayxai was the town we were headed for downriver. It’s the first Lao town of any size downstream from the Chinese and Burma borders. At the river there were the other passengers waiting. Even though there were no others waiting for the full distance there were three other people headed downstream. Better some passengers than none. The fast boat below Xiengkok is allowed a maximum of four people. The water is very fast and the boat needs all the power, and as much freeboard as it can get.

I’d heard dreadful tales about the fast boat, some I found true, some not. The true ones were that is very exciting. I tried to imagine what would happen in the event of capsizing and in my minds eye it wasn’t pretty. I wasn’t sure if the crash helmets would do much good, even the life jackets fastened with fastex buckles I assumed would be ripped off.

Note the cool paint job and the straight pipes off the engine.

The boat seems designed to skim on top of the water. It’s powered by a regular automobile engine with a straight shaft to the propeller. The pilot has a handle attached to the front of the engine with a throttle. As he pushes the handle left or right, up or down, the engine that is balanced on the back of the boat and the propeller are moved around. There is no keel, the propeller has a small flat piece of metal below it that helps to act as a rudder. I think that if the driver wants some traction in the water he lays the boat slightly on it’s side and the edge where the side and the bottom meet give some purchase on the water. Basically the whole thing goes like a bat out of hell.

From the moment we left Xiengkok to when he dropped two of the passengers off half an hour downstream the ride had my undivided attention as it did of everyone else on the boat. I think the driver needs to maintain a fairly fast clip to keep most of the boat out of the water. It’s the boats ability to slide on top of the water that give it it’s advantage. A river as fast and narrow with the volume of water as the Mekong is below Xiengkok has a lot of currents, not all of them going in the same direction.

Click below for video of speed boat above Luang Prabang off YouTube
Great YouTube link click here

Normally when you go from say a current coming from your left to one coming 180 degrees opposite on your right, the boat tends to roll as the new current hits it. Not so if the boat is hardly even in the water. It was this seeming ability to ignore the normal limitations on a boat that kept my interest up. Edies, boils, standing waves, haystacks, you name it the fast boat slid sometimes forward sometimes sideways always on top of the water, never seeming to be affected by what was underneath it. Sometimes the water pushing up against rocks would raise the whole height of the river a ways in a big boil out away from the rock. The pilot would use these uphill sections of water to bank against. Again and again we would be sliding towards rocks or the bank or a Chinese freighter only to end up passing it with feet to spare.
It’s hard to gauge the speed of a boat when you are sitting five inches above the water. By the bank passing by I figured about fifty miles an hour. The freighters headed up or downstream were another major obstacle. Remember the boat can’t slow down or it loses it’s ability to ignore current. Sometimes we would take a route around an island or some rocks totally outside the route the Chinese had blasted through the rapids for a channel. Often the pilot Homphan had to slow down to cross the waves created by the freighter or his boat would have been beat apart as we slammed down onto the swell at speed.

For fifteen minutes after letting off the two passenger the river continued dangerous, at the first flat stretch after that Homphan cut the engine and took a drink of water. Neither I nor the woman who was still on board needed to ask why we stopped or even turn around. After that the river continued fast and with plenty of rocks but no longer as menacing.

After dropping of the other passenger I had the boat to myself and lay back and enjoyed the ride. The straight pipes off the engine send most of the noise behind you but even so things are loud enough to eliminate all conversation. I lay down on the floor boards and fell asleep. I woke up a couple of hours later when the engine cut out. I looked up to find Homphan fishing into his cooler for a canned coffee. He said he too was worried about falling asleep. I woke right up.

Soon many Tats or pagodas started sticking up through the trees on the Burma side of the river. “Mai-ahn-mah” the pilot shouted over the engines. Big deal thought I we’ve been riding past it the whole way. Then I saw a huge garish golden Buda and radio towers and Wats and hotels and a big resort looking thing and Homphan said Thailand. Hmm I thought the border. I guess that would explain all the statues and radio towers.

Getting "good on fuel" over on the Burma side

A couple of minutes later we pulled up to a dock on the Lao side with a gagle of boats at it, and regular steps up the bank. As I got off I noticed also the first foreigners I’d seen in a week. I offered to buy Homphan a bowl of Pho. They did have regular pho as I’m used to. Beef stock, thin noodles, lots of fresh greens on the side. After I had almost finished the broth as is my habit, the proprietress of the restaurant filled my bowl with more. Good grief I thought the boat won’t be the only thing floating away, but I just squeezed in some more lime and started slurping.
When we had finished Homphan said we needed to walk around. Can’t ride on such a full belly he explained. I think really he just wanted to let everyone who knew him to see that he was there. I had noticed that Homphan had a slight swagger to his manner. After the ride I knew why. Seeing him walk around that tourist stop on the river I realized where I’d seen the exact same attitude, “Lama pilot” I thought. Homphan does a very skilful and dangerous job, and amongst those who know such things he is respected. He is one of the few fast boat pilots to make the run to Xiengkok. He told me he’d been doing the run for ten years. He wore a hat that said “Phuket Thai restaurant” and on the back it read, “say it “poo-ket””. Most of the time he also wore a long leather jacket, and his main pastime seemed to be cutting up.

Homphan,, tae!

Our lunch stop was across the river from the place labelled the golden triangle and was an obligatory stop with all of the tour groups on busses and so forth. For a very small fee people could cross the river and for 20 Baht get a Lao visa stamp good for that town only. There were many stores selling T-shirts and whiskey bottles with snakes in them and all the knick knacks anyone could ever want.

From lunch it was a short run in to the fast boat ramp north of Houayxai. I rode on the back of a motorcycle the 2 or 3 km in to town. If the golden triangle wasn’t enough of a culture shock Houayxai certainly was. The one and only northern entry for people doing the usual loop through Laos it sees everything. I have memories of endless processions of fellow falangs panting up the boat ramp under the weight of huge backpacks.

The next day due to some kind of a mix-up that involved an over booked express boat and a Thai tour guide shouting and screaming at fifty hot fellow tourists I ended up on a fast boat again. I never did figure out what the problem was. One of the benefits of booking through a travel agency in Houayxai was that they easily and immediately backed up their ticket by sending me down the road to catch the fast boat free of charge.

No sooner had I registered my name with the official running the landing than I ran into my now friend Homphan. Because he had an extra day to wait for his rotation to go up river he’d come down to the southern landing to shoot the breeze with the pilots there. I think fast boat pilots spend three quarters of their time hanging out and fooling around.

Eventually many of the other foreigners I’d seen on the express boat arrived also. The river is much quieter except for some shallow sections and the ride took on more of a kind of “watch the bank slide by” quality. Although we were packed eight to a boat by magic I was in front and the pilot adjusted the load so I could stretch my legs. The boat took a lot longer to reach full speed and it’s proper place above the water. I also noticed the driver wagging the long tail every once in a while to be sure he had a feel for the load and the water.

Lunch was at Pakbeng where I received my only solicitation for drugs of the whole trip. I believe I exude an image of youth and adventure giving off vibes of being open to new experiences. It must be easy to mistake me for one of the twenty something round the worlders. Or maybe I just look like a drug adict. He offered “ganja” I upped the ante by asking the availability of “ya fin”, opium, which he gladly offered also. I felt guilty and stopped there as I was just playing it for laughs and he was in earnest.

If Houayxai was a taste of mass tourism Luang Prabang was a full serving. This stop I was determined to enjoy more of the town and even got a guest house that had been recommended over the internet. I spent most of the next day taking a Sawngthaew up to the Kuang Si Waterfall. In retrospect I could have made better use of my time. I’d already spent days bumping around on dusty trucks and seen many beautiful water falls in more pristine settings.

Boat full of logs at the fast boat landing below Luang Prabang

I did like all the boats tied up along the Mekong. Quite a bit of traffic stops at Luang Prabang and for now all the boats are the long traditional Lao style. I found the landing for the slow boat headed down the Mekong and it lists the price to Packlay and also Vientiane. It didn’t look too busy. I also went south of town and had a look at the fast boat stop. I’m now a fan of fast boats and fast boat drivers.

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