Jan 14, 2007

Headed North The Second Time

Boat Engine

Early in the morning, well before sunrise, Sengthian dropped me off at Tah Huah Galeeow. There is also a bus but I imagine it’s a dusty bumpy ride. The landing had a steady flow of boats coming over from Thailand and unloading food, mostly fruit and potato chips. I’d say Galeeow is a good place to bring stuff across with the least amount of “tax” possible.
It’s amazing how quickly one can drop off the beaten path just by driving down a street and getting on a boat. For the next couple of days I saw no other westerners at all and never spoke English.
The Mekong above Vientiane is the same river as elsewhere with a personality all it’s own. It’s muddy, it’s powerful, and it’s in a hurry. The Mekong doesn’t feel so much as if it’s sliding down a hill as that it’s being pushed from behind. All that water wanting to get to Vietnam and out into the delta so that it can finally slow down and drop it’s silt.
I don’t know when or if ever the river will be used easily by regular boats. The whole way up it always seemed as if we were having to wend our way between rocks and up over ledges. Some places there are concrete pylons built up on both sides of the channel to guide boats through sections that are unobvious, more often there is nothing, or water of a different colour or a bit of white water.
I figure our boat sat a couple feet deep in the water and was maybe sixty feet long. It was powered by a huge diesel engine. I think it had ten cylinders and looked like the kind of thing used to power a D10 Cat or a drill rig.
The end of the ride was at a classic Mekong river town called Pak Lai. If there were any rooms available with hot water I didn’t find them. The first place I stopped used a bucket for a shower, the second place quoted a price of $13 to start out. When I asked for a regular room the price dropped to $3. If anyone is hankering for Laos in the bad old days you need look no further. People used to think that foreign tourists cared nothing for money and would charge astronomical amounts for poor accommodation. I found a restaurant, there was a family eating there, otherwise the place was empty. At $4 for a bowl of soup I can see why.
The next day seemed to be more of the same. No signs in English and that general feeling that not many other tourists go this route. Xayabuli province isn’t really that far out in the boonies, it’s a prosperous part of Laos, it’s just that no one goes there. It seemed as if the provincial authorities were still using French for the names of things. The rest of the country has switched to English, and I’m sure there are very few French speakers around.

Ferry at Tha Deua

One day on the river was enough for me. I didn’t even check out the boat situation further, but left early in the morning and hopped a Sawngthaew, the only transportation headed north, there are no busses. The two breaks to the monotony were when I saw a pair of working elephants complete with logging chains around their necks walking down the side of the road and when a soldier got on carrying some kind of an AK variant. It had a very long barrel, small clip, and hole in the but. All the earmarks of a Soviet sniper rifle. There was even some sort of mechanism at the end of the barrel with a lot of holes in it, maybe some sort of flash suppressor. I’m not much of a gun nut but still I am American, we like those kinds of things.
At the provincial capital I had to catch another truck across town and get on a third one to head for Luang Prabang province. The roads were for the most part unpaved and I was already coated with dust, so I rode on the tailgate hanging onto the roof rack and enjoying the view. Unfortunately being outside the sawngthaew I caught the eye of a couple of policeman at a road check before the Mekong crossing and they demanded my passport and had me go inside while they copied down my information. They could have at least smiled.


Eleven hours after leaving Pak Lai we rolled into Luang Prabang.

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