It was the second day down the Mekong and the God of Thunder was asleep on the back of the boat. The Three Graces were getting sunburnt on the bow before returning inside to play cards. Apollo flicked his cigarette ash into the river in synch with his twitching foot. Huckleberry Finn, who’d been sent home from the war in a body bag of opiates, looked as if he might jump. Assorted prodigaals wandered the deck, passing wooden bench to wooden bench, comparing travel routes and swapping near-death experiences while cheerfully swigging Beer Lao. I was perched on the railing – one foot outside, one inside, left arm crooked behind me to grab the pillar for balance, right hand clutching someone else” ipod – watching the river pass us by.
The slow boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang is more of an experience than transport. From the ice coolers of soda and Beer Lao to the endless conversational opportunities to the scenery, it’s easy to forget that the point is to get somewhere – you don’t want the journey to end. Fishermen steered wooden boats on the river, standing upright in their underwear and returning our stares. Smiling children waved was we passed – Sabaidee! Sabaidee! – and poker-faced ones boarded the boat with plastic bins, hung from their necks by thick straps, full of Pringles and packaged cookies, cans of beer and bottles of water. (Serious salesmen, these, they turned a quick profit before swiftly returning to the shore.) As we approached a large rock outcropping, girls came running, arms draped with silk – deep purple and brilliant red, gem tones and gold embroidery flying behind them as they scampered up the boulder and, toe-hold by toe-hold, worked their way as close as possible to the boat.
I didn’t get around to any of the things I’d planned to occupy my time – intense catch-up journaling, serious study of my Lonely Planet and some plan making, learning a handful of useful Lao phrases; I spent all my time either chatting away, playing cards, making friends, or contemplating the river. It was wonderful. I was the first passenger to board the boat by several hours, thanks to the unexpected six am wake-up call from my friendly Lao friend. I grabbed a seat at the back and pulled out a book – and quickly upgraded to a bench dead center as others arrived. It was low season, so crowding wasn’t a serious issue. No one stuck to their seats, anyway – some lay down in the back, most played music chairs. We sat on the railings and the bow, we wandered. Introductions were unecessary. Conversations were joined mid-sentence. Those intently reading – or sleeping – were left alone, of course, and a very minor few who made nuisances of themselves were easily ignored.
I met Apollo, in the form of a chain-smoking silver-ringed Belgium with an alluringly charismatic wink, first; he sat in the row ahead of me. I listened to his stories of India and shared stories of our Thai organic farms – my You Sabai/Pun Pun/Panya near Mae Teng and his outside of Pai and our bemusement at having found ourselves so attached – neither of us previously, or to be truthful, even afterwards – particularly passionate about farming. He and a curly-haired Brit with a small video camera (who was shooting a documentary on community-based entrepreneurs with social consciences in Thailand) spent hours talking; I wandered in and out of the conversation, without much to contribute but enjoying their stories.
A young American man, the intelligent-but-irreparably-damaged sort, was interesting – for a while. He was quite obviously lonely and a bit too friendly; he put people off and knew it. He was studying the effects of the drug trade on indigenous tribes – so he said. He managed, despite his unfocused eyes, to have an intense stare – his stare was only slightly less disconcerting than the sporadic dilation and contraction of his pupils (his drawl went in and out with his eyes). A Southerner by birth and heritage, he’d served in Iraq – volunteered, the dumb fool – until he’d been shot down.
I spent most of the day sizing up the other female passengers, trying to identify who was coupled up and who looked approachable – and battling my own embarrassment at the ridiculous predicament in which I found myself; I was out of money. (ATMs are far and few in Laos and travelers are recommended to bring in enough cash to cover their time in the country.) Having missed my bus out of Chiang Mai three mornings in a row and, falling asleep on the bus and nearly missing the Chiang Khong border stop, I was in a hurry and not to be distracted – I didn’t think to stop and count what was in my wallet; the wads of foreign currency are, after all, deceptively large. Plus, I met a Scottish-Canadian couple on a street corner and joined forces to (locate and) go through immigration together (without passing ‘Go’, so to speak). I’d had enough money for Huay Xai – barely – but not to go north like I was considering, which decided it for me: Luang Prabang, to an ATM, with all haste. My guest house room ended up being twice what I expected and I wasted considerable time and money in an internet café trying to Western Union myself cash, so when I bought my boat ticket it was with the absolute last of my cash.
Food wasn’t worrying me – I have spirulina tablets that were recommended for me by people at the farm when I thought I’d be spending some post-operative time unable to eat solids – but I’d been under the impression that we slept on the boat. I was quickly disabused of this – and needed to make friends. Preferably, another single female traveler who would let me share a room and pay her back in Luang Prabang. I finally pulled myself together about thirty minutes before the boat landed in Pak Beng, a town better described as a glorified dock, and dragged myself over to a trio of friendly-looking, bohemian-styled, book-reading young girls.
“Oh you poor thing of course!” they declared before I’d really finished speaking. “We totally understand – no worries at all!” They were grace incarnate; British accents – London, not that I’m capable of hearing the difference – and not only the first fellow travelers my own age that I’d met, but like me, traveling on gap year before university.
I nearly lost them as we got off the boat and searched for our bags. I found mine on the back of a young Lao man who refused to surrender it – and then demanded money for having carried it up the steep gravel-sand hill. I wouldn’t have minded tipping him had I asked him to carry it – and I might very well have asked him to carry it – had I any money. This, of course, didn’t translate and he refused to surrender my bag. One of the British girls pulled out a bag of rolling tobacco – and quickly found someone slipping something else into it and demanding money. She was awkwardly caught trying to give it back and refuse without making a scene. Guest house touts descended on the milling mass of confused passengers and while we had intended to simply wander on our own, when one came to our defense – yelling at the bag-napping sherpa and aggressive drug dealer alike (both of whom were, it should be noted, younger than me) – we gave in and agreed to go look at his guesthouse. The other two girls had attracted touts of their own, of course, one a pretty and friendly (more importantly, fluently English-speaking) Lao girl about our own age. Her guest house and our savior’s were in the same direction – the far end of town, up the big hill. Of course. All amenities, from the description, were the same, as was the price. We took the first one we came to (once you’ve climbed up the stairs to the room to inspect it, with your pack still on your back, it has to have a serious problem to make you turn around). Two rooms, basic but adequate – and cheap – and plenty of other friendly faces from our boat.
The British girls and I dropped off our belongings (literally letting our backpackers drop from our shoulders into the room, making the entire building bounce) gave the shower area a fleeting glance (one shower for the entire guest house; the odds were not in our favor), grabbed our cameras and hit the town. There wasn’t much to see. Pak Beng was perfectly sized – no doubt designed with such in mind – to accommodate the passengers of the boat. The main street was nothing but a series of guesthouses and restaurants; one could imagine the town swelling with each boat and shrinking again the next morning. It was rustic – wooden buildings on stilts, walls between rooms made of woven bamboo, mats on the floor – but entirely business. It was a stopover, full stop, and they did what they could to make as much money from us as possible in a short time. Simple restaurants with long tables and basic chairs served rather bland food, free shots of Lao Lao (a clear rice whiskey) both before and after the meal and, of course, Beer Lao.
(Let’s take a moment for Beer Lao. Beer Lao is, for all intents and purposes, the only drink in Lao. It’s owned by either Carlsberg or Heineken – depending on who you talk to – but it’s a symbol of national pride. Travelers rave about it for no apparent reason; it’s a tolerable, basic, average lager, nothing special when it comes to taste – but it becomes, inevitably, invariably emblematic of one’s time in Lao. It’s got a serious blanket marketing strategy – banners, flags, 10 ft tall stacked crates – and is often the only thing you can get cold. I have to admit that I’ve developed a taste.)
We had the luck to arrive in Pak Beng the night of some sort of music show/performance. I say some sort because, well… There was a man who gave speeches to which no one reacted. (Politician? Stand up comic? Who knows. Lao audiences neither laugh nor applaud.) Another man, his face grossly painted into a distorted mask, who ran around saying – something. And a group of chorus girls (the one on the far right the best dancer by far and most definitely a lady-boy) with uniformly bored expressions almost-dancing. And a couple of men who sang – poorly – but with at least moderate enthusiasm. A few magic tricks where performed – a girl climbed inside a box and it was sawn in half; she reappeared upstage in a change of costume.
The girl who’d sold us our guest house found us in the crowd; she was dressed up in a jean jacket – this is the height of cool in Laos at the moment – and had a boy, presumably a boyfriend, on her arm. They stood beside us and our group (the three British girls, Benny a New Zealand-Malaysian, two Irish girls, another couple of British girls, and Martin) were easily the most merry – perhaps I should say worst behaved – in the whole place. We didn’t stand still. We cheered as the songs ended. We had – oh, dear lord our audacity – facial expressions.
I ducked out of the music show early to find several others from the boat ride clustered in the street. We all chatted for a bit and, once the music show finished, were giddily joined by the others (apparently the finale had been quite something; they never did catch their breath enough to explain) and watched the street of Pak Beng drain itself for the evening. We found one group (also, of course, from our boat) still out – the two Belgians (Apollo and Thor), a pair of young Swedish boys and a Danish (?) woman – who were collecting empty bottles of beer Lao where we had left them after dinner. Olivia and I invited ourselves – were waved in – and others wandered in and out until Pak Beng’s curfew (10pm) when the electricity ended.
Thor held court long into the night. Seated at the center of the table he was a middle-aged man with shaggy hair and broad shoulders. I noticed him on the boat – noticed him watching, I think, and had simply assumed he didn’t speak English, since we hadn’t spoken. He’d been traveling an indeterminate but more than sufficiently lengthy period of time; he knew Thailand, particularly the southern islands, quite well. He was both intelligent and articulate but spent most of the time simply somberly and intently watching and listening to whomever was speaking – sometimes raising an eyebrow, often teasing; it was neither harsh nor gentle, but simply precise – the way in which he pointed out an exaggeration or hyperbole, commented on an unlikelihood or implausibility. It was often playfully sharp – particularly when pointed in my direction. I seemed to both amuse and frustrate him. “Stop being so god damn Woody Allen,” Thor told me. I wasn’t sure what he meant – he, no they – had decided that I was a “stereotypical Woody Allen female lead”. It was something to do with how I speak, I think, my glasses and, hair falling over my face in the candlelight, and cut of my shirt – I’d started out as “une belle de film noir” and, making my way to being “so New York!” transitioned into a Woody Allen character. I’m not sure that the stereotype holds but it was probably particularly adroit that evening – it was that sort of night. (Olivia was. according to the others, a French actress I hadn’t heard of. The God of Thunder named himself – we had officially decided that we were playing archetypes and when Olivia suggested Dionysius, I frowned and countered with a tentative “… Zeus?”. He looked up and smiled. “I am Thor.” Of course. Of course he was. He would prove it later, too, beyond a doubt – winning a bowling game at one in the morning and strolling, barefoot with a bottle of beer in one hand and a joint in the other, soberly herding others along in front of him, down the streets of Luang Prabang. The cinematographer/storyteller – the only other one to make it up so late – was never named, unfortunately. Orpheus? Perhaps.) We drifted between subjects – danced, more like, playing with words and ideas, skating and delving. At some point the conversation transitioned into French – I struggled to keep up, but the late hour (and the beer) seemed to make it easier. I remember few of the topics – only that, when we finally left the restaurant owner snoozing on the table and made our way back to our guesthouses, we all parted with the same realization would we would remember the evening. It was significant – I doubt any of us could tell you why, but, we all seemed to recognize it.
Olivia and I crept back along the road, our guest house at the far end of town up a hill, no light to guide us save my cell phone and a cigarette lit backwards and held like a torch. We found our guesthouse on the first try – but, neither of us trusting our sense of direction nor ability to recognize the house nor wanting to wake the keepers of the wrong guest house at half past two in the morning, spent another half hour wandering up and down the road, pausing at the fork and deliberating. We did make it in – we tried raising the grate ourselves and looked for something to climb over, to no avail – and up early the next morning, back on the boat.
The second day was much like the first – but even friendlier. I spent most of it with the British girls, Benny and Martin. I’d gotten to know Benny a bit the night before at dinner (he’d spotted me cash and we’d shared a variety of unfortunately disapointing Lao dishes – we did give it a good experimental shot, however, sharing the “point to what looks most interesting” strategy of ordering) and I spent a while talking to Martin on the boat – as well as clinging to his ipod (Tom Waits! He had Tom Waits!) – and communing with the river.