Taking a Shitty Two-Day Slow Boat down the Mekong River from Thailand into Laos

Chiang Rai Bus Terminal is more the type of parking lot that you’d expect to find in a scrap yard than at a station supposedly equipped to deal with Thailand’s national transport system. With the rain pouring down in torrents, and my Lonely Planet guidebook doubling as a hood, Twiggy and I took our bags from the hold of our coach which had just pulled in, hopscotched around the meteor crater-sized potholes, strolled out onto the depressing main street, passed a lonely looking cat café, and took cover inside a dainty corner bar. Ordering some chicken and rice, as is standard across Asia, we looked at one another and nodded in agreement. Chiang Rai was a town with absolutely zero redeeming qualities. We needed to get ourselves out of there pronto.

The food was hotter than the Devil’s Hell, and taking an accidental bite right into a rogue chilli that had made its way into my dish the taste buds in my mouth were sent overboard. I bent over the table and began flicking my tongue in and out like a lizard hunting flies in an attempt to cool myself down; sweat pouring down my forehead and catching on my brow. Twiggy found this the funniest thing in the world, and rather than helping a brother out by fetching a pot of yoghurt or a glass of milk, he instead burst into fits of hysterics. Karma soon struck, though, and in his laughter, he began to choke on the lump of sticky rice that he was chewing on, sending him into a coughing fit that turned his face an unhealthy hue of purple. As I continued to act like I was trying to lick my way through a litre tub of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream without a spoon, the pair of us must have looked like special needs patients to any onlookers. Onlookers such as the Aussie couple sat at the other side of the bar.

Like the owner of the bar, they also made no attempt to aid us, and instead sniggered away until we both managed to get ourselves back to normal. Well, I’ll never be normal, but back to usual let’s say. After tentatively finishing our meals, being careful to avoid any repeat incidents, we politely accepted their request to join them for a drink. No sooner had we shuffled over to their table, however, did I realise that the guy was a complete prick. Bald, tanned by the Western Australia sun, and covered in your standard sleeve tattoos that many fifty-year-old bikers tend to rock, all he wanted to do was blow his own trumpet. I read somewhere once that Marilyn Manson had undergone surgery to get his lower two ribs removed so that he could self-fellate his own penis, but though that, if I’d told the Hell’s Angel beside me this, he may have taken it as a revelation as opposed to the likely fictitious story it is. Either way, he was so crazy about straddling motorbikes that I got the impression he’d rather stick his knob inside the exhaust pipe of his Harley Davidson than his rather attractive hippie wife. She told us that they had a friend who owned a hostel in Cambodia called Lazy Gecko and that if we name-dropped them to the proprietor upon arrival he’d sort us out with some high-quality marijuana. I lied and said that we would.

The couple were also planning to escape Chiang Rai by taking a slow boat down the Mekong River from the Thai-Laos border to the colonial French settlement of Luang Prabang. It was for this purpose that we’d initially come to the tumbleweed town, as I’d been told by a few fellow travellers whilst dotting around the rest of Asia that this two-day, one night, trip was a bit of a booze cruise, and the perfect way to chew up the miles. With nothing to do in Chiang Rai, and running the risk of being stuck with the Aussie couple if we stayed an extra night, Twiggy and I booked tickets costing 1,800 Baht for the boat that departed the following morning. Unfortunately, our excitement wouldn’t last long.

“Have you got your accommodation booked for tonight?” asked a plump, camp man as we shared a tuk-tuk from the border town of Huay Xai to the pier. He was travelling with his boyfriend and the couple from Leeds had donned themselves in full travel wanker gear.

“We sleep on the boat,” I laughed, correcting him. “Booze cruise here we come.”

“No we don’t,” he said, looking confused. “It’s not the bloody QE2 we’re taking. What on Earth made you think that there would be enough room on the boat for all of us to sleep?”

“Don’t joke with me right now,” I said, starting to panic. I’d dragged Twiggy all the way from Glasgow to a corner of nowhere in Western Laos with the promise of a party boat, and now the wind was being taken right out of our sails by a dude who looked like Gru from Despicable Me wearing a Clint Eastwood poncho

“Seriously,” he said, thinking that I was the one joking. “This is no booze cruise either. Most of the people on the boat will be locals who use the river to commute back and forth between their sporadic riverside settlements. We all disembark at dusk to spend the evening in a one horse shoreline hamlet called Pak Beng.”

“I think you might be right,” I admitted in deflation as the pier came into view. A wooden raft of a boat sat docked, looking as depressed as I felt. Even Huckleberry Finn would have scoffed at how primative it was. My supposed booze cruise liner turned out to have car seats that had been seemingly ripped from the same dilapidated and haggard minivan than had shakenly escorted us to the Thai border, and a toilet that looked like it had been cleaned by a blind person suffering from chronic diarrhoea. As we boarded, an American dude from Houston, Texas, sat down across the makeshift aisle from me and immediately collapsed the seat with his fat ass. Typical. They weren’t even screwed down. I opened my book and started to read. This was going to be a long, long excursion.

As we set off, a sixty-nine-year-old woman that bore a striking resemblance to Noddy Holder from Slade came over for a chat. She had been travelling the world with her Icelandic husband called Magnus for eight whole years in full retirement, but despite having more stamps in her passport than almost anybody I’ve ever met seemed to lack any form of geographical knowledge. Whilst retelling us a frightfully long story about confronting homeless people on Big Island Hawaii when there for her eldest daughter’s wedding, Noddy informed us that Honolulu was America’s 56th State. I looked at the perm of white hair atop her head and started humming Merry Christmas Everybody. She soon left.

An Israeli girl wearing Harry Potter specs and a pair of skin tight leggings that bore a colourful pattern of the solar system on them then sat down behind us. Bored of the typical backpacker questioning of ‘how long are you travelling for?’ I asked her what she thought about humanity’s strive to colonise Mars in an attempt to become a multi-planetary species, but only got a grunt in response and a complaint about the packed lunches that we had been given.

Unperturbed, I then asked her what she thought the greatest man-made construction of all time was, but again she just shrugged and replied that she felt that nothing man-made has ever been of benefit to the life on our planet. I told her that I thought the International Space Station was a pretty neat project and that, were it not for irrigation networks and modern advancements in medicine, the likelihood of her having survived long enough through childhood and getting on a plane to the other side of the planet so as to annoy me with her wishy washy Earthly philosophies would be somewhat drastically reduced. She told me in response that I should read a book called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by an Israeli author she couldn’t remember. I told her that it had been written by a gentleman going by the name of Yuval Noah Harari and that I’d finished it only a few months ago.

Changing her tune, said she that she was genuinely impressed, and expressed her delight at how excellent and beautiful the view from the river was. I told her that the only way I would consider the view to be excellent was if I’d spent the previous twenty years looking at the four concrete walls of a prison cell. She told me I was being a bit grumpy and morbid. I told her that the boat did have many similarities to a prison cell in the sense of the poor amenities and that we couldn’t leave it. She soon moved to a seat at the back.

‘Perhaps I should make a conscious effort to be a bit nicer to people,’ I thought to myself, putting my earphones in and directing my gaze down the murky and muddy Mekong. We did have another 500km to cover which would take approximately fourteen hours. How I wished that we’d just booked a flight. Now that’s a man-made invention everyone can get on board with. Here’s a toast to the Wright Brothers and Lucky Charles Lindbergh.

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