07/01/2011 – Riding on the Mekong River to Huay Xai
Today we caught another bus to the river at Chiang Khong, catching a boat over the short river crossing to Huay Xai in Laos. Once in Laos we went to find some alcohol for the 2-day boat trip in the little riverside town. Ernie came with us but got lost, the middle aged Aussie bought some fruit and the Israeli-Russian vanished into the bustling crowds never to be seen again. We had also made some new friends, Jack and Will from Australia. They were young lads who had been travelling the world for the last 10 months and were finishing up here. We bought some Samsung whiskey and coke alongside some Beer Lao (I was also awarded a Beer Lao polo shirt by the shopkeeper for my efforts in securing enough booze for the trip). We were set; Rob, Ben, Jack and Will. Good old Commonwealth names. Almost like a school math’s exam question; “If Jack has four apples, and Ben takes two, how many apples are left for Will?” Of course, nowadays it would be “Sandra has four apples, and Henry takes two, how many are left for Ishmal?” I hated maths at school, so did not care, Will and Ishmal could solve their own food shortage problems out. I remember in A-level law we’d be presented with similar questions but with the names of characters from The Simpsons. For example, “Ned, after years of physical abuse from Homer, shoots Homer and his son, Bart, six times after their both start using verbal threatening behaviour towards him and his family……” and at the end of the scenario we would have to analyze it to devise a defence plan for Ned, based on what we know from the case study. If I had not revised the particular topic I would just continue the story. Story telling was more my thing.
The four of us had found our spot on the boat. Four seats at the back of the sheltered seating area. Good times, good enough I thought to warrant asking somebody to take a photo of the four of us. “Sure” said an enthusiastic girl “Say cheese”. I hadn’t heard that expressions since 1998. She followed up with “I’ll take one for luck”. I hadn’t heard that one since 2003. But that was explainable as with the introduction of digital cameras you could now see the photo seconds after it had been taken and make an informed decision whether another one is needed “for luck”. This is one phrase that has probably gone forever along with “would you like a table with non-smoking or smoking, Sir”.
After a while, we received a call up to the front of the boat by a team of Aussie Rules players, who were travelling around in a 15 man pack. We would be honorary members of the team. Jack and Will were clearly moved by this, although me and Ben maybe less so. Nonetheless it was fun, being at the top of boat, with the sun shining down, the loud music playing and the drink flowing. We arrived at Pakbang in the evening, our second stopover, and were greeted on the bank by the hotel workers vying for our business. In the drunken haze of daytime drinking we lost all the other guys and ended up being led up the grassy verges by a small girl who promised us “good cheap room for you”. It was quite a sketchy memory but I remember seeing everybody else doing and hearing the same thing, like zombies being taken by the hand and guided to where they would rest for the night. We were taken to a two storey wooden building that sat up on the only main road the riverside settlement and received a warm welcome from the elderly Thai owner and her young attractive daughter, along with a few backpackers we had met on the boat earlier who too had been caught in their web. Although the woman and daughter were the same height, they seemed to be of different scale; like an Action Man doll propped up next to a Garden Gnome. Nonetheless she had a twin for us (a room that is, not a daughter).
Once settled down in our wooden room, we heard a knock on the creaking door. It was the little girl who worked downstairs, but now pressing us to buy some weed. She had opium too, which I was quite keen to give a go, even though she seemed less keen about me trying it. “Good weed, good weed for you” was the party line. We declined as we had been warned by our captain that locals will sell the drugs to tourists just before alerting the police, splitting the huge bribe that the tourist would happily pay up to avoid spending the rest of their days in a Laotian prison. The perfectly square cube of “good weed” was also suspiciously packed in an air sealed plastic bag, like a free toy in a box of cereal. Reading the story of Warren Fellows on the boat earlier, I knew it was not worth the risk in any shape or form.
Another knock on the door came, but this time it was the friendly faces that we had met on the boat and seen downstairs. They wanted to see if we fancied going for a joint.
We went for dinner with the middle aged Aussie guy we first met on the truck from Chiang Mai. He was Paul. Aussie Paul. After a day of drunken rowdiness it was nice to have a proper and worthwhile conversation. On the next table was Ernie and a load of other like minded souls. They looked like the cast of the reality TV show Survivor. After a few more beers we joined the cast of Survivor and headed to a club called Hives Bar for more mayhem with our Brutish Aussie friends from the boat, all there in top gear. There was probably more restaurants and bars in this riverside town then actual local people – a scene that relies totally on the passing stopover brigade.
Although the highlight of the night was undoubtedly a jealous boyfriend decking a guy who was cracking on with his girlfriend, it’s always a bad sign of a night out when the highlight is a punch up. It’s a bit like the highlight being the kebab afterwards or the cab journey there. But to be honest, it was quite a good night. I think it’s just that I haven’t seen a pub fight this side of 2008.